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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Golden Gloves Blake leads Jamaica to Caribbean Cup title

Andre Blake spent most of his rookie season on the bench
or the practice field, but he showed his ability
for Jamaica this week. (Times File)
For all the hype surrounding Andre Blake 10 months ago when the Philadelphia Union made him the first goalkeeper ever taken No. 1 in the MLS SuperDraft, the 2014 season was spent on the sidelines with most of the talk of his potential staying just that. Two MLS matches, two U.S. Open Cup ties against lower-division sides and an international friendly isn’t exactly a large body of work to judge progress or value for the club. There was some good, some less than stellar and a lot more of, well, promises that lacked in-game information to back them up.

In at least one sense, though, that promise seems to have manifested itself in the performance Blake just authored with the Jamaican National Team.

Tuesday night, Blake finished up a performance in the CONCACAF Caribbean Cup that showed his obvious ability: Three days short of his 24th birthday, Blake earned the Golden Gloves award for the tournament, giving up just one goal in four matches in leading the Reggae Boyz to the title of the eight-team tournament on home soil.

In keeping with the basic script Blake followed for the Union, there were stops and starts, like what sounds like a goalkeeping error that cost his team a win in the opening 1-1 draw with Martinique.

Beyond that, though, there were very few points of criticism. Blake kept clean sheets in wins over Antigua and Barbuda (3-0) and Haiti (2-0) to make sure Jamaica finished atop Group A with seven points from three matches. (It was also fueled by three goals from Vancouver's Darren Mattocks, while Leeds' Rodolph Austin won the most outstanding player award.) In keeping with his shades-of-brilliance reputation, the Haiti win included a save of Emmanuel Sarki late on.

In the final Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago (sadly, sans Keon Daniel), Blake helped keep the game scoreless through 120 minutes. In the penalty kick shootout, Blake started with a stop of (an admittedly poorly-taken) spot kick by Soca Warriors captain Kenwyne Jones. Blake got a hand on the second attempt before it snuck into the side netting, then watched as the fifth and final attempt sailed over the crossbar to lead Jamaica to a 4-3 advancement in PKs. (Video of the PK shootout is here.)
Read more »

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deciphering the Dispersal: Weighing the Union's options

Former Chivas USA goalie Dan Kennedy: A Dispersal Draft pipe dream
for the Union? (AP)
There’s a fair amount of questioning as to what exactly will happen in Wednesday’s Chivas USA Dispersal Draft, a once-in-a-dozen-years reminder of MLS’ single-entity structure. The contraction of Chivas this season doesn’t affect the contract statuses of their players, who have deals with the league that will be transferred to new teams via the dispersal draft. (Here's the full draft order.)

That’s the easy aspect of the concept. But it’s more than, “hey, free players!” for a couple of reasons.

First, the Dispersal Draft follows the rules for Stage 1 of the Re-Entry draft. Let’s let the league explain:
“MLS clubs acquiring Dispersal Draft players must take players at their full 2015 budget charges and options must be exercised, including any associated transfers or loans. If a team selects a player in the Dispersal Draft but leaves him unprotected ahead of the Expansion Draft on Dec. 10, he will be available for selection by either Orlando City or NYCFC at that time.

Players unselected during the Dispersal Draft will take part in the Re-Entry Draft, if eligible, or will be made available via the Waiver Draft on Dec. 10.”
Three big caveats to activity are contained therein:

1) Teams drafting a player in the Dispersal Draft must either do so thinking that they represent one of their top 11 players to protect from the Expansion Draft, or strategically select someone who isn’t of interest to either of the expansion teams.

2) Teams aren’t just considering adding a player for the heck of it or even at their fair market value; they have to add the player at the specific salary determined by their previous deal. A team isn't just drafting Nigel Reo-Coker; it is drafting his contract, which it must automatically assume for next season.

3) Teams that want players but don’t want them at their current prices can gamble that they can get them later, either though the Waiver Draft or the second stage of Re-Entry, where teams have the freedom to negotiate new contract terms.

Looking at the history, it’s tough to judge how much action there will be Wednesday. When the only other dispersal draft was held in 2002, divvying up the remnants of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, the 10 other teams in MLS selected 11 players. One team passed in the first round, and two teams opted, instead of a player, to grab the teams’ SuperDraft selections that were up for grabs. (That is not a facet of this year’s draft.)

Action will also be affected (I think, hampered) by the fact that picks are untradeable. That makes Dallas’ No. 1 slot less valuable in a way, or at least containing more inherent risk. (Instead of trading the pick to a team that wants Dan Kennedy, for instance, they have to assume the risk by picking him, then hoping they can deal him.)

By that metric, this could be a busy draft. If we look in terms of Stage 1 of Re-Entry, though, it casts a different story. Over the four years that that mechanism has existed, a grand total of 11 players have been selected; 65 of the 75 teams involved have passed their selections without picking a player. (Granted, that’s looking at cast-offs and ill-fits of teams league-wide, not the core of one (admittedly unsuccessful) club with some talent.) Also, it's important to note that the draft continues until all teams pass once; that means clubs like Orlando City and NYCFC could select more than one player.

So what does all that mean? Teams must be judicious. Teams at the top will have a chance to select valuable assets, either young players with upside or veterans. The teams in the middle will have to really love a player to go out on a limb. And the teams at the bottom, like the Union picking at No. 17, might not find much.

So let’s break down what is available:
Read more »

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Monday, November 17, 2014

The Search for Sugarman: Impressions from the owner's first press conference

There were plenty of question marks going into last Friday’s press conference featuring Philadelphia Union majority owner Jay Sugarman, ones that went beyond the not-so-mysterious unveiling of Rene Meulensteen as joining the organization in some capacity.

What stole the headlines, though, was the first media address by Sugarman.

Understandably, a fair amount of myth and misunderstanding has grown around Sugarman. When his only image before the fans is comprised of appearances like this, that’s easy to see. It also doesn’t help that most of the information about Sugarman has come via ownership partner Nick Sakiewicz, who has his own issues of image within the Union fanbase (and MLS at large). Absent concrete statements from the man himself – and with three straight playoff-free seasons of time to let the imagination wander – the perception of Sugarman has had a tendency to slant toward the negative.

Sugarman, though, isn’t an absentee owner. He’s been at the heart of spending for the club in recent years, including infrastructure investments like the Union academy and the practice facility. He’s been visible and accessible, even if he didn’t want to talk on the record. Much of that distance is likely the product of two factors: 1) The fact that he lives and works in New York and isn’t as local as he’d like to be to comment on certain day-to-day issues; and 2) The realization that he is not a soccer lifer, which means he’s willing to defer to the expertise of Sakiewicz – who is no longer (or never was, depending on your philosophical bent) involved in soccer operations – on such matters.

The impression Sugarman gave at Friday’s press conference wasn’t in line with the reclusive, uncaring image that is sometimes portrayed of him. He was plenty candid, even if using pre-scripted notes to make sure he got his major talking points across. He threw in the joke of, “see you in five years,” at the end of the presser. And he was even willing to get a little sassy in answering a question from yours truly (20:50 mark).

Afterward, Sugarman was accommodating to one-on-one interviews with smaller groups of reporters, which painted a more candid picture. For one, Sugarman hasn’t been uninvolved in the Union over the last five years, even if he wants to be more active in the future. He comes across as a pensive, thoughtful student of the game, one who owns a team of relatively meager finances that requires an edge to compete. He’s a businessman who has realized that on-field profits aren’t turned overnight, leading him to use the novelty of the business as a cushion to meticulously seek information about the marketplace he’s venturing into before making sweeping statements about it. He’s sought that advantage, not just through emphasizing academy talent but by some pretty interesting advanced analytics tinkering.
Read more »

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Sugarman, Meulensteen and more: Takeaways from a busy day at PPL Park

Rene Meulensteen, seen here with Fulham last year,
is happy to be working with the Union. (AP)
It’s possible that Friday could be looked at as a seminal moment for the Philadelphia Union, a watershed day in which their structures and hierarchy begins to take the shape required by the rigors of the new MLS (2.0 or 3.0 or whatever.0).

Announcements of such gravity –the contracting of Rene Meulensteen as a consultant, the formal declaration that a sporting director will be sought and the first public comments made by majority owner Jay Sugarman – provided plenty of food for thought and a lot of information to sift through.

So let’s distill it into a few important points from today’s press conference.

1. Jay Sugarman is not a silent owner.

It’s easy to have thought differently given his muted public presence, which fostered the notion among some fans that Sugarman was just the money and little else. There’s no doubt the enormity of investment that he’s put into this club, but his involvement (which I’m going to explore in a little more detail later) doesn’t entail writing checks and then ignoring how the funds are spent. Through co-owner Richie Graham, he’s had a hand in the creation of the Union Academy. Sugarman is an enormously successful businessman, and he got that way by identifying talent and allowing those people to do their jobs. And now, being less than satisfied by how those jobs have been done, he’s stepping in to put into practice his time learning about the team, the league and the American sports market.

2. Nick Sakiewicz is no longer involved in football operations.

In the assignment of duties Friday, one of the first was that Sakiewicz “and his team will focus on building the business and have the resources to compete as our league gets stronger and stronger,” according to Sugarman. Implicit in that statement, which Sugarman repeated later in the press conference, is that Sakiewicz will have limited to no hand in soccer operational decisions moving forward. That follows with Sakiewicz’s public statements of late (and depending on your perspective, has been the paradigm all along), and it dispels any misinformation to the contrary in concrete terms.

3. Rene Meulensteen is a temporary remedy.
Read more »

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Friday, November 7, 2014

The Jim Curtin offseason assessment

It’s been an atypical start to the Union offseason tinged with tumult and confusion, and with the Union’s coaching situation up in the air, the season lacked the customary concluding status update between the first-team staff and the media.

Both counts were resolved Friday when Jim Curtin was named the Union’s permanent manager. As part of the festivities, Curtin was made available to discuss some of the bigger issues the Union will face this offseason, offering the transparency that he touted to the media during his introductory presser.

So let’s go down the line and get Curtin’s take on some of the key talking points of the Union’s offseason.

On the top offseason priority:

“We are looking to bring in a striker. That is something that we’re actively pursuing. Chris Albright is tireless working. He’s been overseas a couple of times already. It’s a piece that we know we need. In MLS now, you look at the type of forwards that are working, it’s the Dom Dwyer, Quincy Amarikwa, kind of pain-in-the-ass, can-run-forever, stocky and fast and just annoying to play against. Those are things we want to add. We need to get bigger, stronger and faster. I know it sounds cliché, but a lot of times when you look at the national anthem and our group is lined up against the other team, we’re a lot smaller than the other team. I think we need to get bigger, a lot faster and a little bit stronger on the ball so we’re not getting pushed around a little bit.”

On Amobi Okugo’s contract situation:

“He’s in a unique one. Amobi is a guy that I had a conversation with three years ago when I was in the academy but I would come and help out at training sessions, I said to him ‘you’ve got to give Europe a try.’ It’s something I believe in his career. I’ve seen guys that play out their contracts, they go overseas and it goes great. Carlos Bocanegra comes to mind, guys that I played with that did it the same way Amobi did: Put in his time here, did a great job here. We’re still going to make him an offer so that we can maintain his rights, but at the same time, he’s going to try overseas. It’s not a secret. And I encourage it. It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s a guy that’s good enough to play overseas.” Read more »

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