Commentary / Union

Stop calling the Union cheap

Photo by Earl Gardner

David Accam is off to a tepid start with the Philadelphia Union.

That’s not fair. Tepid implies a certain degree of warmth.

Accam has been cold. Very cold. Zero touches in the box cold. No goals, no assists cold. And while he isn’t technically a Designated Player, the fact that the Union paid down his salary with TAM to fit him under the salary cap does make it reasonable to expect DP-level performance from him. They are after all paying him $820,000 dollars in one way or another.

The Union’s DP loanee Borek Dockal has also failed to impress. One goal and one assist is better, but still not good. Dockal is reported to be receiving more than $750,000 from the Union.

These are players who the Union have surrendered a significant amount of resources for, and they’re simply not delivering at the level the team needs.

Across the board, the Union are failing to meet many expectations, but this specific expectation, that the high-paid players will deliver, is especially problematic. We’ve seen this problem before.

Jay Simpson signed from the English third division, prompting comparisons to New York Red Bull’s Bradley Wright-Phillips. While BWP has become a standout player for the league, Jay Simpson has failed to impress. Granted, he hasn’t been given tremendous opportunity to succeed, as his play style in no way matches the game played by the Union. In fact, it almost seems like the Union is a bad signing for Simpson more than Simpson was a bad signing for the Union. But either way, he’s paid over $500,000 a year to contribute next to nothing.

It’s not Maurice Edu’s fault. The much-touted USMNT player, coming off a successful career in Europe, looked to be a great addition to the Union in 2014. And for the first two years he was a tremendous asset to the team, stepping up to the challenge of playing out of position and doing a spectacular job of it. But then the injuries happened, leading to him not making a single appearance for the Union (and just six for Bethlehem Steel FC) in 2016 and 2017. The Union paid him over $818,000 in 2017.

Most people liked Fernando Aristeguieta, and the Venezuelan seemed to like Philadelphia too. But a habit of getting injured, paired with an honestly enjoyable smash mouth style of soccer, meant he never actually scored in a game the Union won. He collected a Young DP salary of $350,000 for his services, before returning to Nantes when the Union declined their option to sign the loanee permanently.

Raïs M’Bolhi has become something of a bogeyman for a certain segment of Union fans. Signed after a standout performance at “a little tournament in Brazil,” the Algerian keeper supplanted both Zac MacMath and Andre Blake to become the Union’s number one keeper. Despite what seemed to be a positive first impression of the city, M’Bolhi quickly fell out of love with Philadelphia and very quickly found his way out of the starting spot. Transfermarkt.com estimated he was worth almost $600,000 at the time.

Those are just the big names. There’s also guys like Anderson, Charlie Davies, and Kleberson. The Union have a track record of spending resources (be it trades, draft picks, MLS funny money, or actual cash) on players that never actually prove themselves to be worth it.

This isn’t the act of a “cheap” team. “Cheap” is Montreal spending $1.5 million dollars less than the Union last year and still finishing just three points behind them. In fact, the Union spent more than half of the teams that finished above them in the Eastern conference.

So the problem isn’t, and never has been, that the Union are “cheap.” They spend money. Not like Toronto or Atlanta spend money, but enough that we can’t point to finances as being the reason why this team continually fails to be competitive in MLS play.

If anything, the problem is how they spend that money.

Using Jay Simpson as an example, he simply has no business playing on this team. When news of his acquisition surfaced, conversations with Leyton Orient fans always featured a common refrain: “If he gets service, he scores a lot of goals.” But the Union’s style has never been one for service. Successful Union strikers Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey, and C.J. Sapong all have one thing in common: They put a lot of work into getting their goals. They all did it different ways, but their success was not reliant on service. With this information readily apparent to people who only view the game recreationally, the Union signed Jay Simpson anyway.

If we keep blaming this team’s unimpressive performance on being cheap, we’re missing the real problem. The front office, reliably, fails to be smart about how it spends what resources it does have. Some day they’re going to sell a Homegrown Player and make a tidy profit. But there’s no reason to believe the proceeds of that sale will make one lick of difference in improving the team’s fortunes.

So please, don’t call the Union cheap. Not only does that fail to accurately describe the problem, but it also keeps pressure off the people who made, and continue to make, these mistakes. It’s a problem that extends beyond the purview of head coach Jim Curtin, and likely even reaches past sporting director Earnie Stewart. This is a systemic problem of the entire organization. It predates both Curtin and Stewart’s tenure, and if nothing is done to address it, this problem will persist long after they are gone.

Note: All salary numbers via the MLS Players Association unless otherwise noted.

31 Comments

  1. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS ARTICLE.

    WE NEED IT.

    FACT IS TEAMS THAT SPEND MORE OR A COMPARABLE AMOUNT THAN US LOOK TEN TIMES BETTER.

    AT THIS POINT IT IS ABOUT coaching.

  2. lopezzzz says:

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    ┻┳| •.•) They’re cheap and incompetent.
    ┳┻|⊂ノ
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  3. It is not just on coaching, James. Thinking that Jay Simpson would be appropriate as a solo striker, and signing him to an apparent two-year deal that we can’t get out of, would seem to fall squarely on Earnie Stewart. So would failing to sign another appropriate forward despite last year’s evidence of the aforementioned.

    Also, I might add, if most of the team’s underperformance is on the coach, who is responsible for the fact that he has not been fired?

    • hobosocks says:

      I agree completely here. People often seem to give Earnie a pass in favor of disparaging Curtin. If you’re unhappy with Curtin, it’s Stewart’s fault he is here!
      .
      I was as excited about Stewart as everyone else when he arrived, but I can’t feel that way anymore. His signings have not worked out. Medunjanin has been the best, and I think he’s a net negative (although that’s another conversation) and Simpson has been clearly the worst. Stewart has been here some time now. What has he done that was significantly better than our hated previous stewards? I don’t see much if anything.

      • He has signed MLS quality players?

        Do you really think players like Fafa, Haris, Accam, Rosenberry, etc etc are NOT better than Gilberto or Kai Herdling or Corben Bone!?

    • Im sick and tired of this dumb ass take. Simpson started as our #1, looked fine for 3 games, scored a goal, got hurt and then…

      NEVER SAW THE FIELD AGAIN

      NEVER
      SAW
      THE
      FIELD
      AGAIN

      are you seriously judging the poor guy on 10 minute garbage time cameos when the rest of the team has already given up?

      This is nonsense and I am tired of it. Curtin can’t coach and he sure as hell can’t man manage either.

      • As bad a coach as Curtin is, and he’s gifted at obliviousness on the touch line, his player management is his “true gift”. Rosenberry, Accam, Simpson, etc. I think he’s hindered more players than helped. He’s helped Gaddis, Sapong, Herbers, yeah I think that’s about it.

      • Any chance you get on a field is a chance to show you belong on the field. Simpson has had many chances to show something, anything that says he should be out there and straight up hasn’t.
        .
        Alan Gordan has made a career off the bench on 10 min cameos.
        .
        I do agree with your last statement though.

      • I’m sorry, James, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I didn’t even say that Simpson was a bad player. But despite your protestations, he has indeed had longer opportunities to show us something — in friendlies, in Open Cup matches, in preseason games — and he has never shown us anything to suggest that he can be a solo striker. Even the scouting reports we got from observers when he was signed didn’t make him sound like that kind of player.

        And again, if you’re blaming Jim, at this point, you are blaming Earnie by proxy.

  4. Can we say they are cheap by not sufficiently investing in an FO and scouting team who can capably determine how to spend money on qualified impact players?
    And can we say they are cheap that they are cheap by not investing in a head coach/coaching team with with a proven track record of success at the professional level?

    • excellent points. there’s poor spending of (arguably) adequate money on on-field talent and then there’s cheap. this team is cheap. next-level teams like LAFC and ATL invest in more than on-field talent and academies. we lack dimensions to grow and compete.

  5. Spending draft picks and TAM does not make the Union not cheap. Not spending real money on DPs makes the Union cheap. Literally every team should be spending their TAM money as that is literally the point of it and it can’t go into the owners pockets. There is no reason we should not have 3 DP salary players and all should be at Bedoya’s level at a minimum.
    .
    We also sucks at bringing in players. So we are cheap and bad at bringing in players. That explains are current (and past) situation.

  6. I'm Done says:

    How much of their spending is covered by GAM/TAM/Thank you ma’am? Because that spending should not count as the club spending money since it’s all league funny money.

    I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s worth digging into a bit more. The actual $s in compensation to players is only part of the story anyway. What about staffing of scouts and coaches? Are the Union on par with the league there?

  7. The Truth says:

    Yeah, Curtin/Stewart are incompetent but compared to the top clubs in this league (and in every other league around the world) they’re woefully cheap. Spend money -> lift trophies is a pretty proven formula (that, like anything, has its exceptions but is still pretty reliable as a formula).

  8. Great One says:

    I get your point but also kind of disagree. Just because they spent to the lowest acceptable means without riots doesn’t mean they aren’t cheap. It took years to get a training facility and years to get a real Gm (His effectiveness is still in question). They won’t get a real coach. They don’t have a full scouting staff. They don’t fill all the DP slots with real DPs. They sure don’t have to spend $15 but they could spend 5. They continually do JUST enough to not be the lowest team. The fact that they are also incompetent doesn’t mean they spend enough.

  9. scottymac says:

    By saying the Union spent league resources in TAM/GAM to add players who are on loans or came on a free as “not cheap” misses the point.
    .
    They’re cheap.
    .
    They’ve yet to prove they’re thrifty.
    .
    Jay likes to point to the millions spent by Richie Graham as his investment. He points to millions in annual spend when its their capital call to the league for salaries. He runs the smallest FO in MLS.
    .
    “They have no money and don’t know what they’re doing”-P. Nowak

  10. Desh Bouksani says:

    It is only the Sporting Director’s fault …if the owner says “here’s some real money go hire a coach,” and he is choosing not to spend it in favor of continuity. People are deluding themselves to think otherwise. Earnie Stewart is required to keep the Coach because the Director’s only real chance at success is giving an inexperienced, inexpensive coach a go at this thing with a long term view of improvement. Whether there are other less expensive coaches out there to be more successful is an argument for debate. Assets have been bought and sold, the Union spend money but make no mistake average is the business model and that is a cheap mentality.

  11. John Harris says:

    I get the point too however the organization is cheap. We shouldn’t care that we spend comparably to tiny Columbus or Portland (if we do). It’s a huge market and it is clear that that should have the U spending something more than it does.
    .
    Question about signing busts… Might they be secondary to the lack of spending on scouting? Recall Earnie was hired so he could leverage his knowledge of Europe. (Hint: Leverage is code language for ‘I don’t want to spend money on extra staff.’).
    .
    On the other hand, don’t all organizations have busts? Why do we seem to have more? Probably lack of investment in things like scouting … and refusal to pay DPs more than just above TAM level, i.e good players don’t want to come here.
    .
    Even the ownership admitted it must spend more, contary to this piece. (Ownership send to have forgotten that…)
    .
    Respectfully I say that this well written commentary is trying to defend the indefensible.
    .
    The organization is just cheap. Philly deserves better and I’m glad people are finally choosing to go elsewhere. If nothing changes then nothing will change. Demand better.

  12. I tend to agree with Jim here in that “cheapness,” “lack of resources,” “no funds” or whatever you want to call it should not be an excuse. How long have we heard: “We’re not Toronto” or “We’re not Atlanta”? Knives at gunfights. Everyone has to be good on the night. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.

    I asked myself this question and failed to answer it: Name one player who has come to the Union under Curtin and improved? We’ve had young guys play better than expected, but the quality of play never gets better. It’s always a state of declining returns. Good coaches can always point to players who improve, find a system that compliments their style. I can’t put name to a single example of that under Curtin.

    If you don’t think a better coach can get another 10 points out of the squad, I don’t know what to tell you….

    • Fabinho, Blake, Sapong have all gotten noticeably better. I think other have to a lesser degree too. I mean really the rest of the younger players that have come through the Union are in USL now or are still too young to judge. Not trying to defend Curtin here because he’s without a doubt part of the problem, but our roster has always had massive holes in it and massive turnover.

      • Not sure about Fabinho (though I don’t think he’s nearly as bad as most do), would agree on Blake and think Sapong is a push. Remember, CJ was a rookie of the year in 2011 and his struggles in KC had more to do with being moved to the wing. I suspect his Goals per 90 have not improved, even last year. He’s just been given a lot more minutes.


        A better coach, I believe, would get more out of this squad, find ways to get consistent performances out of the younger and other players and not bury them on the bench. Maybe I’m wrong and that many of these players weren’t good enough to begin with, but I’m not buying it. (Not saying they’re MLS cup bound, but 10 points better over a season.)

  13. philsoc8 says:

    Sorry, but they are cheap. No team in any sport gets every decision right. The ones with resources have the ability to survive their mistakes. The Union have zero margin for error, as has been readily apparent.

  14. Maryland Dooper says:

    In terms of player payroll the Union may be middle of the road, but their is an obvious gap in scouting and top level talent investment. A team that needs max value from every dollar can’t afford to spend incorrectly as often as the Union do. And if poor signings are made, a proper coaching staff should be able to adjust to maximize player value. The Union lack in both scouting and tactical coaching.

    On top of this, the Union won’t spend to unlock a third DP spot. And the DP players they have are on the lower end of the payment spectrum. Edu and Bedoya are respectable players in MLS, and add certain value, but they aren’t game changing talents that the DP roster spots demand.

  15. Financially incompetent and challenged!

  16. Stud Muffin says:

    As in anything in life. When your better at your job you make more than the lesser talented. Hence they stink.

  17. Simmonds17 says:

    Can anyone explain, though, the lack of production from David Accam. I saw him plenty with Chicago the past three years and considered him a far better offensive player than anyone the Union had at the time. I was extremely excited when the Union signed for him.

    Is it a bad fit stylistically? Or is he just off to a bad start for hard to explain reasons? I don’t see lack of effort or a bad attitude.

    I do think having Accam and Picault out there at the same time makes the attack too small and disadvantaged on headers. But with Ilsinho having moved into the starting 11, that may not be as much of an issue anymore.

    This organization may be, probably is, cheap in some ways, but I feel this year’s team has really underachieved. No, they don’t have the talent of NYCFC or Atlanta, but they should be competitive in the middle-tier of the league, I think.

    • Outside of the Box says:

      When your lone forward stands in the middle of the field begging for a low percentage header in lieu of interchanging play with others on the field, it makes playing defense on the dangerous players a lot easier. Not that this would ever happen, but if an Ilshino type player was in the middle of the field making runs and getting the ball at his feet proves to be much more dangerous and sucks in defenders opening up the outside. Accam will turn into Freddy Adu by the end of the season if Curtain doesn’t change the formation or get a lone forward that moves on offense…and no its not Ilshino!

  18. Play Fontana!!

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