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Let the cuts begin

Photo: Earl Gardner

Sheanon Williams is Philadelphia Union’s all-time leader in games and minutes played.

Ponder that for a moment.

He spent most of first pro season with Harrisburg in the USL. Now, at age 22, he’s one of the best right backs in Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team pool.

So when you look at Union manager John Hackworth’s preseason roster moves, take a deep breath. You may not like them all, but the guy knows how to judge young talent. He was the guy who coached Williams as a youth international, picked him up off the castoff pile when he struck out in Europe, found him a job with Harrisburg, and brought him to the Union.

No, not every player’s story plays out like that, but it offers perspective now that the Union are cutting players to get down to a 30-man roster by the March 1 deadline. As Dave Zeitlin so perfectly put it, “Nowak traded Le Toux, Califf & Mwanga. Hackworth released Damani Richards, Alex Mendoza & Stephen Okai.” Yes, not quite the same.

Let’s break down the moves.

Eric Schoenle cut

The Union’s third round draft pick grew up in Yardley, played for Union assistant coach Brendan Burke at Reading United, and impressed in the preseason. “He’s a guy we really like and he’s a fantastic soccer player, and if we had a way to keep him we would certainly keep him,” Hackworth said. “He’s a guy we want to put on a developmental path.”

Schoenle is 6-2, and if he weighs 160, then he’s carrying dumbbells. He’s technically adept, but he needs to pack on muscle for a physical league like MLS to make it as a center back. That’s why he wasn’t drafted till the supplemental rounds.

Veteran Chris Albright showed well at center back in the preseason and proved he can legitimately provide depth there. Combined with his experience, locker room role, local ties and ability to serve as a supplemental assistant coach, Albright won the numbers game over Schoenle. If you cut Albright, then he retires and you lose what he brings. If you cut Schoenle, then maybe he comes back in six months better than he is now.

Look for Schoenle to sign with Harrisburg and return to the Union if he packs on some muscle or the Union need a replacement for Bakary Soumare due to injury or trade.

Damani Richards released

Richards’ release would not be a big deal if not for one very unfortunate quote from Hackworth, when he called it “laughable” that people expected the Union to draft a true left back when the Union planned all along to sign Richards, an 18-year-old left back. Then the Union went and cut Richards.

“…he is very young, very inexperienced – actually he has no professional experience,” Hackworth said. “But it doesn’t mean we have given up on him, it’s why we have a partnership with Harrisburg.”

Richards is a kid. He’s not ready yet. So maybe he goes to Harrisburg.

But it wasn’t “laughable” that the Union needed a left back. Gabriel Farfan may be decent there, but everyone knows he is a right-footed midfielder playing out of position who could flourish like his brother as an attacker. (Chelis would play him in midfield!)

Still, Richards wasn’t the only reason they didn’t draft a true left back like Greg Cochrane, a local kid drafted later by the Galaxy. Hackworth (rightly) liked Don Anding, and there’s still the question of how to get Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams on the field together.

There’s a lesson here: Honesty is the best policy, but don’t diss your team’s observers. You might have to eat some crow later.

Alex Mendoza released

Mendoza had a good story: Grew up in Harrisburg, went to play in Mexico, came back to the States and signed with his local MLS club.

But he always had an uphill battle. The Union are stacked in central midfield. There wasn’t much playing time to go around in the preseason. Sometimes it’s a numbers game. The Union have 10 midfielders on the roster, all but one aged 26 or younger.

Maybe he ends up playing for his hometown team in Harrisburg, impresses there, and returns to the Union. Maybe not. We’ll see.

Pantelis Kafes cut

Greek international center midfielder Pantelis Kafes looked impressive this preseason, but the Union didn’t sign him. “He’s a good player, but he’s a little older and doesn’t really fit what we were trying to do,” Hackworth said.

Of the roster cuts, this one looks most like it was not based on performance. Kafes is 34 and, like the rest of the universe, not getting younger. He may have once played for the Greek national team and Athens giant AEK Athens, but those days are past. He was the oldest player in Union camp.

Still, Kafes can clearly still play well at this level. In possession, he was an upgrade over captain Brian Carroll. Was he a defensive upgrade? Hard to say based on a limited sample (sorry, I never saw him play in Greece), but it’s unlikely. What kind of salary was he asking? Unknown.

Some MLS club should sign Kafes. Maybe it should have been the Union. He may have trialed with the wrong team, but Toronto (and others) probably noticed he can play.

Stephen Okai cut

Everyone wanted to like Okai because he played for Reading United. Union coaches raved about him.

Then they cut him.

Okai is now in camp with Seattle, and his release might be the most surprising. Is Greg Jordan better than Okai? Or is it just that Jordan is already under contract and set to go on loan to Harrisburg?

Shaun Francis cut

Former Columbus left back Shaun Francis looked fairly good in his trial with the Union, but he lost a numbers game. He didn’t beat out Gabriel Farfan for the left back spot, Ray Gaddis is a capable backup, and Don Anding impressed enough that he has probably won a roster spot. That meant no room for Francis.

Remaining trialists and draftees

Anding, Bulgarian forward Georgi Hristov, midfielder Leo Hernandes, former Real Madrid midfielder Jordi Vidal, and trialist Matt Kassel remain in camp but not yet on the roster. Theoretically, all could make the team without the need for more cuts. (Update: I left out forward Aaron Wheeler, who signed with the club as well. So add him to the mix, though I haven’t seen him play much this preseason and have little insight on his status.)

Of them, Anding and Hernandes have probably won spots on the team, though don’t be surprised if Hernandes ends up in Harrisburg. Vidal’s pedigree is probably too impressive for the Union to pass on him. Hristov could make the club as a fifth forward if Chandler Hoffman goes on loan to Harrisburg.

Kassel has the biggest uphill battle, but his ability to play midfield and fullback may help him, as will his well-taken goal against Toronto.

Current roster breakdown

Here’s the current roster breakdown.

Forwards (5): Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney, Antoine Hoppenot, Chandler Hoffman.

Midfielders (10): Michael Farfan, Roger Torres, Brian Carroll, Danny Cruz, Keon Daniel, Michael Lahoud, Jimmy McLaughlin, Cristhian Hernandez, Greg Jordan, Freddy Adu.

Defenders (7): Amobi Okugo, Jeff Parke, Bakary Soumare, Sheanon Williams, Chris Albright, Ray Gaddis, Gabriel Farfan.

Goalkeepers (3): Zac MacMath, Chris Konopka, Chase Harrison.

None of those 25 players are likely to be released, with the possible exception of Jordan, who has looked good at times in central midfield and is versatile enough to play center back (though perhaps not well). Hoffman remains Generation adidas, so the league pays his salary. McLaughlin and Hernandez are homegrown signings still in their teens whose salaries don’t count against the Union’s salary budget.

International roster spots are not an overriding concern for the team. They have just three players taking them up (Daniel, Torres, and Hernandez), so they could even trade unused slots for allocation money. If Adu is moved, it should free space for a big international signing.

The Freddy Adu situation

Adu doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon. He rejected transfers to Mexico, Greece, Ukraine and South Korea, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported today. Instead, he wants the Union to buy out his contract for $1.3 million so he can go on free transfer to Europe, and it’s cheaper for the Union to pay him but not play him, Carlisle reported.

With Adu taking up a roster spot and salary budget space, it limits the Union’s roster flexibility. They may not keep the maximum of 30 players on the roster as a result of the diminished salary budget space.

As for Adu, he now wants money for nothing. He rejected a restructured deal at a lesser salary. He rejected transfer offers. Basically, he signed a contract, and now he wants to get paid for it. That isn’t unreasonable — it’s not his fault the Union foolishly gave him a fat contract — nor is it unreasonable to reject teams in countries where you don’t want to live.

But it’s time to face reality. He needs to take a nominal buyout and leave while there’s still interest in him. If he plays this bluff out to its end, his soccer career is over.

Loans to Harrisburg

With MLS formalizing a partnership with the USL, the Union committed to loaning at least four players to Harrisburg. That does not appear to include players not under contract (Richards, Schoenle) with the Union who might sign with Harrisburg, but that remains to be seen.

If Jordan makes the Union roster, he’ll likely go on loan again to Harrisburg with McLaughlin.

Hoffman is also a possibility because he is no higher than fifth forward on the depth chart and needs minutes. Hristov has scored regularly in the Bulgarian league and not a realistic option for a Harrisburg loan.

Chase Harrison or Chris Konopka could also end up with Harrisburg, close enough to call up to the Union on short notice if needed. Neither is yet under contract for the upcoming season, but both are likely to remain with the Union or Harrisburg.

The last probable candidate is Cristhian Hernandez, another teenaged homegrown signing unlikely to get much time with the Union this season. He missed out on a chance to pull ahead of his competitors in midfield due to injury.

Quote for the critics

Hackworth talked up some of these players when he signed them, only to cut them later. Now he’s facing questions about those cuts, which isn’t unusual. What is unusual is that some are freaking out about the cuts.

Hackworth responded by saying, “When we pick players and announce them, I don’t know what you guys want me to do except talk about their good qualities. I certainly am not going to say that a guy stinks so that when I release him later you guys don’t write an article about that.”

Nonsense! The Union could have done that before signing Porfirio Lopez. Or you could take it further. D.C. United coach Ben Olsen could explain his Carlos Ruiz signing by saying, “He scores goals. He drives everyone nuts. We’re desperate for a goal-scorer. So we signed him. Short-term.” (Who’s looking forward to the D.C. United game at PPL Park? Yeah, everyone. Best Union rivalry by far.)

Jokes aside, give Hackworth credit for manning up and explaining the cuts. (And that quote is almost as awesome as his “laughable” line, except in the opposite way.) This is the part of the job that Nowak never had the class to do. The job description may not include feelings, but it does include explaining your decisions to the fans who pay the bills.

53 Comments

  1. My only quibble with your analysis, Dan, is this: Adu’s career is definitely not over if he sits out this year. So long as he stays in shape, he will certainly find a team willing to give him a shot in a year. For all his faults, he is far too talented and young not to get a shot somewhere. Maybe he won’t get paid like he has in the past, but that’s a separate question.

    • If he sits out TWO years though, he’s done. His contract has more than a year on it.

    • Pretty sure that Adu has two years left on his contract so if the current bargaining positions remain the same, he would be on the shelf for two years which definitely puts his career in jeopardy. It’s not like he’s gotten a ton of match experience since 2007.

      • Another way to look at it – Hackworth has put the team in a position to have Adu negatively impact his roster flexibility for two seasons, not just one.

  2. Not to nitpick, but I think Hristov is 28–not 31…at least that’s what the interwebs are telling me. Better to have a 28 year old goal scorer than one who’s 31, right? I think keeping him for depth and loaning Hoffman (who to me always looked like a deer in the headlights whenever he got on the field) to Harrisburg for regular playing time is a smart move.

    Speaking of forwards, what’s the word on Aaron “Thor” Wheeler? Haven’t heard much about how his camp is going except for he kicked balls off a tower at Daytona.

  3. “As Dave Zeitlin so perfectly put it, “Nowak traded Le Toux, Califf & Mwanga. Hackworth released Damani Richards, Alex Mendoza & Stephen Okai.” Yes, not quite the same.”

    LeToux dealt for the allocation money to buy Roger Torres and went on to halve his production? Califf, who while beloved, was exiled to the shitty team he didn’t want to be traded to from the shittier one (Chivas,not the U, though kinda close). The Danny Mwanga who racked up 3 whole goals last year, or rather, 3 more than the guy we released who we received back? Nowak made unpopular moves, but I’m not convinced he couldn’t evaluate talent either. Plus, you know, he did add them to the team to begin with.

    I also don’t think the Union are “stacked” at midfield. There is a logjam with Carroll and Okugo, and if Torres continues his play against top MLS clubs he’s shown against the weak preseason opponents, than there is one at CAM with Marfan. Our wingers are not strong and one of the reasons they struggled to score.

    The real quibble is can Hackworth actually evaluate talent? Drafting kids from the US U-17 pool seems like a pretty obvious place to look,no? Fernandes out of Stony Brook (if he sticks) would be a great example of evaluation.

    • Numbers-wise, they are stacked in central midfield insofar as Mendoza was looking at it. I don’t disagree with your assessment of the midfield though.
      -
      As for Califf, Mwanga and Le Toux, we’ve been through those ad nauseum. We’ll see this year. :)
      -
      And very good point, re: U-17. Time will tell if that’s all he does. But then, these guys were also passed over by others. Marfan was a second rounder. Garfan was forgotten in Mexico. Williams didn’t have a team. Etc., etc. Time will tell.

      • Not arguing per se, I am just in no hurry to think Hack is wonderful. I think we are so desperate to believe we overvalue our player and our FO. Was only 3 short years ago that In Nowak We Trust was first unfurled. I’m a little snakebit on rushing in on Hack.

        We feel more like an expansion team now than in 2010.

        • The Black Hand says:

          Far too polite, in regards to Hackworth. His decisions have been poor in every aspect, as a manager. Maybe this will change, but so far he’s showing poorly.

          • Inserting Jack McInerney into the lineup last year seemed like a good idea. Making Okugo a regular didn’t hurt.
            -
            It may be a fair criticism that some (including me) give Hackworth too much leeway. (I don’t know; I think I’m being pretty fair, but hey, it’s me, so I’m biased. ;) ) But if so, I think it’s better than going the typical Philadelphia route and overreacting to every negative thing. Hackworth has done some good things, and others he hasn’t gotten right. But the atmosphere around the team has changed after the most poisonous period I’ve seen around a pro sports team in a long time. Time will tell what he can do. He gets the full year, as far as I see it. Better than that be like Toronto.

            • The Black Hand says:

              McInerey scored 8 goals. Looked indecisive and untimely often, as well. Okugo filled in valiantly at CB.(I could be wrong, but wasn’t that Nowak, who made that move?) Imagine how well he could perform at CDM; it could really open up our transition game.

              -The situation with Freddy Adu has been tremendously mishandled and has limited our options greatly.
              -The decision not to secure a backup/starting Goalkeeper could end up proving costly, should MacMath get rattled early on.
              -Nothing was done to solidify us at LB. I like Garfan as a wing back, but his reckless challenging (suspensions) will likely leave us vulnerable. Gaddis is iffy with it being an unnatural position. Anding???
              -Our midfield play was absolutely abysmal, last year. Same personnel is on deck for this campaign. Talented players were looked at but Hack seemed to think that we are fine without them.
              -Torres looks to be in good form, orchestrating play out of the CAM position. Hackworth seems intent to have Michael Farfan work out of the 10.

              These are just examples from this offseason. Last season, while under Hackworth, the club looked outclassed and unprepared, with a revolving door XI and mystery formation. Granted, Hackworth inherited a club in turmoil, but little improvement was displayed on the pitch once the dust finally settled. I am disheartened by the changes that Hackworth DIDN’T make, during this offseason!

              • Like I’ve said elsewhere in the comments, I think Hackworth has gotten some right and some wrong. I think the moves at forward are good, but he should have gotten a starting left back to free Garfan to play midfield. I’m fine with the GKs (for now), if only because I want to see first if Konopka or Harrison can play well at this level. (Look at Andy Gruenebaum.) The midfield needs more time to sort out before wholesale changes are made. (Left back is the domino that needs to fall there.) And I think the Adu situation limited what changes can be made to the team.
                -
                Also, you’re too down on Mac, and Okugo was a desperation stopgap when Valdes and Williams were out. Nowak probably would’ve returned Williams to CB after the one game. Okugo was not suddenly going to be a regular under Nowak. He’d played well before and repeatedly returned to the bench.

    • If Fernandes stays, credit goes to Burke not Hackworth. Burke found him for Reading last year.

  4. Thanks for breaking it all down. During preseason it was hard to keep track of everything and everyone. I fell i have a much better grasp of what is happening.

  5. If he sat out for two years his career would be finished. That will never happen. The longest this will go on for is one year (Though even that is extremely doubtful). After a whole year of wasting a spot on the payroll the Union would buy out his final year.
    Hopefully his agent is making it abundantly clear to Freddy that he needs to play.
    Remember, we are talking about a player for whom fitness is not a top priority when he IS training. Expecting him to stay fit while he is NOT is truly “laughable.”

  6. Agreed that was super helpful for pulling it all together as was the MLS.com preview that is up now. The one thing that I’m sure lots of people would like to speculate but I’m curious about PSP’s opinion is what position a “big international signing” should come at. From my look at the roster and obviously in line with a million articles (and given the attractive appearance of Vancouver’s signings) the answer is left back. But are talented wingers also a possibility?

  7. This is awesome — Wheeler should also be in the list for current roster breakdown, right? Putting them at 26 with 5 trialists, so one cut to make between the 5 of them and Wheeler.

    • I would still include him among the trialists. The Union characterized his joining the team as a “signing” but did the same for Mendoza and Richards, who both got cut. He still has to make the team, I think. And even then, he could end up on loan in Harrisburg. But yes, one cut to make, or more if they don’t keep 30 guys.

  8. Can I ask a stupid question, slightly unrelated? Has there been any talk of why we aren’t spending money on DPs? Jay Sugarman reportedly makes something like $35 million a year according to Forbes. Couldn’t he just buy a couple stars? What’s the reasoning? Is the ownership waiting until we develop the team further then spend cash for a short 1-2 year period when they think we can win a championship? Can someone please get an interview with Nick and Jay and ask the tough questions? Thanks!

  9. Do you think that we could loan adu to Harrisburg?

    • Considering Adu makes just about as much as what the team is supposed to pay Chester. Maybe they could consider transferring Adu over to Chester and maybe they can get 500,000 dollars worth of work out of him.

    • James Korman says:

      Seriously though, if Freddy is under contract to us why can’t we send him to Harrisburg temporarily? Wouldn’t it be “win-win” for both sides as Freddy would be able to stay fit AND showcase his talents? As it stands, his value continues to erode as each day passes which is good for nobody.

      • A player with his kind of contract probably has to agree to any loan move, and moving to Harrisburg would knock his value down even further. Would have been nice if they could loan him down the river and then void his contract when he didn’t show up, though.

      • The question too would be if Harrisburg would even want him. Let’s be honest there is no way that Adu would want to take that option. It is likely if he went to Harrisburg he would cause more problems then he would solve. I don’t see that move working well for their locker room at all. It might work well for the books though if he can actually be talked into playing.

  10. We need a left back and good proven right wing midfielder then we’re good. Our offense is good im not convinced about conor but le toux and mcinerney are both great goal scorers and assist makers.

  11. Why does Adu get to turn down a transfer? It seems that if the Union want to send him somewhere and he says no, that would be a breach of contract (or does he have a no trade clause?). I like the idea of sending him to Harrisburg.

    On a separate note, I work 3 floors below the Union offices and have a great view of PPL Park. I can see the sideline scoreboard lit up as I type this!!!! 8 days, 1 hour, and 15 minutes until first kick!!!

    • I beleive that if he were traded or sold within the league then he would have to go, but not even positive about that. However, to be sold out of the league he would have to be willing to sign with that club. So far, the union hasn’t found an interested club that he is willing to sign with.

    • Transfers in soccer are different than trades in other sports. With a trade, the player’s contract goes to the other team. With a transfer, the player’s contract is bought out (or just terminated), and a new contract signed with the new team. So if Adu says he won’t sign with a team, no transfer can happen.

  12. Im not sure how anybody could be so critical of Hackworth or the coaching staff at this point.
    .
    Last year he inherited a team in disarray and this year he has yet to manage a competitive match.
    .
    Sure some of these decisions are head scratchers but I as a fan really have not had an extensive opportunity to evaluate these players let go to determine whether or not there dismissal is justified.
    .
    A this point, from my point of view the coaching staff gets the benefit of my doubt…
    .
    The 2013 Union are built to compete and gain experience, they are a team for the future and not designed to win this year…I do not believe that keeping any of these players would have instantly made us cup winners.
    .
    I fully expect the Union to compete for the final Eastern conference playoff spot and expect at least 12 points from our 1st 8 games…from my point of view, that’s realistic from our squad.

    • I want to like Hack as well, but let’s face it, he only had 8 wins last year out of maybe 25 games (And he helped pick all these guys from the start too!). Offensively, our midfield created few chances. He seems to favor speedy guys without a good touch.
      We played long ball last year. Majority of our final passes came from within our own half, yet he claims to want to play nice offensive brand of soccer…his brand last year (based around the same MF as this year) was not attractive, offensive soccer. We could have signed Porter, who re-ignited Adu. Instead, we hired Hackworth after a couple wins and a couple ties…Still. Let’s go U and hope I’m wrong!

      • The Black Hand says:

        +1

      • Trust me D and Hand, it kills me to admit and accept that the Union are not from my view built to win. I want to win now not next year or the year after that or so on…
        .
        Im just trying to be realistic.
        .
        The 2013 Union looks a lot like the 2012 Union and that outlook aint so reassuring. I feel like we all knew after last season what are weaknesses were and expected the coaching staff to address them but Im not so sure they have been.
        .
        At this point Im resisting the dark side and have hope…just 7 days away!!! Cmon U!!!

        • The Black Hand says:

          I’m with you Los. I don’t think that we will be competing for the Cup this year. My main concerns, for the club, are that Hackworth hasn’t really done anything to improve the club for the future. The Casey and LeToux transfers do nothing for us, beyond this year. Carroll at CDM, instead of Okugo, does nothing for the club beyond this year. Opting to forgo any changes to the midfield, leaves us needing in the future. (A quality veteran could have been signed, to help teach our young group about playing the game as a cohesive unit.) I am just not seeing anyone working to make the Union a club that can seriously compete for cup wins, in the future. I don’t know if it’s the ownership, (not contributing financially) or Hackworth, (not recognizing our weaknesses), but, as we stand, we are nowhere near the level of the top clubs.

          • James Korman says:

            It seems like we’re going for the “slow, methodical growth” pattern versus the “go for it!” quick growth model. I think Hack is resisting bringing in guys like Kafes who are going to take minutes away from our young guys. Since we are obviously not going the route of the DP signing, our best chance to reach the top half of the table is to uncover diamonds in the rough like Marfan, Williams, and Okugo…..not plugging in 30 somethings.
            -
            I’m not at all sure the above is the best course of action….but clearly it’s what we’ve got here with he Union. So we may as well embrace it. GO UNION…!!!

  13. Any idea on Pfeffer? I know he’s in Germany right now but will he be joining up with the squad soon or staying with Hoffenheim?

  14. Excellent summary, Dan. All in all not too concerned with any of this. I think it is all down to Hack and Hack will make or break his reputation with who he signed and who he let go. If the team does not perform, a lot can be attributed to some of these decisions (and of course his abilty to get the most out of players and strategy).
    /
    But there is a goal scoring issue. Up to now we only scored more than 1 goal in 1 pre-season game. I don’t see Hack addressing this. Olsen seems to have a similar issue so he signs Ruiz; what is Hack doing about it?

    • James Korman says:

      @Guido……….Good question.
      -
      I think two logical moves that don’t entail signings would be to 1)move Marfan to the wing and insert Torres as QB. Or 2) Move Garfan up to the wing to enhance our offensive production there. (Ray Gaddis should have spent the entire off-season training and scrimmaging as a LEFTY!)
      -
      My big fear is that the ONLY way that the above scenario happens is if we come out of the gate and score like 3 goals in our first 7 games. That would suck! I’m praying that the Casey, LeToux, JackMac thing works. Then we’d be set as is (fingers & toes crossed!)

  15. Here a question has the Ownership group looked to add a partner or two with real deep pockets that could add to the Cash and help with cost of improving the club.

  16. Dave what about Bakary Soumare? He seems to be the biggest stiff. He has no quickness and looks to be an easy mark to get around. I wouldn’t have to much confidence with him playing in front of me. There has to be someone better.

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