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

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)
Le Toux-Maidana-Wenger
Bench: MacMath, Fabinho, Carroll, Fred, Cruz, Brown, Ribeiro

D.C. United (4-4-1-1)
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)
Wenger-Maidana-Le Toux
Bench: MacMath, Okugo, Fabinho, Fred, Cruz, Carroll, Ribeiro.

Houston Dynamo (4-4-2)
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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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Open Cup hangover: Why history is against the Union this weekend

History isn’t in the favor of the Philadelphia Union this week. If the Union want a win this weekend
Maurice Edu, left, Sebastien Le Toux and Zac MacMath won't be much happier
to see the trend of what Open Cup runners-up have done in their
returns to MLS play in recent years. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV
against the Houston Dynamo as they return to MLS play, they’ll have to overturn an unfavorable recent trend.

Not since 2007, a span of five U.S. Open Cup finals lost by MLS teams, has the loser of an Open Cup final won its next MLS game.

The last time that happened was in 2007, when FC Dallas lost at home to New England, 3-2, in the Open Cup final, then turned around and beat Columbus on the road three days later.

Open Cup runners-up over the last five years are 0-3-2 in MLS contests after the final. Take it back 10 all-MLS finals (excluding the 2008 title game between D.C. United and USL First Division side Charleston Battery), and the Open Cup hangover has produced a 3-5-2 record in games after teams’ finals stumbles.

All but one of those games came within four days of the Open Cup final (though even the eight-day respite afforded the 2011 Chicago Fire didn’t prevent them dropping a game at home to Dallas).

Conveniently, five of those 10 post-final collisions have been at home, as the Union are this weekend. But location matters little: Home teams are still only 2-2-1, slightly better than the 1-3-1 on the road. Read more »

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Open Cup final: Lineups and prematch observations

Union (4-2-3-1)
What they're playing for: The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
(Times Staff/Julia Wilkinson)
Gaddis -Valdes-White-Williams
Wenger-Maidana-Le Toux
Bench: M’Bolhi, Lahoud, Okugo, Carroll, Fred, Cruz, Ribeiro

Seattle Sounders (4-4-2)
Bench: Hahnemann, Anibaba, Ariza, Pineda, Cooper, Martins, Pappa

- The first name on the team sheet is the most telling: Jim Curtin is sticking with his man, putting his faith in Zac MacMath in what could very well be the last time he plays in front of the Union faithful. His shootout heroics are why the Union got to the final, and the hope from Curtin is that he’ll lead them to the organization’s first trophy.

- Curtin also gets his dream midfield scenario for the first time, pairing a dynamic holding midfielder (Maurice Edu) with his preferred deep-lying playmaker (Vincent Nogueira) and his preferred central attacking midfielder (Cristian Maidana). Injuries and international absences had long prevented this from happening, but this is the chance for the Union to put out its strongest team at just the right moment.

- With everyone available, someone had to make way to the bench. That turns out to be Amobi Okugo, despite playing very well of late. Objectively, Okugo might be a little better at his position than Ethan White, so the decision for Curtin was to field your best 11 players or your best starting XI.Seeing Okugo relegated to the bench is a nod to Curtin’s stated desire to have central defenders (like White) play as central defenders and midfielders (like Edu) play as midfielders.

- Seattle named unchanged lineups that are essentially their best XIs the last two games in MLS, including a 3-2 win against Real Salt Lake last Friday. They make just one change today, with Obafemi Martins rested for Chad Barrett. Along with Martins, the bench includes Kenny Cooper, the second-leading scorer in the modern era of the U.S. Open Cup with 13 goals. That includes a goal in each game this season, six in total, plus five goals in seven MLS games against the Union.

- If you’re looking for a key for the Union tonight, it might just be taking care of Andy Rose, who has three goals in his last two games. He could really shift the balance making those runs off the attention given to Clint Dempsey.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame thoughts

Union (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Blake, Le Toux, Nogueira, Maidana, Valdes, Brown, Williams

Red Bulls (4-4-2)
Bench: Meara, Kimura, Eckersley, Bover, Christianson, Stevenson, Sene

- Jim Curtin said pretty bluntly Thursday that he wants players training before a game. When Rais M’Bolhi didn’t arrive back in the states until Friday, the decision was made to go with Zac MacMath for at least one more game. The appearance is MacMath’s 100th in MLS, 99 of them starts.

- Given the conditions and the Open Cup final looming Tuesday, the Union are resting most if not all of their big guns. They have only four regulars out there, not including Carlos Valdes, Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey (who doesn’t make the bench), Cristian Maidana or Vincent Nogueira. The conditions are poor, and that might factor in, but the challenge is clear to the reserves to take care of business.

- That said, this isn’t a youth team. Brian Carroll is out there with the sole objective of keeping a clean sheet. Danny Cruz and Fred are well rested. The biggest revelation concerns Pedro Ribeiro, who apparently has supplanted Brian Brown in the forward pecking order.

- The gaping absence for the Red Bulls is MLS leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, who’ll sit the bench with a hamstring injury. In place of his 21 goals this season, Thierry Henry will lead the line, and Tim Cahill gets a start after a sub appearance midweek. Given the glut of games for the Red Bulls (including CONCACAF Champions League Wednesday), not pushing Wright-Phillips makes sense. Saer Sene is also looming on the bench.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Jim Curtin weighs in on his future

It’s been a busy week for the Philadelphia Union, and that’s just the club’s participation in the rumor mill.

Rumors have been swirling particularly swiftly this week over the possible appointment of a new coach full-time. First, there was this report by’s Kevin Kinkead about a possibly imminent hire:

Then there was Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz quickly distancing himself from those reports to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, adding the name of Rene Meulensteen to the list of potential replacements on the record for the first time:

(It should be noted that Meulenesteen’s visit(s) to PPL Park had been reported prior to Sakiewicz’s confirmation. This would also be a good time to point out my column on the matter, as published last week.)

The topic obviously came up in interim manager Jim Curtin’s weekly press conference on two occasions Thursday. Read more »

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