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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The bad news in the Union's playoff chase

After Saturday’s surprising (and surprisingly efficient) 1-0 win at Montreal, I decided to wait a few days to levy the less uplifting news that the MLS standings had to offer for the buoyant spirits of Philadelphia Union fans. Certainly after the emancipation of the Union from the specter of Rais M’Bolhi’s continued presence Monday, no one wanted a dousing of cold, logical water.

But the truth remains fairly bleak for the Union. For weeks, the Union haven’t sustained enough success to consider it important where other teams stood. But now that they have the chance of parlaying their Montreal win into a mini-streak when New England comes to town this weekend, it’s worth getting the standings to fess up their secrets.

First, the good news: After weeks of stagnation, the Union have created daylight between themselves and Chicago in the basement of the Eastern Conference. The Union’s 27 points are just one behind a crowd of three teams – Montreal, New York City and Orlando City. NYCFC is going nowhere quickly with its aged and perpetually strained midfield, and Orlando is in freefall with one win and 24 goals allowed in its last eight games, usurping the Union’s long-secure place as MLS’ leakiest team.

Here’s how the league stands this week:

Source: MLS Soccer.

So, all that good news is mitigated by one single nugget of negativity: The Impact, which occupy the sixth and final playoff berth, have four games in hand on the Union. If we even out their games-played total, the Impact’s points-per-game average yields 33 points, six ahead of the Union.
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Friday, August 21, 2015

Four's company: Union on the brink of goalkeeping history

Could John McCarthy be headed to the bench for Andre Blake?
Jim Curtin didn't rule it out Thursday. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)
It should shock no one to state that the Philadelphia Union have an ignominious goalkeeping history. So it’s not surprising that the Union are on the verge of another inglorious distinction between the posts, potentially this weekend.

Jim Curtin strongly hinted Thursday at his weekly press conference that Andre Blake could be in line for his season debut Saturday against Montreal. The timing would seem to be right: Blake is recovered from surgeries on both knees in January, then May. He’ll leave for international duty with Jamaica for a two-leg tie with Nicaragua in the third round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Sept. 4 and 8.

Here’s what Curtin had to say:

“We’re thinking about it. We’ll make a decision. Andre’s been called in to Jamaica three weeks from now, so there’s a possibility that it makes sense to give him a game or two.”

If Curtin plays the same loyalty card he did last year with Zac MacMath, it may be that he’s deemed John McCarthy as having earned the start in the Sept. 30 Open Cup final. That would position McCarthy to play a couple of games in late September to stay sharp.

In the meantime, Brian Sylvestre is on the shelf until his oft-reaggravated hand injury is fully healed. When the subject was broached two weeks ago, Curtin declared McCarthy the starter in Orlando. There was no such openness this week. Curtin also failed to conceal his disappointment with McCarthy in Sunday’s 3-3 draw with Chicago.

“Well, the game, not happy with how we executed at that 2-1, we had a lot of chances to get the third goal,” was how Curtin started his postgame press address. “Sean Johnson obviously had a very good night. He had a lot of key saves, a lot of big saves to keep them in it. I think we gave up four shots on goal and three goals. So, again, you know, you work so hard, you finally break through and get a goal.”
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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Into the valley: What's next for Harrisburg City?

Of all the parties and portions of Pennsylvania – Philadelphia, Chester, Reading, Allentown – named Wednesday in Bethlehem, one was noticeably prevalent in declaration but physically absent.

The elephant under the tent for the Union’s launch of a Lehigh Valley USL side in 2016 was the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Union’s (soon-to-be former) developmental partner.

For about as long as the Philadelphia Union have played soccer, they’ve been affiliated with Harrisburg. That arrangement has offered countless Union player the chance for rehab or maintenance matches in USL through the years. Per Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz, the Union’s link to Harrisburg “was a lot of the impetus for the two leagues aligning,” prior to the 2013 season to allow greater player movement and enhance USL’s utility as a reserve league.

Whether or not the Union had any pull in the original connection between America’s first and third divisions, that paradigm is on the way out the door, chased by what began in 2014 with L.A. Galaxy starting the “Galaxy II” side as a reservoir for young talent, offering them regular games and providing relief from the senior roster as the minor-league side did the dirty work of blood-letting.

The Union are the ninth team – behind L.A., Portland, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and New York Red Bulls – to field its own USL squad. Per USL CEO and Managing Partner Alec Papadakis, the majority of MLS clubs could operate full affiliates by next year.

“We have at present eight MLS teams,” he said during the press conference. “Today will be nine. We expect two more to join us for the 2016 season.”

(Papadakis declined to clarify later whether the two new teams are MLS-affiliated or not. Orlando City has announced its intention to form a Central Florida team. Dallas had toyed with the notion of a “two” franchise. Houston’s unveiled Rio Grande Valley FC doesn’t count, more in line with the older, Harrisburg-Union paradigm.) Read more »

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Union unveil new USL franchise at Lehigh University

USL CEO and Managing Partner Alec Papadakis, left, presents
a Lehigh Valley 16 jersey to Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz
Wednesday at Lehigh University.
The Philadelphia Union announced Wednesday what has long been rumored: A USL franchise operating out of the Lehigh Valley region.

The club, which will be named at a later date via fan vote through the month of September, will play its games at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium, a 16,000-seat stadium that also hosts the university’s football games, and begin operation in 2016.

The club will be the 27th club in USL’s rapid phase of expansion. The Union are the ninth MLS franchise to directly operate a USL franchise. USL CEO and Managing Partner Alec Papadakis said he expects to more to join that number before the start of next season. Orlando City has been rumored to be one of those clubs.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fire-Union: Open Cup semifinal lineups and observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
McCarthy
Fabinho-Marquez-Edu-Gaddis
Carroll-Lahoud
Barnetta-Maidana-Le Toux
Sapong
Bench: Blake, White, Creavalle, Pfeffer, Fred, Hoppenot, Ayuk, Aristeguieta.

Fire (4-4-2)
S.Johnson
Jones-Larentowicz-Gehrig-Palmer
Accam-Cocis-Polster-Shipp
Maloney-Gilberto
Bench: Busch, Stephens, Watson, Nyarko, Igboananike, J.Johnson, Magee


Live Stream:


- It’s a 50/50 split on the injury front. Maurice Edu shakes off his groin injury to earn a place in the starting XI, relegating Steven Vitoria to the stands (he’s not even in the 18, thanks to the limit of five international players in the lineup). Vincent Nogueira, however, fails his fitness test. That means the Union field the same front six as Saturday’s draw with Orlando City, with Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud a rather conservative central midfield pairing.

- The glaring work-in-progress for the Union is in the midfield triumvirate. How much interchange is there between Cristian Maidana, ostensibly in the No. 10 role, and Tranquillo Barnetta on the left wing? How much less effective is that group without a credible threat from an attack-minded No. 8 (presumably Lahoud in this case)? And if that arrangement doesn’t work or doesn’t push the action as manager Jim Curtin desires at home against a Fire team winless in its last 19 games outside of Illinois, how quickly does he dial up a change, perhaps Zach Pfeffer in midfield or Fernando Aristeguieta up top with CJ Sapong moved to the wing?

- The Fire, MLS’s only winless team on the road this season, have all of their firepower back, and they have no shortage of attacking options, albeit ones with limited experience playing together. David Accam and Shaun Maloney are ready to go from the start, and Gilberto makes his debut with Maloney playing off his shoulder. Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko and Kennedy Igboananike are late-game options aplenty off the bench. There will be plenty of interchanging to challenge Carroll and Lahoud: Harry Shipp spiriting in from the left wing, Maloney hovering behind Gilberto, Accam running toward the byline from wherever he pleases. The Fire are last in the Eastern Conference in goals scored by a wide margin, but they don’t have the injury excuse to factor in Wednesday.

- This is the Union’s ninth Open Cup match since the start of 2014. None of the previous eight have finished in 90 minutes. Six have gone to extra time, three have required resolution through penalty kicks and two were delayed by weather. The weather at PPL Park looks clear, so bet on extra time.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

Backed into a corner: The Union's set-piece struggles


There are plenty of areas in which the Philadelphia Union have proven substandard this season. But perhaps the most glaring, most thoroughly deficient area of their game is their execution on corner kicks, where the only substantial outcome for the Union this season is, well, generating this:



Alexi Lalas schtick aside, here are the pertinent figures: Since the start of the 2014 season, the Union rank second in MLS, having earned 348 corner kicks in 58 games, an average of exactly six per game. They led the league in 2014 with 211 corners and sit fourth this year with 137. (First since the start of 2014 is New England with 353.) Add in the bevy of Open Cup games – I account for all but the Rochester game, since those stats appear to exist only on the hand-written stat sheet provided postgame – and the total elevates to 411 – 265 last year, 146 this year.

In that time, the Union’s total number of goals produced off those corners is a whopping nine. Just 9.

Despite the addition of CJ Sapong's aerial threat this season,
the Union remain woeful on converting corner kicks. (AP)
If you can’t remember any offhand, that’s not a surprise, so let’s break them down.

In 2014, the Union scored three goals directly off corners (which I define as a ball played in from the corner and scored before the opposing team can clear it from the 18-yard box). Jack McInerney scored in the opener against Portland, Maurice Edu equalized late against Real Salt Lake and Sheanon Williams made this great run against Colorado. Twice, the Union scored on second balls (i.e., a corner cleared, then put immediately back in), with like Edu in the Open Cup against Harrisburg City and Andrew Wenger from a pinball off a couple of heads against Toronto. In addition, Edu drew a penalty kick on a corner against the Red Bulls in July.

This season, the return is even sparser. The Union have twice scored off corner kicks: The Jacob Peterson own goal in the April 5 shootout in Kansas City that gave rise to #SetPieceOrgy and courtesy of CJ Sapong June 6 against NYCFC. In addition, we can add one indirect goal, though it’s a stretch, with Edu jumping on the rebound of a Fabinho shot from outside the box after he corralled a corner clearance by Montreal June 27.

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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame thoughts

UNION (4-2-3-1)
McCarthy
Fabinho-Edu-White-Gaddis
Carroll-Pfeffer
Le Toux-Maidana-Ayuk
Sapong
Bench: Blake, Marquez, Vitoria, Barnetta, Fred, Casey, Aristeguieta

New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
Robles 
Wallace-Miazaga-Perrinelle-Lade 
McCarty-Felipe 
Grella-Kljestan-Sam 
B.Wright-Phillips 
Bench: Reynish, McLaws, Ouimette, Davis, Abang, Zizzo, S.Wright-Phillips


- All eyes are on one name on the bench: Tranquillo Barnetta. The Swiss player – maybe the Union’s biggest ever acquisition who was unveiled Friday – makes the bench as anticipated. He required a week of intercontinental transit to seal his move to Philadelphia, so he’s not 90-minutes fit, but he could play some role in this contest.

- Brian Sylvestre’s hand laceration wasn’t the subject of much discussion this week, and it didn’t preclude him from training. But he’s out of the 18 today, with John McCarthy getting the nod in goal. McCarthy was stellar last week against the Red Bulls.

- Among the starting XI, emphasis will be placed on the Union’s central midfield pivot that will be without Vincent Nogueira for the majority of August. It’s Zach Pfeffer’s time to shine: He was hit-or-miss last week against D.C. United, with some good moments and some bad, and with as outstanding as Nogueira has been, especially going forward, the onus is on Pfeffer to step up big time. 

- Ray Gaddis makes his 100th start today, a remarkable accolade for the hard-working fullback. Here’s what he had to say on the matter earlier in the week. He’s just the second member of the 2012 SuperDraft class to hit 100 MLS starts. 

- For the Red Bulls, no shocks in the starting lineup. Kemar Lawrence has the week off to recover from the Gold Cup. Shaun Wright-Phillips makes the matchday 18 after being signed midweek. One oddity is that Dax McCarty, like Pfeffer, had a midweek flight to Colorado for All-Star festivities (Pfeffer in the Homegrown Game).
 

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Swiss watch: Where Tranquillo Barnetta ranks among Union signings

Tranquillo Barnetta's exploits in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League
with Schalke rank him as one of the most impressive players
the Union have ever landed. (AP)
From the time Tranquillo Barnetta’s name surfaced as a serious transfer target of the Philadelphia Union, there was a debate that cropped up among the select group of Union media. If the Union could land the Swiss winger, as they officially did Wednesday, where exactly would he rank in the annals of Union history?

It’s a superficial way to appraise a player with all of three training sessions at PPL Park under his belt. But in a league where the Union constantly fight (often in vain) to carve out a niche of attention, the public relations splash of any move is a consideration, one that shouldn’t but often does outweigh the tactical implications.

With that in mind, let’s count down where Barnetta ranks among fellow Union acquisitions, in terms of his profile upon arriving at PPL Park and the accomplishments he’s compiled in his pre-Union career.

(Honorable mention goes to Maurice Edu, who’d finish sixth on this list. Old Firm Derby goals have a way of making you legendary in certain corners of the world, though one successful foreign stint does not a career make.)

5. Kleberson

Kleberson’s name was well known in the world of soccer, more for his international than club exploits. He was a fixture in Brazil’s run to the 2002 World Cup title, setting up the second of Ronaldo’s pair of goals in the final, then he made a surprising return to the squad in time for the 2010 run. He remains one of 10 World Cup winners to play in MLS. Less auspiciously, Kleberson is known as perhaps one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest transfer blunders for his poor stint with Manchester United starting in 2003. Though he stabilized his career in Turkey with Besiktas, the midfielder proved his success for club was largely dependent on being in Brazil, and even then, his production trailed off long before he was the makeweight for shipping Freddy Adu out of town in May 2013.

4. Carlos Ruiz
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Sea of Tranquillo: Barnetta trains with Union

Tranquillo Barnetta was excited at Schalke last season,
but he's looking to move on. (AP)
After several weeks of whispers on both sides of the pond, the Philadelphia Union got as close as it has been to transfer target Tranquillo Barnetta.

The Swiss winger trained with the club Friday and is weighing up interest from the Union against several reported offers in Europe. He was physically at practice (Video evidence here and here.)

“He’s here seeing if Philadelphia and MLS is a fit,” Union technical director Chris Albright said. “It’s a player whose pedigree I think speaks for itself. You look at his resume playing in the last three World Cups and playing in the Bundesliga. We’re hopeful that we can get it over the line, but right now, it’s a feeling-out process.”

Barnetta, 30, has been capped 75 times by the Swiss National Team, playing in each of the last three World Cups. His career blossomed at age 20 with German club Bayer Leverkusen, and in 2012, he moved to Schalke 04, a move that hasn’t worked out quite as well including a loan stint at Eintract Frankfurt. He brings a bevy of Champions League experience.

“He’s a good player,” Jim Curtin said. “He’s making a big decision right now. You can see his quality in training, obviously, and on the world stage for Switzerland and at Schalke in big games. It doesn’t take a genius when you do a scouting report on him, the first game that pops up is against Real Madrid in the Champions League. He’s a quality player, a guy we’ve obviously very interested in and we hope to wear this badge.”

Barnetta’s age makes him an attractive target. He fills a need as providing wing depth, especially now that the trade of Sheanon Williams to Houston Thursday leaves the Union shorthanded at the fullback spot.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Union-Red Bulls: Open Cup lineup and observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
McCarthy
Fabinho-White-Edu-Gaddis
Carroll-Nogueira
Le Toux-Maidana-Ayuk
Casey
Bench: Mitchell, Williams, Fred, Pfeffer, McLaughlin, Hoppenot, Aristegieta 

Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
Robles
Lade-Miazga-Perrinelle-Wallace
McCarty-Felipe
Sam-Kljestan-Abang 
Wright-Phillips 
Bench: Reynish, Miller, Ouimette, Davis, Sanchez, Grella, Zizzo  


- I’ve written on several occasions about the buffoonery surrounding this tie at 4 on a weekday afternoon. Judging by how dead the environment is, it’s about as bad as I would’ve thought. Solid work, U.S. Soccer.

- Only the Union could keep MLS so engrossed by something so mundane as a backup goalkeeper. After an evening of hints on Twitter, MLS pool goalkeeper Trey Mitchell is on the Union’s bench to backup John McCarthy. He sat on their bench behind Brian Sylvestre in Vancouver two months ago.

- The limit of five internationals in the 18 severely hampers the Union, particularly with three Americans out (CJ Sapong due to suspension, Andrew Wenger and Richie Marquez due to injury). All five start, with Eric Ayuk in for Wenger and Maurice Edu returning from suspension to fill Marquez’s void next to Ethan White. Conor Casey (surprisingly, not Fernando Aristeguieta will fill in in Sapong’s stead.


- Jim Curtin had no qualms about his opposite number Jesse Marsch’s approach to this game, and those are verified by the lineup the Red Bulls coach assembled. The lineup is mostly the same one they used on the weekend, with Bradley Wright-Phillips the danger man up top and all the usual faces (Lloyd Sam, Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty) included. The backline is still without Kemar Lawrence and Roy Miller, which leaves some areas to attack.


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Monday, July 20, 2015

Feeling Bullish: Odds and ends ahead of NYRB Open Cup tie

A sprained left ankle will likely keep Richie Marquez, right,
out of Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal with the Red Bulls.
(Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)
The Philadelphia Union travel to Red Bull Arena Tuesday to tangle with New York in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal that is all kinds of weird. In addition to the heat and 4 p.m. start time, the Union bring plenty of peculiarities to the table as well. Here are a few of the major oddities that manager Jim Curtin discussed prior to training Monday.

- Injury update: Following the injury that forced him to leave Saturday's game with Toronto, Andrew Wenger underwent concussion testing this morning before training and didn’t start the session on the field with his teammates. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he failed the protocols, though. In Curtin’s words, “He’s feeling better, but he has to be symptom-free for us to even have a shot to start talking about him getting back on the field.” All those qualifiers mean he’s doubtful, at best. Richie Marquez’s ankle will likely keep him out Tuesday. Curtin: “His left ankle is pretty swollen right now. He says it feels OK, but I just saw it. It’s not pretty. There’s some swelling and some blood on there, so looks like maybe out for tomorrow and possibly maybe back for D.C.” Curtin labeled Cristian Maidana’s knock against Toronto FC as “just a big bruise” on his foot that shouldn’t affect his status.

- Curtin said that the Union attempted to appeal CJ Sapong’s red card, but the petition got nowhere. “We tried to appeal that but there was no process, really, that goes on in the Open Cup, so they would not listen to any … as bad as the call was, they didn’t want to hear anything,” Curtin said. A reminder of what a borderline call that was.



- The Union remain in search of a backup goalkeeper for the tie. John McCarthy will start, but Brian Sylvestre is Cup-tied to Carolina and Andre Blake is away with Jamaica, where he’s fallen in the depth chart to third. (Dwayne Miller started all three group games, but was injured in the finale against El Salvador, replaced by Ryan Thompson, who started the quarterfinal win over Haiti.) That leaves the Union looking for just about any non-Cup-tied pro to sit the bench. The scenario of a keeper-less bench is in Curtin’s view “the worst-case. (It’s a) possibility obviously, but John will be called upon to play a good game for us. We do want to try to find a solution, but we do need a second goalkeeper.” In case you’re wondering, Rais M’Bolhi is not an option, per Curtin.
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Friday, July 17, 2015

By the numbers: Union 2015 salary figures (UPDATED)

Ray Gaddis got paid with a new deal last year.
Friday, we found out just how much.
(Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)
The MLS Players Union at long last released its 2015 player salaries Friday, the day after announcing the formal ratification by player vote of the new collective bargaining agreement. The rest of the news week will be filled with highlights of the big numbers, but those emanating from Philadelphia Union land don’t exactly rate inclusion in those roundups.

Below is the full list of Union salaries with some explanatory notes at the end. Spots 1-20 indicate on-budget senior-roster players that count toward the salary cap, while spots 21-28 are the off-budget players, per the MLS Roster Rules and Regulations. This database, constructed by the Orlando Sentinel, is worth perusing as well for a more interactive form of the data.

(In alphabetical order, base salary listed, guaranteed compensations in parenthesis if different UPDATED)

1. Fernando Aristeguieta $350,004 (young designated player)
2. Maurice Edu $700,000 ($768,750 – designated player)
3. Fred $60,000
4. Brian Carroll $150,000
5. Conor Casey $180,000
6. Fabinho $114,000 ($118,500)
7. Ray Gaddis $130,000 ($132,500)
8. Antoine Hoppenot $60,000
9. Michael Lahoud $108,900 ($112,233)
10. Sebastien Le Toux $275,000 ($285,228)
11. Cristian Maidana $203,500 ($217,250)
12. Rais M’Bolhi $350,000
13. Vincent Nogueira $330,000
14. CJ Sapong $125,000 ($142,000)
15. Steven Vitoria $400,000
16. Andrew Wenger $180,000 ($282,000)
17. Ethan White $125,000
18. Sheanon Williams $145,000 ($150,000)
19. Richie Marquez $60,000
20. Dzenan Catic $60,000 ($75,000)

21. Andre Blake $85,000 ($123,000 – Generation Adidas)
22. Jimmy McLaughlin $60,000 (Homegrown Player)
23. Zach Pfeffer $60,000 (Homegrown Player)
24. Eric Bird $60,000
25. Raymond Lee $60,000
26. Eric Ayuk $50,000
27. John McCarthy $50,000 ($56,250)
28. Brian Sylvestre $60,000

Inactive 
Austin Berry $93,519 ($108,519)
Danny Cruz $125,000 ($131,667)
Leo Fernandez $60,000
Carlos Valdes $400,000

Other
Zac MacMath $130,000 (paid by Colorado via intra-league loan mechanism)

Totals
Union salary cap (Totals for players 1-20): $3,692,650
Union base salaries (Totals for players 1-28): $4,117,650
Union total compensation (including inactive roster): $5,578,401

- The Union would appear to be slightly over the salary cap of $3.49 million, accounting for Fernando Aristeguieta’s cap hit at the young DP threshold and Maurice Edu at the DP number. I’ll double check my math on that.

- (UPDATE: Thanks to this outstanding work by Paul Tenorio at the Orlando Sentinel, we see that the Union's total player expenditure ranks 10th in MLS, sandwiched between Sporting Kansas City and Portland, though Portland's signing of Lucas Melano Thursday certainly vaults them into the top half. The big split in fortunes is between teams five and six: Seattle at $11.3 million and New England at $6.5 million.)
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