Players to watch / Union

Players we watched, part II

Photo: Earl Gardner

Parents of young children will tell you that the only opportunity they have to see 12:30am on a Sunday night is when one of their offspring has decided such a time slot is appropriate for not sleeping. Union fans will remind those parents that 12:30am on a Sunday night is also a great opportunity to watch two bottom of the table professional American soccer teams play to a scoreless draw in some otherwise nondescript California suburb.

Readers who make it to the bottom of this column will be rewarded with straws of various lengths, which will be drawn at a later date to determine which of the aforementioned scenarios, unexpected parenting or crap soccer, will be their responsibility for any future Pacific Time matches.

The staff at PSP have committed to tracking the impact of a group of players throughout the 2017 season and, now eight matches in, it’s time for an update.

Oguchi Onyewu

Gooch started the first five matches of the season and ended up with mixed results. Good play against Vancouver and Toronto was offset by some bad luck at D.C. United and a lack of pace against Portland. Then, when Jack Elliott showed his poise in filling in for an injured Richie Marquez, Onyewu stayed on the bench when all three men were healthy.

The MLS released its salary information last week and fans learned that the much-traveled center back is an absolute bargain at $65,004 per season, and that despite Josh Yaro’s unclear timetable, the emergence of Elliott as a reliable option means that, in fact, Onyewu will be platooning to shore up the Union defense just not in the way most fans suspected.

Data point: Given the overall shortcomings of the Union team thus far, it’s difficult to pinpoint who is at fault for what has gone wrong. Onyewu is precisely who most Union fans thought he would be: a physically stout and often positionally savvy, if slow, veteran center back. Though he could have done better on several goals against this season, it would be a stretch to ask much more of the former international than what he has given to the team thus far, and he’s probably worth every penny the Union paid him.

Derrick Jones

Derrick Jones’s rise through the ranks from Academy player to Opening Day Union starter is a tremendous story and one that reinforces some of the Union’s otherwise incongruous narrative. Similar to Onyewu, Jones made starts in the first five Union games but was then either unused or used as a substitute thereafter. While Onyewu’s place was usurped perhaps by the organization’s eye to the future, Jones’s was replaced when a finally “fit” Roland Alberg came in to add an offensive spark to a Union side rendered increasingly impotent. Two draws since the Dutchman’s inclusion is too small a sample size to judge either outcome, but the Union need goals and Jones might find himself to be the odd man out for a while in a crowded Union midfield.

Data point: Jones was compared early in the preseason to Manchester City destroyer/midfield Godzilla, Yaya Toure. Coach Curtin made these comments given Jones’s size, strength, influence on the midfield, and most of all his ability to pressure Mothra into dangerous turnovers all over the offensive third of Tokyo (Adam Cann is working on an in-depth analysis). Those comparisons have certainly been valid in spots, but incomplete: According to the numbers from the Audi Player Index, in his first five appearances, Jones was good in two matches, bad in another, and awful in the other two. On balance he was 75% worse than the average MLS midfielder over the same time period. Jones may well be Maurice Edu’s replacement on this roster some day, but he’ll have to continue to grow to do so.

Haris Medunjanin

Haris Medunjanin, aka “The Suave Sort-of Shuttler from Sarajevo,” has played every minute of the 2017 season for the Union. His passing has been as much as even the most optimistic Union observer could have hoped for, his assertive and driving push for goal in several moments against Los Angeles was an inspired and intriguing wrinkle to his attacking arsenal, and his defense is exactly what he told fans it would be when he arrived in Union camp: purely incidental. That may sound familiar to Union fans, as his is the approximate skill set of another well-traveled and defensively disinterested lefty – one whose name rhymes with “Taco? Why, Donna?” The catch: Medunjanin is supposed to be a defensive midfielder, and the former was an attacker.

Data point: On the Philadelphia Union Island of Mismatched Midfielders, Medunjanin is perhaps the most beguiling. Offensively, it appears as though very little will happen that doesn’t originate from his left foot, and to support that he currently sits fifth in the league in Key Passes. Defensively, though, it seems clear that the Union will have to get very creative or very lucky to leave Quadruple-S on the field and keep a clean sheet. Among those included in the Key Passes Top 10 list, Medunjanin ranks lowest in Overall Rating, dragged down by his lack of defensive contribution.

Fabian Herbers

There is a large wheel in the Philadelphia Union locker room that has the name of each wide midfield player on the squad written in his own pie slice section. Roughly one hour before kickoff, just before lineups are due and every person who has a Twitter account even tangentially related to the team tweets or retweets the exactly same graphic of starting players, a staff member spins the wheel and Union fans find out who will start on the right, who will start on the left, who has gone back to Bethlehem for the weekend, and who has mysteriously become injured or sick. It’s entertaining and could certainly be turned into a drinking game. As for Fabian Herbers, he has been the benefactor of “The Wild Wheel of Wide Wingers” several times this season with three starts to his name. He has also been served the dreaded but probably stress-relieving slice, “92nd Minute Sub,” in the team’s other five matches.

Data point: Pessimistically speaking, Herbers’s only significant statistical contribution to the team thus far has been a perfectly weighted assist to C.J. Sapong to level the match against Toronto FC, after an inspired run through a shockingly vacated midfield. Around that has been average passing (with a shocking 57% pass completion percentage during the match against Montreal), covering for turnovers by out of position right backs, and overall being the fourth-worst rated field player on the team. Whether this is tactics, talent, or circumstance is a matter of opinion, though it’s likely the confluence of all three rivers. Poetically, though still pessimistically, another former Union man who possesses similar defense-stretching speed and an often heavy first touch, Sebastien Le Toux, has scored two important goals for his latest team, D.C. United, as they’ve stolen road points in New England and Atlanta.

Alejandro Bedoya

There is no current Wikipedia entry for the phrase, “Philly Tough.” When such a page finally gets established, one can only hope a PSP photographer will lend his or her picture of Alejandro Bedoya and Allen Iverson bro-hugging, while being photobombed/blind-sided by Brian Dawkins, to the cause. Right now, Bedoya is putting in shift after shift of unrelenting hustle, and most importantly doing it through his supreme talent, movement, and commitment to his teammates.

Data point: Bedoya is the team’s most efficient passer, and given his responsibilities across the pitch and on both sides of the ball, that’s essential. He hasn’t yet registered a goal or assist, however, and for those looking to find a genesis to the Union’s struggles, perhaps there is no better place to start than this incomplete statistic. Part of it is his own doing, as he is known more for glue than for glitz, but with his wingers playing a metaphorical game of Offensive Whack-A-Mole wherein they disappear for large stretches of a match only to pop up unexpectedly for a chance almost always gone wanting or a debilitating and untimely turnover, Bedoya has been trying to offset their shortcomings and frankly doing too much. In one match early in the season, Bedoya literally passed the ball to himself (that may or may not be true, but it feels right).

It’s a futile experiment and one that must meet its end for points to come.

Outlook

Little is going well for the Philadelphia Union. They are inconsistent in their play, impatient and wasteful with possession, slow to adapt when teams change tactics against them, and stuck with a formation that has somehow found a way to bring out each player’s weakest traits. Perhaps there are transfers coming in the summer, and as a boss of mine once said, “If you can’t change people, change people.” Summer transfers in MLS rarely make immediate impacts, though (see: Alejandro Bedoya, Tranquillo Barnetta, Freddy Adu), and the Union need more than someone who will sell jerseys to get what they want out of this almost-lost season.

And yet… the team is only seven points out of a playoff spot with one hundred and two points left to be contested. In MLS, where last place teams in April regularly make their way deep into the playoffs in October, they’re not dead.

“Not dead.” Now that’s a silver lining.

7 Comments

  1. Entertaining, funny and sad, all at the same time. Nice one Chris.

  2. I’m surprised the stats speak so poorly of Jones. I thought he has been one of our best players so far. But maybe I am grading him on a “20 year old HG rookie” curve.

    • Agreed. I also think he has been one of our best players this season, stats be damned. In fact, I think we need him back out on the pitch next to Medunjanin as we grope toward some kind of solution to what ails this team.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      He has one, huge glaring weakness and other teams have figured out how to exploit it.
      .
      He does not attempt long passes forward. Hence you can double-team Medunjanin when the Bosnian gets the ball.
      .
      Jones is no doubt working on the weakness. But he is not a complete two-way player until he fixes it.

      • My math was wrong. 102 is the total number available in the season, there are only 78 remaining. Still…

  3. It is true that, from a statistical standpoint, we are not out of contention. In theory, we are not so far behind that we couldn’t go on a tear and make it into the playoffs. The issue is that, from a practical standpoint, there is absolutely no sign of life from this team whatsoever, and so no reason to think that is remotely plausible.

    Even if I want to be a gigantic optimist, the only way I can see it is if: 1) Earnie lands us major CAM in the summer transfer window (possible); 2) that guy comes in and immediately has a huge impact (unlikely in MLS, as Chris mentions); 3) Josh Yaro comes back from injury and that, through various knock-on effects (better partnership in the middle with Marquez or Elliot, better partnership on the right with Rosenberry gets him back to his old form), hugely stabilizes the defense. I don’t think all of this is impossible, but it’s damned unlikely. Far more likely is that we are looking at another rebuilding year. Which is a seriously depressing thing to be saying in early May.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    offensive whack a mole. this is sterling.

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