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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It begins: Observations from Day 1 of Union training camp

There’s nothing quite like the first day of an MLS training camp. Enthusiasm, unbridled and often unfounded, abounds. There’s always a surprise in store in catching up on eight weeks of inaction, an eternity for a season that lasts as long as MLS can possibly stretch it.

The Philadelphia Union have never lacked for opening-day hijinks, from Freddy Adu to Carlos Valdes. Tuesday’s version to open the 2017 season was much more benign. Let’s hit the highlights:

- The big and surprising name in attendance was of course Oguchi Onyewu:

(Full disclosure: It took us about 45 minutes of training action to pick out Onyewu. Then you couldn’t miss him. He’s still massive.) Anyway, Onyewu is just with the Union for training. That doesn’t put the Union in select company – he’s been with New England, Glasgow Rangers, New York Cosmos, and NYCFC since what apparently was his last full-time gig with Charlton Athletic in 2014-15. The 34-year-old, who has 69 U.S. caps, is staying fit, and the Union saw the benefit of allowing such a veteran to join the ranks. That doesn’t mean, even though the club is in the market for a veteran center back, that Onyewu is the guy.

“Gooch is here just training right now,” manager Jim Curtin said. “If it evolves into something more than just a training stint ... he’s in the D.C. area. Recently he was in with the Cosmos just keeping his fitness up. He was sharp today, looked good on the ball, organized things well. But at this moment, it’s just a training stint.”

Said Earnie Stewart: “First and foremost, he’s here as a player who wants to keep up his level of fitness and make sure to be ready for any moment that somebody steps in. He has a great history when it comes to soccer, so you have to oblige him. It’s really simple. I think it’s great for the young players around him to see his experience, and for us, it’s great to see Goochi here. … I wouldn’t want to go that far right now (on if it could be a trial). Never say never, but that’s really clear because that’s the way soccer is. Obviously we are looking for an experienced center back and it’s pretty easy that he fits that mold, but it needs to be possible and it needs to fit.”

- With Onyewu in the fold, the Union have what my colleague Kevin Kinkead estimated to be 31 players Tuesday morning. That’s 27 field players and four goalies. By rough estimates, here were the squads of field players taking part in 9-v-9 drills:

Orange: Bolu Akinyode, Marcus Epps, Richie Marquez, Fabian Herbers, James Chambers, Jack Elliott, Adam Najem, Santi Moar, Ray Gaddis

Green: Derrick Jones, Auston Trusty, Fafa Picault, CJ Sapong, Ken Tribbett, Ilsinho, Sekou Kanneh, Aaron Jones, Cory Burke

White: Josh Yaro, Oguchi Onyewu, Warren Creavlle, Fabinho, Roland Alberg, Eric Ayuk, Anthony Fontana, Chris Nanco, Charlie Davies

As Curtin alluded to in his press address, it’s tough to pin down how many academy guys and Steel player rotated in and out. The defined absences included Giliano Wijnaldum and Jay Simpson, pending international paperwork. Curtin hopes those will be resolved as soon as Thursday. Brian Carroll was out there but wasn't always part of full-field drills.

- As for the big names above: My colleague Jonathan Tannenwald alerted us to a report from Germany as to Fabrice “Fafa” Picault’s trial with the Union. The 25-year-old winger is American-born to Haitian parents and was capped by the U.S. in the May friendly with Puerto Rico. He is under contract with German 2.Bundesliga club F.C. Pauli. Initial impressions of Picault are high.

Curtin: “It doesn’t take a genius: He is fast. There’s no question about it. He has some bounce in his step. A guy that can add pace to our wide areas, has played up top as a nine, too, but a guy that is on trial and one that again checks a lot of the boxes for something that we need.”

Stewart: “Fabrice is one of those wingers that has tremendous pace. Already has a background, has a pedigree, has experience. Glad we could get him in and get a free look at that because if there’s one thing that’s very important in modern-day football, it’s speed. That combined with control over the ball is not something that everyone possesses, and Fafa does.”

- Ives Galarcep reported this week that the Union were sniffing around Adam Najem, a University of Akron standout whose Homegrown rights are owned by the New York Red Bulls. Najem is on trial with the Union, and he would seem to fill the glaring need of a reserve No. 10. His stats at Akron – 33 goals and 29 assists in 83 career games – are impressive. The Union haven’t yet moved to acquire him, but they are evaluating Najem.

“A good young player who, everyone’s career path goes in different ways, there are rules in our league that come up and he came across and had a good meeting with him and he was in training with us today and showed very well,” Curtin said. “His stats speak for themselves. In college, he dominated the college level. This is a step up for sure.”

- Both Curtin and Stewart say the roster process is, in Curtin’s words, “fluid and evolving.” Stewart clarified statements to saying that the Union are looking for a “controlling midfielder” as a No. 6, someone who, “their first thought, even when we have the ball, is defensively.” The Union are also searching for a No. 3 goalkeeper.

- The obligatory Maurice Edu injury update: Edu had surgery on his twice-broken left leg nine weeks ago, by his estimate. He's been out of the boot and off crutches for three weeks. The cautious outlook has him resuming running in early February.

- Auston Trusty will be leaving shortly to joining the U.S. Under-20 camp. Derrick Jones is remaining with the Union pending a nationality switch that, per Curtin, would leave him eligible for the Under-20 World Cup selection in May.

- Curtin on international roster spots:
“The easiest way is that between the two rosters, we have more than the MLS-allotted number. … I think the easiest way for me to say it, if there’s a good international player, he will be on our roster. That mechanism will never prevent us from maintaining a strong international player.”
- Interesting quote from Stewart on concerns of Simpson’s pedigree in the lower divisions:
“He’s played at some lower-division teams as well, where England is known for scrappy football in those leagues that they play in, but I think that fits well with what we do here because you need to be an athlete to play in this league and it’s not an easy league to play in. That’s been shown and that’s been proven. But we think the athleticism that he has and the background that he has, an intelligent player, but that strength and speed is going to be a good fit for us.”

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