A View from Afar / Analysis

Philadelphia may have improved, but so has almost everyone else

Photo: Earl Gardner

Toronto FC’s signing this week of former Brugge playmaker Victor Vazquez probably sent eyelids around MLS into rapid flapping motion.

Take notice: Philadelphia Union may have improved their roster this off-season, but so has almost* everyone else.

Over the last two years, MLS clubs have increasingly been signing players who in the past would have been unrealistic targets. A variety of factors contribute to this.

  • MLS’s increase in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) has put more money in play for the sub-superstar level player.
  • Financial problems and fan unrest in Argentina have made MLS an increasingly attractive alternative to players from what had been widely considered the best league in the Americas. Many of these players, led by Portland’s Diego Valeri, have thrived in MLS and set off a domino effect that has both made MLS a more attractive destination and improved the quality of player intrigued by the United States’ top league. Additionally, former Barcelona and Argentina national coach Tata Martino taking the top job at Atlanta United has further enhanced the league’s global credibility.
  • The executives and coaches are more experienced with this American system. The youth academies are producing more talent. There is a wider swath of quality domestic players. (But you already knew this.)

To see a team like Toronto bring on a guy of Vazquez’s quality to fill exactly the role that the MLS Cup favorites needed? Yeah, somewhat of a surprise. The Barcelona product and childhood buddy of Leo Messi may not have meshed well in his half season-plus with Mexican side Leon, but he was for a while the top player at Brugge, netting 20 goals and 47 assists in 156 games with the Belgian club.

Where did Toronto find the money? He’s not a designated player, so they’re pulling from the same batch of funds that every other team draws upon.

And that’s the point: Toronto’s improving, Philadelphia’s improving, and so are many other teams, because they all have more money and credibility to bring to the negotiating table.

The question for Philadelphia isn’t merely whether the club has improved its roster — it most certainly has — but whether it’s improved more than most other Eastern Conference clubs.

Personnel improvements around the Eastern Conference

Look around the league. What do you see in terms of net personnel improvement?

  • Toronto: Toronto didn’t have many holes to fill.  They may have lost the MLS Cup final, but, when healthy, they were the best team in the league last year. Vazquez looks like the missing link at the apex of their 4-4-2 midfield diamond or 3-5-2 center midfield trio.
  • Chicago: The Fire may have improved as much as Philadelphia, but they had farther to climb. They remade their midfield by adding New York Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty and former Los Angeles Galaxy stalwart Juninho to back last season’s summer signing, Michael de Leeuw, and they improved their attack by adding Nemanja Nikolic, last year’s player of the year and leading scorer in Poland’s top league. The question is whether they can adequately replace departed goalkeeper Sean Johnson and survive with a very young defense.
  • NYC FC: They added Sean Johnson, Argentine midfielder Maxi Moralez and former Portland winger Rodney Wallace, among others, but in the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium, a true winger like Wallace may be useless. Remember, he wasn’t nearly the same player with Portland when deployed as a left back. Still, this team has the weapons up top to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference no matter what.
  • Atlanta United: Atlanta United looks stacked in attack, solid in defense (particularly once Brad Guzan arrives mid-season), and with a decent veteran component. However, much of this team has never experienced a travel schedule in a North American league. They’re still an expansion side.
  • New England: The Revs added two starting center backs, replaced Gershon Koffie with Ivorian international Xavier Kouassi (which may be a wash), and traded away their starting goalkeeper, with former U.S. youth international Cody Cropper lined up as a replacement. They could improve a good deal, or they could take a step back if that new central defensive trio doesn’t mesh.
  • Columbus: They made some solid depth and defense additions, but it’s not clear there’s a net gain. Former Union academy player Zack Steffen, age 21, looks like the probable opening day starter in net, and Union fans know a bit about starting 21-year-old former University of Maryland stars in goal before they’re ready. Has this team overcome the ‘as goes Higuain, so goes the season’ problem?
  • Orlando: The Lions added Will Johnson and practically a full starting back line, but they sold high on the dynamic Kevin Molino. Can an unstoppable striker and a creaky supercreator carry them back to the playoffs?

D.C. United, Montreal,  and the New York Red Bulls mostly stood pat over the off-season in terms of significant additions, with D.C. rookie Ian Harkes probably the biggest newcomer of the bunch.

Then again, in all this, remember one key point:

There’s something to be said for consistency. The team that stays together tends to win together. Year-to-year turbulence in MLS rosters rarely helps a club.

Philadelphia’s additions have been smart and mostly targeted toward filling roster holes. They could be the most improved team in the conference — but we’ve said that before.


  1. It’s interesting to say that we’re improved. Gooch could be nothing more than a player coach. Simpson is a question mark. Medujanin is an improvement but so much can disappoint. I’m optimistic, but not sure, that we’re better.

    • Everyone new is a question mark and anyone can disappoint.

      Almirion is a question mark too. It aint’t like its impossible for high prices, big name new signings to fail in sports.

      All I know is that the fans and Earnie identified the same holes on the team, and he went out and reinforced those positions.

    • We are def. better, on paper and in practice. Look at the pruning and adding. Gone are Restrepo, Anderson and Fernandes – replaced by better options. At the very least, there is more fight in this group than last season…

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        We won’t know that they are better until there is a body of visual evidence before us.
        “Might be” and “hope” are not “know.”
        After the home opener against a league powerhouse we will start to know things.
        Looking forward to getting some more of that visual evidence tomorrow night. (refer to C Pfeif, in today’s daily News Roundup successor by STeve W.)

      • We will not know if this team is better by the opener. Remember last years opener versus Dallas it was awful. Give the team a month or two then lets compare the larger body of work.

      • If people are going to decide the season based on an away game,a home opener against maybe the best team in the league who is a bad matchup for us, and 2 more away games they are going to be very disappointed.

      • Yes, but Nogueira and Barnetta have also departed since this time last year, two of the best players in our short history.

    • Wow if thats an optimistic comment I would hate to hear a negative

    • As James said, anyone knew is a question mark, as soccer is so much about team chemistry that even someone with clearly demonstrated talent can fare not so well in the wrong circumstances.

      What do you do about that? Aside from due diligence in your acquisitions, the other thing is redundancy. I am assuming that half of the Union’s new additions won’t work out so well. But then those guys sit, and we play the ones who do. Just for example, maybe Simpson turns out to be a complete bust, but Picault lights it up — or Herbers continues developing into a kick-ass striker. Where there are possibilities, and redundancies in the system, the team will get better. Seeing Peter Andrews’ “two-deep” lineups from his piece a couple of weeks ago reminded me just how much better we stand to be.

  2. “So has everyone else” . . . except, you know, 3 of the 5 teams directly above us on the table last season. I’d say Red Bull got worse w/ the McCarty loss.

    • Seems crazy to me they got rid of him. Would have loved the Union to get him. We shall see how his replacement does I suppose.

      • They have some young guys they really like that played well in his absence. I think they lose in the near term but it’s the right decision on the surface.

      • +1 Watch for Davis. He’s will be a solid player in 2 years.

    • And didn’t Montreal lose a key player who burned the Union a few times last year too? Drogba or something like that?

    • Fair. You nailed my all too colloquial word choice. Let’s slip an “almost” in there. (Note that I didn’t detail the West.)

      Edited. How’s it look now? 🙂

  3. “Take notice: Philadelphia Union may have improved their roster this off-season”
    Ah, but did we? Look at the primary lineup that played down the stretch (when we took 2 points from our last 8 games including the playoff game): Sapong, Pontius, Barnetta, Herbers, Creavalle/Carroll, Bedoya, Fabinho, Marquez, Yaro/Tribbett, Rosenberry, Blake.
    It looks like Ilson Jr. might win his job back from Herbers. Onyewu may replace Tribbett. Edu may come back…at some point. We added some depth. But swap out Barnetta for Medunjanin and…I would expect that to be our starting lineup again this year. Is that *really* improvement? We improved our depth at a few positions, but we mostly stood pat. We added depth pieces, but we replaced one high-end starter with another and…that’s it. From a team that took TWO POINTS FROM THEIR LAST EIGHT GAMES.
    And while the top teams are bringing in more and more high quality players, we’re sitting here going “yeah, but we signed some college-age kids, ain’t that swell?”. I say it time and again: the Academy can provide depth pieces, but the league is improving far too fast to rely on them for anything more than filler minutes. We need those high end players. And you look at this roster, and you’re left asking: “Where are they?”

    • No one looked at Nogueria when he came here and called him a high end player.

      But he left as the best player in our history and the glue of the team.

      So I would wait on looking at salary or transfer fee or pedigree before declaring anything.

      All we can say is ES identified the same problem areas as we did and shored them all up.

      • Okay, first of all, Nogueira was considered a high end player when he came here. He ended up exceeding expectations, but there were still high expectations. As for ES “shoring up the problem areas”…really? Here’s the problem areas identified at the beginning of the offseason:
        1. Defensive Mid to replace Creavalle/Carroll
        2. CB to play next to Marquez
        3. Striker to replace Sapong
        4. Depth basically everywhere
        Earnie went 1 for 4, and he hit the least important. He brought in Medunjanin, another offensive mid (even if he’s playing deep, he’s not a D-Mid). He brought in Onyewu and Simpson, two depth guys, one of whom is starting due to injury and the other who can’t seem to beat out Sapong. We have the exact same problem areas we did before the season: a serious and glaring lack of quality up top and in front of goal.
        What am I missing?

      • Nogueira was a Sak bargin bin signing from a soon to be relegated (or were they already relegated?) French side. Maybe we were optimistic, but I don’t remember anyone calling him high end.

        For the rest, it’s all a matter of perspective.

        1 – This is Edu for better or worse. This is the change I am least happy with, but I agree they are in a tough spot here.

        2 – This was going to be Yaro, who was fine last year and was going to continue to grow. Onyewu will be a injury fill in and look to Trusty to grow into this roll too.

        3 – Simpson can be far more than depth. Sapong isn’t a high bar at all, so I fully expect Simpson to start from game 1 or very early, and to score goals.

        4 – He did add depth everything. He added it at LB, CB (which is already in use thanks to Yaro’s injury), and LM.

      • I think I’m looking at it differently. Remember how much fun/good this team was before Nogueira left? And from all accounts so far Medunjanin seems to fill that hole. Maybe more than fill it.
        Simpson scored 25 goals in 45 matches in 15-16 for Leyton Orient, before a coaching change. Hopefully he can come close to replicating that.
        There are plenty of questions, as always. But I’m choosing to be optimistic and say this team has improved a lot.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        You are concluding that the Sapong-Simpson choice is going towards C. J., before there is definitive — or suggestive — evidence.
        Saturday’s match was still focused on overall squad conditioning, not just the starters, and on roster assessment. It was not an overt exercise in preparing for the Whitecaps. Listen to both of Jim Curtin’s comments to the sideline reporter.
        We will learn more on that question tomorrow on twitter an hour before game time when the ineup is released, assuming there are no injuries involved.
        Tomorrow and Saturday will give us an excellent forecast of the opening day starting lineup, barring injuries.

    • I think you aren’t factoring in the second year effect of many potentially key players this year. We now have players that either have a year as a pro under their belt or a year in MLS under their belt. These include Rosenberry, Tribbett, Yaro, Herbers, Ilson Jr., Alberg, Bedoya. Add in Davies being healthy this year and we have definitely improved, and that’t not even including all the new players and Edu. Why not compare the roster to the one when we were in first place too?

      • Ah, yes, I remember the second year effect of Gaddis, McInerney, etc. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of anybody other than Blake who took a major step forward in their second season, and for Blake, it was basically entirely health related. Why are we just assuming improvement when we’ve had far more cases of guys getting worse rather than getting better?
        Our lineups were changing much more throughout the first part of the season, so it’s a little harder to settle on one “primary” lineup. You may end up concluding that Bedoya killed the team, but I think that would be wrong (yet fully supportable!). Losing Nogueira definitely hurt. I used the end of the season because I think that shows that teams adjusted to the Union, and we haven’t changed or improved anything since then.
        I’m not including Edu in anything until he actually steps foot on an MLS pitch again.

      • I would say the assumption of people getting better in the second year is due to ES and Jim Curtin being in charge not Sak and Nowak. Development of players in general in the last year or two seems to be slightly improving thus I think this gives people hope. Me I think the team is better than they were, but that is cause I view some of the guys as genuine starters not depth guys (Onyewu and Simpson).

      • After 2+ years as head coach, it remains to be seen whether JC is capable of getting his players – either individually or collectively – to play better over the course of an entire season, or to improve significantly from one year to the next.
        He has a lot to prove in 2017.

      • Well you’re taking the negative view on everything which is fine, but Barnetta took a big step forward. Plus I’m not sure why you assume players won’t get better their second year. Not all of them will, but I listed 4 rookies who played a lot last year and 3 vets who did too. It’s been documented many times that players take time to adjust to playing in MLS. Not all of these guys are going to get better but some are and some will stay the same. That still leaves us better off.

    • I think it’s fair to ask many of these questions, but you’re underselling the quality of the people Stewart brought in. I think man for man, we found significant quality over those who left and, more importantly, spread those signings across positions to make sure there isn’t such a drop in quality when the injuries happen (and they will).

      It’s hard to know how the new European players will fare or if Alberg, Ilson and Bedoya will fare better in year 2. But I think the same questions can apply to every other team in the league. It seems to me that for every Lodeiro, there are 5 players that have promise that falls flat once they reach MLS.

      Truth is, trying to predict this league is pretty difficult. I mean who had Colorado picked to do so well last year?

    • It appears I took for granted that most people would see that it was obvious the Union have improved on paper. Go figure!

      If Medunjanin is as good as he looks, then yes, they have improved. I could end the story right there. Because he looks like a Nogueira replacement, Bedoya looks like the Barnetta replacement, and that team was one of the best in the standings when Nogueira left. So Simpson, Wijnaldum, Najem, Picault and Onyewu are gravy from there, with depth improved almost across the board, and I don’t even have to project improvement from a slimmer Ilsinho, more experienced and fit Herbers, and so forth to build the case.

      • That Bedoya to Barnetta thing is not an easy sell- Barnetta was a creator, and Bedoya is a workhorse.
        I guess you could talk about Bedoya Medunjanin being as good as Nogs/Barnetta.
        I’d agree depth is better, but the first eleven is the most important. And then, are we talking about the old squad with Nogs, or without?

    • In short, potentially more talented, still about a 6th place finish

    • Adam Schorr, I don’t think you’re getting the diagnosis right here. A large part of the reason we took 2 points from our last 8 games is that our depth sucked, so Curtin felt compelled to put out the same players every single match. (I still think he might’ve done a littlebetter job rotating the squad, but that’s a separate discussion.) Our team tanked because 1) We lost our linchpin, while his nominal replacement was still settling in; and 2) Our players were exhausted. So filling out depth is actually a very important of the puzzle. And that’s aside from all the pieces that have been added, especially Medunjanin.

      • Scottso – I don’t think youre getting the diagnosis right here. Your comments all but absolve James Tiberius Curtin’s part in all this. Players “were exhausted”? I recall a quote to the effect of – “yeah, squad rotation, I guess that’s a buzzword in Europe but 10,12 games in we don’t expect there to be any tiredness”. Now whose job was it to make sure his players were ready at the end of the year? Were we the only team to play in September and October? Did the calendar sneak up on us?

      • Right on. Earnie has provided Curtin with depth on the roster. Fantastic but irrelevant if Curtin doesn’t use it. I have a feeling he would have rode his horses into the ground last season whether he had better depth on the bench or not.

      • I Am CItizen Insane says:

        Curtin is on the record, with having to have a lot to learn. Hopefully in game adjustments and squad rotation are among those things this second full year on the job have taught him.
        This season is on the manager and the players. The Sporting Director has pretty inarguably done his part for now.
        Here is a team mixed with youth and veterans and well hell, quite a few National Team players. This is sufficient…now for ROI.

      • We loast 2 of our best players during the year in Edu and Nogs. Earnie traded away Le Toux for Davies who wasn’t ready for more than 15 minutes a game. Ilsinho got hurt. Yaro got hurt. Barentta was iffy. We had not backup leftback. Seriously who was supposed to rotate? All the players who could have rotated in are basically off the team playing in a lower league now.

      • I would say it’s been quite a while since Edu was arguably one of two of our best players. Barnetta was iffy? What is that? Herbers, Alberg or LeToux could have been more effective than Sapong. Yeah, some of those players are in lower leagues this year, but last year they were on the squad. If he was really pushed at RW, he couldve moved Keegan up and played Ray. A lot of waffle comes out of Curtin when a guy goes down about “next man up”, but when a player is out of form JC’s “thinking” is to play him into form. See-Wenger, Andrew

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Gotta Wait for the visual evidence, pure and simple.
    We will face a bunker and counter side that does it very effectively, Montreal. Does Medunjanin get caught upfield too much as a #6 by Piatti? Can our back four handle Oduro’s speed? Can our creators and other attackers shrug off Montreal’s traditional defensive thuggery?
    I have a less clear idea in my mind what to expect from DC.
    A retrospective thought. Chicago has been scoring lots of goals, against admittedly lesser opposition. They did not blow us out of the water in Bradenton.

  5. I Am CItizen Insane says:

    This team playing with the emerging aesthetic it managed through the first half of last season, which not incidentally also accrued points on the table, is my metric.
    Anything short of this re-emergence of aesthetic is failure.
    Play Well.
    This league is in a place where it needs to improve. I want DC United to be better. I want NY Red Bull to be better. I want NYCFC to be better.
    If we are married to the policy then the policy must produced quality of the emerging highest standard. This is why for me… I can be content with middle table but beautiful footy.
    I want to win. I hope for victory. I need the games to entertain my sense of artistry. Simple.
    Everybody PLAY WELL.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Didn’t we win the offseason last year? Or a preseason tournament – or something like that?! All I am saying is that we will know where this team stands when it has either 3 points after March (three of first four games on the road), or 9. Let’s reserve conclusion until then.
    That said, it’s hard to not be optimistic. We had holes… and ES filled them quite well. For an offseason, that’s exactly what you want. Now go out and (as Pachy says) PLAY WELL. Do that and you will have nothing to worry about.

  7. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    The team added some quality veterans and is playing second and third year players at key positions. Judging everything by the end of last year is starting point, not a ceiling of what the team is only capable of. Rosenberry impressed enough to get a look at by the USMNT for January camp. Marquez played better in his second year without a steady partner next to him for most of the season. Can they both get better or worse….sure. Watching Charlie Davies in the last game, I was impressed how he took the ball up the wing at the end of the game and then instead of giving it away found someone to pass it to and keep possession. More of that might turn ties into wins and losses into ties. They also have more depth with him healthy and adding Simpson. CJ not scoring corresponded with them not winning at the end of the season just as it did with them winning when he was scoring. Myself, I’m a believer in building a team and the core of the team is still intact and young. Let’s hope they haven’t reached the ceiling in just one year.

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