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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The 2016 Stephen Okai Award goes to ... Kevin Kratz

Where have you gone Toni Stahl? (AP)

Among the least consequential yet most puzzling moments of last Wednesday’s valedictory address by Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin concerned Kevin Kratz, a bizarre coda on a quizzical and abbreviated tenure with the Philadelphia Union.

Stewart in the press conference announced that the Union wouldn’t be retaining Kratz’s services and that he “was on loan so he’ll go back to Atlanta at one point,” referring to MLS expansion side Atlanta United FC. An Atlanta spokesman later clarified that the Union had agreed to trade Kratz’s rights to Atlanta in a deal that is pending the reopening of the trade window Dec. 11. Very MLS.

Either way, the German midfielder’s career with the Union, which started ahead of the Sept. 15 roster freeze and ended with nary a bench appearance, has come and gone in a blink of an eye. Kratz was originally announced as midfield cover, yet even as Alejandro Bedoya, Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu picked up injuries (which the previous two played through), Kratz never entered the picture. Yet the player with Bundesliga experience presented an intriguing piece, perhaps even to build with next year, and seemed an engaging interview subject excited to be in Philly. Yet still, his blink-and-you-missed-it tenure came to nothing but a footnote to view someday and wonder, ‘who was that guy?’

Which got me thinking – Kratz isn’t the first player that Union have brought in to flesh out a roster late in the season. He’s not the first player to pop up, generate speculation, pique fan interest and vanish into nothingness. He’s not the first member of the Union whose tenure was so evanescent as to make you wonder if he really was even here or if it was all a peculiar dream caused by some by some bad Thai food too close to bedtime.

So to commemorate Kratz’s time in Philly – and in a vain effort to actual have him leave some tangible legacy besides his 5-foot-8 frame filling in at center back in practice during the October international break – I hereby bestow upon Kratz the 2016 Stephen Okai Award.

What is that, you may ask. It’s a way to mark the passage of Union time by enshrining each year’s most head-scratching personnel move of a certain exalted kind. It’s the one player each year who brings an abundance of under-the-radar hope, whose resume succeeds in raising the possibility that he could be something, whose praises are sung a bit too disproportionately by management, but who ends up never impacting the club. Sometimes it’s the player whose past travels make us in the media go, ‘but this guy was at (blank), wasn’t he?’ Others, it’s a player that so thoroughly impresses in practice and is recognized for it, but never translates it to a game.

In short, it’s inspired by the player who generates the most lopsided proportion of fan-generated Twitter mentions directed at Union writers to actual contributions on the field.

The award is named after Stephen Okai, the Union’s 2013 second-round SuperDraft pick. Selected No. 31 overall, Okai made it all of 35 days with the Union, released in mid-February, after he surfaced in camp with Seattle Sounders. Okai spent 2013 in the USL PDL with the Charlotte Eagles before spending the last three seasons in USL, the last two with Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

That’s an extremely ordinary resume for the 27-year-old Ghanaian midfielder. But his immortalization in this role owes to what then manager John Hackworth said of Okai after he was drafted (five picks after the Union selected Don Anding No. 26 overall and 69 before Leo Fernandes in the fourth round of the Supplemental Draft):

“All you have to do is travel up the road and ask the folks up in Reading how important he was to their team for the last two years. The coaches in the NAIA and a lot of people rate him as the best player in college, but he’s in a division that doesn’t get a lot of notoriety. … Physically he’s ready for the demands of it. He’s a little older, more mature. If you look at the guys that were on the draft board at the time, we feel like he was a guy that was ready.”

Therein lies the crux of Okai’s appeal. Was he but a normal SuperDraft second-rounder with longshot odds of helping his drafting club, then nothing ventured and nothing lost. But the added hype makes the difference, and when that hype is sufficient to warrant stories and get fans wondering if this guy can legitimately solve a need, particularly in the Wild West of roster tumult that so often characterized past Union teams, then the dissonance with their lack of production causes some friction.

(Aside: This was my first year on the beat, and my detector for spin and other such tactics wasn’t as finely tuned. Hackworth didn’t take kindly to us reminding him of that quote later. “I don’t know what you guys want me to do besides talk about their good qualities,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to draft a guy and say that he stinks, it’s just that when we release him later on, you don’t write an article about it.”)

With the Okai award inaugurated, it makes sense to award it retroactively, and to be honest the task is getting tougher with Stewart in charge. But here’s the listing. (Note: Here’s hoping past award winners don’t call, because we do NOT have money for plaques.)

2016: Kevin Kratz
Honorable mention: Anderson (we’ll always have Dallas … and by we, I mean Fabian Castillo and his brief lead in the MVP race).

2015: Dzenan Catic.

The big striker was heralded for his international experience as a second-round diamond in the rough. He ratcheted up the anticipation with nice showings in practices at YSC where he looked superior to others who wouldn’t make the MLS cut. He made the bench for the Union in three MLS games, was loaned to Carolina Railhawks for Bryan Sylvestre to fix their goalkeeping booboos (cough, Rais M’Bolhi, cough), then returned, then went back to Carolina apparently for the rest of the season, though it was never announced. He’s now with Houston affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC in USL.

Honorable Mention: Raymond Lee (never forget).

2014: Corben Bone.

Four fouls conceded, one yellow, one red in 12 minutes.

Honorable mention: Brian Holt (I was once told that Holt could be the best pound-for-pound goalie in MLS. At 5-foot-9, though, opponents’ forwards don’t grade on a curve, though Holt was a tireless practice worker).

2013: Gilberto.

Where to begin? This season was a goldmine, which isn’t the only reason that Okai doesn’t win his own award (that’s gauche anyway). But the motherlode was Gilberto dos Santos Souza Junior, whom Hackworth signed Aug. 2. For the life of me, I recall Gilberto running with other players not making the bench once before a game, but never actually saw him with a ball. (Those were the days where reporters rarely attended trainings held at Chester Park.) Hackworth immediately said, essentially, that Gilberto wouldn't play at all in 2013 ... then cut him as soon as the 2014 offseason window opened. Sources out west tell me he is real based on his time with Sacramento Republic.

Honorable mention: Damani Richards (this one isn’t a funny story but rather a sad one, though one that generated plenty of preseason acrimony at the time); Oka Nikolov (redeemed by his hand in helping land Tranquillo Barnetta/helping Andre Blake develop); Matt Kassel (most notable achievement: Drawing the ire of Mark Hughes for breaking Brek Shea).

Jorge Plaza against the Union (and Sheanon Williams)
is the best we can do for photos. (AP)
2012: Jorge Perlaza.

The answer to the trivia question, ‘what happened to the first player ever drafted by the Union?’ lies with Perlaza. Acquired from Portland for Danny Mwanga, the Colombian forward’s tenure in Philadelphia lasted 72 minutes after he had established himself as a semi-regular for the Timbers.

Honorable mention: Greg Jordan (glad he turned into a decent player, but doubt he’s on Minnesota United’s MLS roster next year); Krystian Witkowski (concussions derailed him, though he nonetheless contributed to the Union cornering the market on the many spellings of “Christian”); Kai Herdling (pre-Kevin Kratz).

2011: Juan Diego Gonzalez

This one’s tough without stats from the Reserve League, and also because the Union established a semi-regular, non-schizophrenic roster rotation under Peter Nowak. These were the days of hope that the Union would actually develop young talent, complemented by vets Justin Mapp and Brian Carroll. But Gonzalez stands out. He was signed in August 2010, played seven games, then nothing in 2011. Nary a second in MLS, and all for the price of $193,000. That salary was just a little less than that of Michael and Gabriel Farfan, Keon Daniel and Sheanon Williams combined ($209k for 93 appearances). It’s long been assumed that there’s more than meets the eye with Gonzalez, so he richly deserves this honor.

Honorable mention: Levi Houpaeu (stayed on the roster most of the year), Morgan Langley (at least he had the local angle with Swarthmore and played), Chris Agorsor (a “training stint with Manchester United” is the hypeist of hypes, though injuries again intervened).

2010: Toni Stahl and David Myrie.

Two players who will forever be known as starters in the first game in franchise history have the equally memorable distinction of never playing again for the Union. Stahl, the 17th pick in the 2010 SuperDraft (at age 24 after playing in Europe and in the face of reported European interest), was red carded after just 40 minutes against Seattle. Soon after loaned to Harrisburg City, Stahl never returned to the Union. Myrie, who played 84 minutes opening night, didn’t make April 1. He’s still in the picture for the Costa Rican national team.

Honorable mention: Shavar Thomas (only one appearance for the Jamaican before being dealt to Sporting Kansas City in June; at least the trade turned into draft picks that turned into Carroll (trade with Columbus) and the pick used to grab Ray Gaddis).

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