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

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.

Not only that, but consider how little their draft picks have done outside the Union this year. Bird has struggled through injuries and hasn’t seen an 18 for the Union. He couldn’t even get time in Harrisburg, where he made one start and played 68 minutes over three appearances. Catic was shipped to Carolina for Brian Sylvestre in May as collateral to fix the ginormous Rais M’Bolhi m’booboo in goal. He’s only made two starts for the Railhawks and eight appearances logging a total of 248 minutes.

This is nothing new for the Union. Consider their rookie history, which is listed below. (Mercifully, I’ve included only picks from the SuperDraft and Supplemental draft who made the roster, though that excludes bloviating about the most skilled player in the 2013 draft from John Hackworth.)

The fact that a team in perpetual rebuilding mode that has selected in the top seven of the draft five times counts Hoppenot as its all-time leader in rookie appearances (25 in 2012) is disturbing.

It’s nothing against the 2015 crop, whose members are enduring a black hole of a year for their developments, because they’re not unique. Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney, both serviceable MLS regulars, were jerked around in their rookie season by Peter Nowak to combine for five starts, about half as many as made by Kyle Nakazawa. Zac MacMath may not have played at all as a rookie in 2011 after going No. 5 overall had Faryd Mondragon not gotten injured. The only survivor from the 2013 class is a supplemental pick (Fernandes). And lest we forget, Blake got one mercy league start in front of a B team as a rookie.

The question here is circular: Are the Union bad at developing rookies which leads to nonproductive players, or do they not pick players worthy of the resources to develop?

In whichever camp you align, Marquez presents the counterargument. He didn’t play as a rookie in 2014 and only made one 18 (in game No. 33). But he logged 30 games in Harrisburg and grew into being a pro. He’s now a significant building block for the team.

That begs questions of the past. Would Chandler Hoffman be a Union regular if given the same opportunity? Would the Union’s offseason priorities change if Catic got that this year? If Blake got those minutes last year, could the Union have been immunized of the scourge of M’Bolhi’s shambolic cameo?

With the Union poised to pick No. 2 and 22 overall (thank MacMath for that), they have a chance to return value from the draft. What they do with those players afterward, though, seems far more important and is an area in which the Union have demonstrated far less proficiency.

Union drafted rookie history
(all stats for MLS games)

Danny Mwanga (No. 1 overall): 24 games, 17 starts, seven goals, four assists
Amobi Okugo (No. 6): 11 games, four starts
Jack McInerney (No. 7): 17 games, one start
Toni Stahl (No. 17): 1 game, 1 start, 1 red card
Kyle Nakazawa (No. 33): 14 games, eight starts
Brian Perk (No. 49): 0 appearances

Zac MacMath (No. 5): eight games, seven starts 3-0-4 record
Michael Farfan (No. 23): 21 games, 13 starts, two goals, three assists
Levi Houapeu (No. 41): 0 appearances
Ryan Richter (supplemental): 0 appearances

Chandler Hoffman (No. 13): seven games, two starts
Greg Jordan (No. 32): 0 appearances
Ray Gaddis (No. 35): 18 games, 17 starts, one assist
Antoine Hoppenot (supplemental): 25 games, three starts, four goals, one assist

Dan Anding (No. 26): one appearance
Leo Fernandes (supplemental): seven games, three starts

Andre Blake (No. 1): one start, 0-1-0
Pedro Ribeiro (No. 15): nine games, three starts, two goals
Richie Marquez (No. 44): 0 appearances

Dzenan Catic (No. 31): 0 appearances (on loan with Carolina)
Eric Bird (No. 41): 0 appearances
Raymond Lee (No. 71): one appearance, cut

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