A View from Afar / Analysis

Union complete off-season with whirlwind of signings

And just like that, Philadelphia Union’s off-season was complete.

In a whirlwind two-day stretch, the Union filled their two biggest remaining roster holes and lined up another signing who could be a major contributor.

Center back Oguchi Onyewu, Bosnian international center midfielder Haris Medunjanin, and attacker Fafa Picault give the Union nearly all the pieces that most identified as clear needs entering the off-season, and rookie trialist Adam Najem will only improve the haul. Sporting director Earnie Stewart has answered just about every question he faced this off-season.

Let’s take a look at the signings, as well as what they could mean in terms of outbound movement and starting lineups, now that Roland Alberg’s agent is reportedly talking about his client’s potential departure.

Oguchi Onyewu, center back

This is almost the perfect signing.

The Union needed two things in a new center back:

  1. A respected veteran to mentor their young center backs.
  2. The capability to step in to start beside Richie Marquez if needed.

They hit No. 1 without question. They think they hit No. 2 and will find out over time if Onyewu can stay healthy enough to do it.

There was a time when Onyewu was perhaps the best American soccer player in the world. That time may have been brief, but if you saw him play against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, you remember it. AC Milan recognized it when they signed him that year. Onyewu’s rare combination of speed, size, strength and toughness inspired awe.

Then, right when he was primed for greatness, a knee injury struck him down. He lost speed and mobility and was never the same player again.

Onyewu has not played a competitive, first team game in two years. The suspicion some outsiders held, true or not, is that he was too proud to sign for an MLS club at a lesser salary after shuffling through a series of English second division clubs from 2013 to 2015. But now, at age 34, he was staring a default retirement in the face.

In America, he has cache. We remember him — not merely his on-field performances, but the defiant, fierce, and proud way he played the game. This was a man who made you forget the notion of American soccer as minnows but rather would-be giants as strong, fast, and athletic as any team in the world. He wasn’t afraid of anybody.

That seems a long time ago. The player has changed, but the man remains — and that’s what you want. He’ll have to prove on the field whether Onyewu the player still has what it takes to play at this level, but that’s no different from any other player in the league.

Haris Medunjanin, center midfielder

Did the Union find another perfect signing in Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin?

Their search for a replacement for deep-lying possession maestro Vincent Nogueira has landed on Medunjanin, a player with a somewhat similar style of play and a killer left foot on free kicks.

Watch the video below.

As occasional PSP contributor Kevin Kinkead points out, Medunjanin spent this game consistently dropping into most of the same spots Nogueira would hit and spraying passes around the field as the team’s center midfield conductor. It looks like they’ve finally found a like-for-like replacement.

Medunjanin joins from Maccabi Tel Aviv, an Israeli side recently knocked out of the Europa League’s group stage and currently sitting in second place in the Israeli Premier League. He has also played in the first divisions of Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands and played for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 2014 World Cup.

The Bosnian has been solid in Europa League play this year for Maccabi, who played Dutch side AZ Alkmaar twice in group play. AZ is the Dutch club that Stewart left to join the Union, and it’s also Medunjanin’s first professional club.

Medunjanin appeared for Maccabi in games in January, indicating he likely joins the Union with mid-season fitness levels.

Also, food for thought: Medunjanin was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, his mother fled with him and his sister as refugees and found a new home in the Netherlands. His father was unable to join them and subsequently died in the war.

Fafa Picault, forward/winger

Trialist Fafa Picault appears primed to join the Union, as announced by his former club, German side FC St. Pauli.

Picault’s arrival adds speed to the flanks and flexibility up top, with Picault able to play both striker and on the wing.

He joins what is already a crowded stable of wide midfielders, including:

  1. Chris Pontius, slotted in to start at left attacking midfield.
  2. Fabian Herbers, who played right and central attacking midfield last year.
  3. Ilsinho, a right attacking midfielder.
Impact on current roster

Could the signings of Medunjanin and Picault, combined with the potential addition of trialist Adam Najem, lead to the departure of Roland Alberg?

Picault’s arrival adds a third player to a logjam at right attacking midfield. Medunjanin’s arrival means he likely slots in as the starting No. 8 center midfielder for the Union. (Or No. 6 “controlling midfielder,” if you’d describe the Union as playing two defensive mids.)

Alejandro Bedoya looks lined up for the No. 10, much as Tranquillo Barnetta successfully switched inside to this role, unless Curtin foresees both Bedoya and Medunjanin as deeper lying players. The latter seems unlikely given Bedoya’s club experience generally consists of him playing farther up the field and Medunjanin doesn’t look like a defensive destroyer, but it’s possible if Curtin doesn’t like his defensive midfield alternatives (Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle) pending Maurice Edu’s potential return.

If Bedoya is at the 10, then you have Picault, Ilsinho and Herbers fighting for the starting job at right attacking midfield and providing depth across all three attacking midfield slots. Another year in Bethlehem is likely in Eric Ayuk’s future. Once you add to the mix the prospective addition of Najem, a rookie center attacking midfielder who could also see some time in Bethlehem, you have a potentially stacked attacking midfield.

Add to that the fact that the Union now have three veteran strikers, and that begs the question:

Where does this leave Alberg, one of the Union’s highest paid players?

His agent is doing what agents do — talking up his client’s overseas prospects — while the player discusses his desire for more playing time and explaining why this year will be better than last. Credit Alberg for wanting to fight for playing time, but this looks like the classic, Europe-style prelude to a transfer.

All that said, an ice cube will survive a trip to Hell before Alberg reaps the Union a $2 million sale price in this transfer window, contrary to the aforementioned report. The Union would likely be more than happy with a fee of $300,000 to $500,000. Basically, they’d want to recoup the initial investment (i.e. purchase price) in Alberg and, ideally, turn a modest profit. Beyond that, clearing his salary — $377,250 last year, likely more in 2017 — from the books is enough.

Grading the off-season: Postscript

The Union still need a third goalkeeper, but if there’s any addition you can afford to be patient with, that’s it.

The question will be how quickly the Union’s other signings get fit, find their niche on the team, and acclimate to the league and its difficult travel schedule. That hasn’t always been a fast process for Union signings, but with Medunjanin, at least, arriving in mid-season form, the prospects may be better.

Overall, Union management has hit all the wickets, and on paper, Stewart appears to have done a bang-up job filling their roster needs. In Medunjanin and Onyewu, he brought in two veterans with extensive international experience on quality national teams. He found speed and talent in Picault, who has never really found an ideal club situation and looks like a low-risk, high-reward acquisition. Jay Simpson hasn’t wowed anyone in America yet, but he fills a need and could score a lot if he gets good service. The Giliano Wijnaldum signing addressed the long open left back issue and is full of potential. Meanwhile, Najem looks like the first round draft pick the Union didn’t have.

It’s time to change that off-season grade of Incomplete.

Now it looks like an A.

45 Comments

  1. Any word on how close Picault is to becoming official?

    How I am seeing our best starting XI lining up for the new season given every one is healthy and playing well in camp:

    4-2-3-1 formation
    GK – Blake
    LB – Wijnaldum
    CB – Onyewu
    CB – Marquez
    RB – Rosenberry
    DM – Edu
    DM – Medunjanin
    LM – Pontius
    CAM – Bedoya
    RM – Picault
    CF – Simpson

    • Nah dude Gooch is depth, Yaro starts. I’d put Picault as backup for CP on left, will have to bide his time as Ilsinho and Herbers share RW duties.

      • I can easily see Yaro sliding into the starting CB spot, but no way should Illsinho or Herbers be a starter with the depth we have now. Illsinho is a power sub, guy can’t go a full 90. And I would obviously go with Picault over Herbers based on experience. Herbers another great sub option, but still too green to out right own the right wing on a midfield with this amount of talent and experience.

        • It is going to be an interesting battle for that RW spot for sure, and I would think matchups may play a role. I will say that Ilsinho looks to to be down like 15-20 pounds since last year so we could be looking at an entirely different player this year.

        • Picault really doesn’t have much experience actually playing in a top league. Did well in NASL before being sent to Europe, where he struggled to get playing time.
          .
          Agree about Ilsinho as super sub. I’d actually like to see Herbers at RW unless they go with one commenter below said about Alberg at #10 and Bedoya on the right.

    • I think you’re going to have legitimate competition at center forward, right attacking midfield and center back. I definitely think Onyewu has a chance to start, but obviously that depends on what he shows in camp. Not sure how Picault fits in, but let’s recall how productive Herbers was late last season. Ilsinho also looks (from afar) slimmed down.

    • Pepito, the biggest cat in the whole wide world says:

      Gooch shouldn’t step foot on the field unless other players are injured or it’s the last second of the game and we need to defend a set piece. He hasn’t gotten any significant game time since 2014.

    • One of the things I think people are largerly missing is Onyewu is likely to play RCB Marquez still seems to be locked in on the left. Unless Wijnaldum beats out Fabi, Fabi will start. Reason being Fabi and Pontius had chemistry. People are overlooking that with Medunjanin and Edu being more athletic in the middle I think you can push Bedoya out wide to RM where he plays more often and slot in Alberg at the 10. There may be rumors about Alberg, but if you read into how Earnie always talks about Alberg, him being one of the first names off his list when he talks about talent on this team, I don’t see him going anywhere. I also think Alberg was not happy with his playing time and I expect him to have a huge impact this season just taking over the role of playmaker. He certainly had drive last season. Plus he seemed to be excited to come back next season, this season. I think between him and Simpson it might be possible to get 25 goals out of that combination.

      • I mostly agree, Although I think that Gooch will probably be playing both sides depending on who he is paired with. Mainly because he’s the vet and should be able to handle it.

      • Gotta be honest I like the idea of Alberg and Bedoya at 10 and RW, respectively. They could have a lot of freedom to roam and play off each other while Pontius makes those late runs from the left (and poaches for another double digit goal season).
        .
        I was super worried about the possibility of Alberg being a 10, but honestly with a guy like Medujanin and whoever is playing DMid behind him, it could actually work and free up Bedoya to play on the wing.

        • A midfield of…
          .
          Pontius, Alberg, Bedoya
          Medunjanin, Edu
          .
          …would be one of the strongest in the league on paper.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        How quickly we forget.
        .
        Why was Christian Maidana sent away from the Union?
        .
        What does Roland Alberg not do very well?
        .
        What is the first thing the Union head coach emphasize? whether the fact drives you nuts or not it is a prominent characteristic of his approach.

        • Yes last year his defense was not great but if you look towards the end of the season he picked of his defensive play. I am also assuming this will improve if he is going to play the 10. He only needs to track back so far if you have Medujanin and Edu/Carroll playing if they are in the right spot. I think we are likely to see a much changed Alberg. He no longer wants to sit the bench in this league and I think we will see some new maturity from him. I think he learned from Barnetta.

          • I think it’s important to consider the vast improvement most of the foreign guys seem to have in year 2 after they get accustomed to MLS. To give up on Alberg or Ilsinho before giving them a chance to follow the trend taken by many others in the league before them (Barnetta is a prime example) would be a mistake in my estimation. Equally, that may require us to have a bit of patience with Medunjanin this year. However, since there are 12 Midfielders on the roster not including any draftees or Najem, we might have to start to expect a move.

  2. Just to show the support that Onyewu has among fans (at least two of them), after the open practice Friday, he was the one I sought out to get my picture taken with. When I forwarded the picture to my wife her response was “I hate you and I’m never coming home.”
    .
    Before the Union came around he was our favorite player, bar none. (I only found out recently that his first cap came at a game I was at).
    .
    So my wife and I fit in with the crowd that remembers him in his prime and are really rooting for him.

    • Love that anecdote about Gooch. Not sure why everyone is so down on him starting. He really hasn’t had much less playing time than Edu, and Gooch’s position is known for a longer shelf life in general.

      Normally I make 1 trip per year to see the Union: to Carson or Philly. I might have to make 2 this year.

  3. In these polarizing times, I think the one thing that we all (might) be able to agree on is that this is the strongest Union roster in the team’s history. Exciting I suppose.
    .
    .
    Battles I’m interested in:
    (1) Fabi/Wijnaldum;
    (2) Herbers/Ilson; and
    (3) Bedoya/Alberg.
    .
    .
    Only question that remains for me is who starts at CDM. At the moment, and given the descriptions we got from Earnie and Curtin, my thinking is that if Edu is not ready to go, the midfield three will be: Haris, Bedoya, and Alberg. If Edu is ready, Alberg is probably the one dropped from that trifecta.
    .
    .
    I really do not think that there is a competition for who the 9 will be. Simpson was signed to start and it would take an unfathomable effort and display of progression for Davies or Sapong to displace him at the start of the season.
    .
    My guess:
    Blake
    Keegs Yaro Marquez Wijnaldum
    Edu Haris
    Herbers Bedoya Pontius
    Simpson
    .
    Bench:
    McCarthy
    Fabinho
    Onyewu
    Sapong
    Alberg
    Carroll
    .
    BSTFC:
    Perrella
    New Jones Tribbett Trusty Real
    D. Jones Chambers
    Fafa Najem Ayuk
    Burke

    • I don’t think Fafa is going to Steel. Otherwise I agree. I do have a hunch that we could see Creavalle starting the season in Edu’s place though. Not that I’m calling for that, just it wouldn’t surprise me.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Many of you have completely forgotten that the stated purpose of the Bethlehem Steel FC project is player development, first, player development, second, and player development, third.

      As long as the Academy boys, who have earned the opportunity to try, produce effectively during games I would expect they will start. Two were with one of the youth national teams last week, McMaster and McKenzie. There might be one or two more.

      There is a short window of opportunity to test whether Academy players are worthy of homegrown contracts at age 18. That unofficial window began with the last game of last season on September 25th, and resumes today with the Steel’s physicals and meetings. The window closes August 1st when NCAA programs begin.

      The organization retains the homegrown opportunity. But the candidates no longer may play at the USL level. They may only play at the NCAA level fall, winter, and spring, and at the PDL level in the summer. To use a baseball analogy, having played a season at AAA as a senior in high school, their development opportunity is demoted back down to AA for the following years 4 years of college, should they finish their degrees.
      .

  4. We will win MLS Cup this year.

    • Dream on. Can’t see that we will score enough goals for that.

    • Honestly, why not?
      .
      This is MLS and anything can happen. The U are certainly not the favorites to win MLS Cup, but with the depth, mixture of veterans and youth, and the fact that they’ve retained their core, this could happen. It will largely depend on Curtin managing everyone and making the right decisions, but this team can compete with anyone in the league if they stay reasonably healthy.
      .
      Like other MLS Cup champions, it will take luck and good fortune, but it’s possible. I’m certainly not expecting it, but if we don’t go into the season with hope of winning MLS Cup as a fan/player/coach, what are we doing?

      • We are cheap; that’s what we are doing. Need couple DP’s or high profile players that can make things happen.
        .
        I am realistic and hope that we at least get further into the playoffs than we ever did.

      • John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

        It’s quite easy to argue the Union finishing first to last. TAM seems to have raised the overall quality of a lot of teams. Just look at Chicago and how much more talent they have this year compared to last. Atlanta looks to be a team that could be pushing the way teams approach Dp’s. Gone are the days of signing a guy who sells tickets, new expansion teams do that on their own. Can you find it that hard to believe that a 35 year old Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t get the pay day that Lampard and Gerrard got? Once again I think Toronto impacted the league’s thought process last year with the stadium crowd’s and attention they received in the city. Less fans care about we’re just happy to have a team and now it’s we want a winning team. Which is pretty obvious when you visit this site. This looks like the most talented team the Union have ever had but this year it’s hard to figure out how good or bad they might be.

        • Agreed. This may be the best roster the Union have ever started the season with (on paper, anyway), but this is probably also the high water mark for the talent level across the league. The real question is, has Earnie put together one of the top teams in the league?

  5. Sapong a role player now?
    .

  6. I absolutely love the Medunjanin signing. I like the Onweyu signing too, though I suspect we won’t actually see him on the pitch much. But I can’t muster much enthusiasm about Picault, a guy who’s bounced in and out of the NASL and couldn’t keep a job in the 2. Bundesliga.
    ~
    And I don’t believe that Jay Simpson was signed to start. His career as a journeyman in the lower divisions of English football isn’t that great a resume. He will compete with Sapong, and the best man will win the regular starting spot.

    • I’ll bet you a box of doughnuts that Simpson has the starting #9 job by mid season. If not, it would mean CJ has had a complete transformation and is gonna bag 15+ goals — either way, good for the U.

      I do think the whole “lower divisions of English football” underrates the quality of those leagues and overestimates the quality of ours. Guy was scoring goals in the Championship, a league that the Union would have a difficult time not getting relegated in. I’m not dumping on MLS. I like MLS, but let’s be clear about how it stacks up against one of the best top-to-bottom nation league system in the world.

  7. Anyone think there is any chance of 4-4-2?

    Keegs Yaro Marquez Wijnaldum
    Bedoya Edu Haris Pontius
    Simpson Herbers

    • I don’t see it happening given everything Curtin and Earnie have said about remaining committed to the 4-2-3-1 formation. I personally like it and the only change I would make to your formation would be Alberg in for Herbers.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      For goodness’ sake people, do the Bosnian the simple human courtesy of treating him as an adult with a surname. He is not a Mongol. He has both.
      .
      M E D U N J A N I N
      .
      Me dun jan in
      .
      I have no idea where the emphasis lies among the four syllables.
      .
      Do the man the courtesy of learning his last name.
      .
      Please.

      • So you’re saying it’s OK to disrespect the guy from Ronks by calling him Keegs? 🙂 🙂

      • Sorry based on prior posts thought that maybe it was a Brazilian AND Bosnian thing…
        Agreed DK, in 4-4-2 Alberg starts instead of Herbers – not that I expect them to switch formations.

  8. I’ve only been following the team for 4 years, but this is by far the most pleased I’ve been with our roster heading into the season. Not only have we filled all of our holes with solid signings, we have done so early enough to let them have a month of preseason to gel as a unit. Too often in the past we’ve brought in signings only a few days before the season began.
    .
    It’s too easy to forget what a tough team we were to beat last year before Nogs departure. We have finally signed a similar player. We have signed a striker who could be an improvement. While Bedoya may not be as skilled as Barnetta, he will probably hold up better physically over the course of the season. We have better depth on the wings as well. I’m going in assuming Edu won’t play just to avoid disappointment, but if he can regain form this team and Simpson is an above average MLS forward this team could be very, very good.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    Don’t want to be a bucket of cold water, but I hope Curtin is smarter than last year, and doesn’t make the same mistakes. We have a solid squad. Hope he’s a non issue. Guess I’m just trying to say I have some concerns.

  10. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I have the same impatience as everyone else to see the guys get on the pitch, do not misunderstand me.
    .
    That said, the entire discussion above has been conducted without 2017 visual evidence.
    .
    The words “early” and “rapid” and synonyms for both come to mind.
    .
    We need to ask if the last scrimmage of the second phase of preseason can somehow be streamed on You Tube, the one against Orlando, before they come north for their break before the Suncoast invitational.
    .
    That will be the first opportunity for visual evidence, since the previous three are closed to the public. We will have to hope Marisa Pilla reports well, if she is still the person with the keyboard and the camera.

    • Im in total agreement with you OSC. There are many, many things I’m interested in seeing still before I start anointing a starting XI or consider calling this team a legit contender.
      .
      New players in this league rarely thrive immediately, its crucial that the guys we’ve had in place for a while hold down the fort while Medunjanin, Picault, Wijnaldum etc. adjust to MLS. Bedoya needs to go from good to great (he had moments last season, but we were all hoping for a bit more I’d assume) and we need to lock him into a position. He needs to be an 8 or a 10 or a RW, not all 3. We did this same thing with Mo Edu, and that hasn’t gone as well as we had hoped.
      .
      And most importantly, Curtin needs to show more flex than he did last year. When something/someone isn’t working, he’s got the pieces to get creative with. No more running players into the ground, hoping they play their way out of slumps. If all these things go right, then we can talk about some postseason expectations.

  11. Wow. We are actually having a discussion about how deep our team is. Wow. Come on guys. This is a whole new world.

  12. Dick Saunders says:

    IT IS A MISTAKE TO LOSE ALBERG BEFORE THE MID SEASON TRANSFER WINDOW.

    Hold him, see how the season is going, split with him if it doesnt look like he’s contributing as much/ is expendable. He’s way too good not to be our 10. Bedoya should be moved to the wing or play D mid.

    I’d like to see 4-2-3-1 such as:

    GK – Blake
    LB – Wijnaldum
    CB – Yaro
    CB – Marquez
    RB – Rosenberry
    DM – Bedoya
    DM – Medunjanin
    LW – Pontius
    CAM – Alberg
    RW – Picault
    CF – Simpson

    or 4-4-2

    GK – Blake
    LB – Wijnaldum
    CB – Yaro
    CB – Marquez
    RB – Rosenberry
    LM – Pontius
    RM – Bedoya
    RCAM – Medunjanin
    LCAM – Alberg
    RF – Picault
    LF – Simpson

    A much better team with Alberg on it. Say what you want about him defensively, he’s probably the most creative player on the team/has the most powerful shot.

    • I’ll give you the powerful shot, but (respectfully) he has not demonstrated that he is a creator… here or anywhere else.

  13. Chase Beran says:

    Alberg will be top scorer of our team if we don’t get rid of him. He is a signifigantly stronger attacker and finisher than Bedoya, and the way our team plays creates a ton of space at the top of the box for our midfielders. Our midfield triangle should be Alberg up top with Medunjanin and Bedoya/Edu behind him.

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