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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Preparing for Re-Entry: Sizing up the Union's possible targets

The theme of the Union’s offseason thus far has been departures – via trade and via the expansion draft. Thursday, the club has its chance to add players via the second stage of the Re-Entry Draft.

This mechanism, which allows players meeting certain criteria who haven’t had their options exercised or are out of contract to be selected by other clubs, is the closest thing that MLS 2.0 (or 1.0 or whatever.0) has to adding via free agency.

Last year, the Union were silent in this phase of the draft – after plucking Corben Bone in the first stage – despite the increased flexibility picking clubs have in negotiating new deals. The Re-Entry Draft, as proven by Eastern Conference champs D.C. United last season, could be the way toward competing in MLS if you find the right pieces.
Colorado's Marvell Wynne could be an option
for the Union in Thursday's Re-Entry Draft. (AP)

First, the Union have 23 players currently on their roster. Of those, 22 (excluding Maurice Edu and the possible renewal of his loan deal) are under contract for next season. Of the 20 on-budget spots, by my reckoning, 17 are spoken for. (That’s assuming that new options for Homegrown Players Jimmy McLaughlin and Zach Pfeffer that Sporting Director Chris Albright hinted at last week move them on-budget, if they weren’t already.) That, coupled with the fact that they possess one second round SuperDraft pick and no first-rounders, gives them some flexibility.

So, let’s throw out some possibilities:

Hendry Thomas. The Union need another holding midfielder, a position where the only two definites for next season are Vincent Nogueira and Michael Lahoud, despite some reported interest in players overseas and Edu. Thomas has international experience with Honduras, will be 30 when the season starts and provides plenty of steel in the midfield, which would free up Nogueira to do more distributing. He’s an injury question mark after ACL surgery in July, but with the performance of 22-year-old Victor Ulloa, I’m not sure he has a job waiting for him in Dallas.
Read more »

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Projecting the protecting: Who the Union should shield from the Expansion Draft

For the better part of three months, the most notable date on the Philadelphia Union calendar has been the MLS Expansion Draft, the point at which the Union see if they lose anyone to the incoming MLS franchises, NYCFC and Orlando City. Full protection lists are due later today after the close of an eventful trade window, but here’s a look at who the Union should protect.

First, the Union have 24 rostered players to consider after Monday’s declining of options on five players, the announcement that Brian Carroll’s contract is up and the trade for C.J. Sapong and of Amobi Okugo. Exclude the two remaining Homegrown players (Jimmy McLaughlin and Zach Pfeffer) and Andre Blake, who is a member of Generation Adidas, and that leaves 10 players to be potentially unprotected.

Here are the players the Union likely will end up protecting, in no particular order:

1. Rais M’Bolhi
2. Sheanon Williams
3. Ethan White
4. Carlos Valdes
5. Ray Gaddis
6. Cristian Maidana
7. Vincent Nogueira
8. Sebastien Le Toux
9. Andrew Wenger
10. C.J. Sapong
11. Zac MacMath
The keepers: Read more »

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Union decline options on five players

Conor Casey's day with the Union may be done
after the team declined his option Monday. (AP)
At long last, the Philadelphia Union have announced some action this offseason, declining options on five players.

Those not returning are midfielders Corben Bone and Fred, and forwards Conor Casey, Brian Brown and Cristhian Hernandez, while the Union also announced that Brian Carroll is out of contract.

Bone, who spent four largely indifferent seasons with Chicago, was drafted by the Union in Stage One of the 2013 Re-Entry Draft. He made just two MLS appearances totaling 13 minutes, capped by a red card after just one minute May 14 against Kansas City. The 26-year-old spent the end of the season on loan with USL Pro side Wilmington Hammerheads.

The 35-year-old Fred was signed via a Waiver Draft in late March after training with the club through most of the preseason. Fred appeared in 11 matches in his second stint with the Union, scoring the game-winning goal against New York July 16.

Hernandez was signed as a Homegrown Player before the 2012 season. He played in two matches, totaling 26 minutes in 2012, then spent most of the last two seasons with Harrisburg City. This year with the Islanders, he was limited to just 15 minutes while floating around several positions.

Brown spent the last four months of the regular season on loan from Jamaican club Harbour View FC. He played in eight games (one start) and scored twice, notching the game-winning goal against Kansas City Aug. 1, then scoring against SKC in a 2-1 win Oct. 18.

Casey, acquired via Stage Two of the 2012 Re-Entry Draft, scoring 18 goals and seven assists in 56 matches with the Union. Casey scored six of his eight MLS goals this season in a six-match stretch from May 31-July 16.

The Union’s roster stands at 24 players ahead of this week’s Expansion Draft (Wednesday) and the two phases of the Re-Entry Draft (Friday, then next Thursday).

Declining options doesn’t close the door to returns for any of the players, though it would be on renegotiated deals. Casey made $192,000 last year. Carroll raked in $185k, while Fred made $65k and Hernandez made $74k.

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The week ahead: MLS' schedule of drafts, windows and moves

It’s almost time for the most relevant season for the Philadelphia Union: The offseason calendar where hope springs eternal, everything looks good on paper and rumors can sound infinitely better than the underlying reality.

It’s time for the annual deck reshuffling of MLS’ single-entity system into brand new teams via the league’s many player-acquisition mechanisms. With MLS Cup in the rearview mirror, December is rife with drafts, windows and other miscellaneous opportunities for teams like the Union to seek the pieces they hope will prevent them from having to wait so long from the end of their season to the opening of the marketplace.

Here’s a rundown of what the next could look like (plus a reminder of the mechanisms springing to life this week):

Monday, Dec. 8: From 9 a.m.-1 p.m., the trade window is open. That’s where deals negotiated over the last month and already in place will be finalized and ratified, potentially including the rumored deal the Union have in place for the Amobi Okugo to head to Orlando City.



Other deals that have been reported are Tally Hall to Orlando City, Nat Borchers to Portland and Michael Harrington to Colorado, while there will certainly be others. After 1 p.m., the trade window closes until the end of the Expansion Draft.

Wednesday, Dec. 10: Here’s the busy day. The Expansion draft for Orlando City and NYCFC will be held. By that time, we’ll have a list of the players the Union will have protected for the draft. Once the draft concludes, the trade window reopens, allowing expansion clubs to peddle their new players. Also Wednesday is the Waiver Draft, which usually is pretty uneventful. This year, it’s another chance to snap up former Chivas talent that went undrafted in the Dispersal Draft.
Read more »

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Golden Gloves Blake leads Jamaica to Caribbean Cup title

Andre Blake spent most of his rookie season on the bench
or the practice field, but he showed his ability
for Jamaica this week. (Times File)
For all the hype surrounding Andre Blake 10 months ago when the Philadelphia Union made him the first goalkeeper ever taken No. 1 in the MLS SuperDraft, the 2014 season was spent on the sidelines with most of the talk of his potential staying just that. Two MLS matches, two U.S. Open Cup ties against lower-division sides and an international friendly isn’t exactly a large body of work to judge progress or value for the club. There was some good, some less than stellar and a lot more of, well, promises that lacked in-game information to back them up.

In at least one sense, though, that promise seems to have manifested itself in the performance Blake just authored with the Jamaican National Team.

Tuesday night, Blake finished up a performance in the CONCACAF Caribbean Cup that showed his obvious ability: Three days short of his 24th birthday, Blake earned the Golden Gloves award for the tournament, giving up just one goal in four matches in leading the Reggae Boyz to the title of the eight-team tournament on home soil.

In keeping with the basic script Blake followed for the Union, there were stops and starts, like what sounds like a goalkeeping error that cost his team a win in the opening 1-1 draw with Martinique.

Beyond that, though, there were very few points of criticism. Blake kept clean sheets in wins over Antigua and Barbuda (3-0) and Haiti (2-0) to make sure Jamaica finished atop Group A with seven points from three matches. (It was also fueled by three goals from Vancouver's Darren Mattocks, while Leeds' Rodolph Austin won the most outstanding player award.) In keeping with his shades-of-brilliance reputation, the Haiti win included a save of Emmanuel Sarki late on.

In the final Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago (sadly, sans Keon Daniel), Blake helped keep the game scoreless through 120 minutes. In the penalty kick shootout, Blake started with a stop of (an admittedly poorly-taken) spot kick by Soca Warriors captain Kenwyne Jones. Blake got a hand on the second attempt before it snuck into the side netting, then watched as the fifth and final attempt sailed over the crossbar to lead Jamaica to a 4-3 advancement in PKs. (Video of the PK shootout is here.)
Read more »

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deciphering the Dispersal: Weighing the Union's options

Former Chivas USA goalie Dan Kennedy: A Dispersal Draft pipe dream
for the Union? (AP)
There’s a fair amount of questioning as to what exactly will happen in Wednesday’s Chivas USA Dispersal Draft, a once-in-a-dozen-years reminder of MLS’ single-entity structure. The contraction of Chivas this season doesn’t affect the contract statuses of their players, who have deals with the league that will be transferred to new teams via the dispersal draft. (Here's the full draft order.)

That’s the easy aspect of the concept. But it’s more than, “hey, free players!” for a couple of reasons.

First, the Dispersal Draft follows the rules for Stage 1 of the Re-Entry draft. Let’s let the league explain:
“MLS clubs acquiring Dispersal Draft players must take players at their full 2015 budget charges and options must be exercised, including any associated transfers or loans. If a team selects a player in the Dispersal Draft but leaves him unprotected ahead of the Expansion Draft on Dec. 10, he will be available for selection by either Orlando City or NYCFC at that time.

Players unselected during the Dispersal Draft will take part in the Re-Entry Draft, if eligible, or will be made available via the Waiver Draft on Dec. 10.”
Three big caveats to activity are contained therein:

1) Teams drafting a player in the Dispersal Draft must either do so thinking that they represent one of their top 11 players to protect from the Expansion Draft, or strategically select someone who isn’t of interest to either of the expansion teams.

2) Teams aren’t just considering adding a player for the heck of it or even at their fair market value; they have to add the player at the specific salary determined by their previous deal. A team isn't just drafting Nigel Reo-Coker; it is drafting his contract, which it must automatically assume for next season.

3) Teams that want players but don’t want them at their current prices can gamble that they can get them later, either though the Waiver Draft or the second stage of Re-Entry, where teams have the freedom to negotiate new contract terms.

Looking at the history, it’s tough to judge how much action there will be Wednesday. When the only other dispersal draft was held in 2002, divvying up the remnants of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, the 10 other teams in MLS selected 11 players. One team passed in the first round, and two teams opted, instead of a player, to grab the teams’ SuperDraft selections that were up for grabs. (That is not a facet of this year’s draft.)

Action will also be affected (I think, hampered) by the fact that picks are untradeable. That makes Dallas’ No. 1 slot less valuable in a way, or at least containing more inherent risk. (Instead of trading the pick to a team that wants Dan Kennedy, for instance, they have to assume the risk by picking him, then hoping they can deal him.)

By that metric, this could be a busy draft. If we look in terms of Stage 1 of Re-Entry, though, it casts a different story. Over the four years that that mechanism has existed, a grand total of 11 players have been selected; 65 of the 75 teams involved have passed their selections without picking a player. (Granted, that’s looking at cast-offs and ill-fits of teams league-wide, not the core of one (admittedly unsuccessful) club with some talent.) Also, it's important to note that the draft continues until all teams pass once; that means clubs like Orlando City and NYCFC could select more than one player.

So what does all that mean? Teams must be judicious. Teams at the top will have a chance to select valuable assets, either young players with upside or veterans. The teams in the middle will have to really love a player to go out on a limb. And the teams at the bottom, like the Union picking at No. 17, might not find much.

So let’s break down what is available:
Read more »

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Monday, November 17, 2014

The Search for Sugarman: Impressions from the owner's first press conference

There were plenty of question marks going into last Friday’s press conference featuring Philadelphia Union majority owner Jay Sugarman, ones that went beyond the not-so-mysterious unveiling of Rene Meulensteen as joining the organization in some capacity.

What stole the headlines, though, was the first media address by Sugarman.

Understandably, a fair amount of myth and misunderstanding has grown around Sugarman. When his only image before the fans is comprised of appearances like this, that’s easy to see. It also doesn’t help that most of the information about Sugarman has come via ownership partner Nick Sakiewicz, who has his own issues of image within the Union fanbase (and MLS at large). Absent concrete statements from the man himself – and with three straight playoff-free seasons of time to let the imagination wander – the perception of Sugarman has had a tendency to slant toward the negative.

Sugarman, though, isn’t an absentee owner. He’s been at the heart of spending for the club in recent years, including infrastructure investments like the Union academy and the practice facility. He’s been visible and accessible, even if he didn’t want to talk on the record. Much of that distance is likely the product of two factors: 1) The fact that he lives and works in New York and isn’t as local as he’d like to be to comment on certain day-to-day issues; and 2) The realization that he is not a soccer lifer, which means he’s willing to defer to the expertise of Sakiewicz – who is no longer (or never was, depending on your philosophical bent) involved in soccer operations – on such matters.

The impression Sugarman gave at Friday’s press conference wasn’t in line with the reclusive, uncaring image that is sometimes portrayed of him. He was plenty candid, even if using pre-scripted notes to make sure he got his major talking points across. He threw in the joke of, “see you in five years,” at the end of the presser. And he was even willing to get a little sassy in answering a question from yours truly (20:50 mark).

Afterward, Sugarman was accommodating to one-on-one interviews with smaller groups of reporters, which painted a more candid picture. For one, Sugarman hasn’t been uninvolved in the Union over the last five years, even if he wants to be more active in the future. He comes across as a pensive, thoughtful student of the game, one who owns a team of relatively meager finances that requires an edge to compete. He’s a businessman who has realized that on-field profits aren’t turned overnight, leading him to use the novelty of the business as a cushion to meticulously seek information about the marketplace he’s venturing into before making sweeping statements about it. He’s sought that advantage, not just through emphasizing academy talent but by some pretty interesting advanced analytics tinkering.
Read more »

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Sugarman, Meulensteen and more: Takeaways from a busy day at PPL Park

Rene Meulensteen, seen here with Fulham last year,
is happy to be working with the Union. (AP)
It’s possible that Friday could be looked at as a seminal moment for the Philadelphia Union, a watershed day in which their structures and hierarchy begins to take the shape required by the rigors of the new MLS (2.0 or 3.0 or whatever.0).

Announcements of such gravity –the contracting of Rene Meulensteen as a consultant, the formal declaration that a sporting director will be sought and the first public comments made by majority owner Jay Sugarman – provided plenty of food for thought and a lot of information to sift through.

So let’s distill it into a few important points from today’s press conference.

1. Jay Sugarman is not a silent owner.

It’s easy to have thought differently given his muted public presence, which fostered the notion among some fans that Sugarman was just the money and little else. There’s no doubt the enormity of investment that he’s put into this club, but his involvement (which I’m going to explore in a little more detail later) doesn’t entail writing checks and then ignoring how the funds are spent. Through co-owner Richie Graham, he’s had a hand in the creation of the Union Academy. Sugarman is an enormously successful businessman, and he got that way by identifying talent and allowing those people to do their jobs. And now, being less than satisfied by how those jobs have been done, he’s stepping in to put into practice his time learning about the team, the league and the American sports market.

2. Nick Sakiewicz is no longer involved in football operations.

In the assignment of duties Friday, one of the first was that Sakiewicz “and his team will focus on building the business and have the resources to compete as our league gets stronger and stronger,” according to Sugarman. Implicit in that statement, which Sugarman repeated later in the press conference, is that Sakiewicz will have limited to no hand in soccer operational decisions moving forward. That follows with Sakiewicz’s public statements of late (and depending on your perspective, has been the paradigm all along), and it dispels any misinformation to the contrary in concrete terms.

3. Rene Meulensteen is a temporary remedy.
Read more »

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Friday, November 7, 2014

The Jim Curtin offseason assessment

It’s been an atypical start to the Union offseason tinged with tumult and confusion, and with the Union’s coaching situation up in the air, the season lacked the customary concluding status update between the first-team staff and the media.

Both counts were resolved Friday when Jim Curtin was named the Union’s permanent manager. As part of the festivities, Curtin was made available to discuss some of the bigger issues the Union will face this offseason, offering the transparency that he touted to the media during his introductory presser.

So let’s go down the line and get Curtin’s take on some of the key talking points of the Union’s offseason.

On the top offseason priority:

“We are looking to bring in a striker. That is something that we’re actively pursuing. Chris Albright is tireless working. He’s been overseas a couple of times already. It’s a piece that we know we need. In MLS now, you look at the type of forwards that are working, it’s the Dom Dwyer, Quincy Amarikwa, kind of pain-in-the-ass, can-run-forever, stocky and fast and just annoying to play against. Those are things we want to add. We need to get bigger, stronger and faster. I know it sounds cliché, but a lot of times when you look at the national anthem and our group is lined up against the other team, we’re a lot smaller than the other team. I think we need to get bigger, a lot faster and a little bit stronger on the ball so we’re not getting pushed around a little bit.”

On Amobi Okugo’s contract situation:

“He’s in a unique one. Amobi is a guy that I had a conversation with three years ago when I was in the academy but I would come and help out at training sessions, I said to him ‘you’ve got to give Europe a try.’ It’s something I believe in his career. I’ve seen guys that play out their contracts, they go overseas and it goes great. Carlos Bocanegra comes to mind, guys that I played with that did it the same way Amobi did: Put in his time here, did a great job here. We’re still going to make him an offer so that we can maintain his rights, but at the same time, he’s going to try overseas. It’s not a secret. And I encourage it. It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s a guy that’s good enough to play overseas.” Read more »

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Union paying a high premium between the posts

While Zac MacMath has his eye on the ball in this Sept. 6 game
against Toronto, the Union have an eye on ballooning salary costs
thanks to its goalkeeping hydra. (AP)
The declaration by Philadelphia Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz upon the acquisition of goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi that the club possessed “three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer” was met with a few raised eyebrows. After all, since only one goalie can play at a time, it doesn’t seem to make sense to quarantine so many talented players on the bench or in street clothes in the owner’s box.

History suggests that it doesn’t pay to draft goalkeepers, as evidenced by the Union being the only MLS club over the last half-decade to draft a goalie. They’ve done it twice, and neither is a starter.

It also doesn’t pay to overpay a goalie, it seems.

The MLS Players Union released its salary figures Monday, giving us a glimpse at what the summer-transfer-window acquisitions are making. For the Union, the most eye-catching figure is M’Bolhi’s healthy price tag of $240,000.

So, how does that compare to the market value in MLS? Well, it puts the Algerian right near the top, sixth in MLS in terms of guaranteed compensation.

Below are the top goalkeeper salaries in MLS, per the recent salary release by the players union. (Breaks are every 10 goalies.)
Read more »

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Union-DC United: Lineups and preegame thoughts

UNION (4-2-3-1)
M’Bolhi
Gaddis-Edu-Valdes-Williams
Okugo-Nogueira
Le Toux-Maidana-Wenger
Casey
Bench: MacMath, Fabinho, Carroll, Fred, Cruz, Brown, Ribeiro

D.C. United (4-4-1-1)
Hamid
Korb-Boswell-Birnbaum-Kemp
DeLeon-Kitchen-Arnaud-Franklin
Silva
Espindola
Bench: Willis, Inkoom, Opare, Jeffrey, Neal, Johnson, Pontius

- Ethan White is apparently not healthy enough to go with his hamstring strain, so the Union field arguably their best 11 players today, with Maurice Edu in central defense and Amobi Okugo returning to the midfield. Okugo-for-White is the only change from last weekend’s lineup.

- Changes abound for Ben Olsen’s squad, with a first-choice lineup out after the reserves did the job midweek in the CONCACAF Champions League. Fabian Espindola leads the line, interchanging with Luis Silva. Using Sean Franklin in the midfield instead of Samuel Inkoom or Chris Pontius (the former has been used a lot lately; the latter is still rounding back into form after a long absence) is a defense posture, but with Pontius and Eddie Johnson on the bench, that can easily be changed.

- The battle to watch here is in the middle of the pitch. Perry Kitchen has emerged as one of the most tenacious holding midfielders in the league, while Davy Arnaud has proved to be a veteran box-to-box contributor. Okugo and Vincent Nogueira, respectively, will have to match those two in kind.

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and pre-match observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
M’Bolhi
Gaddis-Valdes-White-Williams
Nogueira-Edu
Wenger-Maidana-Le Toux
Casey
Bench: MacMath, Okugo, Fabinho, Fred, Cruz, Carroll, Ribeiro.

Houston Dynamo (4-4-2)
Deric
Beasley-Horst-Cochran-Sarkodie
Davis-Garrido-Clark-Driver
Barnes-Cummings
Bench: Lisch, Brunner, Arena, Johnson, Ownby, Carrasco, Lopez.


-  With the Union returning to MLS play, Rais M’Bolhi is restored to his starting place between the posts. The consensus from within the organization is that Zac MacMath’s work to advance the Union to the U.S. Open Cup final earned him the start last Tuesday against Seattle, but M’Bolhi is back to the No. 1 status. It’s his second start in a Union jersey.

- The Union make no changes in the field from the side that logged 120 minutes at the midweek. That’s an interesting decision. We’ll see how long until fresh legs are summoned on in this one, whether it’s Danny Cruz, Pedro Ribeiro or Amobi Okugo.
- In shape and in personnel, it’s largely the same starting XI that the Union have gone with regularly of late. The defense is untouched, as is the front four. It’s imperative that the Union get a goal early and prevent the Dynamo from sitting in and counterattacking.

- Injuries have taken a toll on the Dynamo this season, and that’s why they’re in position to miss the playoffs for just the second time in nine years, a remarkable run of consistency. Missing tonight is forward Will Bruin (foot), midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia (concussion) and defenders Corey Ashe (knee) and Jermaine Taylor (concussion). That’s in addition to the long-term injury absence of goalkeeper Tally Hall (ACL tear). It’s an injury-riddled side that the Union can and must exploit.

- Given the absences, this isn’t your typical Dynamo side. Yes, they’ll still be dangerous on set pieces as long as the aerial ability of Ricardo Clark and the deadly left foot of Brad Davis are out there. But with the speed of Omar Cummings and Giles Barnes (and absent the hold-up play of a traditional No. 9 like Bruin), expect the Dynamo to try to hit the Union on the counterattack more, though I'd question the Dynamo's ability to sit in for 90 scoreless minutes.

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