For Pete's Sake / Season Reviews / Union

Season review: The personnel moves

Photo: Bethlehem Steel

As part of our comprehensive season review, it’s time to take a look at the personnel moves made by Earnie Stewart this year.

Stewart brought ten new first-team players to Philadelphia in the offseason, and none during the season (with the exception of Anthony Fontana’s pre-contract).

Most of those moves worked out —  Stewart found some real bargains overseas, and picked up talent through the SuperDraft and college ranks for minimal resources. But the failure to identify and sign a quality No. 10 last offseason proved costly to the Union’s potential this season.

Offseason moves more good than bad

Stewart’s best three signings were Haris Medunjanin, Fafa Picault, and Oguchi Onyewu. Medunjanin played nearly every minute this season from deep-lying midfield, led the team in assists, and provided international-level quality on the ball. Picault established himself as the team’s best winger, tantalizing with blazing speed and leaping headers but in need of some improvement with his finishing. (Both players scored some of the team’s most impressive goals this year.) And Onyewu provided stability at the veteran minimum, filling in on defense while Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez missed time. Whether Onyewu should have played as much as he did is a question for the manager, but for a low-risk signing that came out of a trial, Onyewu was everything the Union could have hoped for.

Two other signings didn’t pan out in the same way. Fans and media expected Dutchman Giliano Wijnaldum to seize the left back spot from Fabinho. But the young man got off to a poor start, not sniffing the first team until midseason, and his performances there were quite a mixed bag. It’s not a good sign that Fabinho finished out the season at left back, that rumblings of Wijnaldum’s indifference have emanated from Chester, and that he is expected not to return.

And then there’s Jay Simpson. Look, there are two ways to look at the English striker’s season. One is that Simpson was never a good fit for the Union as a forward who required service on a team that offered him none, and that he lacked the necessary quality to change his game. The other is that Simpson was snakebitten — he did enough during training camp to win the starting job, scored on his home debut, then suffered an injury and found himself frozen out while C.J. Sapong went on the run of his life. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Simpson probably wasn’t going to be the next Bradley Wright-Phillips and one goal is a paltry return, but the circumstances this season didn’t favor him and playing ten minutes here and there was never enough for Simpson to get into a groove.

The other offseason moves were all young players. Without a first round pick in the SuperDraft, Stewart brought in some real talent. Jack Elliott was a revelation at center back, and it’s an indictment of MLS scouting that he fell to the fourth round of the SuperDraft — and a tremendous find by Stewart. Marcus Epps, too, earned playing time and showed flashes. I am personally not a fan of his game and don’t think he has a long-term future in the league, but that sentiment is not universal.

Others showed only flashes. Stewart won raves for prying Adam Najem away from New York, but the polished collegian is further from the first team than many expected; after earning some midseason playing time the staff lost all confidence in him and he finished the year in Bethlehem. Aaron Jones and Jake McGuire spent the year in Bethlehem.

The moves not made

The fairest criticism of Stewart is not that his signings underperformed. Rather, it’s that his signings failed to address the biggest problem with the team — the lack of a No. 10 — and that a failure to fix this in midseason doomed the Union.

I’m sympathetic to half of that argument. The Union absolutely should have gone out and signed a No. 10 in the winter. The tactical system, etched in stone, requires a player with a unique skill set that no one on the current roster has. Stewart (and the coaching staff) erred in the conclusion that Roland Alberg could fill that role after Tranquillo Barnetta somewhat surprisingly left the team. With a year to evaluate Alberg, it should have been clear that while Alberg has a nose for goal and a decent passing eye, he doesn’t have the fitness, mentality, or defensive willingness to give the Union what they wanted in that spot.

From there, a gaping hole sat at the center of the Union’s tactical system. Alberg’s fitness issues prompted an ineffective turn for Alejandro Bedoya at the 10; after Alberg returned his lack of suitability saw Ilsinho grafted into that position. Ilsinho is a joy to watch — I’ll defend that position until the Brazilian hangs up his boots — but he looked lost too often learning a position on the fly and never really developed a great feel for it.

In the Union’s tactical system, a competent No. 10 is essential. The Union’s best season under Jim Curtin came when Barnetta filled that role. Chaco Maidana, too, filled that spot well for two years. This year’s group of No. 10s wasn’t up to snuff, and that’s primarily on Stewart.

However, Stewart’s decision not to sign a band-aid in July was a wise one. The names the Union kicked the tires on inspired no excitement whatsoever among observers, and the Union weren’t going to make a serious playoff run this year short of Messi himself strapping on his boots. With Ilsinho, Alberg, and Maurice Edu set to come off the books this winter, Stewart can now make a run at a true difference-making No. 10.

It would have made sense, of course, to increase Adam Najem’s responsibility level in that position while slowly phasing out veterans Ilsinho and Alberg. That bafflingly didn’t happen. The question of what happens to players after Stewart brings them in, and to what extent he controls the development and playing time of the Union’s younger players, is best left for another piece.

The mismanagement of the No. 10 position cost the Union dearly this season, and Stewart deserves his share of the blame. But Stewart should also get credit for not wasting money on a band-aid. (When band-aids get ripped off… they hurt.)

The true test will be whether he can fill that position adequately this offseason.

22 Comments

  1. “It would have made sense, of course, to increase Adam Najem’s responsibility level in that position while slowly phasing out veterans Ilsinho and Alberg. That bafflingly didn’t happen. ”

    What does this have to do with ES? This is 100% on Curtin. Unless the argument here is that you want ES to go over his coaches head and become a dictator.

    • Or, they left him alone at Bethlehem where he played well for the most part as an investment in developing his future.

      • Problem is that answers nothing for us. He is already 22. I call that old in terms of “development”, since I adhere to the non-US developmental curve.

        So at this point, what do we know about Najem in the MLS? Nothing.

        So when we get a #10, are we getting a young one on a long contract that will take over for years? At which case Najem is a AAAA player at best.

        Or can we get a currently established #10 that is closer to 30 than not, and expect Najrem to take over sooner rather than later?

        We have no idea.

        If we sucked this year, than I would rather suck but still have some answers. We have none. Curtin gave us none.

    • James I think you are being a bit overzealous in your defense of Stewart. Peter goes on, after where you quoted him, to question what IS Stewart’s role in player development. In no way does Peter put this on Stewart alone. The “baffling” part I took as being more directed towards Curtin. And further on, when Peter talks about “…Stewart deserves his share of the blame.” , I believe he’s referring to not signing a #10 after Barnetta left (which they new about before his season ended), and before this past season started. Which I totally agree with. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am. Peter can certainly defend himself, but that’s the way I took it.

  2. Many discussions about Stewart’s performance this past season come down to the unknowable: How responsible is Stewart for the product on the field? Many believe Stewart has dictated formation, tactics and lineups. I’m of the opinion that Stewart has gone out and gotten players for Curtin and has not dictated the 18, the formation, etc. I only say that based on Stewart’s answers to interview questions in which he said as much and the fact that any coach worth a thing should be playing a shape and 18 he believes in. Disappearing acts by Jones, Najem, Simpson, etc, are on Curtin in my book.

    • Disagree re Najem and Jones.
      .
      Jones was not ready to be an offensive distributor at the MLS level, period, and still has plenty of opportunity to improve it at the USL level.
      .
      Najem needed a year to transition to the pros and may need more. His very best game of the season, among many good ones, came when he knew every player of the 22 on the field in detail, v Red Bull’s 2. He needed that to outsmart their tendencies. He is not enough of a physical specimen to overwhelm anybody. That cannot be his game at this point.

      • Here’s the thing, Tim, you have a team that you know by mid season has no shot of accomplishing anything. At the latest, you know your season is over when you get booted from the Open Cup. Curtin knows he doesn’t really like his options at the 10. Ilsinho only performs some times, Alberg doesn’t defend at all. Where is Najem going to learn to be a 10? He’s gotta sink or swim in MLS. At 22, he shouldn’t need psychological coddling. If that’s even what it is. So now, we’re going into a new season and don’t really know what Najem is.

      • He learns at a lower level. I’ve seen enough to know exactly what Najem is: Not. Ready. For. MLS.

      • If he’s not ready now, he never will be.

  3. I disagree with the notion that the mythical, to-be-acquired Union #10 needs “defensive willingness.” 4-2-3-1 does not ask for much defense out of that central midfield player.

    • If we are keeping Medunjanin, then of course it’s a big deal or else you are comfortable with Bedoya holding down the middle of the field all by himself.

    • Osager – I agree with you. A no. 10 does not need to be a defensive bulldog to provide positive value to a team. However, the Union coaching staff does not agree. Jim Curtin clearly wants a no. 10 who’s going to be active defensively – it’s all you heard him talk about midseason when discussing the play of Ilsinho, Alberg, and Bedoya.

  4. The Chopper says:

    While Charley Davies was a last year acquisition, the off season decision to re-sign and pay him was a huge waste of resources. That along with the Simpson acquisition represents a massive misuse of funds for a team that can ill afford it. That takes Stewart’s grade down to a C+ before you bring up anything else.

  5. I think the Union could’ve gotten much more than a “band aid” #10 in the Summer window. It’s the best time to get European players, which is where Earnie has connections. Instead, they are going to have to pay a premium to pry players away from teams mid-season. Yes, they’ll have additional TAM, but imagine if they had an established #10 integrated into the team before the 2018 season.
    .
    Of course, I don’t think this is Earnie’s (or Jim’s) fault. Any move made before the offseason TAM influx was likely going to be a DP level signing, and I have a hard time believing that Jay Sugarman was willing to spend on a 3rd DP. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of elite MLS talent came here during the Summer window.
    .
    This past Summer window was the perfect opportunity to create an elite midfield trio that could build chemistry during a lost season. THEN we could build off of that in the offseason by upgrading the wings. Instead, we were reminded that this team will likely amount to nothing as long as Sugarman owns the team.

  6. “Ilsinho is a joy to watch”

    You like a guy who runs with tiny steps, turns the ball over a lot and is equally unpredictable for both teammates and opponents alike?

    You’re a strange man, Peter Andrews.

  7. Onyewu/Haris/Fafa – a pound of good.
    .
    Failure to get a 10 – a dump truck of bad.

  8. Matt McClain says:

    Najem not gaining more first team minutes was Curtin’s worst mistake this season. Thought he controlled most Steel FC games he appeared in. Seemed poised enough for the responsibility increase.

  9. They knew about Barnetta not returning, so it wasn’t really surprising.

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