Photo: Barb Colligon
Well, it’s finally over. Now you can look ahead.
“Wait till next year” can officially start now for Philadelphia Union fans. Feel free to ignore the playoffs if it ruins the suspension of disbelief. You can even pretend it’s Europe and there are no playoffs. For you, 2012 is done.
Feels better already, doesn’t it?
Union management has a lot of big issues to deal with in the off-season, because their personnel situation is a mess. There’s talent, but not enough players in their primes. There are coaching smarts, but not enough experience or manpower on the technical staff. And there’s a salary scale on the team that is completely out of whack with on-field performance.
So here’s the breakdown of the big issues facing the team, in no particular order.
Questions at center back — all three of them
The Union have three center backs on the roster, and there are key questions for all of them.
- Bakary Soumare: Will he see a healthy return to form?
Soumare appeared in one game after signing with the Union in June, having joined the team injured and never fully recovered. When healthy, there is little doubt of his quality. He was one of the best defenders in MLS with the Chicago Fire, and the $2.1 million transfer fee paid in 2009 by French side Boulogne was a record for an MLS defender. Soumare’s fortunes may determine what happens with the team’s other two center backs. If he can regain his fitness and form, it opens up options for Amobi Okugo and Carlos Valdes. If not, he may just be the worst signing of all the bad Union signings over the last year and a half.
- Carlos Valdes: Could he move overseas?
Valdes played the season’s last few games like he either didn’t want to be there or was exhausted from international duty with Colombia.
Either way, one can’t help but wonder if a move abroad could happen for Valdes. At 27, he’s in his prime, coming off two very good seasons for Philadelphia (his final stretch notwithstanding), and he’s starting for a legitimate World Cup contender in South America, one of the more competitive qualifying regions (albeit less so this cycle without Brazil). There should be some interest. If Soumare gets healthy and manager John Hackworth truly sees Okugo’s future at center back, then Valdes could go for a decent transfer fee that could help finance some help at striker.
- Amobi Okugo: Is he a defender or midfielder?
Everyone has an opinion on this one. What’s indisputable is that he put together a terrific season at center back. He fits the profile of what U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann wants in a center back, and he could be an ideal compliment to center back Geoff Cameron if he makes the leap. Some like the idea of ditching the one-dimensional Brian Carroll and moving Okugo back to defensive midfield to replace him. Whether that’s misguided or not, Okugo is a pretty good midfielder who has made it clear he prefers midfield. Then again, so did Cameron, another former midfielder, and look how he’s doing now.
The Union need to get older
The Union are not a U-23 team. They need to add some veterans, both for leadership and performance in the clutch.
On the field, the team has too many guys who simply haven’t played enough big games and are not yet in their prime. You’re not going to win regularly doing that.
Off the field, the team needs veterans to maintain the team’s cultural framework the way that Danny Califf, Alejandro Moreno, Faryd Mondragon and others once did. Jack McInerney needs a vet to tell him to cool his jets when he’s annoyed with his lack of service. Zac MacMath needs a veteran keeper to walk him through the ups and downs of life defending the net in the pros. And so on.
Who those players are and where they play is another story altogether.
But what’s clear is, and to all those people demanding the Union play their teenagers at season’s end, take note: The team is young enough already. Keep your diapers to yourselves.
And most importantly, a proven veteran forward
The game is about goals. The Union need more of them, and that likely means someone who has proven they can do it.
Sebastien Le Toux is a possibility, and he can be had for less than a designated player’s salary.
But the Union could just as well import someone from Europe or Latin America. If so, the model should be players like Federico Higuain of Columbus or Danny Koevermans of Toronto, players who have performed at high levels in good leagues, are still in their prime, and can be reasonably depended upon to replicate their performances in MLS. You don’t mess around with goals. After all, you can’t win without them.
Getting your money’s worth
That means the Union have to start getting their money’s worth from their highest paid players, something they did for their first 1.5 seasons and stopped doing for the last 1.5.
The seven Union players with the highest base salaries are Freddy Adu, Gabriel Gomez, Bakary Soumare, Carlos Valdes, Brian Carroll, Porfirio Lopez and Roger Torres. Only two of them — Valdes and Carroll — met expectations this season. Gabriel Gomez is unlikely to return, and neither is Porfirio Lopez, if the Union can extricate themselves from his contract. Torres and Soumare saw their seasons plagued by injuries. As for Adu, it’s unlikely any MLS club will take on his current contract. If he wants to move on within MLS, he may have to renegotiate. His future is a big question mark.
The current players aside, the Union need to spend their money in the transfer market more intelligently. Every major signing from August 2011 through January 2012 had major question marks. Adu was not in so much demand as to warrant that high a salary. Gomez was signed to play the one position where the Union didn’t need more guys. Lopez clearly wasn’t adequately scouted, because his style of play is nothing like the attacking wingback role they foresaw for him. Soumare was hurt from day one. And so on.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, as the Union should know, since they don’t pay their taxes. Okugo, McInerney and MacMath all graduate Generation Adidas this year, which means their salaries now count toward the team’s $2.9 million budget. Some players, notably the Farfan twins, clearly earned raises. The Union have a business team for a reason. It’s time to start helping the player personnel guys adequately manage their money.
Help wanted: Assistant coaches
The Union have one of the league’s smallest technical staffs. With goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian taking on the role of technical director — effectively the team’s director of player personnel, or lead scout — it will further strain a tiny staff. Chris Albright could retire and join the staff or continue serving as a player/coach, but the Union need more than that. Hackworth’s only other assistant coach is Brendan Burke, who doubles as coach of the PDL’s Reading United.
With a team as young as the Union, this should be a priority. If it’s not, it’s one more sign of the Union’s much speculated financial problems — and one more sign this team isn’t as ready for prime time as once thought.
I think I left out some things here, eh? What do you think? The question is always implied with our posts — we always want to know what you think, which is why we have the comments section in the first place — but here, there’s probably room for even more conversation. Weigh in the comments section below with your thoughts on the Union’s off-season.