Analysis

Players to watch: players we watched, part III

Photo by Earl Gardner

It’s officially summer in Philadelphia, which means heat and humidity like the tropics and thunderstorms straight out of the skies near the gates of Mordor. The Union sit firmly in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference heading into July, five points adrift of the playoffs and just a lone point off of the bottom. The team have had long stretches of futility (see: not winning in any of the first six matches) and tantalizing stretches of form (see: immediately going unbeaten in the next six and winning four straight). It’s clear that the team can be a sum greater than it’s parts, but that it requires its best parts to be available at all times and firing on all cylinders in order to make that happen.

Another thing that is clear is that, with half the season now over, it’s time for the third installment of Players to Watch. This series, started in the preseason with several player spotlights, is an ongoing review of individuals who were identified by the PSP staff as likely to have a larger than average impact on the team’s success in 2017.

Parts one and two can be found here and, parting with the “Data Point” metric, each player will be given a midway point grade for their efforts.

Oguchi Onyewu

Onyewu was the first three players in 2017 to be unexpectedly recognized at a Union practice, and then described by head coach Jim Curtin as, “just training, just trying to stay fit.” While training didn’t turn into anything bigger for another of those practice players, and seems like it won’t work out for a third, it did for Gooch. After signing a small $65,000 a year contract, the center back has gone on to start in all but three of the team’s games this season. According to whoscore.com, Onyewu has been the fifth best player on the entire side this season and, in this Moneyball world, has to be in the conversation for “Best value signing in Union history,” small sample size be damned.

Gooch has been far from perfect, sometimes getting trapped in no-man’s land when his marauding fullbacks get caught up field or when a speedy forward (see: Bradley Wright-Phillips) gets in behind him. This is to be expected, as speed isn’t his strength. What he has done, though, is consistently be one of the most positionally sound players on the field. In addition, he’s done so much more than what he was brought for: be veteran depth and a stop-gap solution when injuries happen to a backline that gave up more goals than all but four teams in MLS in 2016.

Completely unexpected bang for the Union’s buck and an unquestionable positive for team culture.

Grade: A

Derrick Jones

Derrick Jones’s foot came over the ball in a 50/50 challenge with New York Red Bulls midfielder, Felipe, in their most recent match. It was unintentional and perhaps even unavoidable, but the subsequent red card he earned as a result of that challenge gave the up-and-coming Union midfielder a chance to step back, watch his teammates grab a vital win the next week against D.C. United, and refocus. After seeing real playing time with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team in their World Cup competition, and after showing fleeting glimpses of his skill in the early stages of the season, all three of those opportunities should be taken and relished.

Jones, the Union’s first soup-to-nuts Academy player, has been the understandable odd-man out in a crowded though uneven Union midfield. However, with captain and talisman Alejandro Bedoya off on some international duty of his own, and Jones will be called upon to step in a find some of the form he had earlier in the season and pick up points in some very winnable games. He did well against Red Bulls in the Open Cup, though lacked some of the chemistry that is growing between the players above him on the depth chart.

Plenty of skill, plenty of room to grow.

Grade: B

Haris Medunjanin

Haris Medunjanin, like many other players in their first few matches in MLS (you may recall Tranquillo Barnetta’s inauspicious beginning with the team), showed early flashes of his skill while often being out of sync with some of his teammates. The turning point seemed to be in the Union’s road draw at LA Galaxy, where the Bosnian began to find his spot on the field, his feet in the attack, and some chemistry across the back. He didn’t make a huge impact in that game, aside from his galavanting run through the midfield and shot on goal (a shot that was a harbinger of things to come in the 4-0 win at D.C. two weeks following), nor did he necessarily make a huge impact against Red Bulls the following week.

What Medunjanin did do was help his entire team get their spacing right, particularly in his partnership with Bedoya, and settle in to his best role, both offensively and defensively. It’s still a work in progress, but the early knock on him about his lack of defensive contributions seems to be no longer valid and he continues to be the best passer on the team, as well as downright deadly from set pieces. He’s also the classiest player on the field, even at his team’s own expense.

More vision than anyone ever to wears the shirt, and vocal, neck-veiny passion for the team like Barnetta used to bring.

Grade: A

Fabian Herbers

Herbers was the least well known player in the Union’s 2016 MLS Draft Haul. He was picked in a spot that most pundits believed Keegan Rosenberry could have been had, and the team passed on sure thing Brandon Vincent in order to make the German attacker part of their first round trio Union players. In 2016, Herbers was one of Curtin’s favorite players for his high work rate and ability to stretch the field on the right side. Those characteristics endeared him to many fans, but were also shades of another speedy European winger who had recently been shipped to Colorado, Sebastien Le Toux.

In the first half of 2017, Herbers hasn’t seen the field nearly as much as he did in his breakout rookie season. Fafa Picault and Chris Pontius are the main reasons why, but in addition Herbers has spent more than a month injured. Depending on the source, Herbers is either out with a groin injury, a thigh injury, or an adductor injury, but it has left him well behind on the depth chart for now.

Herbers led the team in assists in 2016 and that final ball is certainly missing on the side in 2017.

Grade: Incomplete

Alejandro Bedoya

The Union captain has no goals this season and only two assists. Those are simple metrics, but are below what Alejandro Bedoya could contribute and don’t nearly describe what he actually does contribute. He continues to be the glue and grit around which the Union rise or fall, and his chemistry with midfield mate Haris Medunjanin continues to grow, having the potential to make everyone on his side better because of it. Perhaps most importantly, his unrivaled vision for space and opportunity make him an essential cog in the Union machine and one that they frankly can’t win withtout: The team have only lost one match in the last eight in which Bedoya has started, and lost all three that he missed.

If the Union make their run up the table this summer, it will be for a number of reasons. The primary one will be because, while Bedoya is away at the Gold Cup, Derrick Jones and Adam Najem can step in and make sure the Union pick up as many points as possible. After that, it will be because Bedoya comes back to a side still in contention and immediately continues to increase his leadership role in the team… Oh, and starts to add goals and assists, too.

One of the best players on the field in every match, but one with even greater responsibility to be better.

Grade: B

Outlook

Now that the Union have been knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup, and because they have no chance at all in winning the prestigious Supporter’s Shield, the only remaining focus for this group will be making the playoffs. Believe it or not, they still have a 24.9% chance of doing that, and with winnable matches in the first week of July, they can start their summer ascent.

Reasonable Union fans predicted the team would be a low seed in the playoffs at best, and most league-wide pundits thought the team would be putrid. So far they’re neither, and both final scenarios are still possible.

Team Grade: C-

13 Comments

  1. pragmatist says:

    I remember before the season many of us said that if Gooch started 12 or more games we’d be screwed.
    Well, we may be screwed, but it is certainly not because of him. So much better than could have been expected. Not perfect or necessarily even an all-star, but a solid core veteran.

    • I’m not certain of that. A big part of the reason we couldn’t buy a win early in the year was because we couldn’t figure out how to protect Gooch in the backline.
      .
      Even now, we’re having alot of trouble building attacks on the left. While not having even a subpar 10 and Bedoya’s preference to the right side is part of that, another big part is our LB’s inability to push up the field since they have to stay back and protect Gooch.
      .
      I do love the guy, he’s exceeded my expectations by quite a bit. You can still see the quality. But let’s not act like we haven’t had to limit of play due to his limitations.

    • I being one of the biggest proponents of Gooch starting a high proportion of matches being a portent of things gone horribly wrong, must argue that is still the case. Though it’s not necessarily his fault. For the most part he has played well. I cannot argue that. Though as Kevin points out, how much does the attack on the left get limited by the need to give him coverage help. This also makes me wonder if the Union had a more tactically savvy coach, he’d be able to work around Gooch’s limitations.
      .
      All in all he’s played well. The Union’s spot in the table can’t be blamed on him. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by his play. Combined with the possibility that his instruction has caused a young Elliot to hone his game and be a possible staple for the future, Gooch’s signing has been a shrewd move by the S.D.

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, I’m not saying he’s a savior, but outside of a few early-season issues, he’s be a solid veteran, and an incredible asset to Elliott.
        .
        Again, not superhuman, but much better than expected.

  2. You know, it is a shame. If you look at it like these, most of these players are playing well. You throw in surprises like Elliot and you’d think we would be better off than we are.

    But something is missing.

  3. a groin injury, a thigh injury, and an adductor injury are synonymous terms

  4. scottymac says:

    Pretty high grades for players , some would be surprised with so many core players having “A” and “B” seasons they currently are 17th out of 22.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Onyewu means that last season’s high pressure defense cannot be played.
    .
    We therefore have not idea whether Jack Elliott can play that defensive system.
    .

  6. GOLD CUP LIVE STREAM 2017

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