A View from Afar

Union’s off-season grade: Incomplete

Philadelphia Union open training camp today, which means the off-season is over.

Their off-season grade remains an Incomplete.

The Union have addressed needs at left back and striker but enter the preseason with significant gaps remaining, most notably in center midfield.

Then again, lest we forget, the Union have a habit of signing players after the start of training. Consider just last year:

  • Roland Alberg signed in early February 2016.
  • Ilsinho showed up in camp as a trialist without a contract.
  • Ken Tribbett started camp with a USL contract and left as an MLS starter.

Expect the same this year, with some trialists and new additions likely to be revealed in the next week or so.

Some likely possibilities include:

  • Adam Najem: Published reports indicate the Union will acquire the rights to would-be homegrown signing Adam Najem. The New York Red Bulls hold the midfielder’s MLS rights due to a homegrown claim and a contract offer, but Najem has reportedly balked at signing with the club due in part to a low-balled contract offer. Should the Union acquire Najem, it could be a coup. Less than six months ago, people were talking about Najem as America’s best college soccer player.
  • Fafa Picault: The American attacker is in Philadelphia for a trial with the Union, according to a German report, though this has not yet been independently confirmed. Picault can play both striker and winger and had his most success in 2014 as a forward for the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers, when he scored 12 goals in 24 games. He broke through as a starting striker for German second division side FC St. Pauli late last season, only to be marginalized after fitness problems struck this past fall. (Supposedly, attitude problems were an issue too, but considering the way many German coaches operate, Picault may have just been acting like a normal American and objecting to being dehumanized.) He was capped last May for the U.S. National Team after he broke through as a starter for St. Pauli. His father played professional indoor soccer in Philadelphia.

Still, a “controlling” veteran center midfielder has not appeared on the radar yet, at least publicly.

Najem has played primarily an attacking midfield role in college, but it’s not clear yet whether he translates as a No. 10 or a No. 8 in the pros. It’s not unheard of for rookies to flourish in the No. 8 role — Dillon Powers and the Union’s own Maurice Edu come to mind — but it’s not particularly common either.

With Alejandro Bedoya in the U.S. National Team’s camp, there’s also ample opportunity for homegrown player Derrick Jones to show he can run with the first team. He had a good year for Bethlehem in USL but needs to demonstrate he can react quickly enough as a No. 8 in MLS, with its faster speed of play.

The close of most countries’ winter transfer windows will likely force some clubs to, in the coming days, either mutually terminate contracts with players they want to cut loose or agree to lower transfer prices than they might otherwise accept. So don’t be surprised to see a European transfer come down at the end of the month, as Alberg’s did.

Further, some potentially interesting free transfer options (albeit lacking the typical rumors that accompany them) remain for center midfield, such as:

  • Lorenzo Ebecilio: A former youth player for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, Stewart’s former club, Ebecilio went on to play for Ajax and clubs in Ukraine and Russia. He terminated his contract with Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala this month. Ebecilio can play both center midfield and left wing.
  • Diego Poyet: The 21-year-old center midfielder and son of coach Gus Poyet got playing time on loan in England’s second division but never broke through with West Ham and left by mutual consent in August.
  • Simao: The Mozambican defensive midfielder spent three years with Levante in Spain but departed after they were relegated last year. He has been out of contract ever since.

Bedoya remains the fallback in the No. 8 role, and while observers should expect a more well-adjusted Bedoya come opening day, despite his time with the national team camp, there is minimal evidence the No. 8 is his best role. The jury remains out on Maurice Edu, who missed all of last season due to injury.

Most fans want to see a big name, proven center midfielder arrive to replace Vincent Nogueira, but the clock is ticking. The Union may end up deciding the replacement is already in place.


  1. I thought we didn’t have any int’l spots left, Dan?

    • I think that’s true, though there were talks of Ilsinho getting a green card, which would open up a spot.

    • Not sure of the latest status on green cards for the internationals, but there’s always a way around that. (An Ayuk season-long loan to Bethlehem, for example, may do the trick, if I recall correctly.)

      • This is an option year for Ayuk, and there are lots of other flank midfielders behind him if you include unsigned draft picks and rumored trialists.
        The USL international spot number is seven, and in the rule information available to the public last year there was no mention of them being trade-able. Tom Via of steel communications has confirmed that the Steel currently have three such under contract, Chambers, Burke and Conner.
        Only Marcus Epps of the five draftees is a domestic player. Aaron Jones and Jack Elliot are English. Santiago Moar is Spanish, and Chris Nanco is Canadian. What there immigration status is I have no idea.

    • Curtin was just quoted saying something along the lines of “between our two teams (PHL/Beth), we would never let the int’l slot limit keep us from obtaining a strong player”

  2. If we get Picault sounds like he is heading to Bethlehem where he can prove himself.

  3. If I were fantasy managing the Union, I’d be really interested in signing a vet center back to pair with Marquez and seeing if I could convert Yaro to a #6. Everything about Josh makes him look like a killer #6 in this league — Speed, excellent defensive chops and serious passing accuracy. Push Bedoya up into #10 and — I know — get Edu into the #8 role. I think that still leaves you with big depth questions, but it adds a very capable player to the central midfield where we don’t have it. I’m also really curious about the abilities of Alberg and Ilsinho in that 10 spot. Neither has shown the defensive chops to really make that work, but they’re intriguing options. I’m not expecting another big signing … but I’m cautiously optimistic this team can succeed this season.

    • I have no idea why people think Alberg is a #10. He doesn’t dribble at people, and he doesn’t participate in build-up play, which are things you need a #10 to do. He does shoot, but he’s a poaching striker, and belongs on a team with a 2-striker set. Now Ilsinho I could possibly see in the CAM role, but that leaves open a spot on the right wing. I like Fabian Herbers a lot, but I don’t think we can be relying solely on him in that position given his current stage of development.

      • I dunno but I was quite pleased with Herbers last year he was very productive in the limited minutes he was given. If he continues to develop and improve his game, I’m most certainly alright with him starting.

      • Said I’m curious about his abilities in that position. He seems to have been used more as a winger when he was in the Netherlands. And yeah, his body of work suggests he’s much more a poacher than a guy who moves the ball. I’m just trying to be positive that we can find the guy a productive role on the team. Maybe that’s not meant to be.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Regarding Yaro at the 6, I 100% agree. I am totally on board with him becoming an outstanding #6. He has speed, passing ability, he’s smart. I don’t get why they are forcing him to be a CB. I mean, hes solid there, but I think he is destined as a 6. It’s not as if going from CB to Def Mid is that big a stretch.

      • Their forcing him to be a CB because Yaro himself said that is where he wants to be he wants to be a CB (thus he is not being forced at all). Just like how Edu wants to be a midfielder. Regardless of what position they might be better at they both are players who seem to have their mindset. As development goes it seems that the Union are willing to let players try to exceed if they have a preference where they want to be. Personally I don’t always think this is the best move, but it is what they do.

      • …forcing him to be a CB? WTF kind of alternative fact is this!?


        Lol that was just funny.

  4. If were going with this team as is I find more and more the setup should be a 4-4-2. It just gives so many more options. Up top can be Alberg-Simpson, or Alberg-Sapong, or Sapong-Simpson, or even Pontius-Sapong. Options galore. Outside mids could be any combination of Pontius, Herbers, Ilsinho, Fabi, Ayuk, Bedoya, and any of these many new wingers. Interior mids Edu, Bedoya, Carroll Creavalle. Backline Fabi/Winaljdum, Marquez, Yaro/Tribbett, Rosenberry/Gaddis. Sure it would be best to grab a defensive mid and a CB, but playing a 4-4-2 with this roster just makes more sense to me. It provides so much flexibility and you can change according to opponent.

    • With a veteran CB to keep things organized and a stud #6 who can cover ground, I’d be curious to see a 4-1-3-2.

    • I agree. This fits our lineup much better. I think the midfield would need to be a diamond, with Bedoya or Ilsinho at the top, and Edu at the base. With Pontius at one wing and Herbers/Ilsinho/Bedoya at the other, and Sapong play target guy up top and Alberg sniffing around the box… damn, this could be a really nice setup!

      • I personally love the 4-4-2 but it can definitely put extreme pressure on the lone CDM or force your 2 wide midfield players to sit back and become too defensive. As with anything, it’s most important to get the best players on the field and make it work. As of right now I’d have to agree a 4-4-2 accomplishes that, but if we sign a really good #6 than the 4-2-3-1 will probably be better.

  5. The Union will play with a rotating lone striker, no real #10, and a shaky young defense in the first half of 2017. Should be fun.

    • Nothing wrong with rotating long strikers, if anything the issue last year was that we didn’t rotate enough. And Simpson looks to be able to do things Sapong can’t.

      We have areal 10. Bedoya and Alberg. The real question is if they will be as good as Barnetta.

      Is it that shaky? How much of the shakiness can be directly attributed to Tribbett getting abused. I’m with our backline as long as Yaro is there. We have good youth there and they need to develop.

      • I am an Arsenal fan as well as Union fan and I reached out to Jeorge Bird who runs a blog about Arsenal Youth. He comments about Simpson:
        “Simpson was a very talented youngster when at Arsenal and often played above his age group. He had some excellent performances at youth level and scored a lot of goals but had several experienced players ahead of him such as van Persie and Adebayor which is why he didn’t get much of a look in. He’s a fast and clinical player.”
        That sounds positive.

      • Thanks for the input! Keep it up!

      • I think we also got too stretched on the field way to much by the end of the year in stark contrast to the beginning. Not sure the main culprit (I’m sure there were many) but that was a major issue.

  6. It’s even harder to really assess the team without taking a larger view of the teams they are immediately competing against. At the moment, even taking Picault and Onyewu into the equation, I think we are at best where we were last year, with our younger players being better than they were last year. Have NY, DC, NE etc made improvements so that their teams are actually BETTER than last year? If that’s the case, we have fallen behind the curve.

  7. Simplistic analysis.
    Barnetta and Nogueira are gone.
    Bedoya is in.
    We are down one in the central midfield.
    Earnie is supposed to have a nose for bargains.
    We are going to find out.
    Myself, I want that veteran TAM or DP “controlling midfielder.”

  8. Ich Finde Dich Laecherlich says:

    “Considering the way many German coaches operate, etc.” … Yawn. You all do understand German coaches just don’t give a damn what ding a lings who write about MLS Soccerrrrrrrrr for places like Philly Soccer Page think, right? Okay, then. Please continue.

    • Well considering Pennsylvania soccer has given Dortmund one of the greatest young players in bundesliga history AND one of their greatest money makers since he’s America…I’m thinking they should care and not be so high and mighty.

    • at long last. been strumming fingers all day waiting… pretty surprised the author makes the generalization TBH.
      I’ve been hammered by frequenters here for much more benign commentary and simplifications on the state of German soccer to highlight a point of view.

      • While I would never lump a whole country into a generalization, I think the point was that just because a player has a “bad attitude” somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean the player has a bad attitude. Many factors can cause this including not getting along personality wise with the coaching staff or the team culture. We have seen many times players look great, transfer and then look terrible, transfer again and look great. We as fans have no way of knowing this so hopefully ES has done his homework.
        Fafa clearly has talent and speed, which is something the Union could really use on the wings, even if only as a sub.

      • Yes, that was the point, A. Thank you. 🙂

    • You do realize we don’t write for German soccer coaches, right?

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