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:
- A respected veteran to mentor their young center backs.
- 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.
— FC St. Pauli English (@fcstpauli_EN) January 31, 2017
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:
- Chris Pontius, slotted in to start at left attacking midfield.
- Fabian Herbers, who played right and central attacking midfield last year.
- 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.