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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Forecasting the Crystal Palace plan

There’s always a debate around this time of year as to how to handle midseason friendlies within the grind of an MLS season. Add competition on another front for the Philadelphia Union in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and it’s even more complex.

That’s the conundrum Jim Curtin faces this week as his team prepares to take on English Premier League side Crystal Palace Friday night at PPL. There are so many factors – the tactical, between the physical need to rest regulars and the mental need to get those on the fringes of the squad some action, plus the pride aspect of wanting to put on a decent show for the fans while not rolling over to opposition from a superior league – for Curtin to manage.

“I always think anytime you’re representing your league, you should put your best effort out there,” Curtin said Wednesday at PPL Park. “Too many times you see in these games, whether it’s against a club from Mexico or England, they won’t get our best punch so to speak because we’re in the heat of the season. It’s tough. There’s is the business side where they do make a lot of money off the games, so I get that part of it. … Say you’re juggling an Open Cup game with a league match and then they also throw in a friendly, it becomes this, ‘how much do you want to kill your team for a result against a team that’s in the preseason and doesn’t really have their legs?’ It’s a tough one to answer because you’re torn either way.”

Curtin said Tuesday that there would essentially be two shifts of players logging 45 minutes each, which makes sense to give the entire roster a nice run out. Curtin also hinted that a couple of guys might get around the 90-minute mark.

So here’s my two cents on what the Union should (not necessarily will) do, gleaning a little from what Curtin said Wednesday and the team’s current needs:

First half
Wenger-Nogueira-Le Toux
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Union-Red Bulls: Lineups and pregame observations

Wednesday's edition of the Daily Times, featuring Danny Cruz.
Philadelphia Union (4-2-3-1)
Gaddis -Edu-White-Williams 
Wenger-Maidana-Le Toux 
Bench: Blake, Fabinho, Berry, Fred, Wheeler, Brown, Cruz

New York Red Bulls (4-4-2) 
Bench: Meara, Kimura, Sekagya, Lade, Akpan, Convey, Bover.

- Jim Curtin is forced to bring in fresh legs thanks to the red cards to Amobi Okugo and Michael Lahoud in the draw with Colorado Saturday. That means that he gets to delay for a week the question of how Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana coexist in midfield, with Nogueira taking deep-lying role alongside Brian Carroll. It’s Nogueira’s first league appearance since June 7, John Hackworth’s last game in charge.

- There’s a shuffle in the backline, too, with Maurice Edu back from suspension and Ethan White having done enough in a good showing against Colorado to earn a second start. (That means Austin Berry is still looking for his first minutes since the New England loss May 17.) The last time the teams played, a 2-1 win for the Red Bulls in Harrison, right back Ray Gaddis had one of his most difficult games of the season thanks to Peguy Luyindula and Eric Alexander. This time, Fabinho appears to be the weak link, headed to the bench so Gaddis (at the left) and Sheanon Williams can man the flanks. It’s the first time Fabinho hasn’t started since May 3 in Seattle.

- For the Red Bulls, who enter on a five-game unbeaten streak, Dax McCarty makes his return to the starting lineup, pairing with Tim Cahill in the center. That battle for central midfield supremacy is one where the Red Bulls have the edge on paper and Carroll and Nogueira will have to work hard to overturn. Up top, you know what you’re getting with MLS goals leader Bradley Wright-Phillips and assists leader Thierry Henry.
- Apparently the effects of the Shane O’Neill tackle are lingering with Danny Cruz, who is on the bench as Andrew Wenger starts for the first time since May 17. Brian Brown is on the bench yet again looking for his debut.

- The Union get a little bit of a break with Luyindula’s cryptic absence. Philly native Bobby Convey is among those on the bench, which runs pretty thin for the Red Bulls.  

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Union's Pfeffer stars with goal, assist for U-20s

While the American soccer world ponders the fate of Team USA as it embarks on the next World Cup cycle, a member of the Philadelphia Union took one of the first concrete steps toward U.S. Soccer’s march into the future.

Zach Pfeffer scored a goal and added an assist in a tidy, productive 28 minutes as a substitute, leading the U-20s to a 2-1 win over Chile Monday night in the NTC Invitational in Carson, Calif. (Writeups by Top Drawer, Yanks Abroad and SoccerAmerica.)

The four-team tournament this week isn’t exactly the headliner for the program this summer, but it’s a good chance for Pfeffer to get some matches and prove his worth outside of the club setting.

The Union forward and Dresher native set up the first goal just three minutes after entering (video above) by delivering an inch-perfect free kick to the head of fellow sub Andrija Novakovich, who plays for Reading in England.

In the 73rd minute, Pfeffer provided the winner by turning in a pass from Paul Arriola, sealing a win for the U.S. in the first game of three.

“I always tell the guys that if you get the opportunity to play two minutes or five or 90, you have to try to make an impact,” U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos said in a video by U.S. Soccer. “And I think those guys did a good job. They took advantage of their opportunities and lifted the team to a win. I’m very happy for them, and happy for the team.”
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From the training pitch: Tuesday's notes

Given the quick turnaround for the Union this week ahead of Wednesday’s visit from New York, there’s was a bit more going on at training Tuesday that can fit in print. So let’s summarize a few of the odds and ends from the day.

- On the injury front, both Vincent Nogueira and Austin Berry trained fully. The last half hour of training was small-field seven-on-seven, which featured Berry along with most of the guys who won’t play Wednesday (the suspended Amobi Okugo and Michael Lahoud, plus squad guys like Andre Blake, Fred, Antoine Hoppenot, etc.) Nogueira didn’t take part, off with the regulars doing some light passing drills. There’s nothing to read into that, as the difference is likely down to the reasons for their absences: Berry, recovering from an illness, needs to get his legs under him, while Nogueira doesn’t want to put extra strain on his groin. Both said after Saturday’s 3-3 draw with the Rapids that they were fit to play some part, though not for the 90 minutes.

- Though he’s sporting a slightly-mangled leg and a bit of a limp, Danny Cruz seems to be fine after picking up a knock Saturday courtesy of Shane O’Neill’s bruising (dirty?) tackle. Cruz has battled all manner of lower-body injuries this year (ankle, foot, heel, shin, you name it), so that’s nothing new, and manager Jim Curtin didn’t list him among the Union’s injuries.

- One injury Curtin didn’t list was Leo Fernandes, who didn’t take part in the last half hour of training. He was walking around in an ankle sleeve with what he termed “a minor” injury.

- Among the only non-Union faces on the training pitch were Michael Farfan and a few academy fill-ins. No one else of note.
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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Union-Rapids: Lineups and pre-match observations

Philadelphia Union (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux-Maidana-Cruz
Bench: Blake, Carroll, Berry, Nogueira, Wheeler, Wenger, Brown.

Colorado Rapids (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Berner, Klute, Hairston, Torres, Piermayr, Alvarez, Mwanga

- At long last, the Union have something to show in return for the trade for Jeff Parke: Ethan White gets his debut with Maurice Edu (red card) suspended and Austin Berry healthy enough only for the bench.. After a handful of injuries early in the season, White has a chance to prove his worth, and it’s a stiff test against Deshorn Brown. I suspect that White’s ability to contend with Brown’s speed (along with Jim Curtin’s preference not to move Amobi Okugo back to defense and disrupt the midfield’s burgeoning chemistry) is what makes him the choice here.

- Speaking of the midfield, Vincent Nogueira is healthy enough to make the bench, but the club has expressed a desire this week to be cautious with a groin injury that is the first of that type for Nogueira. As a result, he’s been deemed fit for the last several weeks … without actually playing. And given the job Cristian Maidana is doing in that central attacking role, there’s no need to push him.

- The loan capture of Brian Brown was confirmed around 2 o’clock Saturday afternoon. By 7, he’s on the bench in the Union 18. Seems like another body for Antoine Hoppenot, who’s 0-for-3 in making Curtin’s MLS squads, to climb over. Let’s see what the 21-year-old has got.

- The Rapids are losing two of their leading creative forces in midfielder Jose Mari (ankle) and forward Vicente Sanchez (suspended). That accentuates their dependence on the creativity of Brown up top. With the defensive abilities of Nick LaBrocca and the solidity of this backline, expect the Rapids to sit in plenty and absorb pressure, then try to launch counter attacks with Dillon Powers and long balls played into Brown. And then there's former Union No. 1 overall draft pick Danny Mwanga sitting on the bench. Interesting to see what reaction he would get.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

'Checking the stats': Sebastien Le Toux and the real U.S. Open Cup scoring record (with video)

It could easily have been dismissed as Sebastien Le Toux being folksy Tuesday night.

After the Philadelphia Union forward scored as part of the club’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Le Toux was reminded in the locker room that the goal, his 14th in the competition, made him the all-time leading scorer in the modern era of the Cup.

The Frenchman’s response? “I even thought before that I scored more than the number that was said,” he offered. “I think I scored more, so I think you should check your stats, guys.”
Well, after a little discussion with colleague Dave Zietlin of and some (non-deadline) time to dig, we can say that Le Toux is certainly correct.

In his feature on Le Toux’s record-setting performance Tuesday, Dave correctly identified an outlier goal scored by Le Toux in 2010 for the Union in a 2-1 loss to the Red Bulls. That goal, however, doesn’t count toward the U.S. Open Cup record because of a pedantic (I’d prefer the term “asinine”) distinction between Open Cup and Open Cup qualifying.

From 2009 to 2011, MLS clubs had to qualify among themselves for the tournament, a way to presumably give teams lower in the American soccer pyramid a chance to get further in the tournament. As a result, only eight MLS teams actually participated in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Cups; the others only played in qualifying. Technically speaking, the Union didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open Cup until 2012, losing play-in matches in 2010 and 2011. Not only was it a silly system, in retrospect, but it’s even more nonsensical to not count personal accolades in those games toward Open Cup totals. That inane distinction will be ignored for the rest of this evaluation.

Editorializing aside, therein lies the discrepancy in Le Toux's situation. So instead of his 14th goal in the competition Tuesday, Le Toux has to his name, for all intents and purposes, 17 goals. That includes the goal in 2010 against the Red Bulls, plus two goals (and two assists) in a 2009 qualifier in which Seattle beat Real Salt Lake, 4-1. Those tallies would put him well ahead of Jaime Moreno, David Bulow and Johnny Menyongar, the three players with whom he had supposedly been tied entering last night.

Le Toux’s total in the U.S. Open Cup, participating from 2007-09 with Seattle and 2010-11 and 2013-14 for the Union stands at 17 goals and nine assists, a remarkable total. (You could add to that a pair of goals scored during his Vancouver Whitecaps days in the 2012 Amway Canadian Championships, if you want to continue the domestic cup domination trend.)

Since information on the recent history of the U.S. Open Cup is hard to come by – the Sounders media guide, for instance, only covers the MLS era that started in 2009 (jump to page numbered "136," or 88 in the actual pdf page), making Wikipedia (begrudgingly) the most reliable compendium of links on the topic – here’s a handy reference as Le Toux tries to distance himself from the pack as the competition’s modern leader.

(Cumulative totals in parenthesis)
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

They call him 'Rambo': Meet Union loan target Brian Brown

News "broke" last night – via a post on the website of Jamaican club Harbour View FC – that it had agreed to terms with the Philadelphia Union on a loan agreement for 21-year-old forward Brian Brown. While the Union have yet to make the loan capture official, a club source confirmed that they are in the latter stages of negotiations with the player and a deal could be finalized at some point this week.

That source also confirmed a separate release from Harbour View that Brown had been on trial with the club. (And if further proof is needed, Brown’s Facebook page, as referred by Harbour View’s official feed, features a header image of the Union’s locker room.)

The connections to the Union are numerous. First, goalkeeper Andre Blake, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, came through the youth setup at Harbour View. Blake is part of an uptick in Jamaican influence in MLS in recent years, with three of the first eight picks in the 2014 SuperDraft (including No. 7 Andre Lewis and No. 8 Damion Lowe) hailing from the island nation along with the top scorer from the 2013 draft, Colorado’s Deshorn Brown.

Brown’s agent, per the Harbour View release, is Damani Ralph, who spent two seasons as a high-scoring forward in MLS with the Chicago Fire … where he was a teammate of Union manager Jim Curtin. (Coincidentally, Ralph also followed the same Harbour-View-to-University-of-Connecticut path as Blake.)

And here’s one more coincidence: Brown was on trial in 2012 with Aston Villa in England … at the same time that a young Union forward named Danny Mwanga was also being vetted by then manager Alex McLeish. Neither signed, the reasoning behind Brown’s refusal probably having something to do with the looming issue of getting a UK work permit given the fact that he’d yet to appear for Jamaica.
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Monday, July 7, 2014

The streak ends: Le Toux reacts to his first yellow card

The Union’s loss to Dallas Friday featured something so simultaneously commonplace and extraordinary that it almost escaped notice.

In the 68th minute of the Union’s 2-1 loss in Texas, referee Edvin Jurisevic brandished a yellow card in the direction of Union forward Sebastien Le Toux. The reasoning, supposedly for repeated protests, made it hardly exceptional in a league where refereeing is improving but remains perplexing at times. The decision also wasn’t a shock within the context of Jurisevic’s struggles to keep up with the pace and tone of physicality in the game.

Sebastien Le Toux picked up his first MLS
yellow card Friday ... in his 170th match.
(Times File)
What made this otherwise mundane decision so remarkable wasn’t the ref but the player: The yellow card was Le Toux’s first in MLS play. That’s his first card of any color in his MLS career.

Just a few numbers to illustrate how astounding that point is: Le Toux’s MLS career started in 2009 with Seattle, in a 15-team league; 21 teams will start the next MLS season. Le Toux’s card came in his 170th MLS game, a career spent with four clubs. Le Toux’s streak of good behavior stretched back to a time when the Union didn’t yet exist.

He had played over 12,700 card-less minutes in his career. (For comparison’s sake, Fabinho this season has averaged a yellow card every 197 minutes, while Corben Bone is averaging a shade under seven reds and seven yellows per game this season.)

It’s a run that Le Toux admitted Monday to keeping tabs on and one he was a bit surprised to see end.

“I knew I had never gotten a card in MLS, but I was not expecting to get one the last game,” he said. “I was surprised he gave me one because I didn’t do anything. I think maybe (Jurisevic) wanted to put that on his résumé that he was the first one to give me a yellow card in the league, but I don’t know.”
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Show him the money, Carlos Valdes edition

In recent weeks, the Philadelphia Union have not been shy about professing their admiration for Carlos Valdes, a player who has been an all-star in their ranks and who for a time wore the captain’s armband. As Valdes and his Colombia teammates prepares for a historic quarterfinal tie with Brazil Friday, the subject of Valdes’ potential return to the club which owns his rights is a hot topic in Philadelphia.
The possibility of a return to Philadelphia for defender Carlos Valdes,
here tussling with Japan Keisuke Honda in a World Cup Group C match
June 24, has been a popular conversation for the club in recent days. (AP)

Interim manager Jim Curtin weighed in on the matter Wednesday, detailing a number of the obstacles that stand between the Union and a reunion with Valdes, from within MLS and outside it.

Among the highlights from Curtin is the declaration that the Union, “would like to make him one of the top-paid center backs in the league,” while the skipper later allowed that the designated player avenue could be open to Valdes to come back in the league. (You’ll recall that the Union have two designated players under contract this season – Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and definitely not Vincent Nogueira – giving them the flexibility to add a third.)

Let’s provide some context to that by looking at how Valdes’ compensation measures up league-wide.

First, the Union are on the hook for $295,000 for Valdes in the 2014 season, per the MLS Players Union, an amount deferred from the salary cap with the defender on a season-long loan. How much of that is actually paid to the player by the Union or what fraction is divvied up through San Lorenzo, the Argentine club he is on loan to, falls within the murky dealings of MLS. The last time Valdes suited up for the Union was in 2012, when his guaranteed compensation was $268,000.

So if the Union are determined to, as Curtin indicated, make Valdes an offer that significantly ups that amount to secure his services, what would that entail?

Well, it may be surprising that defenders are not terribly well compensated in relative terms in MLS. Based on April 2014 salary figures from the MLS Players Union, only one defender (No. 11 Omar Gonzalez at $1.25 million) ranks among the top 19 salaries. The only defender joining Gonzalez in the top 25 salaries is New England’s Jose Goncalves at $479,000, the 20th-highest-paid player. Gonzalez is the only defender with a (non-young) Designated Player contract, though Goncalves is the highest earner in the league not to be denoted as a DP. (Portland’s recent signing of English defender Liam Ridgewell adds a second DP, though his salary won’t be made available until August.)
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