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

Friday, July 10, 2015

A long, strange trip: The Union's summer transfer history

Hope springs eternal for soccer fans the world over as summer dawns, months of labor bearing the fruit of new signings and new possibilities as the global deck of soccer talent shuffles itself to the hands of the highest bidders. The silly season is the habitat of boundless hope, where even the unlikeliest of dance partners can pair up like gawky teens in the last hazy, desperate moments of a high school dance.

Sheanon Williams is one of only two players
on the Union's active roster acquired during a summer transfer window.
For the Philadelphia Union, though, there should be no delusions of grandeur as to the summer harvest. If history is any indication, the Union’s dealings this summer will trade in equal measures perplexing, unjustifiably optimistic and downright futile. The past missteps, many borne of fits of midsummer pique, have backed the club into a tight logistical corner ahead of this window, the curtain on which officially rose Wednesday. That should temper already low expectations, the chances of appreciably improving a squad in dire need of reinforcements looking modest.

Presented below is the ignominious track record of the Union’s front office in transfer windows gone by. It reads like a carnage of misfits, mysteries and mirages that define the organization’s half-decade struggle to find the playoffs, and more elusively, a consistent direction through the world of MLS.

Hyperbole aside, the most damning indictment of the Union’s blithering transfer ideology resides in a single number. The club enters its sixth summer transfer window, the period of movement that owns primary status in the world’s most affluent leagues but is rendered secondary to the winter window by MLS’ peculiar schedule. But when the club resumed training from its July 4 weekend break, only two players (Fabinho and Sheanon Williams) signed during a summer window were physically present in the group assembled at PPL Park. It’s a staggeringly low number.

(Since transfer window openings vary, this appraisal considers any player movement into the Union from June on. That includes free-agent signings of players new to MLS in September.)


If you look five years down the road, this could be the set of transactions that dooms the Union to prolonged mediocrity. All the rhetoric, in hindsight, seemed too rose-colored, blinded by afterglow of a little tournament in Brazil. To compete in MLS, read the script from which the media was often regaled, the Union required World Cup talent. So they splashed out for Rais M’Bolhi, oblivious of the risk that 120 minutes of glory in Porto Alegre against Germany could be overshadowed by a decade tracing a nomadic path across Europe’s club scene, and fought to return Carlos Valdes from loan, the defender strong-arming his way out of Argentina’s San Lorenzo through a daily soap opera broadcast 140 characters at a time. Fast-forward 12 months, and the Union can’t ship M’Bolhi out of town quickly enough while the combination of Valdes’ worn-down body and outsize salary have the Union presumably hoping that the another suitor will step in where Uruguayan club Nacional has reportedly soured on the Colombian. The odds of either ever returning to supplement their total of 17 combined matches in a Union kit since the latest jersey unveiling is slightly less remote than MLS Cup making an appearance on the banks of the Delaware in the near future, but not by much.

The third, less heralded (read: retrospectively reviled) addition was Brian Brown, on loan from Jamaican club Harbour View FC. It was a little too much, too soon for the 22-year-old, who notched two goals and one assist in eight games (one start). He’s got two goals in 11 matches with NASL side Indy Eleven this season, a level more aligned with his talents. But you have to wonder if the Union would’ve had greater latitude to take a chance on Brown when his loan ended had they not squandered two international spots and undisclosed piles of money in concocting their post-World Cup recipe for disaster.


Fabinho, improbably, represents one
of the Union's better summer transfer dealings.
The 2013 window could be the most tragicomic of the bunch. This was John Hackworth’s year to put his stamp on the squad, in much the same way that Jim Curtin presumably will this summer. It was the first window devoid of the head-scratching machinations and convoluted motivations of Peter Nowak and Deigo Gutierrez. And it was as utterly irrelevant as imaginable. When Fabinho is the grand prize of the haul by light years, there’s little to redeem the ledger. The free transfer of the Brazilian from Sydney FC in retrospect looks like good business (certainly by the Union’s rock-bottom standards). Though he occupies a valuable international spot (and was among the reasons why Pedro Ribeiro was dangled in the Expansion Draft to be plucked by Orlando City), he’s become a regular rotation cog.

Minor-league talent comprised the remainder of his cohorts in the glorious summer of 2013. Oka Nikolov signed after 18 years with Eintracht Frankfurt, and all he had left in the tank was a 45-minute ride on the Union goalkeeping carousel in a friendly against Stoke City and a few appearances from the bench behind a thoroughly unsupported Zac MacMath. Plus, Nikolov’s arrival precipitated the trade of Chris Konopka to Toronto (and unearthed the news of the Supplemental Draft's demise), where he’s a starter while the Union cycle through minor league goalies. Most puzzling was the signing of Gilberto (not him, him, him, or him), but some guy from the lower leagues of Brazil whom no one had much heard of. He was young at 24, imposing at 6-2 and checked a lot of boxes that allowed Hackworth to pontificate about his upside. He basically got free training for a few months, never making a matchday squad. Ditto for Yann Ekra, the Ghanaian midfielder with Harrisburg City who was signed in September after Konopka was traded to fill a spare roster spot. All three of those ill-fits returned to leagues below MLS – Ekra back at Harrisburg, Nikolov for eight games in 2014 Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Gilberto with Sacramento Republic FC. The minor league parallels are just too tempting there.


It’s a little odd to see a purposeful move come out of the 2012 window, one that could yet have future ramifications for the Union. Lio Pajoy had performed adequately for the desperately bad Union with seven goals in 24 matches. But the relic of the Nowak era was jettisoned for a player that new manager Hackworth was high on, D.C. United midfielder Danny Cruz. The deal saved money, an international spot and swapped a 31-year forward for a 22-year-old midfielder, plus it allowed the coining of the term “Philly Tough.” That’s a win on all sides. Cruz was instrumental in 2013, making 32 starts. While Pajoy was a placeholder in D.C.’s 2013 disaster before being discarded in the rebuild, Cruz appeared in 70 games over two-plus season before being loaned this year to Norway. He might still be in the Union’s long-term plans.

The rest of the window was catastrophic. The Union maneuvered for Bakary Soumare in allocation, a move arranged by Soumare’s former Chicago Fire coach Nowak. By the time Soumare landed in Philly, Nowak was gone and Soumare was recovering from injury. He played one (fairly disastrous) game in 2012, was deemed surplus to requirements by Hackworth in early 2013 and played just three times – due to an unavoidable pileup of injuries – before the Union sent him packing back to the Fire for the pick that became Robbie Derschang. It’s a move that oozed success at every turn.

The least inspiring move of the window, though, was the trade of the franchise's first overall pick Danny Mwanga to Portland for Jorge Perlaza. One part of the move seemed shrewd, as Mwanga’s struggles since then are evident, with the No. 1 pick bouncing from Portland to Colorado to Orlando City with a loan to the New York Cosmos in between. Even still, the Union failed to recoup fair value. Perlaza played two games for the Union, and by the end of August, he was cut loose.


In the twilight of his career, Veljko Paunovic ended up
being a successful transfer coup for the Union in 2011. (AP)
Ah, 2011. The days when the Union, caught up in a playoff chase, went all-in on Freddy Adu, the club’s first real attempt at a franchise player and its first designated player. For a season, it proved beneficial, Adu parlaying his form at that summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup in to a move stateside from Benfica to reunite with his first pro coach, Nowak. It paid off immediately, as Adu augmented the team’s playoff chase with two goals and an assist in 11 matches. His influence waned the next season, precipitating Hackworth to deem him not part of the team’s plans in January 2013 as a precursor to the Kleberson switch with Bahia.

The other significant move, coaxing Veljko Paunovic out of retirement, worked fine, with the veteran midfielder scoring three times in 17 league matches for the club, plus ties to a high-riser in the European coaching contingent may yet be a boon. One wise business decision (selling Carlos Ruiz to Mexican club Veracruz) helped offset a wasteful one (shipping Jordan Harvey to Vancouver for peanuts). The late-season afterthought acquisitions – English defender Joe Tait from Dayton Dutch Lions, Swarthmore grad Morgan Langley from Harrisburg City – resulted in just one game played, a sub appearance from Langley.


Improbably, through this tangle of chaos, the Union’s all-time leader in MLS appearances somehow materialized in a summer window: Sheanon Williams, who signed Aug. 31. An IMG Academy product and former U.S. youth national teamer whose attempts to catch on in Europe after one year at the University of North Carolina failed, Williams has proved a steal as a regular fullback for the Union going on a half-decade. They had the potential for another smart move in the trade for longtime Fire midfielder Justin Mapp, but the Union foolishly left him unprotected in the 2011 Expansion Draft and his late blossoming occurred in Montreal.

Many of the other 2010 moves reflect the hodgepodge of an expansion side trying to forge an identity. That’s how you get Eduardo Coudet, then 35, making a cameo appearance for nine games in midfield. That’s why Juan Diego Gonzalez (all honestly, this one I had to look up) got into seven games at the tail end of his career. And the late-season roster filler du jour was Temple grad JT Noone, who never got into a game after signing from Harrisburg City.

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