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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The central conundrum: Hackworth weighs in on the Berry-Wheeler debate

Austin Berry, here jumping against Portland's Diego Valeri in the season opener,
finds himself on the bench behind Aaron Wheeler in the Union's
center-back pecking order. (AP)
John Hackworth is generally not one for grand declarations or illuminating insights into his coaching process as it pertains to players. That close-to-the-vest demeanor makes his open proclamation that Aaron Wheeler is his first-choice center back at the moment in favor of a healthy-again Austin Berry all the more poignant.

In full (asides and all), here is the answer Hackworth gave when I asked the question of the pecking order between Wheeler and Berry:

“I don’t think there’s a definitive answer for that because you have Aaron Wheeler, who’s played well. Being very honest – and I told Aaron this during the first half against Houston – he needed to be more aggressive. He needed to assert himself more. And he did a great job of that toward the end of the first half, and he continued to do that in the second half. You get a shutout as a team, and deal with an opponent in Houston who kind of like us came away from their previous game against New England, just they were going to go out and take shots from everywhere. And we defended pretty well as a group.

“My point is thought that Aaron has done well in the minutes that he’s played, and because we’ve had a positive result like getting a shutout and doing it against a team like Houston that was going to come out firing, I think Aaron is still the first choice. And Austin, and there’s other guys like Ethan White, who need to continue to work hard in training to see if they get that opportunity.”

So there you have it: Wheeler is the Union’s first-choice center back until further notice. The fact that in 2012, Wheeler was a forward in the Finnish second division while Berry was MLS rookie of the year as a central defender in Chicago is of no consequence in the debate, however interesting the sentence might read.

What is important for the Union and Hackworth is how they’ve stacked up this season. From what we’ve seen, there’s little separating the two. Wheeler has started five games, including the last two and five of the last six, while Berry has gotten three starts, finishing each game but the New England match, in which Wheeler spelled him for what goes a split clean sheet between them, I suppose. (Wheeler also played the final three minutes of the Portland game in a pseudo-defensive capacity; we’ll ignore that for this evaluation.)

So here are the raw numbers this season:
Read more »

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Hackworth presser, April 23

John Hackworth had plenty to talk about today at his weekly press address, more than I have space to cover in print today. Some of the highlights:

On facing Jack McInerney: It’s going to be interesting. I know personally I’ll look forward to seeing him. There’s no ill will between us. In this game in particular, our whole goal will be to deny not only Jack but (Marco) Di Vaio and the rest of their attacking players the time and space they need to do what they do best, and he’s an opponent right now. But I’m sure after the game we’ll have a word and wish him well until we see him next time when he’s the enemy again."

On fixing wastefulness in front of goal:
All we can do is continue to train and do a lot of reps and train on those specific areas, both in how we attack the goal area and execute in front of it. There’s different aspects where we feel we did a good job in past games, and clearly if we look back to Saturday, we didn’t execute those moments. Some of them, we didn’t even get opportunities in terms of shots or shots on goal, but had some relay good plays there. We’re trying to make sure our guys know we want them to take those opportunities, then it comes down to execution. We’re trying to put numbers in dangerous spots and have good reactions to anything that happens in the box. When you look back at the game Saturday, we were really unlucky not to have scored a goal or two.

On the Union's point accumulation through the early season:
Obviously, we are not happy with where we are in the standings right now. We legitimately feel as though we should’ve won five of our eight games for sure at a minimum. However, you can’t take away your opponents and the game of soccer itself is just not that predictable in terms of where you play well and you get opportunities. That’s why it’s sometimes so amazing and frustrating and why people are so passionate about it. What I will say though is that within our team, we’re very confident about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And my experiences as a coach is that the more you continue to play that way, the chances will turn. The tide will turn and we will see the results start to come our way. We’ve been doing a lot as a staff trying to analyze where we were successful and where we weren’t, where our opponents have gotten the better of us. The metrics that we look at, it’s pretty astounding the way we’ve played these eight games in terms of just putting the ball in a dangerous area. I think there’s a stat out there that a lot of people look at in soccer, and I don’t think it’s a good win. It’s shots, or shots on goal. It’s a terrible stat in soccer. I think the more important stat is how many penalty-area entries you get or how many final-third entries you have, how many successful passes you have, how many of those are forward. When you break down those metrics, we’ve been a really, really good team. Our thought is that we just need to continue to do that, and at the end of the day, at the end of the season, we’re going to be on the good side of that and it’s going to come out in our favor.
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Union-Dynamo: Lineups and pre-game thoughts

Philadelphia Union (4-1-2-3)
MacMath
Gaddis-Okugo-Wheeler-Williams
Carroll
Edu-Nogueira
Maidana-Casey-Wenger
Bench: Blake, Le Toux, Lahoud, Hoppenot, Berry, Fabinho, Fernandes.

Houston Dynamo (4-4-2)
Hall
Sarkodie-Taylor-Horst-Ashe 
Driver-Clark-Garcia-Cascio 
Bruin-Barnes
Bench: Deril, Cochran, Lopez, Carrasco, Creavale, Sherrod, Cummings. 

- The thought midweek was that there was a plan in place with John Hackworth’s starting XI against New York to rotate the squad. He followed through on that with a handful of changes, including the reintroduction of Conor Casey, Brian Carroll and Sheanon Williams after rests.

- The chemistry in the center of defense will be a key today for the Union. The position next to Amobi Okugo has been rotated often this young season, and the relationship between he and Austin Berry, and he and Aaron Wheeler has been underwhelming. With Wheeler back in the fold today (an interesting commentary on Berry’s place), they will have to be much better against an experienced strike tandem like Will Bruin and Giles Barnes, which can break you down a number of ways.

- Sebastien Le Toux gets a day off, which could be beneficial for him long-term, as he hasn’t exactly wowed of late. Le Toux’s absence on corners, where his delivery is occasionally sub-par, will be helpful, especially with Vincent Nogueira or Cristian Maidana taking over.

- At some point after his acquisition, you had to think you’d see Andrew Wenger as a wide forward in a 4-3-3.

- Both goals against New York came from untenably large pockets of space in front of the back four. The Union can ill-afford to replicate those mistakes today, especially with Oscar Boniek Garcia slotted into the center of midfield with Brad Davis out. That eases the burden on the fullbacks – though Tony Cascio can be a handful – but raises the onus on players in the center of the pitch.

- The battle today could very well be won in the middle of the pitch. The Union possess a manpower advantage there, with Carroll, Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira patrolling the area against Ricardo Clark and Garcia. However it happens, the Union’s personnel needs to have a better push forward and be more responsible tracking back if they want to end their winless ways.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

RBNY-Union: Lineups and pre-game thoughts

Philadelphia Union (4-1-2-3)
MacMath
Gaddis-Okugo-Wheeler-Fabinho
Edu
Nogueira-Fernandes
Maidana-Wenger-Le Toux
Bench: Blake, Hoppenot, Casey, Lahoud, Berry, Carroll, Williams

New York Red Bulls (4-4-2)
Robles
Kimura-Olave-Sekagya-Miller
Alexander -McCarty-Luyindula-Sam
Wright-Phillips/Henry
Bench: Meara, Bover, Stevenson, Armando, Cahill, Lade, Steele 

- Union manager John Hackworth espoused a desire to rotate his squad this week with three matches in eight days, and he’s done that. The Union introduces three changes from the draw with RSL last week. Aaron Wheeler comes in for Austin Berry, who had a horrible game against RSL. No word on whether that’s pre-planned or performance based. Brian Carroll fails to start for the first available game (without injury or suspension) since May 5, 2012, with Leo Fernandes starting centrally and Cristian Maidana coming in on the wing to move Maurice Edu to a holding midfield position. Fabinho, who didn’t play last week, enters for Sheanon Williams as he and Ray Gaddis flip sides.

- Maurice Edu will wear the captain’s armband for the first time as a member of the union. When in the home opener Carroll was unable to go, that honor went to Amobi Okugo.
- Andre Blake is back after a week out. The bench includes attacking options in Conor Casey and Antoine Hoppenot, but no change-of-pace midfield options.

- For the Red Bulls, Armando gets a place on the bench but isn’t up to start, drafting Ibrahim Sekagya into the side after he played well against the Union as a centerback last year. Tim Cahill earns a seat on the bench, Eric Alexander and Peguy Luyindula the preferred attacking midfield options.

- Okugo faces a third straight game with a rotated defensive partner. Keeping track of Thierry Henry (who burned them last year) and Bradley Wright-Phillips, especially as they interchange with the midfielders, will be a big task for he and Wheeler to sort out.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pondering the legacy of Keon Daniel

Few players in Union history left as confusing an imprint as Keon Daniel, whose three-plus year stint with the club officially came to an end Tuesday with the termination of his contract by mutual consent.
Keon Daniel, seen here against D.C. United last year,
was let go by the Union Tuesday. (AP)

His presence has elicited hopefulness, exasperation, devotion, confusion and dissatisfaction, among a wide continuum of other sentiments. Finding a simple summary for Daniel's 64 MLS appearances is well-nigh impossible for a player that has embodied both a major tactical problem and significant solution at versions points in his career.

The contradictions begin with Daniel's very stature. At a formidable 6-1, he was often the most physical of presences among slighter midfielders like Roger Torres and Brian Carroll. Yet he rarely played like it.

His 14 goals in 59 appearances for Trinidad & Tobago indicate his offensive aptitude. His two goals and four assists in 64 games for the Union suggest otherwise. At various times, he's represented for the Union their most attack-minded option, or their most physical, or their most technical.

His two goals are evidence of the promise that has always been so seductive for two Union coaching staffs. The first, June 11, 2011, against Real Salt Lake, was the kind of heads-up hustle goal a player of his stature would find on a somewhat regular basis based on his physicality alone. Instead, it stood alone for him. Statistically, that 2011 season in which he had a goal and two assists in 18 games (nine starts) is remarkably his most productive. (Go to the 1:35 mark below.)
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Friday, April 4, 2014

Carroll set to make Union history ... and join elite MLS club

Some fuss was made in last year’s season finale when Sheanon Williams became the first member of the Philadelphia Union to make 100 MLS appearances, a notable milestone for a team at the end of its fourth season. The news was understandably overshadowed by a playoff race that didn’t go the club’s way, but it was a notable achievement nonetheless.

With Williams on the shelf to start the season, Union captain Brian Carroll is now in line to catch him in the 100-cap club, positioned to reach the milestone this weekend when the Union travel to Chicago.

Brian Carroll is poised to leap into history this weekend
with his 100th appearance for the Union. (AP)

Union manager John Hackworth mentioned what the accolade would mean for his captain.

“I think that would say a lot,” Hackworth said. “Brian is obviously very important to our team. He has accepted the responsibility on our team the last couple of years of the leadership role. As a pro, if you look at the course of his career, he has always been a player who found his way into important position and consistently led by example. If you talk to coaches and players around the league, nobody every says anything but position things about the way Brian players and conducts himself on and off the field. Hitting a milestone like that is a great recognition for all the work that he does.”

Carroll remains behind Williams in one regard, though: All 100 of Williams’ appearances have been starts. Carroll has one substitute appearance to his name.

Once Carroll hits the mark, there are plenty of others waiting in the wings to make their 100th Union cap:

Sebastien Le Toux: 98 (91 starts; he has 159 total MLS appearances)
Jack McInerney: 95 (only 53 starts)
Amobi Okugo: 89 (74 starts)
Read more »

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Edu makes history for U.S., Union

When Maurice Edu’s number 7 was put up on the board at the University of Phoenix Stadium Wednesday night, it marked a return from the international wilderness for the Philadelphia Union midfielder, his first cap in 372 days, just over two months away from the open of the World Cup Finals.

Maurice Edu, left, battling with Mexico's Miguel Angel Ponce Wednesday,
made his return to the U.S. Men's National Team after over a year,
the first USMNT appearance for an active Union player. (AP)

Edu played the game’s final 19 minutes as a replacement for Kyle Beckerman in the United States’ 2-2 draw with Mexico in an international friendly. He didn’t do anything to adversely affect his chances of getting on the plane to Brazil in his 46th cap, making a few key interceptions in midfield and helping the U.S. stem the tide of Mexico’s comeback from a two-goal deficit. (If anything, increased uncertainty in the U.S. backline might benefit Edu, who can also play in central defense.)

Edu  also supplied the pass to Clint Dempsey in the 85th minute that allowed Dempsey to play in Eddie Johnson for what should’ve been the game-winner, incorrectly denied by an offside call.

The occasion also marked an important distinction for the Union as their first active player to be capped by the U.S. National Team. They’ve had players called into camps that didn’t make appearances in games (Jack McInerney for the 2013 Gold Cup, Jeff Parke for the 2013 January camp) and players with USMNT caps to their names before arriving in Philadelphia (Chris Albright, Justin Mapp, Brian Carroll, Danny Califf and Conor Casey among them).

But Edu’s appearance was somewhat of a landmark occurrence for the club, a fact that manager John Hackworth mentioned in his Wednesday press conference some 10 hours before kickoff (hence the speculative tenor).

“That would be fantastic for Mo, and we’re extremely proud of him for being in that position,” Hackworth said. “But it would mean something to our club because I think it would signify the fact that we have players now that re getting those opportunities, and to be the first one currently would be important.”
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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Union-Impact: Lineups and pre-match thoughts

Philadelphia Union (4-3-3)
MacMath
Fabinho-Wheeler-Okugo-Gaddis
Edu-Carroll-Nogueira
Maidana-McInerney-Le Toux
Bench: Blake, White, Lahoud, Bone, Fernandes, Hoppenot, Casey.

Montreal Impact (4-2-3-1)
Perkins
Pearce-Camara-Ferrari-Miller
Bernardello-Warner
Romero-Felipe-Mapp
Di Vaio
Bench: Bush, Bernier, Brovsky, Gonzalez, Ouimette, Smith, Wenger.

- If there was any question about the health of Austin Berry and Sheanon Williams, the sloppy conditions at PPL Park likely were the tiebreaker in manager John Hackworth’s decision to hold them out another week. He’s certainly been happy with Ray Gaddis at right back (and today, he’ll be severely tested by Justin Mapp down the wing). And Aaron Wheeler has deputized ably in the center. Few defenders have what you would call “favorable” matchups against someone as prolific as Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio, but he was just as disadvantaged on paper last week against Jairo Arrieta and Dominic Oduro and still managed to turn in a great performance.

- The rest of the Union midfield is as it has been most of the season. Conor Casey is either not yet fit or not the right fit (I suspect it’s a bit of both) to start, but he certainly could play a role off the bench. Danny Cruz is an omission from the bench this week.

- For the Impact, a little surprise at seeing Patrice Bernier to make way to the bench this week. The Impact made three changes from last week, with Frank Klopas wasting no time reintroducing Di Vaio and Andres Romero after three-game suspensions to start the season. Andrew Wenger makes way, while Heath Pearce and rookie Eric Miller provide a threat going forward on the wings at the expense of Jeb Brovsky and Karl Ouimette, the goalscorer of the back-breaker last fall.

- In pondering which team, if either, the wet conditions favor, consider this: On paper, you’d think the Union’s ability to play on the ground would withstand the weather, while Montreal’s hope of lumping long crosses toward the head of Di Vaio would be dented. But keep in mind that this weather is reminiscent to the conditions in the 5-3 drubbing Montreal delivered at the Saputo Stadium last year.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Mo Edu for the U.S.? Where the Union midfielder might land

The first few steps in Maurice Edu’s quest for a spot on the plane to Brazil this summer have been completed, the latest of which was his strong play through three games with the Union being recognized by Jurgen Klinsmann with a call-up to the U.S. National Team for the April 2 friendly against Mexico.

The call-up announced Wednesday came a year to the day of his last appearance for the Stars and Stripes, a 0-0 draw with Mexico in Estadio Azteca that marked the national team’s first competitive point in that arena against El Tri. Edu's call-up has the potential to be a historical moment in Union history as well.

Union midfielder Maurice Edu, right, competing with Brazilian Sandro
in a May 2012 friendly, will have a chance to state his case
for a spot on the American World Cup squad next week. (AP)

The question to be answered – by the 27-year-old midfielder’s play next week and in the coming months and the myriad variables surrounding the national team – is where Edu’s chances with the national team lie. It’s a query whose answer is anything but simple.

First, we can at least localize what Edu is fighting for. He’s most often been deployed as a No. 6, a holding midfielder, for the U.S., even if his position for the Union is generally more advanced. The bad news for Edu is that this is one of the most stocked eras of talent in U.S. history in that department. Klinsmann has held firm to a 4-5-1 (visualize the midfield as a 4-1-2-2-1), where Edu is in line as the single holding midfield parked in front of defense. At that position, he faces competition from Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, the latter of whom has become one of Klinsmann’s most consistent selections. The notion of Edu supplanting Beckerman seems unlikely.

The composition of the rest of the midfield – Michael Bradley as the No. 8 sitting on the shoulder of No. 10 Clint Dempsey between the lone striker with Graham Zusi and Landon Donovan occupying the wings – seems fairly foolproof. With Beckerman as the No. 6, that figures to be the lineup Klinsmann trots out Wednesday to give his starters a go against Mexico.  (And if so, per SI’s Avi Creditor, it would be the first time Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan started a game together since June 12, 2012.)

The issue for Edu, then, is to distinguish himself as a valuable substitute in what might be an outing of 30-45 minutes. At the very least, he’s on Klinsmann’s mind.

“We’re looking for Mo to show us that sense of urgency,” Klinsmann said in a release by U.S. Soccer. “To come back on loan, get playing time and jump into the Union team, become a leader right away and help them get off on the right foot in MLS shows that he understands that the timing has to be there now if he wants to play. He could have sat there on the bench at Stoke maybe not playing much, and then there’s no chance for him to get on the World Cup roster. But he understood that, made the decision to come back and now he’s picking it up. We’re looking forward to have Mo back with us because once he’s in a rhythm, once he is fit and really zoomed in, then he’s a very good player.”

So then, what lens should we gauge his contributions through? Here are a few suggestions:
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Now in the fold, how to fit Fred into the Union

There’s been little shortage of discussion on the protracted (I can’t call it “transfer”, since technically it wasn’t) saga involving the Philadelphia Union and Union original Fred. All the machinations came to a resolution weeks in the making last Thursday when the Union were officially allowed to ink the 34-year-old player to a deal via an allocation draft.

That poses the question: Where does Fred fit into the 2014 team?

The value of Fred, seen here sliding in on D.C. United's Chris Pontius
in an April 10, 2010 game, is very likely to exceed the number of minutes
he gets on the pitch this season. (AP)


Part of the reason why the Union sought him out and allowed him to train with them for the entire preseason before finally securing his services is that Fred gives manager John Hackworth so many ways to answer that question.

“Fred gives us another option in the midfield, more depth, but also good leadership,” Hackworth said in his weekly press conference Tuesday at PPL Park. “I think he can play as the No. 10. I think in certain positions, you could play him in wide positions. Even as a No. 8, it’s not like he doesn’t have the engine to go up and down the field. But Fred’s creativity and ability to open up a game are certainly more valuable as an attacking midfielder.”

Through the admittedly small sample size of the Union’s three-game start to the season, there’s no indication that the current occupiers of those starting positions are in danger of giving way. Despite some stumbles here and there, it’s been by and large a purposeful introduction to MLS for the likes of Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu.
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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dealing some truth on the Union's new celebration routine

In bringing together the various cultures and soccer philosophies the Philadelphia Union has attempted to meld this year, there were two commonalities this offseason: Creative soccer, and cards.

In Saturday’s home opener, both made it onto the PPL Park pitch.

After Leo Fernandes set up Sebastien Le Toux for the only goal of the Union’s 1-0 win over New England, they celebrated the way they usually spend their afternoon: By playing cards.



The Union’s foreign contingent – Fernandes, Le Toux, Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana and Fabinho – celebrated the goal as they had planned to beforehand.

“During all the preseason, we play lots of cards with all of us in that group – Chaco and Vincent and Leo,” Le Toux said. “We always play cards after every meal during the preseason. It’s one of those things that we have all together. Before the game, we said that – because we all played today starting – if one of us scores, we were going to do that. Luckily it was Leo who turned the ball to me, so we did that to just have good fun all together and this is how we build chemistry. So it was just a fun time.”

Those card games sound like a pretty important facet in breaking down barriers between new teammates.

“In preseason me, Sebastien, Vince, Cristian and Fabinho we always play cards,” Fernandes said. “For five hours straight, we would play cards. Our celebration was us playing cards.”

The game of choice, according to Fernandes, is 22, appropriate for the No. 22 Fernandes, who offered in his postgame interview that it’s a game most of us wouldn’t have heard of. As far as I can figure, here’s a guide to how it’s played.

The effects of it, though, are obvious on the field.

“It helps us bond a lot,” Fernandes said. “I feel like one of the reasons we’re so close and why we’re playing so good.”

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Union-Revolution: Lineups and pregame thoughts

Philadelphia Union (4-1-3-1-1)
MacMath
Fabinho-Berry-Okugo-Gaddis
Edu
Maidana-Fernandes- Le Toux
Fernandes
McInerney
Bench: Blake, White, Wheeler, Cruz, Bone, Hoppenot, Pfeffer
New England Revolution (4-1-4-1)
Shuttleworth
Farrell-Barnes-Soares-Tierney
Caldwell
Smith-Nguyen-Dorman-Fagundez
Bunbury 
Bench: Knighton, Kobayashi, Sene, McCarthy, Woodbine, Bengtson, Rowe

- Many Union fans get the lineup they wanted this offseason, with Maurice Edu as the holding midfielder with Brian Carroll out with an undisclosed illness. There are two partnerships to watch here: How the dynamic between he and Vincent Nogueira change, and how Leo Fernandes and Nogueira balance responsibilities going forward and in defense.

- Sheanon Williams is out for a second straight game, giving Ray Gaddis another chance to showcase his ability at right back opposite Fabinho. Conor Casey is once again unavailable. Zach Pfeffer makes the bench.


- Without Carroll, Amobi Okugo will wear the captain's armband. No determination on whether Okugo is the full-time vice captain. Jeff Parke filled that role last year.
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