A View from Afar / Commentary / Union

The hot stove season starts, the Union are quiet

Photo: Earl Gardner

MLS’s hot stove season is in high gear, with major trades and signings abounding. Big names like Darlington Nagbe, Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan have changed teams, rumors are abounding, and 2018 rosters are taking shape.

Only four MLS clubs have not signed a player from outside their organization this off-season:

  1. Toronto
  2. Chicago
  3. New England
  4. Philadelphia

Toronto just won the treble. They need continuity more than additions. New England is the league’s worst franchise. And Chicago, well, maybe they’re waiting for the fall of the first domino, the resolution of whether Bastian Schweinsteiger resigns with the club.

And then there’s Philadelphia.

The Union’s history of late off-season signings

Philadelphia’s presence on this list should come as no surprise.

Historically, the Union’s off-season additions have typically arrived late, with the notable exceptions being the intraleague acquisitions of Chris Pontius, C.J. Sapong, Sebastien Le Toux, Jeff Parke and Conor Casey. Notably, three came in the same off-season. All five worked out well for the Union.

Otherwise, most Union off-season signings are finalized later than other MLS clubs have secured their key off-season deals. Last year, for example, Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, Oguchi Onyewu and Adam Najem finalized deals with the Union after preseason camp opened.

Late arrivals have often posed problems for the Union.

For example, in 2014, the late arrival of Vincent Nogueira meant that then-head coach John Hackworth figured out too late that his experiment with Nogueira at the No. 10 wasn’t going to work. He was fired shortly after moving Nogueira back to the No. 8 and Cristian Maidana to the No. 10.

In 2015, the late arrivals of Steven Vitoria and Fernando Aristeguieta meant that head coach Jim Curtin didn’t have a full preseason to evaluate them and see that neither was the best option at his respective position.

Last year, it was a slightly different problem. After all, despite the Union bringing in some late signings, they also broke the mold by bringing in Giliano Wijnaldum and Jay Simpson in early January 2017. Rather, the bigger problem was the player they didn’t sign: a replacement for Tranquillo Barnetta. It was a yearlong decision that mystified outside observers. Then again, it seems most likely that Stewart tried to find a No. 10 not named Roland Alberg and simply failed to secure one the team was willing to commit money to.

Why the late acquisitions?

One source of the phenomenon is obvious: For most countries in Europe and central and South America, the winter transfer window opens in January for about a month.

But international transfers are certainly possible at this point for MLS clubs. As of today, 20 international transfers have been announced this off-season (discounting three that LAFC secured before the regular season ended). The list of available free transfers has plenty of intriguing names on it.

The fact that most Union signings historically come toward — or just after — the end of Europe’s winter window could be attributed to the fact that, for a certain class of players looking to move, that is often when their value is lowest. Demand has come and gone, the player has seen what the market will yield, and the Union’s offer may look better. This isn’t a team known for breaking the bank.

Second, the Union haven’t made substantive intraleague moves under Earnie Stewart. The Chris Pontius trade was put together before Stewart was on board with the club. Otherwise, the only player acquired after playing for another MLS team was Charlie Davies, who rarely featured for the Union. (Stewart’s acquisition of the right to sign Adam Najem, a Red Bull academy product, was a notable move, but it’s tantamount to spending a draft pick.)

Third, the Union have signed a fair number of players who first had to impress in preseason trials, such as Ilsinho, Oguchi Onyewu and Ken Tribbett. In each case, the Union were conservative, probably appropriately so.

The prospect of holding your breath

Sooner or later, the Union will bring in some additions. Union chairman Jay Sugarman has promised the club will spend more money on players this year.

It’s just a question of when.

Considering the Union don’t have a first or second round pick in this month’s amateur draft, your wait could run into preseason camp. (Yes, the team has three picks in the third and fourth rounds. Yes, they nabbed Jack Elliott late last year. No, that doesn’t mean you should bet on those players making the Union’s senior roster. That’s a fact of life in MLS.)

Granted, someone new probably will show up by the start of camp.




  1. Riiiiiiiight.

  2. Welcome to the Union offseason…..where someone (probably) will show up (eventually)

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    From memory, Ken Tribbett went from Drexel to Harrisburg City Islanders for one year and then from City Islanders to the Steel. He did so well with them in preseason practice that he signed with the first team at some point in that first Steel preseason, and Trusty benefitted.

  4. Oh so Union.

  5. Patiently waiting. Getting frustrated with the radio silence out of Chester and mindful that this is my last year as a season ticket member if I don’t see an improvement on the pitch as I am not buying that the next soccer legend is a 12 year kid in the academy and will lead the Union to the promised land in 2028.

    I’m a fan of all local teams and there are too many other options in Philly whose owner at least shows a commitment with trying to win to keep my interest and I refuse to accept this small market bullshit any longer. So Mr. Sugarman I expect you improve the product on the pitch, sell the team if you can’t afford to keep up or I’m going elsewhere.

  6. Among the many things that has to improve in this organization, scouting really needs to be beefed up. AND someone who can work the MLS system.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    Wrote this on the round up comment thread but I’ll throw it here too: Can anyone explain the lack of inter-MLS (or is it “intra” – I don’t know) moves this team makes? Bringing in pieces from all over the world is fine and necessary, but to me the way the good teams do it – it’s a mix of MLS vets, “big” money DPs, and a few in between. I’m not making any new ground with that I know, but we consistently do NOT acquire guys in the league already. I don’t get it. Then we have to integrate them to the league and the team… and then we have the same conversation every May about how they “aren’t used to things yet… and it takes time to gel.” WTF

    • EXACTLY. The Union could have easily nabbed any of the three players Dan mentioned in the article, and plenty more. They’re usually not expensive and the team sure should have enough TAM and GAM to throw around. Even bringing in Harvey, instead of him going to LAFC. There’s certainly younger players that can at least play the role of useful veterans. And — lo and behold! — those moves wouldn’t preclude the team from bringing in two more DP’s, either! Europe is great, but in this league it is vital to use all channels for acquiring players, and not turning a blind eye (like Nowak in favor of S.American guys, at the expense of everywhere else. Let’s pretend the kickbacks weren’t a factor, haha).

  8. I was checking the Free transfers available, and I found one, Ralph. He’s a Dm, but c’mon, we need a guy named Ralph. Lol. Well it made me feel good for a moment.

    • Mix Diskerud is on the list, interestingly enough, although from what I read elsewhere, he appears to be still under contract with MLS.

  9. Zizouisgod says:

    We have to be the only fanbase in the world that gets excited when their owner sells some of his company’s stock because the proceeds MIGHT be spent on the club. More than likely, he is just doing some estate/financial planning by diversifying his investment portfolio or maybe he’s buying a yacht or vacation home.

    Think about that for a second…we have so little hope in the club that we are forced to think like this. Honestly, that’s really pathetic.

    • Seriously true. It feels like a step or two above advertising for players on craigslist. Maybe the Sons of Ben should refocus their efforts on finding the club a new owner. This city and region, which is jam packed with soccer clubs and fans is an untapped gold mine. If you put the kind of investment Atlanta is putting in you could sell out of season tickets. I am absolutely convinced of it. The Union are lucky they get the response from fans they do. They (ownership) half asses it with the team and they get what they deserve on the fan response.

  10. Section 114 (former) says:

    Or, less charitably, one could say that the only players who will sign with the Union are those who other teams wouldn’t take, so we end up with the players who we have over-bid on despite making low bids.

  11. Dan C( formerly of 103) says:

    The U do not do intra league deals because those deals require giving up TAM and GAM. Do you think Sugarman is going to give up League money to spend his own? The writing in the wall is clear. Sugarman, who is on the expansion committee, is doing the bare minimum to keep this franchise afloat.

    Once expansion is capped, his investment will have increased exponentially. At which point the U are sold. Maybe they relocate, maybe they don’t. But by that point, not many people will care.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      GOD I hope you are right. About the sale of course, not the move.

    • Since when did a NYC guy give a rip about getting Philly a competitive team? It will never happen with Sugarman.
      We ought to try to convince SOBs to go to every Sixers home game with signs that say “Please Josh Harris give us an owner who cares about the Union!”

  12. The 3 Players needed to make the playoffs

    If Ernie does not go and out and acquire a bonifode quality central attacking amidfielder before the preseason and a complimentary forward/wing with speed he should be fired and the fans should boycott the season.

    He has 2 seasons to plan and set up the necessary moves to acquire a replacement for Barnetta. He also needs a much younger version of Chris Pontius and a true left back.. The union fans should not accept any excuses.

    Ernie do your job and put a competitive winning team on the field or pack your bags.

    Philly soccer fans deserve better.

  13. Curtin and Stewart should just up and quit. I don’t have much faith in either of them, but they clearly haven’t been given what they need to succeed here. Their stock would actually rise if they made a statement and resigned. Then maybe Garber would step in and appoint a caretaker owner of this franchise until Sugarman can be embarrassed to sell.

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