Offseason Issues

A chat about the 2017 Union: Part 1

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: PSP writers Peter Andrews and Dan Walsh get along. They both like soccer. They also disagree a lot. We figured some of those email conversations might make for interesting reading. If not, at least Peter is witty enough to make us laugh. Over the next few days, we’ll share their latest ongoing conversation about Philadelphia Union’s offseason.

Peter Andrews:

Well, Dan, here we are. MLS Cup was only three weeks ago, but the Union are practically halfway done with their offseason as we hit the New Year. Before you know it, we’ll be watching as the first snapshots come in from training camp, the first grainy video clips of trialists appear on YouTube, and the first angry messages calling for everyone to be fired pop up on Twitter.

But there’s still some down time before we get there, so let’s kill some time the only way I know how: talking about soccer. (One reason why I’m not a big hit at parties.) You and I have disagreed at times over the last year over the Union’s personnel decisions, so I’m hoping we can get some polite contrasts out of this series.

It’s not like we’re wanting for topics to talk about. Almost every position on the field, from front to back, is a question mark for Philadelphia as the winter transfer window opens up. There’s the reigning MLS goalkeeper of the year, who might be due for a European move. There’s a trio of young center backs who couldn’t hold together down the stretch in 2016. And there are a bevy of miscellaneous midfielders who don’t appear to cohere in any natural way. Lots for a second-year GM and his still-unproven coach to sort out.

But let’s start up top. The Union trusted C.J. Sapong to lead the line in 2016. You can’t say the man didn’t try hard, but it was clear that the setup simply didn’t work for the last, uh, three-plus months of the year. Sapong didn’t get much service and he didn’t finish the opportunities he did get. In my eye, running C.J. into the ground demonstrated the very worst of Jim Curtin’s managerial style: not trusting his bench and a stubborn resistance to tweaking tactics.

So, some questions for you as we get rolling here:

  • Do the Union have the striker who’ll start the majority of their 34 matches in 2017 on the roster currently?
  • Should the Union be looking for someone with Sapong’s skillset, or someone a bit more versatile?
  • And what are the appropriate roles for Sapong, Fabian Herbers, and Charlie Davies in the season to come?
Dan Walsh:

I’m not sure if they have the striker who WILL start the majority of their 2017 matches, but I don’t think they have the striker they WANT. Sapong may be Jim Curtin’s preferred type of player, but Earnie Stewart is unlikely to want to sit pat on a striker with a 2016 strike rate of less than one goal per four games.

Now, I like Sapong, and I think he has a role to play next season, even if it isn’t as the guaranteed game-by-game starting center forward. (While he’s versatile enough to play winger, that’s not his best role, as Kansas City discovered.) Other issues besides just his play may have led to his goal-scoring drought last year, such as:

  1. The absence of Vincent Nogueira resulted in decreased possession by the Union and more long balls to Sapong, which took him out of the flow that previously put him in better goal-scoring positions.
  2. Sapong hasn’t scored since Aug. 13, when he left a game with a likely concussion. Maybe he never got right after that.

Still, the Union absolutely need to upgrade the striker position, but then again, that was already clear entering last season, and they never adequately did it. And yes, I’m saying that trading for Charlie Davies was not an adequate upgrade. Trading a proven veteran contributor like Sebastien Le Toux for the money needed to get Davies proved ill-advised in the short term, as it was clear Davies wasn’t fully fit after returning from cancer recovery.

Does Davies have a role to play next season? Possibly, but it depends on whether he’s fit and recovered from his bout with cancer. Davies was pretty good in 2015, scoring 10 goals in 4-3-3 derivative. That form would be good enough to put him in a solid rotation, but if Sapong is the backup to a soon-to-be-acquired striker, it’s hard to see Davies getting many minutes.

Herbers is a different story. He should be starting somewhere – either as a right winger in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 or a creative second striker behind a target forward. (The latter is probably where he would perform best.)

While that is partially a tactical issue, it’s also a roster-building issue.

Where Herbers plays depends on what the Union want to do with Ilsinho, Alejandro Bedoya, and Roland Alberg.

Do they see Bedoya as a No. 10/right winger, as his prior clubs typically have? Or is he a No. 8 center midfielder, as he played for the Union last season and often for the U.S. national team? If they see Alberg as a starter, he’s a second striker who does nothing in possession and build-up (unlike Herbers), which makes for some tactical choices that are different from what the Union succeeded at with the Tranquillo Barnetta/Vincent Nogueira pairing. Do the Union want to dump about $850k of their $3.7 million salary budget on two talented players (Alberg and Ilsinho) who never got fit enough to consistently play 90 minutes last year? Is it worth betting on Alberg and Ilsinho to the point where you define your tactical identity around them?

I’m obviously curious about your thoughts on the striker position, but my friend Captain Obvious over here knows I’ve teed you up for those latter questions that we’ve discussed before. Penny for your thoughts, Mr. Andrews.


  1. …everyone is broken.
    Appreciate the conversation.
    If they put Pontius and Sapong on the wings opposite one another I’ll be bummed as neither have the ability to attack a defense on the ball. If there is no chaos how does a team intend to dishevel a defense… you either need dynamic movement- which the league as yet struggles to provide (at least this team) or players capable of winning on the dribble (which this team has displayed they do not have)… save a young and fool hearty Ayuk.
    I’m with Dan RE: Herbers particularly on the wing as it provides some punch on the ball (his first touch control concerns me) and he would need to be an inverted winger IMO… but then what of Pontius – who clearly is one of best players on the team.
    For me— often things come back to not likening the formation- actually I can’t stand the formation~ but that’s not likely to change. People argue formations do not matter and I get it… but personnel within a formation does and I am as of yet unconvinced any of that gels… all I know is I want My Dearly Departed back and I want Vincent Noguiera back.

    • Agree fully oppose the formation. Makes for bland soccer.

      • Please explain how a 4-2-3-1 “makes for bland soccer”.

        I’m of the mindset that the formation matters less than the personnel playing it or what roles that each player is asked to play. A 4-4-2 can be exciting if played by good players.

        I agree with El Pachy that aside from Pontius, the current personnel doesn’t excite from an attacking standpoint right now.

  2. I think the likelihood that they try to keep Bedoya in that no. 8 role is pretty high. I think both Alberg and Ilsinho make compelling cases for taking that No. 10 role behind a good striker. I really like the idea of Ilsinho in that position, but it may be pure folly. We just seem to have all these midfielders who don’t quite provide what we need.

    I suppose that if the Union don’t bring in a new #10 player, then we should expect Bedoya to inherit the #10 position by default…. I’m really typing myself into a gloomy place, so I’ll quit now.

    • “these thoughts and the strain I’m under”

    • They should definitely get rid of Ilsinho. He costs too much to do too little even as entertaining as he is. Alberg could be the 10, but I’m worried about his lack of work rate and singular minded approach to the game. I’d prefer him as a substitute. Bedoya could be our 10, he’s a smart player that’s more talented than most in MLS and has proven to be a workhorse, I just wonder about his productivity at the position as he’s never been that productive at any club.

      • At his salary hit and the lack of end production as you mentioned, I would not be opposed to moving him. At the same time though, he is useful against teams that defend deep because his ability to beat a player or two on the dribble – which is rare for this team and really for the league in general.
        The main thing is that he needs to stay healthy, which may be a little easier to do now that the medical staff and performance department has worked with him for a year.

    • I agree that we’ll see Bedoya at the 8, new signing at the 6, Alberg at the 10 and Herbers/Ilsinho as our right attacking midfielder. Pontius is a lock at that inside forward on the left and I expect a new #9.

      I thought that Ilsinho seemed to be uncomfortable when he played in the middle of the field at the beginning of last year. He seemed to perform much better on the outside where he could cut inside so Rosenberry could overlap.

      • I am ducking from everyone as I write this, but I would be shocked if we don’t start the season with Edu at the 6. I think it would be best for everyone to start coming to terms with that now so that we minimize the frustration by Spring.

      • I love him in the position TBH… with a clearly defined expectation.
        Guy is liquid grace, strong, fast (still I hope), remarkably clean and totally capable of holding down the entire defensive structure…. which is why IMO with him at the 6… we can move on from a double pivot…. and go pure offensive ~ kablam!
        I beg beg beg…no more C&C Music Factory gonna make you sweat til you bleed…

      • Do you know something of his health that no one else does? I would’ve written it as “I’ll be shocked if he ever takes the field for us again”.

  3. When I look back on last year, as Dan alluded to, it seems that no one was hurt by Nogueira’s departure as badly as Sapong. The identity of the team completely shifted away from his strengths of finding spots for the entry pass that isn’t a lofted cross. And by the time they got back to delivering a few more of those tactical balls towards the end, he was completely out of rhythm.
    I know we make this claim in one for or another year after year, but this team is snakebitten. Nogs departure torpedoed the entire season. He was our identity, and everything fell apart when he left, including and especially CJ’s impact.
    I’m getting to the point where I’m waiting for the team to come storming out of the gate, only for some catastrophe to befall them sometime in July, sinking the season yet again.

  4. 1) I really wish the Union would just move to a 2-striker set altogether; it’s hard to find someone to go solo up top. I understand that this isn’t going to happen, however.

    2) I am a CJ Sapong fan, but I agree completely with Peter that Curtin simply ran him into the ground, in part because he didn’t have a lot of options (and see point #1). He is NOT a winger and should not be playing there except as an injury contingency. Upgrading this position should be high priority, and I think Sapong might really shine with some competition (and someone to spread the workload).

    3) I do not see Roland Alberg as a starter on this team. I have said from the beginning that the man does not play like a winger, nor like a central midfield: he plays like a poaching striker. He could possibly be dangerous in a 2-striker set (though he has a tendency to get lost in whole games), but he simply does not fit the Union’s system. In fact, if he’s not back at all next year I won’t be disappointed.

    4) Fabian Herbers show real promise, and seemed to adapt to the winger’s role quite well. He needs to work on his defense, but if he’s the starter on one wing, with Pontius on the other, I will be pleased.

    5) Ilsinho is clearly a very talented guy, but I’m not sure where he fits either. Given his ability to attack off the dribble, his Brazilian passing flair, and his lack of defense, the logical place is at the #10 slot. I do not know whether this would really work, though. And if it doesn’t, he’s a late-game energy-injecting backup, not a starter.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      in reference to point #5 about Ilsinho, your description summarizes the major characteristics of Maidana does it not, or am I too fixated on “and his lack of defense?”
      Barnetta defended. Adam Cann wishes he had defended by recovering to his specific position in the shape rather than becoming a phagocyte on the nearest enemy jersey, but at least he was that phagocyte.
      Jim Curtin always emphasizes defending.

    • I’ve come to believe CJ is a great athlete who just doesn’t have the skill to be a great #9. He just isn’t a finisher. The argument that he needed a break is pretty good, but I don’t think his failure to find the net is a result of Nogs heading back to France or poor service from his teammates. He just didn’t get it done. I too like CJ and hope he finds his way back, but he needs serious competition in that position.

      • I’m not entirely sure that VN was responsible for making Sapong effective, but CJ proved for a good chunk of the season that he can do well up top.
        Curtin needs to stop Dual-Postitioning him though. This year please just play him up top – no 70min moves to winger!

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I continue to think acquiring Alberg and Ilsinho was buying low to refurbish and sell high. Their sales would finance the transfer fee for a European striker.
    See today’s Armchair Analyst updated Union roster analysis on the MLS website for an entirely speculative name from Iceland.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Bedoya was serviceable as a stop-gap #8.
    There is a reason that his previous clubs have played him at #10 or on the flank. Probably that reason is that they are his best positions.
    Playing your best players at their best positions maximizes their benefits to your side.
    a crazy thought just entered my brain, so, no, I am not smoking something. Might Herbers be tried at the #10? A logical rock worth looking under if only to eliminate a possibility.
    Barnetta was blocking him there last season. but did he not play there for Creighton, or is my memory playing its usual tricks? They did know that last year was possibly Barnetta’s last with the Union when they drafted Herbers.

    • I still think that Bedoya’s fitness didn’t allow him to perform his best at the 8. He didn’t really have a preseason so I don’t think that we saw what he could do in that role.

      I still think that he could play that roaming playmaker role that Nogs did. Dropping deep to link play from the backline to attack.

  7. Am I think only one not in love with Herbers? I mean I can’t argue he looked good at times and had good stats as a rookie. But he also was invisible at times, and there was no doubt Illsinho would change the look of our offense once he came on.

    But teams also learn to defend you, and I simply don’t think he has the talent or skill to be a dangerous winger. He strikes me as a slightly better Le Toux (in a bad way). Not a great first touch, not good dribbler, not really dangerous unless the defense gives him space to run into.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    Would the midfield triangle of Edu at the 6, Bedoya at the 8, and Alberg at the 10 work? Up top being the yet to be signed #9, with Herbers and Pontius on the wings? Seems quite offensive to me, and you would obviously need to make sure Edu is healthy and commits playing some D as the #6. Just a thought. Thoughts on this folks?

    • pragmatist says:

      You’re probably not too far off of the expected lineup. I’m guessing they’ll give Alberg the chance to succeed, based on his post-season comments about getting used to the league. But I would think that Earnie will be looking for both a striker and a #10, if he can find them.
      But, yeah, as it stands, that is next year’s lineup.
      Striker (TDB)
      Pontius – Alberg – Herbers
      Edu – Bedoya
      Fabinho – Marquez – Yaro – Rosenberry
      Unless they are able to move someone like Edu to make room for a big upgrade, that’s your starting XI on opening day.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Assuming Edu’s health, which is a big IF as of now… I like the lineup. Again, assuming you acquire that minimum 10-15 goal #9 player, that we currently do not have.

      • We don’t currently have a #9 who can put up big goal totals, but the transfer window has only been open a few hours. We’ll get one.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      for my money, OMW, by the end of the season when all teams are fully conditioned and the pace of play is at its maximum, Alberg will be a disaster as a starter at number 10 because we wil be defending with 9 field players and a spectator.
      With Alberg on the pitch we HAVE to play bunker and counter, wee can play nothing else because effectively we are down a man defensively. B & C is not the approach being taught throughout the organization.

      • I would not be so quick to judge Alberg.
        It was his first year in the league after all and we all know from past players that sometime it takes a year to adjust. Curtin was pretty clear with him in what he said to the media and his use primarily as a sub that he needs to do more defensive work if he wants to break into the starting 11. I also remember reading his end of season twitter post and thinking “maybe he ‘gets it'”. Hopeful? Probably, but after only one season I’m not ready to say it is not possible.

  9. Look at all of this formation /player speculation & debating going on instead of the WSSM and the That’s So Union, man is it refreshing !!!

    • pragmatist says:

      Year 2 of the Earnie Project. If they stumble, however, all bets are off. We’re not a particularly patient group.
      Let’s see progress. Let’s see a plan. Dare I say, VPP?

  10. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    Just came across this little bit of news about Jay Sugarman and found it to be quite interesting. If you like to play connect the dots….here is a big dot.


    • I’m not sure how to feel about our principal owner needing to sell off stock to raise cash for a transfer fee (if that is what happened).

    • He’s sold off shares in the past, doubt it’s for a player acquisition. Probably overdue for a capital call again.

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