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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A case for Curtin: One reason why 2015 was unduly harsh

In Tuesday’s paper, I argued that seeming dissonance within the Philadelphia Union’s new front-office situation could be avoided proactively this offseason.

But there’s another reason why Jim Curtin should at least get a shot at one year as the coach under Earnie Stewart: His first full season was a disaster well out of his control. That’s not (entirely) a Rais M’Bolhi joke; it’s merely a reflection of the changes inflicted upon the manager.

Here’s a list of the formations assembled by Curtin for the Union’s 39 competitive matches this season (34 in MLS and five Open Cup ties):

Union formations

For those not willing to pore over the details (hint: if you stare at the word “Lahoud” long enough, it starts to become divorced of its meaning), here are the highlights.

- In 39 matches, Curtin diagramed 38 unique starting XIs. That means only twice this season did the same group of 11 players start multiple games. There is some noise contained therein – flopping Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis midseason, for instance, or the shuffling of Tranquillo Barnetta and Cristian Maidana between the wing and centrally – but it still speaks to monstrous and persistent doses of upheaval.

- You may think this has something to do with the carousel of goalies the Union used, and it does to a degree. But looking at just the outfield players, Curtin still cobbled together 36 unique assemblages of field players.

- Let’s make it even simpler: How many permutations of the six attacking players have the Union deployed? That answer is still alarmingly large: 30. (And that’s accounting merely for the players selected, regardless of shifting positions from wing to wing, etc.)

The reasons behind this are easy to comprehend. An impact player in Barnetta arrived midseason. Another fixture, Williams, departed. There’s the injury crisis, which was covered previously and culminated with 112 man-games lost by 21 players (full list below). Then there’s discipline: Despite the Union being atop the disciplinary points table and up for the Fair Play Miss Congeniality award, they lost 14 games to suspension in MLS, including CJ Sapong’s three-game absence for entrance into the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. The Union picked up five red cards in MLS, tied for fifth-most, and two in the Open Cup; three of those ejections had additional games tacked on by MLS Disciplinary Committee review.

It may sound trite to wonder how many coaches would have made the playoffs given this set of circumstances. But at the very least, Curtin’s ability to keep this group together and within a few inches of a trophy should warrant another shot on the bench.

2015 man games lost Blake 11 (knee, twice); McCarthy 1 (concussion); Sylvestre 10 (hand five, knee five); Williams 2 (hamstring); Gaddis 1 (ankle); Vitoria 11 (groin); Fabinho 2 (heel); Marquez 1 (ankle); Edu 9 (groin); Nogueira 5 (ankle three, quad two); Le Toux 3 (knee); Wenger 7 (concussion five, knee two); Maidana 3 (knee); Sapong 3 (concussion/facial fracture); Aristeguieta 8 (quad two, ankle six); Lahoud 13 (hip); Pfeffer 2 (groin); Casey 9 (ab three, quad six); Hoppenot 4 (hamstring); McLaughlin 6 (concussion three, appendix three); Ayuk 1 (ankle). Total: 112 by 21 players.

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Forging Steel: What a Brendan Burke-led Bethlehem could look like

Bethlehem Steel FC coach Brendan Burke, center,
flanked by Union head coach Jim Curtin and minority owner Richie Graham
at an introductory press conference Thursday, has some big ideas how to grow
the Union's new USL squad.
The two most important pieces of the Philadelphia Union’s new USL team – the name and the coach – fell into place this week. Now the task laid at the feet of Union coach Jim Curtin, his Bethlehem Steel counterpart Brendan Burke and (eventually) sporting director Earnie Stewart becomes stocking a roster to compete in USL and boost the depth of talent available to the Union.

Burke seemed eager to go about that task, and offered several major hints about what that will look like Thursday at his inaugural press conference. Here are three non-contiguous quotes:
“I think it’s important to have a veteran core. There will be some guys in the 25-28 age range on this team. They need to be leaders by example. They need to be guys who’ve won in this league. … Winning is a part of the development. And in order to do that, you need a proven commodity. There are going to be players coming down from the first team so we know we’re going to get excellent help and support and be able to support those players with the minutes they need. …

“There’s going to be a lot of players over the next few months that I’ve coached in the past that are going to be hopefully reaching out and coming home as well, and I think the relationship with our first-team players was an important part of the process for me in deciding whether or not this was going to be the perfect opportunity, and that’s what I think this is. ...

“I think you’ll see some of our guys in the coming weeks and months possibly sign with Bethlehem right out of the Academy.”
That’s a lot to break down, so here goes:

First, the question of how many players a USL team requires. You’ve got 28 on the MLS roster, only 18 of whom can play every week. Conservatively, that leaves four to six to use in USL weekly.
Read more »

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Meet the new boss: Odds and ends from Jay Sugarman on Earnie Stewart

News broke Monday morning that the Philadelphia Union landed Earnie Stewart as its technical director. First and foremost, it's a move that was widely hailed within American soccer circles, including many pundits who've found precious little in the past to be excited about in Philadelphia. This one is particularly pertinent:

Jay Sugarman held a conference call Monday, and lots of information was divulged in the 30 minutes he addressed the media. Some highlights:

- Sugarman was effusive in his praise of Stewart's work ethic and vision, in a lot of the areas that the Union have emphasized. Sugarman stopped short of deeming Stewart the perfect candidate, but when you consider the criteria listed by Sugarman last November and again Oct. 2 in the wake of Nick Sakiewicz's firing, Stewart fits the bill pretty comprehensively.
"I think I feel pretty strongly we needed a real firm direction, just in terms of our playing philosophy and how we’re going to go about building a competitive edge in MLS. What I saw at AZ is they really had a strong track record of finding players that fit their team system, and we’re counting on him to do the same here. I think we have obviously room to elevate the quality of our scouting and our recruiting and our player development across the board, and on each of those, what he’s been able to do, what he’s been doing, is a really good fit with how we want to approach the world. He’s a guy that’s very focused on development. He has a real sense of that. We're looking for players who not only think the system can make better but can also make the players around him better and a philosophical way of playing very quickly. As we went through a number of individual cases, it was very clear to me that he had a strong sense of how to find real players to fit his system, and that’s guided a lot of his thinking, and that’s kind of what we’ve been looking for. ...
"One of our key criteria, we wanted someone who really wanted to be here. Earnie is I think as far back as 2012 has said that one of his goals in life was to come back and have an impact in the U.S. Soccer stage, to really come back and do something special for the country that he played for and clearly has deep feelings or and wanted to help us succeed but also help U.S. soccer continue to grow. So that was really important to me. I wanted someone who took that commitment seriously, who was willing to make a long-term commitment to the Union but also see their place in helping to grow the entire sport in the U.S. I look back at his playing record, you look back at how he went about developing himself as a young player and that kind of intense work ethic, he told a lot of stories about going out after practices on his own with Brian Carroll in D.C, and going out after practices and working on their own to make themselves better players. That’s the kind of mentality we think not only do we need at the Union and want at the Union but is part of the maturity process that the entire U.S. Soccer program is going through. Earnie is a great figurehead for that, and we’re delighted that he can come to the Union to make that impact."
- Sugarman didn't say how Stewart's name came up as a candidate. He said that Jim Curtin and Richie Graham were among the many parties involved in the search. Stewart's name didn't come up through MLS headquarters, though Sugarman did say the team contacted MLS when vetting Stewart.
Read more »

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

The finale: Union-Orlando City lineups and observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux-Barnetta-Ayuk
Bench: McCarthy, Wenger, Creavalle, Carroll, Casey, Maidana, Aristeguieta.

Orlando City (4-4-1-1)
Bench: Mitchell, Ramos, Mateos, Carrasco, Avila, Neal, Ribeiro

- The questions for the Union remain that same, at least those that haven’t already been answered. Andrew Wenger doesn’t rate another look at fullback. Fernando Aristeguieta can’t start up top. Zach Pfeffer can’t even make the 18. Andre Blake remains the guy in goal. Michael Lahoud, after a less than convincing outing at Red Bull Arena, retains his spot, largely on the logic that he played so well in the 0-0 draw with Orlando in August.

- Interesting that Cristian Maidana starts on the bench. He enters tied with Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco for the league lead in assists with 15, one ahead of Sporting Kansas City's Benny Feilhaber. The flipside, though, is how badly he played last week in New York before being subbed off a halftime.

- One weakness that’s glaring (among many that are more concealed): There’s no defensive depth. Maurice Edu was shut down for groin surgery two weeks ago, and Steven Vitoria is suspended due to yellow-card accumulation. So beyond Richie Marquez and Ethan White, the next player with center back experience is probably Wenger. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that no one wants to see the season end this way.

- Orlando City needs a win, and a big one. They’ve got nothing to lose, but Adrian Heath isn't exactly throwing all caution to the wind. Kaka and Cyle Larin will be the focal points, but the fullbacks will have to get forward with regularity. Putting Brek Shea in the back four is a way to get another attacking player in the side, and expect him to get forward with gusto.

- The Union are thin in defense, but the Lions are at bare bones in goal. Tally Hall had surgery this week, meaning that long-time backup Josh Ford is in net while MLS pool goalkeeper Trey Mitchell, whom the Union used for their bench on two occasions this season, is the reserve. The Union should test Ford early and often.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tough break, rook: Union closing another lost season for a SuperDraft class

Union rookie draft pick Eric Bird, left, on the practice field at YSC Sports in January,
which is about the only place he's played this season. (Times File)
One game remains in the Philadelphia Union’s moribund season, and for the plethora of possibilities that the playoff race portends Saturday against Orlando City, there’s one thing that we likely won’t see from the hosts at PPL Park: A drafted rookie getting time.

The Union don’t possess a long, rich history of success through the SuperDraft. Their roster features only three regulars – Ray Gaddis, Richie Marquez and Andre Blake (and ‘regular’ status is new and not wholly solidified for the latter) – drafted by the club.

Only eight players on the Union’s roster arrived by the free and easy mechanism of the draft. Leo Fernandes and Zac MacMath are out on loan, the latter with likely no future in Philly. One, Antoine Hoppenot, has played 22 MLS minutes in the last 17 months under manager Jim Curtin and is likely on the way out the door.

And two have never played for the club, Dzenan Catic and Eric Bird. In fact, the Union are poised to endure the entire 2015 campaign with just one appearance by a drafted rookie, and what an debut it was. Plus, Ray Lee was cut soon thereafter.

This criticism comes with obvious caveats. The Union dealt their top pick in 2015 to Sporting Kansas City for CJ Sapong, who’s played a central role this season and likely moving forward. (That pick was used on midfielder Connor Hallisey, who has played 13 games.) There’s a disclaimer that with the Union Academy allegedly poised to start churning out top-flight talent, the draft is increasingly becoming an excuse to fly to Florida for the combine and spend a January day in a ballroom hobnobbing with execs. Plus having a USL team where young players can, you know, actually play will be beneficial.

But on a team with blatant voids of talent whose coach gushed about the potential of the players they picked in the second round, it’s a complete and utter lost season for acquiring and developing assets free of charge. Say what you will about the declining quality and depth in the draft, but for the perpetual poormouth crying Union to not nab a single player of significance given to them essentially free of cost is an unqualified waste. That may be a luxury the Seattles and Torontos can stomach, but for a Union team so thin in central midfield that it repeatedly resorted to a Brian Carroll-Michael Lahoud double pivot and six games worth of Fred as the No. 10, any reinforcements should be warmly embraced.
Read more »

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

One in, one out: Trialist updates at Union training

The trial of James McFadden, seen with Scotland in 2009,
with the Union has ended, and the club is in wait-and-see mode
on evaluating the forward. (AP)
With the Philadelphia Union’s season winding down largely devoid of intrigue, Jim Curtin’s press conferences have followed suit. To briefly summarize the key talking points (and there will be more as the week goes on):

Red Bulls game? Disappointing.
Orlando City game? Hopeful.
Andrew Wenger at fullback? Meh.
Leadership issues? Not really.
Sporting director search? For internal ears only.

About the only two new pieces on information from Wednesday’s final weekly presser concerned who was and wasn’t training.

Not present was Scottish forward James McFadden, who concluded his two-week trial stint. Curtin seemed pleased with the 32-year-old’s performance, and with the understanding that any decision to bring him into the fold would have to be deferred to the offseason when rosters un-freeze, the club has time to evaluate.

“We’ll sit down at the end of the year after Orlando and we’ll make an evaluation on that,” Curtin said of McFadden. “He did a great job when he was in. Did everything he could. I think he was fit. He played at his highest level possible, showed very well for himself. Had a good talk with him at the end and told him where we’re at in terms of our roster, obviously there’s no flexibility now to sign him.”

At the end of a long and largely disappointing season, the Union have fleshed out their training ranks with a number of Academy players. They continue to have Ken Tribbett, a Harrisburg City defender/defensive midfielder and Drexel grad, training with them.
Read more »

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1) 
Le Toux-Maidana-Barnetta
Bench: McCarthy, Gaddis, White, Creavalle, Ayuk, Aristeguieta, Casey

Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Reynish, Oiumette, Lade, Davis, Wallace, Peron, S.Wright-Phillips

- It’s evaluation time for the Union, and the questions for next year are myriad. Today, Jim Curtin hopes to get more information to answer some of them. Andre Blake can help solidify his hold on the starting goalkeeping job. Andrew Wenger could present himself as a viable option at fullback. Time is running out for Steven Vitoria and Fernando Aristeguieta (though the latter doesn’t start) to state their cases for extended loan stays. Against a team contending for the Supporters’ Shield, this is an opportunity to get quality intel toward those quandaries.

- The Red Bulls (54 points) are in need of a win to continue their Supporters’ Shield chase after FC Dallas (57) won Saturday night. They require any kind of result (or a D.C. United draw or loss) to wrap up home-field advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

- Despite the importance of the game, the Red Bulls are shorthanded, missing defender Matt Miazga and Roy Miller. That leaves the less adept pairing of Ronald Zubar and Damien Perrinelle with deputized fullback Sal Zizzo. This is a good chance for CJ Sapong and company to attack, and there are likely going to be openings in teat backline that can be exploited on the counterattack.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Planning for the future: What the Union's contract situation looks like

Jim Curtin, seen in the U.S. Open Cup final Sept. 30,
is already pointing toward the future. (Times Staff/Tom Kelly IV)
As the Philadelphia Union has spent the last two weeks collecting the tattered remnants of a disappointing season, manager Jim Curtin has articulated time and again how vital an offseason this is. That sentiment doesn’t just stem from the fact that the Union, at four consecutive playoff-free seasons, carry the longest active playoff drought in MLS, solidified by Toronto curtailing its seven-year drought Wednesday night.

Part of the logic is rooted in the contract situation for the Union. Perusing the roster, in conversations with players and sources within the organization over the last few weeks, reveals very few players to whom the Union are committed next season. That offers flexibility for the kind of progress that Curtin has professed hope for.

First, a note about MLS contract structures. For all the efforts at transparency in the league (that’s a fun Google search), little has been accomplished in this arena. The MLS Players Union publicizes player salaries, but contract terms remain veiled by the well-worn, institutionalized boilerplate that “per league and club policy, terms were not disclosed.” Union officials are extremely reticent to speak on the record about the matter.

The other thing to remember is that exact contract lengths in MLS are largely illusory, thanks to this line in MLS’ Roster Rules and Regulations under the section titled “Contract Expiration”:

“When a player’s contract expires, the player does not count against the roster or budget of the club in question. Subject to the Re-Entry and Free Agent rules, a club retains the rights to the player indefinitely following the expiration of a contract provided attempts were made to re-sign the player.”
This amounts, essentially, to the reserve clause that caused Major League Baseball’s revolutionary labor upheaval of the 1970s, and there are plenty of sources that excellently expound on that point. What happens after the expiration of the deal is based on age and experience in MLS, and this winter is the first offseason in which free agency is in play for players over the age of 28 with eight or more years of MLS experience.

Most deals are option-laden. They typically include somewhere between one to three guaranteed years followed by one to three options years, varying considerably based on player age, salary, international status, etc. In short, the system is designed to ease the burden of obligation on teams: Options are almost always in the hands of the team, allowing clubs to escape contracts they no longer want or need.

To bring this back to the Union, it means that the club has few long-term guarantees but the potential to pick and choose. The vast majority of the roster is on options for 2016, which allows whoever assumes control of the organization to handpick who returns.

Here’s a partial breakdown of the Union’s contract situation this offseason, cobbled together from media reports and various other sources. Read more »

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Scot in Chester: McFadden on trial with Union

James McFadden, seen here with Everton in the FA Cup
in Jan. 2012, is on a two-week training stint with the Union.
Chester has been an interesting way station for a number of soccer characters this season. To the average soccer fan who gets bombarded with mid-table English Premier League games on television each weekend, names like Eidur Gudjohnsen and Wilson Palacios are interesting figures, if not necessarily the economical path toward MLS success. (Note that Gudjohnsen, who signed with a team in China, was technically on a training stop, not on trial like Palacios.)

The next name to add to that list is James McFadden, who’s been training with the Union last week and this. He’s a name many EPL fans will recognize, having played in the world’s most visible league with Everton from 2003-08 and 2011-12, Birmingham City from 2007-08 and 2009-11 and Sunderland in 2012-13. He’s also been caped 48 times, scoring 15 goals for Scotland.

Wednesday, Union manager Jim Curtin had some positive things to say about McFadden.

“He’s done well in training,” Curtin said. “You can tell that he has quality. He’s played at the highest level. He’s a guy that he’s been good in training. He provides an intensity level that is good for some of our younger guys to see. No decision has been made. We’ll probably take until the end of the week and then discuss it, but he’s done very well.”

There are some weird aspects to this match. First, McFadden, who Curtin said last week was recovering from an injury, has been out of contract since leaving Scottish Premier League side St. Johnstone in May. He reportedly trained at Motherwell, the club of his youth with which he’s spent parts of five seasons, without being offered a deal.

MLS has passed the deadline for adding players, meaning anything that could materialize for the 32-year-old would be delayed to the start of next season.

Tactically, it seems an odd fit as well. McFadden, who has 20 career EPL goals on his resume, prefers a withdrawn second striker role which doesn’t exist in the Union’s system. Even if we posit that the Union won’t acquire Fernando Aristeguieta on a permanent basis after his loan terminates, McFadden is hardly a direct replacement and would likely be shunted to a wing in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

Several practice days remain for McFadden, and it’s possible that the Union could decide to keep him around for the rest of the season to train and evaluate him. But don’t be surprised if McFadden joins the list of brief Chester cameos.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Union-Sporting KC: The Open Cup final lineups

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux-Maidana-Barnetta
Bench: Blake, Vitoria, Carroll, Wenger, Ayuk, Casey, Creavalle

Sporting KC (4-3-3) 
Bench: Kempin, Palmer-Brown, Abdul-Salaam, Quintilla, Peterson, Lopez

- The question on all the Union fans’ minds was, as always, goalkeeping. And the answer is Andre Blake. The Jamaican’s 10-save performance vs. New England on the weekend was enough to sway Jim Curtin away from John McCarthy, who was in goal for the four games that led to the final. It’s just Blake’s fourth match with the Union this season and seventh consecutive match overall.

- The only other shock in the 18 is the exclusion of Fernando Aristeguieta. Curtin opts for extra defensive options, with Steven Vitoria preferred to Aristeguieta as the fifth international. There’s enough offensive cover with Andrew Wenger back to complement Eric Ayuk and Conor Casey.
- The rest of the Union XI is pretty standard for Curtin’s preferences. The attacking triumvirate of Tranquillo Barnetta, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana is intact. Michael Lahoud is preferred to Brian Carroll in the center of midfield.

- No surprises from Sporting KC either. Krisztian Nemeth returns to the lineup as a wing forward after three games out. Roger Espinoza’s injury strips some dynamism from the KC midfield, so it’s Paulo Nagamura out there next to Benny Feilhaber. Depriving Feilhaber space and time on the ball to distribute up top to Dom Dwyer, Nemeth and Graham Zusi will be key, and it largely falls to Lahoud to corral that. The bench, however, is fairly thin for SKC, with Jacob Peterson the biggest threat.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Start a Revolution: The quest for "freshness" in New England

I did learn a lot from the Seattle game last year. I thought we were a fresh team going into it, but we did play a lineup that kind of was repeated and played again in the final. So, I won’t have any regrets this year. I’ll play a fresh team, completely fresh team, in the final.
- Jim Curtin, Sept. 16

We’ll find the right balance of lineup to give guys the proper rest and proper confidence going into a final. I’ll tell you there will be no regrets in terms of whether we are fresh or not in terms of the final. We will be fresh for sure.
- Jim Curtin, Sept. 20

Often without much provocation the last two weeks, Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin has been forthcoming with his vision for how the final days of September should play out. With the playoffs falling out of view, all of the squad’s efforts have been geared to one solitary date: The Sept. 30 U.S. Open Cup final against Sporting Kansas City.

Curtin is a manager that you can often take at his word. Judging by the above quotes, he’ll dial up massive changes for Saturday’s trip to New England, a game in which the Union’s hope of a result would be remote, regardless.

Here’s what the Union did last season, playing New York Red Bulls at PPL Park Saturday before entertaining Seattle at home Tuesday in the cup final.

Union lineups vs. New York Red Bulls Sept. 13, 2014 in MLS play (left)
and vs. Seattle in the Open Cup final Sept. 16, 2014 (right). (Via
That’s 6.5/7 changes, depending on how you look at it, with Ray Gaddis and Maurice Edu each changing positions but playing in both games. That’s a fairly fresh team, you’d think. But the result against Seattle, with the Sounders looking far stronger in extra time, may indicate that more rest is required. The term “fresh” is inherently ambiguous, and for some players, getting a half or 90 minutes is preferable to a weekend off in terms of their sharpness, though the three subs limit how many can follow that tack.
Read more »

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A thrifty summer: The Union's September salary figures

Tranquillo Barnetta's salary was revealed Tuesday,
making him the second highest-paid Union player. (AP)
Tuesday brought the biannual release of salary figures by the MLS Players Union (pdf), which provides us with an update on the Philadelphia Union’s wage bill. Here are the numbers for the Union:

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

1. Fernando Aristeguieta $350,004 (young designated player; cap hit $200,000)
2. Maurice Edu $700,000 ($768,750 – designated player; cap hit $436,250)
3. Tranquillo Barnetta $624,000 ($661,500 – NOT a DP, but max cap hit is $436,250)
4. Fred $60,000
5. Brian Carroll $150,000
6. Conor Casey $180,000
7. Warren Creavalle $108,500 ($119,000)
8. Fabinho $114,000 ($118,500)
9. Ray Gaddis $130,000 ($132,500)
10. Antoine Hoppenot $60,000

11. Michael Lahoud $108,900 ($112,233)
12. Sebastien Le Toux $275,000 ($285,228)
13. Cristian Maidana $203,500 ($217,250)
14. Richie Marquez $60,000
15. Vincent Nogueira $330,000
16. CJ Sapong $125,000 ($142,000)
17. Steven Vitoria $400,000
18. Andrew Wenger $180,000 ($282,000)
19. Ethan White $125,000
20. – vacant –

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. Dzenan Catic $60,000 ($75,000)
26. Eric Ayuk $50,000
27. John McCarthy $60,000 ($66,250)
28. Brian Sylvestre $60,000

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

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

Totals Union salary cap (Totals for players 1-20): $3,682,400
Union base salaries (Totals for players 1-28): $4,365,150
Union total compensation (including inactive roster): $5,408,401 Read more »

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