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.