By Locria Nyla Fox @LocriaOnSports
Let’s face it: this season has been dismal for Philadelphia Union fans.
After a disastrous finish to the 2016 season in which they did not win a game after August 27, fans hoped 2017 would be better as sporting director Earnie Stewart and new DP Alejandro Bedoya would have full offseasons to prepare.
Instead, the Union started 0-4-4, and despite following that with a four-game win streak, never really recovered. As things stand, Philadelphia is ninth in the East, six points behind sixth-place Atlanta United with a strong end-of-season schedule. Oh, and the Five Stripes have two games in hand.
So after a horrid season, what should the Union do? Here’s my optimal-scenario for the rest of the season heading into the winter.
Sack Jim Curtin. I have nothing against Curtin as a person; he seems like a really good guy and the players like him. However, the problem with him is that he is not very tactically sound, and that’s a huge issue in an Eastern Conference that has seen teams hire managers such as Patrick Vieira, Tata Martino, and Veljko Paunović.
He’s very stubborn, refusing to even slightly tweak formations, only really rotating if there’s injuries (or it’s a cup match), and his tactics are subpar. I get trying to do a 4-2-3-1 (a very flexible formation) counterattack, but that requires off-ball movement, something the Union does not really do; just look at when Haris Medunjanin picks out a perfect pass, only to see that the guy who he was looking for started his run so late that he never gets to it.
Let’s also not forget to mention how overly harsh he is towards younger players. Keegan Rosenberry has a couple bad games early in the season and gets frozen out of the team. Yet Ray Gaddis strings together a bunch of apperances where he provides nothing in attack and mediocre defense and remains in the lineup? You want to know what happens when you do this? You become the Pablo Mastroeni Colorado Rapids, who were oozing with talent and potential in 2013 with a young group that included Dillon Powers, Dillon Serna, Deshorn Brown, and Shane O’Neill. Only one of those players is still in Colorado, and it’s safe to say Serna is not the player most hoped he’d be by now. A new coach would help avoid that situation in Philadelphia.
I don’t quite think Brendan Burke (Bethlehem Steel manager) is ready for the top level just yet (and I honestly think he prefers to be a developmental coach), nor do I think assistant Mike Sorber is the answer; I would go outside the organization for an experienced guy.
Play the kids. The Union know who they have in their first-team players. Now it’s time to see what they have in terms of the young players. Give Derrick Jones and Marcus Epps, who have impressed in limited duty, first team runs. Get Keegan Rosenberry out of his slump; the fact that he’s been benched so long is baffling (I get benching him during the 4 game win streak because it was working, but Ray Gaddis is a nonfactor offensively and his defense has regressed). Allow Auston Trusty, who shined at the U20 World Cup, to get first-team experience. See if Adam Najem can take over the #10 role for next season. If the Union intend on building through the academy and young players as they often repeat, it is imperative that they give those guys playing time at the MLS level.
Clear up cap space in the winter. I mentioned how bad the Union cap situation was in my last piece, but to refresh, the Union are using about $5 million against the cap of $3.85 million. With this year’s TAM value at about $1.2 million and the Union using it on multiple players (buying down Ilsinho‘s salary, as well as the salary and transfer fees of Haris Medunjanin and Jay Simpson), it is safe to assume the Union have very little remaining. Combine that with the fact that the Union are well over the salary cap and there’s very little financial flexibility right now.
They can fix this in the offseason. Ilsinho ($470k), Maurice Edu ($480k – paid $750k this season and occupies a DP slot), and Roland Alberg ($346k and an international slot) are all pricey contracts that are likely gone. I could also see the departures of Chris Pontius ($400k), Fabinho ($160k), Charlie Davies ($109k), Ray Gaddis ($160k), Warren Creavalle ($125k), and Brian Carroll ($132k).
The departures would total around $2 million of new cap space, in addition to the increase in TAM coming next year (reported at $2 million), in addition to the freeing up of two international slots and a DP slot. In a perfect world the Union can also find a take for Simpson ($465k), but that’s highly unlikely due to his wage. Maybe you bring some of these guys back with pay cuts, but I don’t see that happening. The only players I’d say are currently untouchable (unless they get a godfather offer) are CJ Sapong, Medunjanin, Bedoya, Fafà Picault, Jack Elliott, and the homegrowns.
Sort out the goalkeeping scenario. Andre Blake is almost certainly headed to Europe at this point, especially after his dominant Gold Cup. So the Union now have to sort out an issue. I’d sign another goalkeeper regardless of if you think McCarthy is going to be the #1 (and I believe he deserves a chance). Either they back up McCarthy and Jake McGuire goes to Bethlehem, they start over McCarthy with McGuire in Bethlehem, or McCarthy starts, McGuire backs up, and the new signing goes to Bethlehem (I don’t want Bethlehem’s success in the hands of a 17-year-old Tomas Romero; as talented as he is, the USL side needs a veteran). Just don’t screw it up the way you did in 2014…
Fill in the remaining holes. Now armed with around $1 million in cap space, the reported $2 million in TAM next season, two open DP slots, and two new international slots, the depth chart now looks like this, along with cap hits (we’re assuming Blake leaves as well):
|Simpson (465k – INTL)|
|Picault (115k)||Najem (HGP)||Herbers (GA)|
|Epps (53k)||Ayuk (65k)|
|Medunjanin (460k – INTL)||Bedoya (DP)|
|D. Jones (HGP)||Fontana (HGP)|
|Wijnaldum (65k – INTL)||Elliott (50k – INTL)||Onyewu (65k)||Rosenberry (104.5k)|
|Yaro (GA)||Marquez (135k)||A. Jones (50k – INTL)|
|Tribbett (65k)||Trusty (HGP)|
NOTE: HGPs and GAs do not count against the cap; DPs only count for a portion of their salary (this year it’s around $480k)
Looking at that roster, the weak spots are easily seen: a number 10, the wings, left back, and maybe goalkeeper. Now, how you fill those spots depends on how you play. I’d like to think a new manager would be tactically flexible, using the familiar 4-2-3-1 to start but eventually putting their own stamp on the team. If they stick with the 4-2-3-1, based on the removals I made earlier, this is what I’d ideally line up on opening night 2018:
|Simpson (465k – INTL)|
|Picault (115k)||Veteran DP #10 (DP)||New TAM Winger (~450k)|
|Epps (53k)||Najem (HGP)||Herbers (GA)|
|Ayuk (65k – INTL)|
|Medunjanin (460k – INTL)||Bedoya (DP)|
|D. Jones (HGP)||Strong Depth DM (~150k)|
|Attacking Left Back (~150k)||Elliott (53k – INTL)||Onyewu (65k)||Rosenberry (104.5k)|
|Wijnaldum (65k – INTL)||Yaro (GA)||Marquez (135k)||Veteran Backup (~75k)|
|Tribbett (65k)||Trusty (HGP)||A. Jones (53k – INTL)|
In terms of a veteran DP, I think the obvious comparison would be what we had with Tranquillo Barnetta – a talented vet on a short deal whose experience will aid the development of the youngsters.
With the TAM winger, I’m looking at someone similar to Daniel Royer from the Red Bulls. Royer right now has ten goals, is solid defensively (which would allow Rosenberry to get forward more frequently), and is a versatile player. Maybe you even add a second new wing and use Picault as a supersub, utilizing his torrid pace to terrorize tired defenses.
I chose to specify an attacking left back because quite frankly Giliano Wijnaldum is a zero on offense. A huge key to fullback and wingback play in the modern era is the ability to get involved and support attacks, combining with wingers and midfielders, and helping get the ball in the box through crosses or passes. This would also mean that, since the U are deep at center back, the team could go to a 3-5-2 if they wanted, because now they’d have a wingback on each side that can get forward.
I also noted that the Union should have a strong #6 on the roster. This would allow for flexibility as well. If the Union were to go 4-4-2 with Bedoya and Medunjanin at center mid, they’d be easily overrun due to the lack of a physical ball-winner, even if you stuck Derrick Jones (who, though he has size, hasn’t quite filled out his 6’3″ frame yet) at central mid and moved Bedoya to the wing. Plus, it helps to add some depth knowing that you will lose Bedoya for a bit ahead of next summer’s World Cup (and possibly Medunjanin as well, if Bosnia and Herzegovina qualifies). And of course, you can bring them on late in a game that you’re winning when you just want to kill the clock.
I’m not thrilled with keeping Simpson, and ideally you’d go out and grab another center-forward that can hold the ball up like Sapong. But Simpson’s awful contract holds that up. If you can somehow dump Simpson’s contract, whether through sale or trade, I’d get another strong target man that can push Sapong. (If you go to a two-striker setup, Fabian Herbers and Picault can both play that second-striker role; Herbers was prolific there in college.) If he has to stay, however, if the Union utilize a two-striker setup, he may be able to salvage something from his MLS career (he’s never been very good as a lone striker), but I’m not optimistic.
As for goalkeeper, I would give McCarthy a try as the starter, as he’s shown fairly well in Blake’s absence and in cup matches. But if him as a starter doesn’t work, it’s not too difficult to find a good keeper in this league. (In this hypothetical, the U sign a third keeper who gets sent to Bethlehem.)
The cap hit for this side would be $3.92 million. But wait, there’s more! Roster spots 21-30 don’t count against the cap! Slots 21-24 are reserved for GA players and Senior Minimum Salary ($65k) players, so you can subtract around $130k from that cap hit. Slots 25-28 are reserved for Reserve Minimum Salary ($53k) players, so you can take away another $159k (Elliott, A. Jones, and Epps). So you’d be looking at a team below the cap even BEFORE the cap increase (which happens every year) and without using any TAM or general allocation money.
As for international slots, you would pick up slots from the departures of Alberg and Ilsinho, as well as, the return of a slot that was recently traded to Columbus. If you loan out Aaron Jones or Eric Ayuk for the season, that opens another one (two, if you loan out both ). So that allows Philadelphia to be flexible looking for reinforcements.
With a new manager, the shedding of bad contracts, and reinforcements, the Union would be set up for a successful 2018. They would have the flexibility to make multiple formations and tactics work, the quality to compete in a strong East, and the ability to use their homegrown and young players as depth instead of burning money against the cap to the Brian Carrolls and Charlie Davieses of the world who barely, if ever, play.
The Union have a lot of work to do this winter after another season of disappointment. It’s been 6 years since a playoff game was played in Chester. Let’s hope they can fix it before it becomes 7.
Featured image courtesy: ESPNFC
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