Photo: Nicolae Stoian
With the preseason now underway, it seems like a good time to take a moment and consider some of the Philadelphia Union’s moves to build a more perfect, uh, Union. In other words, it’s time for another PSP roundtable.
The offseason was marked by some notable comings and goings. Out was Porfirio Lopez, Gabriel Gomez, and Josue Martinez. In was Sebastien Le Toux, Jeff Parke, and Conor Casey. The moves seemed to be as much about clearing out the remnants of the Nowak era as they were about restoring fan confidence by bringing back a fan favorite and strengthening the squad.
Dan Walsh: These moves brought in proven quantities in MLS at below market prices while clearing out overpriced underperforming international players. Parke and Le Toux each came with a hometown discount, while Casey must show he can regain the form he had before tearing his Achilles tendon. Overall, the moves look to be a net gain.
Eli Pearlman-Storch: All three signings finally addressed the issues of leadership and development that have concerned critics of the Union throughout the Union’s brief existence. Conor Casey exemplifies the smart, hard-working professional that each of the Union’s young forwards would do well to emulate, while Le Toux’s work ethic and constant running will be welcomed back into the side. As for Parke, the Union seem to have caught a break with such a talented player lobbying for a move home just when the Union realized they had a Carlos Valdes sized hole in their backline. Make no mistake, Parke is a great signing for the Union, but it appears that it was a move made more out of Parke’s desire than the Union’s efforts.
Mike Servedio: Definitely an element of cleaning house, but that’s seemingly an acceptable idea to wash away the remnants of the mistakes that Peter Nowak made. But the new signings were made with an eye toward depth and addressing underperforming aspects of last year’s team, not only on the pitch but also in the locker room.
Sean Doyle: The Union finally appear like they have plan and then they executed it. In three very well thought out moves, the Union added proven offensive fire power and prepared for the impending departure of Valdes.
Greg Orlandini: I agree with this. The team needed to do something to show the fans they are getting back on the right track. The players mentioned above who left were not going to help the team in anyway. Bringing back Le Toux is a good move, and with Jack McInerney and Conor Casey, Le Toux will not have to the pressure to score game in and game out like he did in his last stint here.
Jeremy Lane: There was an element of cleaning house, but equally, these moves could be seen as bringing in proven MLS performers. Le Toux, Casey, and Parke have all performed at high levels in MLS, where the three going out, bar the possible exception of Gomez, were not making the grade. These are low-risk, high-reward moves.
Adam Cann: It is impossible to deny that the Union’s offseason moves are permeated with the cloying scent of public relations. Given that, the players coming in can all be described with the noun “success,” though the adjectives differ. Sebastien Le Toux is a local success. His role as a leader and ambassador for soccer in Philadelphia make his return to the team a positive regardless of his contributions (provided he can settle for what may be a reduced role). Jeff Parke is a marketing success. A local lad who has grown into a MLS stud and who, like Le Toux, wanted to be in Philadelphia. Additionally, Parke is already the first Union player to earn a US National team call-up. When experienced players like Lio Pajoy and Gabriel Gomez joined the Union last offseason, it was about taking the next step in their careers. For Jeff Parke, it is about wanting to be in Philadelphia. This is huge. Conor Casey is a MLS success. When he plays, he makes things happen. Much like Liam Nieson, Casey brings a specific set of skills to the table. At this point in his career, he only need work on honing those skills: Hold-up play and finishing. Casey has had his best years in MLS, and he will draw defender attention any time he is on the pitch.
Ed Farnsworth: Let’s see, an offseason that proceeded logically from recognizing who needed to be excised and then moved forward to addressing twin requirements of restoring confidence and addressing positional needs with proven veterans. In other words, offseason moves that make sense. Who knew it was possible?
The offseason also saw some notable loans in Zach Pfeffer to Hoffenheim and, while it was a long time coming, Carlos Valdes to Santa Fe.
Dan: Potentially good move for Pfeffer. The framework did not immediately exist for him to play regular minutes in competitive games. He’ll get that at Hoffenheim, and the loan could result in a decent transfer fee or a more well-developed young player. On the other hand, if he doesn’t get enough quality playing time in the reserves there, then he might have been better served going on loan to Harrisburg. As for Valdes, it’s disappointing to lose a top player. However, it could end up netting a good transfer fee if he fares well on loan, and the Union acquired a good replacement in Jeff Parke.
Eli: In my opinion, it seems unlikely that either player will suit up for the Union again. If, but more likely when, Carlos Valdes succeeds for Santa Fe, his worth will increase drastically and the Union will be unable to match his aspirations (and earning potential) and a European move may likely be on the cards. Whether he chooses to remain in South America or try his fortunes in Europe, the Union are now set to turn a sizeable profit on a player who is using PPL Park as a springboard for his career both with club and country.
Early returns from Pfeffer’s loan to Hoffenheim have exceeded expectations, and while the going will certainly get tougher, the potential to add a top young American talent for a relative bargain could lead plenty of European sides to have a look at Pfeffer. Like Valdes, if the Union are offered an adequate sum of money in return for a player who is still a year or two away from factoring in the senior squad, Sakiewicz and Co. will likely jump at the opportunity.
Mike: The Pfeffer loan is fantastic for the player’s development. The thing the Union should be concerned with is if that he develops quickly and the German club sees him as a European player, he may never suit up for the first team that signed him. The Valdes deal seems more problematic and I don’t imagine that we’ll ever see Carlos in a Union jersey again. Hackworth can keep spouting the line that loan deals happen all the time, but it’s usually for developing players to get first team experience, not with club captains making lateral moves at the demand of a national team coach.
Greg: I think the Pfeffer loan is a win-win. Good for the player, who seems to be firmly in the sights of the US National Team youth setup. And it is good for the Union, it gets your name out there in Europe and gets a guy who you think is a part of your future so quality playing time. As for the Valdes loan, things aren’t as rosy. Valdes and Jose Pekerman, manager of the Colombian National Team, seemed to push for this move. It marks the departure of another captain for the Union. On the other hand, letting him go on this deal may be better than having a disgruntled player on your roster. The Union also have enough cover at center back with a (hopefully) healthy Soumare and the addition of Jeff Parke.
Jeremy: Nothing but positive when it comes to Pfeffer. He’s tearing it up in Germany, and may play his way out of a Union jersey, but how can you be anything but proud of him? As for Valdes, this one brings mixed feelings. Losing a player of his caliber is never good, but it was clear his motivation had begun to sag by the end of last season, so this might be best for all parties. And, who knows, we might get him back as better than ever, and a World Cup starter.
Adam: John Hackworth has singled Pfeffer out as a singular talent. And if Hackworth himself has a singular talent, it is youth development. Hack thinks he’s ready to test European waters and up his game, we have to trust him.
Ed: I think of such loans—whether geared toward the development of a young player like Pfeffer, or the professional advancement of a player like Valdes—and see in the news the recent loan of Kei Kamara to Norwich, and I think it’s all just more evidence of the continuing maturation of the league. It may be new to us as Union fans, but we’re all familiar with such moves from the wider world of the sport and may as well get used to the idea that it will happen again. As doubtful as I am about whether Valdes will return to the Union, I am appreciative of his efforts to keep in touch with the Union fanbase through social media.
The coaching staff took some criticism for its picks in the SuperDraft. Did the signings that were announced shortly after the SuperDraft change your impression of the team was doing in terms of preseason acquisitions? Did their Supplemental Draft picks improve your overall impression of how the team did in this year’s draft?
Dan: College soccer’s lack of exposure and uneven quality of play make it difficult to evaluate the Union’s picks. On the whole, I have little problem with the Union’s drafting. Sure, the Don Anding pick raised eyebrows, but when it comes down to it, most draftees don’t stick. Stephen Okai and Eric Schoenle will almost certainly make the roster, so taking a chance on a speedy lefty like Anding isn’t really a big risk. On the other hand, if Greg Cochrane becomes a starting left back in MLS, the Union draft will look a whole lot worse.
Eli: The MLS Superdraft is far from an exact science. If a team manages to acquire one successful MLS pro out of a given draft, it is seen as a success. With so many players up for selection and such a thin scouting network across the country outside of the top collegiate programs, the Union drafted what they knew. In Stephen Okai and Eric Schoenle, they acquired Reading United alums with whom assistant coach Brendan Burke is extremely familiar. Furthermore, had the team been as high on left back Greg Cochrane as many thought, Burke would have grabbed him. Adding defensive depth was always a concern for Hackworth and the extra bodies the team have, especially at centerback, should leave fans less concerned that any one injury could derail the entire season.
Mike: I wasn’t a person that was overly critical of the Union’s draft. I’m not sure if Anding is a player for this year as much as he is for the future. Okai has been touted by many as one of the most likely players to jump straight into an MLS line up. Eric Schoenle is a local guy who seems to have an extra impetus to not only make the team but to contribute. The other picks in the Supplemental Draft addressed the lack of depth on the back line and if one or two of those players finds their way on to the team in any capacity, it’s probably a win for the Union.
Greg: Conventional wisdom going into the SuperDraft was the Union was going to go left back. That didn’t happen. They went with a tweener forward and holding midfielder. They signed T&T youth international Damani Richards, an 18-year-old project at left back. That says to me, Gabe Farfan is the left back of the Philadelphia Union, end of discussion. The best thing I can take from the Supplemental Draft is they picked a solid prospect in Eric Schoenle, another Reading United alumni.
Sean: I’m not afraid to say the Union fumbled the 26th pick when they chose Don Anding. You don’t take a project pick like Anding when a more natural MLS ready left back like Greg Cochrane or Jimmy Nealis are available. The Stephen Okai pick was masterful and highlights the importance of the Reading-Philadelphia Union partnership. Schoenle was a steal at No. 12 in the Supplemental Draft and will provide cover on the back line in the event of an injury or suspension. Brendan Burke’s influence during the draft was telling with the team selecting three former Reading players.
Jeremy: Well, I didn’t share everyone’s skepticism of the job Hack and company have done this offseason. I think they’ve made basically defensible moves at each opportunity. The sticking point is left back, right? That’s what everyone’s worked up about, but I think Gabe Farfan is a very good option there, so I don’t see the problem.
Adam: Analyzing the Union’s draft before the season starts seems like taking a trip to the blogger version of Atlantic City. The team’s first ever pick is fighting for minutes in Portland while Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo took the long road to the starting eleven. Zac MacMath is a work in progress while Michael Farfan was so good on the wing that he earned a bigger role. Ray Gaddis? Antoine Hoppenot? The Union have consistently found good value late in the draft, and the variable success you see even in top five picks makes me think that guessing how a team handled a draft is best done with the benefit of hindsight.
Ed: After the SuperDraft I started seeing these articles grading each team on their picks and declaring winners and losers. And the whole time I’m thinking, the Union had no picks until the second round and, anyway, the SuperDraft was only two rounds this year. In the end, it seemed to me that, after the SuperDraft and the Supplemental Draft, and the signings that were announced in between, the club had continued its very logical and transparent process of strengthening the team’s depth. And I am very excited to see what Stephen Okai can do.
And then there’s Freddy Adu. While the general reaction has been that dropping Adu was necessary, there has been criticism from some fans that publicly announcing that Adu would not be playing for the team harmed the team’s negotiating position in finding a club to loan or transfer him to. What are your thoughts on how the Adu situation has so far played out?
Dan: Hackworth is doing things his way. His way seems better than Nowak’s way. End of story. Adu was on his way out. Those who didn’t know it weren’t paying attention. Better to have a drama-free team than a disruptive force within it. It’s not like Adu would have brought a transfer fee or even allocation money within MLS. Clearing his salary would be enough.
Eli: The Union have made a complete mess of the situation. It is hard to deny that something sour has gone on behind the scenes, but while players occasionally melt down and snipe to the media, it is rare that an organization plays such a petty sounding hand. But despite Hackworth’s public statements on Adu, the soccer community is a small one, and it would be a tough task to find an MLS executive who would not have known the Union were already actively shopping the diminutive playmaker. The problem then is that the club, and its coach, should have been seeing the bigger picture. Saying a player is on the trading block is one thing. Elaborating about his overinflated salary and failed expectations is quite another. Whatever the Union chooses to do with Adu, they, and specifically Hackworth, should stop publicly talking about it.
Mike: I’m not sure if there was a way that the Adu Saga could end without getting messy. Adu never seemed settled with the Union, and it never seemed that player or club were working hard enough to make things work. There wasn’t a team in MLS this offseason that didn’t know that Freddy wasn’t in the Union’s future plans, so I don’t believe the Union coming out and saying they were looking to move the midfielder hurt their bargaining position much if at all.
Greg: Freddy Adu has apparently become the Union’s Terrell Owens. He is Kryptonite. His contract is an albatross. I don’t think the insane gang up the turnpike at Red Bulls would even touch him right now, and they seem to specialize in malcontents. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes to get to this point, but it must have been ugly. Going public about the decision to sit him does hurt the team’s leverage, but Hack and his crew must be at their wits’ end with this guy.
Sean: Good riddance!
Jeremy: I think it’s good that Adu’s not a part of the plan, because clearly, he doesn’t have a good relationship with the coaching (and possibly the playing) staff. What’s more, he’s overpaid for the production he’s produced. MLS transfers are Byzantine at best, so I can’t imagine the public statements by the Union will have much effect on things. I do hope it gets sorted sooner than later, though.
Adam: We hate it when it seems like the club is hiding things! Wait, no… we hate it when the club is too honest! Look, don’t think the club didn’t explore every reasonable option for ditching Adu before shrugging its shoulders and openly admitting that continuing its relationship with him was untenable. And when you are trying to dump salary, there really isn’t such a thing as a “negotiating position.” Did we really think rival clubs weren’t going to find out that Adu was trouble? Players talk to each other and management. Let’s just be happy the club is being clear about where it stands, and that they aren’t letting themselves be held hostage by a salary. That’s refreshing in today’s sports world, right?
Ed: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’d rather have a coaching staff and a club that is open about the reasoning behind what it is doing than one that is not. That may incur some short-term costs but the dividends in terms of fan support and confidence are priceless.
Considering the additions and subtractions from the team so far, are you feeling confident about the Union’s direction as they prepare to head to Florida and the Disney World Pro Classic tournament?
Dan: They’re less dysfunctional. They’re more like a regular soccer team. So things are better. Still, the Union should have looked to find a true, starting quality left back, and if they didn’t, that’s laughable. Gabriel Farfan is a good left back, but he’s also probably the team’s best wide attacker aside from his brother.
Eli: Outside of goalkeeper, where a veteran backup is still needed, the Union finally have a roster replete with depth. Are there spots where further signings could improve the side? Absolutely. But with the players on the roster, the Union enter camp knowing that they can play whatever style of soccer the coaches ask of them. Now what that style will be, that is still up for debate.
Mike: I feel positive that they are moving in the right direction. Hackwork seems to be running a more organized camp than Nowak ever did and the players will have a full preseason to learn the coach’s system. In his first press conference of the season, he seemed more open to adapting his tactics to his opponents which I thought was a missing element to the end of last season — that the 4-3-3 became too predicable. The acquisitions and departures seem the most sensible of the club’s offseasons, with not only players who seem capable of competing on the field but who will also be a more cohesive unit in the locker room.
Greg: I’m pretty confident about this team. I think they have added the right of veteran leadership to the young core. Again, you are banking on player with an injury history, but Conor Casey could be the answer to some of the issues at forward. Michael Farfan now has to the keys to the midfield without the square peg of Freddy Adu being shoved into the round hole at attacking mid. One of the biggest questions though is whether Zac MacMath can bounce back from a sophomore slump.
Sean: The team is in a much better place than they were at this point last season. While the club still lags behind Eastern Conference powerhouses Houston and Kansas City, the Union will be competitive in all matches this season. The playoffs should be a reasonable goal for this team.
Jeremy: I feel better about this team going into a season than I ever have. Year one was a complete unknown. Years two and three I was cautiously optimistic but swiftly brought back to reality. This year, the squad seems more well-balanced than it ever has, and we finally have the sense there is a plan in place. While Hackworth’s in-game bonafides are still up for debate, he just strikes me as so competent when it comes to putting a team together.
Adam: In terms of personnel, the Union appear to be in a better position than they were in 2012. While they brought in talent last year, there were plenty of question marks. Any time your core acquisitions come from different leagues, you can’t just rubber stamp them as surefire successes. This year’s crop of recruits has MLS experience, and that makes a big difference. Also, the Union showed a commitment to allow young players space to develop on the big stage. That’s a major step for an organization that, under previous management, talked the talk but rarely walked the walk.
Ed: I can’t get over how good it feels to be heading into preseason games having a clear understanding of what the club is trying to do while also having a pretty good sense of why the new players who are in camp are being given a look, not to mention who they are. Am I going to disagree on particulars, sure. But overall, I have never felt as confident as I do now about my understanding of what the club is trying to do and how it is trying to do it.
Given the roster moves that have taken place so far, name two issues facing the Union as they prepare for the season opener on March 2.
Dan: How will Jack McInerney, Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey find enough minutes among them? What formation will the team deploy most this season?
Eli: The Union still have no identity. Hackworth alluded to playing a 4-3-3, but no player has said anything committal about the team’s formation. Too often, formation discussions deteriorate into useless strings of numbers, but in this instance it is important for the Union to nail down what type of soccer team they will be in 2013. Hackworth likes to speak about possession and controlling the ball, but in Casey, Le Toux and McInerney, he has three forwards who, while being prolific scorers, don’t figure prominently in anything resembling flowing build-up play.
If those are indeed the forwards to be deployed and no more major moves are announced, the Union have declared 2013 a make or break year for Michael Farfan. Roger Torres seems set to take on greater playmaking responsibilities than in past seasons, but week in and week out, Farfan looks to be the offensive fulcrum around which Hackworth will base his attack. In a league where veteran, foreign players generally thrive in the playmaking roles, Farfan’s sink or swim opportunity may well dictate just how many goals the Union are capable of scoring.
Mike: I’m still not sure that Zac MacMath is a number one goalkeeper without having a veteran helping him behind the scenes and pushing him. I was really hoping the Union would go after a veteran goalkeeper in the offseason, and I still hold out hope they sign one before March. The second issue for me is if Hackworth is up for the grind of an entire MLS season as head coach. Can he adapt his tactics? Can he impose his style on opponents? Can he motivate his players? Can he wash away the taste of last season in the locker room and PPL Park?
Greg: The health of two key players, Casey and Sourmare, is one issue. All reports coming out of camp say these guys are healthy, and I don’t doubt that. Talk to me in May or June when they have a bunch of games under their belts. Time will tell. The second issue is, how will it all work? Once again the Union have a drastically changed roster. It looks like this year is much more stable than last, but you have a lot of new elements to work in again, and that may require some patience from the fans.
Jeremy: The biggest, by far, is settling the center back positions. I think we’ll see Soumare and Parke as our starting two (moving Okugo into midfield) eventually, but with Parke out with the USMNT, they have yet to play together, which likely means Okugo will start the preseason back there. The second most pressing issue is what the formation will look like. We now have a surplus of talented attackers, two of whom— McInerney and Le Toux—must play, and neither of whom works best out wide. Will that mean a return to 4-2-2-2 or some other two-striker set-up? What happens to Hoppenot’s minutes? Or Casey’s? Of course, there’s also the issue of where Michael Farfan plays: Who is the CAM?
Adam: Issue number one has to be the tactical acuity of the management, and the ability of the players to grasp whatever system is presented. Last year, whatever John Hackworth was preaching came across as “Go that way, do passes, goals please!” Coherence, understanding, and — crucially — clear growth over the course of the season are paramount to the team’s success. The second issue is goalkeeping. Zac MacMath will have to take a leadership role and show the kind of consistency that is required of an every day professional goalie. A great goalie is seen and heard; a bad goalie is seen and not heard. A good goalie is heard and rarely seen on highlight reels. MacMath has the potential to be great, but for now he has to at least be good.
Ed: How to make that front line work and keeps all of those forwards happy and on board at the same time. Connected with that concern, tactical versatility has been mention a lot in the offseason. Does the team have the experience—and the depth in the midfield—to actually pull it off?