Blogs > Union Tally

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Andrew Wenger, left back of the future? Not so fast

There may be some debate as to which position best suits Andrew Wenger,
here playing against Colorado in March. But Union manager Jim Curtin
is sure as to where he sees him. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)
Versatility has long been a double-edged sword for Andrew Wenger. His talent as a soccer player has never been in question; his position on the field, on the other hand, has inspired more debate than any one player would probably prefer.

Even as Wenger collected six goals and four assists in what was hoped to be a breakout 2014 season, some voices, including some of the most influential of MLS media corps, still wonder if he’s not better suited in another position.

The debate is a consequence of immense talent in a player who changed positions ever year of his high school career at Warwick. It’s the natural byproduct of being honored as the ACC’s defensive and offensive players of the year in successive campaigns at Duke after transitioning from center back to center forward, an utterly unique trajectory.

The chorus of wonder continues to the pro ranks, after stints as a center forward for the Montreal Impact, which picked him No. 1 overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, fizzled and he was reborn as a wing forward for the Union. In the space of two years, his positional flexibility went from a valued trait to a befuddling source of frustration before being swapped for Jack McInerney in April 2014.

In Monday night's friendly with Harrisburg City, Wenger landed at a different spot: Left back, which he said he hadn’t played since his freshman season in high school.

So is this the next stop in Wenger’s seemingly endless game of musical positions? No.

Here’s manager Jim Curtin explaining it:

“A little bit of it is it’s a position where he can have the game in front of him. He’s played on the left side before. It’s a little slower-paced; it’s not as end-to-end for him. He’s been good defensively this season, so you start to put those pieces together. Mainly, it was just for fitness purposes. I didn’t want him to have a ton of minutes as an attacker where he’s just gassed by 45 minutes. We didn’t have a ton of guys available with the unique Monday game having played Saturday. It’s a little bit of that. It’s a little bit of, here’s an opportunity to take a look at a guy in a different position. You could say that he did very well there. He was able to play balls good with his left foot down the line. He cut in on his right and switched the point of attack. It was good, it was positive. But mainly the exercise was to get him 90 minutes, and it’s a little less stress on you at left back and you can kind of slow down. You’re not always under pressure, there’s not always someone up your back, so he gets to kind of survey the field from there. It’s also kind of healthy for him to see what the angles are like when he has someone in front of him, just the different ways that that guy cuts off of him, the job that he’s usually doing, it’s clearer to him, the little ins and outs of the game that he can maybe pick up and grow and improve on him. Mainly a fitness exercise.”

That’s a lot to digest, but the main takeaway should be that Monday’s defensive runout was borne of a twofold necessity: 1) The Union have just two natural fullbacks on the roster, and both Ray Gaddis and Fabinho have logged major minutes lately; and 2) Wenger, who returned from a five-game absence due to a concussion before logging 17 minutes against New England Saturday, needed to gain fitness, and left back was the best chance to accommodate that.
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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Four seasons to the wind: Perspective to the Union's playoff drought

We’ve reached the juncture in the season where it’s time to deploy this little tidbit about the Philadelphia Union.

I think we all can agree – even Jim Curtin acknowledges the possibility, to a degree – that the MLS Cup Playoffs will likely commence for a fourth consecutive season season without the Union, the final nail of many likely being the 1-0 loss Saturday to New England. Officially, the percentage of the Union making the playoffs is listed as 4.0. (The journalist in me who won't allow me to state assertions as facts is the reason for the hedging, so apologies.)

With seven matches (four on the road) remaining, they sit last in the Eastern Conference with 27 points from 27 games. They’re just two points behind Orlando City for the sixth and final playoff spot, but there’s also the struggling Montreal Impact in seventh with four games in hand and a crowd of four teams to hop over to get back into contention. The Union also have to travel to four bona fide playoff contenders (New York Red Bulls, Toronto, New England and San Jose) among their four games, so the likelihood of summoning the form to get back into the playoff picture, especially around the Sept. 30 U.S. Open Cup final date, is remote.

If – and it is still, technically, an “if” – the Union miss the playoffs this season, it would be the fourth straight time that they have failed to qualify for the postseason. Where does that rank in the annals of MLS history?

Well, it’s a thorny proposition to put that into the appropriate context in a league where a minimum of two-thirds of teams made the playoff through its first decade. Eight of 10 teams making the playoffs strips the accolade of much of its prestige while hiding plenty of warts on teams that qualified via numerical necessity. It may not be until we see several seasons of a 20-plus team MLS that we can gauge just how devastating a four-season absence is. Or if, you know, something that rhymes with "go/fell" happens.

Even so, if the Union miss the postseason in 2015, they’d join very, very select company:

Toronto 8 (2007-2014)*
Chivas USA 5 (2010-2014)
Union 4 (2012-2015)*
D.C. United 4 (2008-2011)
San Jose 4 (1997-2000)

(Two of those streaks are active and can continue. But, terrifying as this may be to some in Ontario, Toronto is pegged as a virtual statistical certainty to end its playoff torment, while the Union are extremely likely to perpetuate theirs.)

That isn’t the group you want to be in, not least of which for what happened after the droughts ended. Read more »

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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)
Barnetta-Maidana-Le Toux
Bench: Blake, White, Creavalle, Pfeffer, Fred, Hoppenot, Ayuk, Aristeguieta.

Fire (4-4-2)
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.

Read more »

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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame thoughts

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux-Maidana-Ayuk
Bench: Blake, Marquez, Vitoria, Barnetta, Fred, Casey, Aristeguieta

New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1) 
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)
Le Toux-Maidana-Ayuk
Bench: Mitchell, Williams, Fred, Pfeffer, McLaughlin, Hoppenot, Aristegieta 

Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
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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