A View from Afar

Tactics matter more when you make bad investments

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The soccer gods can be merciless.

“We can talk about formations, tactics, technique, all those things,” Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said with a dismissive chuckle during a television interview at halftime of his team’s 3-3 draw Saturday with Montreal, “but it really becomes about competing [and] winning your individual battle.”

Meanwhile, Montreal head coach Mauro Biello was making a tactical shift. After seeing Ignacio Piatti drive a truck through the Union’s center midfield to score and make it 3-1 at halftime, Montreal began stretching out and then exploiting the Union’s weak center. Two goals later, the Union finished their three-game home stand without a win.

Curtin was right. Soccer is about winning battles on the field.

But managers can put players in better position to do that with strategies that play to their players’ advantages and deemphasize their weaknesses. We all understand that players play, but managers and their choices play a key role.

Curtin made a good move in flipping Ilsinho and Chris Pontius — Montreal clearly hadn’t planned for that — and it worked in the first half. Alejandro Bedoya has fared better in the No. 8 role, and his high pressing created the turnover that led to the Union’s first goal.

Next time, take it further and be a little bold.

Yank Roland Alberg at halftime. He’s useless past 45 minutes – and 45 is charitable – because he isn’t fit. He made two good plays all day – one good finish, one good pass. Insert Derrick Jones or (if they had made the bench) Brian Carroll or Warren Creavalle to sit at the base of an inverted triangle to help hold a lead. Alberg won’t like the message that sends, but if that message is “Professional athletes don’t come into preseason 15 pounds overweight,” then too bad.

Curtin couldn’t replace both Alberg and Medunjanin because he had burned two subs already on Ilsinho and Pontius. That was necessary because Ilsinho isn’t fit enough to defend for 90 minutes, and Pontius has an extensive injury history.

Therein lies the problem.

MLS salary data show bad investments by the Union

When your general manager hands you overpaid technicians who don’t play defense and/or have fitness issues, then you must address that problem with changes in tactics, formation and lineups and probably a lot of prayer.

With Tuesday’s release of player salary figures by the MLS Players Union, we can evaluate Union sporting director Earnie Stewart’s signings a bit more.

They’re a train wreck so far. They may have looked good from afar back in February when we had limited information, but now we know more.

Other than Oguchi Onyewu and Giliano Wijnaldum, both worth the gambles at the league minimum salary of $65,000, there’s a clear pattern to Stewart’s more significant acquisitions.

PlayerBase SalaryGuaranteed Compensation
Haris Medunjanin$460,008$505,008
Jay Simpson$465,000$508,333
Ilsinho$470,000$518,333
Roland Alberg$345,000$394,250

Medunjanin, Simpson and Ilsinho draw salaries just under the MLS maximum budget charge of $480,625. More than that requires ownership to open their pocketbooks beyond the standard league cash calls and pay additional funding for a designated player. Targeted allocation money (TAM) was used on Simpson and Medunjanin, so either they came with transfer fees and/or both have higher salaries with budget charges that were bought down with TAM.

So, the question is:

Are you kidding?

Are the Union seriously burning that much cash on Simpson, whose last team just got relegated to England’s fifth division, home to some of the U.K.’s most beloved semipro teams?

On Medunjanin from the Israeli league, best known of late for turning an ordinary Columbus Crew backup into a local star?

On Ilsinho, who was still well overweight when signed last year after a trial?

They could be good Moneyball signings – at about a third of the current price. This is not how to play Moneyball in MLS.

Had Philadelphia spent more prudently, they could have money left over to put toward signing a playmaking No. 10, a reliable starting center back or an upgrade at left back.

Contrast with these off-season signings, among the best in MLS:

  • Kansas City No. 6 Ilie Sanchez makes $300,000.
  • Portland left back Vytautas Andriuskevicius makes $222,500.
  • Atlanta center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez makes $250,000.
  • Toronto center midfielder Armando Cooper (late 2016 signing) makes $189,000.
  • Kenwyne Jones is riding Atlanta’s pine at $390,000 a year but still looks like a beast in limited minutes and will probably come good once he’s traded.

High-priced, technically proficient players with defense/fitness deficiencies may work in Holland with its wide open game, but you can’t field a bunch of them in a physical league like MLS, where Laurent Ciman repeatedly assaults C.J. Sapong and never gets booked.

None of the aforementioned four Union signings fits the way Curtin wants to play. Simpson and Alberg are second strikers for a team that wants to play with one. (In his defense, we’ve seen little of Simpson.) Ilsinho may be MLS’s greatest futsal player. Medunjanin needs to be shielded by a center midfield destroyer, and while Maurice Edu could be perfect for that, the Union should have known he couldn’t be relied upon due to injury problems that may keep him permanently out of a Philadelphia uniform. (Even if Stewart signed these players with plans for life after Curtin and his tactics, they’re still overpaid.)

The Union defensive problems we saw Saturday are the same ones we saw last year when Alberg featured at center attacking midfielder and Tranquillo Barnetta dropped to the No. 8 behind him. Medunjanin is less physical than Barnetta, and a central trio of Medunjanin, Alberg and Bedoya won’t be any better defensively. Bedoya can’t do it all.

The army you have

But this is the roster that Jim Curtin has, and it’s unlikely to change much. Those guys aren’t getting traded, because no MLS team would accept their bloated contracts. Individually, they’re not bad players – talented ones, actually – but they’re bad investments from a cost-benefit perspective.

Everyone got excited about Stewart because of his achievements in Holland, but he doesn’t appear to have progressed beyond that European perspective and adjusted to the economics of the MLS marketplace.

Coaches can bank solely on players winning individual battles when they can trot out lineups with Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, because they’re going to win most battles in MLS, regardless of who coaches them.

The Union don’t have that. Alberg, Ilsinho and Medunjanin won’t win many defensive battles this year. Curtin doesn’t have a No. 10 unless it’s Adam Najem, who didn’t make the Union bench Saturday. Absent Edu, Philadelphia doesn’t have a top-shelf No. 6 either.

Tactics, formations and lineups matter. Coaches and general managers win and lose battles too.

63 Comments

  1. Wonderful Dan. Just wonderful.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Phew. Had your espresso this morn I see.
    .
    .
    I still believe a better manager has this team moving in an opposite direction because he could figure out how best to serve the whole with the pieces he has. I don’t see that level of insight with the current skipper.
    .
    To be blunt… at this point both Earnie and Jim aren’t measuring up… which is just about PAR for this course.

    • Good points. I would add that a more experienced head coach with a proven record of success would likely be a more knowledgeable and more influential advisor to the sporting director and ownership on player signings and other club matters.

  3. “High-priced, technically proficient players with defense/fitness deficiencies may work in Holland with its wide open game, but you can’t field a bunch of them in a physical league like MLS, where Laurent Ciman repeatedly assaults C.J. Sapong and never gets booked.”
    .
    This. So much this. Earnie is trying to play Dutch football in MLS with players that are not fit for the style of play in this league. And he’s trying to do it with players not actually good enough to play in the Dutch league, anyway.
    .
    The question is whether or not he can adjust his style of sport-directing to MLS. If not, it looks like we might be in for a very long road even beyond this season.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    I was thinking about a stat I hadn’t seen posted anywhere related to the recent home stand. In the first half, the Union outscored their 3 opponents 4-2. In the second half, they were outscored 0-6. This seems to contradict the thought that there is depth at every position when the team is so atrocious around the time the subs come in.

  5. this is a great article. this team’s whole situation has me feeling very frustrated, but i am getting the feeling that almost from top to bottom there is a lot of learning on the job and improvising. seems clear that a lot of the assumptions i’ve been making in my head are not entirely true.
    i thought sugarman was a total cheapskate and we would never go anywhere under his ownership, but it seems he is spending some money as our payroll is right in the middle of the pack. i would love for him to spend more, but it doesn’t seem to be completely necessary
    i thought stewart was going to be a savior considering his seeming thoughtfulness and track record in europe, but it turns out there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to constructing an mls roster vs a european roster. it looks like its going to take some time to learn what counts as a shrewd deal in this league (ie charlie davies for a first round pick is a bad deal). presumably albright could help with this but he is also someone who has been learning on the job (at first learning under the lunk headed sakiewicz)
    then there is curtin who is the youngest coach in the league and has had some past success (open cup runs and the hot start last season). this article rightly points out that he hasn’t been provided with a functional roster. i don’t think it would be fair or sensible to fire him when it is so clear that he is trying to build a competitive team when stewart made mistakes building the roster.
    i don’t think stewart or curtin should go. the team won’t improve until stewart learns how to properly value contracts in this league and i wouldn’t be surprised if he knows this as well. it is pretty plain for the public to see how badly they handled a lot of the signings of the past year and a half.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      WOW! Someone who is even more patient than me over this and is willing to let people grow on the job and (hopefully) see the fruit down the road.
      .
      Personally, I’m willing to do this and continue to support the team as well rather than keep going through the same old merry-go-round we’ve had for 8 years.

      • i’m glad i’m not the only one. my wife and i were having a conversation about this as we were leaving the game last week.
        .
        i really don’t blame people for the lack of patience. it has been really hard to maintain patience for the past 7 seasons because this organization was so clearly rudderless. they seem to have a direction now but it also seems clear (to me anyway) that it is going to take time to get to the point where 4 people in charge learn how to be successful.
        .
        part of what makes this year tougher to deal with than previous years is that it isn’t just a matter of firing someone to get the team to improve. i know a lot of people were pissed off when stewart said that last year was year one to him and i understand why that can seem like a dismissive or frustrating assertion, but it is kind of true

      • i’m on board with y’all but i feel like we should be playing younger guys more minutes if this was the case.

      • i think its too early to just blood the young guys; this is a terrible start but the season isnt lost yet. i don’t think the plan was to tank this season and not care about the results; i think they were genuinely trying to make some noise. the problem is that stewart is still learning what kinds of players work in this league and curtin is a young coach who isn’t yet able to work magic that easily turns this group of mismatched pieces into a powerhouse

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I come here to vent and emote. Otherwise I’m all in.

  6. You can’t talk about bad investments and NOT include Edu.

    Bro is making more than ALL of the palyers you listed combined and he has played in two years.

    I understand injuries blah blah, but he is the #1 albatross on this team.

    Can you iamgine if we had his 1.4 million dollar salary to make more signings?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      correction of fact.
      .
      $800K plus or minus, not 1.4 mill.
      .
      A detail only.

    • Adam Schorr says:

      You want 1.4M? Why don’t we spend the 1.4M we spent on Simpson (benched), Ilsinho (ineffective), and Alberg (out of shape)? Earnie had 1.4M. He blew it on a bunch of nothing.

    • did you foresee his injury (or the extent of it)?

      • Yeah, and Edu was probably overpaid before, but he didn’t have a huge injury history or anything so that’s just bad luck.

      • I agree he was overpaid, but he was a huge difference maker on the field. And difference makers are hard to come by in MLS.

    • Injuries happen. You can’t predict them. He was a good signing. He’s also not making $1.4m.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I had just put the following up in response to today’s Daily News Roundup. Brackets are explanatory insertions into the original.
    .
    “Earnie Stewart has been looking in Europe for what he needs.
    .
    “He is constrained by salary cap rules, although the constraints are not spread-eagled manacles anchored on a dungeon wall.
    .
    “I am beginning to wonder whether what he needs, and most fundamentally that is two-way players, is available in Europe for the price his is able to offer. So far he has not found European two-way players.
    .
    “While El Pachyderm has not said this in so many words that I recall [in his uses of Martino as a comparison foil for Union staff], a difference that Tata Martino offers to Atlanta is that he knows a specific market where the players are excellent but the economic stability of the soccer clubs is insecure.
    .
    “North American soccer paychecks, save Chivas USA, arrive on time and do not bounce.
    .
    “Should, perhaps, Mr. Sugarman head hunt and pay for a chief scout who complements the Sporting Director’s knowledge of Europe with his own knowledge of Argentina and its immediately adjacent neighbors?

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      The answer is so obviously yes. ES is looking in the wrong places. Dan, great article. It almost makes me empathize with JC. Almost.
      .
      And while others are claiming their prescience, I’ll stake mine here. I’ve been saying for a year now that Mo Edu will not return and to have planned for his return to action is folly. Sorry to have said it about an otherwise solid player over his career

  8. One of the new writers on the blog (Whistler?) wrote a column a few weeks ago saying that there was plenty of blame to go to Earnie Stewart for the club’s awful 2017 start. Some disagreed. I argued strongly that I thought the piece was totally on target. And that was BEFORE seeing the salary data.

    Now his argument (and mine) look even that much stronger. Personally, I am willing to grant a waiver on Medunjanin, who is very talented, creates a ton of chances, and might actually turn out to be worth what we’re paying him (possibly). But paying Ilsinho, Alberg, and Simpson what we are paying them is batshit crazy. I thought Alberg wouldn’t even be re-signed at all, much less paid $345K. I wouldn’t have been too surprised/disappointed to see Ilsinho go either. And I assumed that the reason our new striker was from the English 4th division was because we got a good deal on him.

    One cannot look at these numbers without drawing a very bitter conclusion: Earnie Stewart is himself having a very hard time adjusting to the contemporary world of MLS. He better prove himself a quick study, because he is not turning one nickel of profit on any of these scrubs.

    • I disagree to a point. While we are overpaying those players – I think they are certainly good enough to NOT go winless in 567 days. Curtin is not doing his part to get the best out of these players.

      Stewart hasn’t hit any home runs yet, but he hasn’t exactly brought in a Gilberto or Kai Herdling or Corbon Bone.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        Charlie Davies? Walter Restrepo? Anderson?

      • Anderson and Restrepo are gone now! They are the definition of safe one year low risk high reward. They meant nothing, especially since who knew Herbers and Tribbet (and then Yaro) would be so good.

        And surly you would give some credit to ES for Herbers and Yaro?

        Davies looks to be bad yes. But GMs are going to have bad trades sometimes.

      • the davies deal was particularly bad given that stewart must have been aware of the possibilities of the draft after seeing what he was able to get from his first draft class

      • Im sure ES was hedging on players like Jones and Trusty – and later Fontana or Real or McGann, and realized why spend money on a crapshoot draftee when you can spend it on a HG instead.

      • Yeah, but Gilberto, Herdling, and Bone combined made less than any of those guys. They are all being paid to be above average MLS starters and they aren’t.

      • No, they were only sold as legitmate signings and options moving forward. They weren’t low risk signings like Anderson or Restrepo. When we got Bone or Herdling, they were talked up as being real answers.

      • By PR fluff pieces. Come on man. Herdling was here on a short loan. Bone was taken in one of those goofy drafts. They were all without a doubt low risk signings. No one is criticizing any of those deal here anyway because they got out of all of them in 1 year. We are complaining that none of players that have been brought in recently for a lot of money are preforming well.

    • Yeah, it was Steve Whisler, and yes, it was a really good column. We’ve been fortunate with some great new additions this year, and he’s one of them.

  9. WonderingAloud says:

    At least they are killing it in the Development Academy for only 4million (sig) and in the youth community with new preacademy (not so much)….it is ok to forge your own path but at somepoint you may just be lost….felt bad about giving up my season tickets after being Founding Member for years before we had team or team name, now when I watch on TV see my seat remains vacant so maybe not just me?

  10. Also since he came up yesterday, I’d take Le Toux back for his $140,000 compared to the same for Davies and the 400,000 for Ilsinho.

  11. John Harris says:

    Moneyball doesn’t work. Get that out of your collective heads. The Oakland A’s have not been competitive since they lost Mulder, Zito, and Hudson. The MLS does not have a 7 year player salary structure that can be manipulated like baseball contracts can, anyway.

    What works? Not moneyball but money. Toronto FC have two players that make more than all of the Union… combined. Look at other teams salary numbers. My gosh it’s right in from of you.

    Sugarman is not a cheapskate??? Are you serious? Yes he is. He like all traditional Philly owners, is taking advantage of you. Stop enabling him and making excuses for him.

    Did the author ever consider that Snow Stewart could do better if he could spend late market money. To be clear PHILLY IS A LARGE, LARGE MARKET. Stop enabling him. The best thing that could happen is an empty stadium and loss of sponsors. STOP!

    • Moneyball doesn’t work? Olympique Lyon would argue otherwise. So would Sporting Kansas City. “Moneyball” is just a sports term for smart business and exploiting market inefficiencies.

      Your point about Philadelphia being a large market is well taken. Agreed. It doesn’t change anything written above.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        You could add Sevilla to this list as well.

      • We spend more than Red Bull, yet they have a really, really good roster and have been very successful. We spend more than Dallas, yet they are the class of the league. Moneyball does work, it’s just that we don’t do it.

      • John Harris says:

        My point is that Philadelphians have a long history of accepting mediocrity while their owners get rich. Sugarman’s investment in this was $25M. For the next expansion, they are talking $200M entry fee. Meanwhile other owners actually spend money, Toronto, Atlanta, Seattle, come to mind and they are all smaller markets than Philly. Citing small markets that have competitive teams in Europe is inaposite for several reasons. Citing small market teams in MLS, while better, only gives the ownership a pass. He has shown no loyalty to the fans, so why show loyalty back… at this point? The phantom menace here is the owner. Walk and things will get better.

    • Of course money ball works.

      Some of the best teams in the league have payrolls less than the Union.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Great point.

      • John Harris says:

        That largely works because the MLS has a large playoff field which is rather forgiving. The MLS cup is a knockout tournament that just often got hot, not necessarily the best team.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        FC Dallas – Supporters’ Shield winner 2016, tied for most points in 2015, salary lower than ours. Really not sure what you’re on about here.

      • John Harris says:

        Sigh. Player development is not moneyball. Put another way, Billy Beane did not invent the minor leagues. He identified an undervalued statistic. What undervalued statistic did FC Dallas find? I’m curious. Did you read moneyball? Having good development has been install to baseball for all over 100 years. Honestly.

      • Chris Sherman says:

        Moneyball is about finding and exploiting market inefficiencies, not about OBP. That was just the solution, not the concept.

        If Philadelphia did it right, they would be buying players, most of whom were undervalued, that allows the roster to be good without spending a lot. That encompasses analytics, scouting, betting on frequently-injured players, betting on players in misfit systems, whatever.

        And yes, investing more into player development than other teams is about attempting to exploit marketing inefficiencies, like moneyball.

      • Billy Beane also had 3 young stud pitcherscome up at the same time. You don’t need stats to tell you that helps.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      When I see a comment like this my first thought is “How much do you have invested into going to the games?” You advocate staying home, but are you a season ticket holder who has already invested the money to go to the games? For me, staying home basically means I’m wasting $100+ (2 seats plus parking). Now you may argue that attending games is a waste of my time, but that’s my choice.

      • John Harris says:

        When the Union calls to renew your season ticket, just tell them no until they spend more of our money on players. The numbers just don’t add up. Seems to me like the ownership is taking advantage of loyal to a fault Philadelphians.

    • Adam Schorr says:

      Where to start with this…
      .
      1. Moneyball does work. The A’s are not the only team that plays Moneyball. Look no further than the Pirates of a few years ago. Actually, the A’s made the playoffs every year from 2012-2014, so I’m not sure what you’re on about there.
      .
      2. Despite the name, Moneyball has nothing to do with actual spending. It’s about maximizing value. Earnie is doing the opposite of Moneyball, paying best case scenario money for guys who have very little chance of reaching their contract value.
      .
      3. FC Dallas has consistently been a top team and they spend less than us. Moneyball works, even in MLS.
      .
      Facts are helpful.

      • John Harris says:

        Moneyball works to an extent in baseball because players in MLB get league minimum for years 1-3 of their career; and get below market arbitration in years 4-6 of their careers. Only in year 7 can they be an unrestricted free agent thus getting fair market value for their services. That is why smaller markets teams, if they play their cards right, can be successful occasionally while big market teams can be successful all the time.

        Reading the book helps almost as much as facts.

        MLS has nothing of the sort so this moneyball group thing is just off. Spend money wisely…. fine we agree. But that will not turn the Union into the organization they should be with their revenues that a market like Philly would naturally generate. Be skeptical man. Stop giving the ownership a pass on this.

  12. JediLos117 says:

    Love the angry tone…it’s how I feel when I think Union…
    .
    …dark side something, something, something…

  13. OneManWolfpack says:

    I thought Chris Albright was there to support ES and almost like “teach” him how to value contracts and work the salary cap in this league? I didn’t read every comment above, but I didn’t see a lot (or at all?) of his name being mentioned.
    .
    I am a Founding Member who has supported this team from DAY ONE. I have the crest tattooed on my leg… oddly enough I got it done before this season started and like 2 weeks before they announced the whole Chief Tattoo Officer thing – but I digress. My point is, I will support this team, but I am done with excuses and whatever the hell else people want to throw out there.
    .
    This is a wreck as a franchise and has been, basically since the beginning. We thought we had stabilized, but it’s clear everyone is still “learning on the job”. ENOUGH. Fix this. If it takes selling the team… sell it. If it takes firing Curtin, Albright, or ES… do it. To borrow from the illustrious Elephant: Just Play Well.

    • i think that firing any of these people is not going to help. curtin and albright are both young and learning on the job. stewart is new to the league and is still figuring out what works. you could fire them all and start again but unless sugarman has some kind of sure thing in mind if he were to do this i dont think it would improve things. i posted about this further up the thread. in the mind of stewart this is year 2 of this team. this can feel maddening as a fan but as far as he is concerned it is true. i can’t tell people to be patient because this team has been so shitty historically, but i dont think firing all of these guys is going to make the team improve. we’ll just be starting at year one again next season

  14. I understand the talk about patience above and it does stir some level of sympathy from a guy that has been a season ticket holder since the beginning, but then I remind myself that at some level they are still doing it to themselves.
    As was pointed out more than once above they feel like they have to high press to be successful, but they cant hold the ball long enough in possession to recover from the high pressing. Tired feet and tired minds inevitably catch up to them in the second half – even for the players that showed up with the right fitness level.
    Clearly they either need to possess better when they have the ball, or press less to have something left in their tanks to close out the game.
    This is not really a choice if they don’t have the skill to possess the ball better – they have to press less.
    Changing neither thing amounts to them saying that they have to get so far ahead in goals in the fist half with press-caused turnovers that they cant blow it in the second half. At 0-6, this clearly is not working.
    Not changing the tactics nor formation is not Club Vision, it is Club Hallucination.

  15. Blake
    Marquez, OO, Eliott
    Rosenberry, Medunjanin, Jones, Bedoya, Picault
    Sapong, Alberg/Simpson

    Might improve our possession without sacrificing offense.

  16. When it comes to signings, some comments lately blame Stewart for those that don’t work well. I understand he’s the S.D., but Curtin should share as much blame.

    Not knowing how this actually works internally, I’d be hard pressed to think Curtin can’t block the signing of a player that doesn’t suit his formation or tactics. Similarly I think he’s had influence on the signing of players that he thinks would fit well. If you look at Ilsinho, Curtin evaluated him during pre-season before he was signed.

    So while the amount of money payed for a player is on Stewart, I’d say whether or not the signing works for the team is squarely on Curtin. One aspect of the coach’s job that is not commented very often here.

  17. Harry Kirshner says:

    I hear Freddy Adu is available. The guy actually had decent numbers while with the Union.

    Cheer up, folks. A win tomorrow night in LA is going to turn the season around. Harry has faith.

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