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

Monday, August 14, 2017

A silent summer: The Union's transfer inaction in context

For Union fans that forgot, this is what unveiling a new signing looks like,
via Orlando City CEO Alex Leitao, left, and forward Dom Dwyer. (AP)
The Philadelphia Union did precisely nothing in the summer transfer window, if you exclude cashing in an unfilled international spot for the equivalent of bus fare from Columbus, the team that could very well usurp them as this year’s sixth and final playoff qualifier. With Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Montreal at home, the Union would seem to be out of the playoff mix – 10th in the East in points-per-game with six of their final 10 games on the road and eight against teams in playoff position. It would take a near-miraculous reversal of fortune in the next two and a half months to change that.

Earnie Stewart spoke last week about the Union’s adherence to their internal plan for growth. Understandably, he follows an organizational compass divorced of outside influences, which is a sound process.

But I want to look at the Union’s summer (in)action in the relative terms of the Eastern Conference, juxtaposed against the teams with which they must vie for playoff positioning. New York City FC and Toronto stood pat, because y’know, they’re in first and second place in the conference. But every other team had fairly recognizable flaws that they repaired. (Standings placement is as of Aug. 6, prior to close of window):

3. Chicago – Christian Dean, Richard Sanchez
4. New York Red Bulls – Fidel Escobar, Muhamed Keita, Dilly Duka
5. Atlanta – Bobby Boswell
6. Columbus – Pedro Santos (DP), lots of allocation money for Krisztian Nemeth and Ethan Finlay
7. Orlando City – Dom Dwyer, Yoshi Yotun (DP), Dillon Powers
9. Montreal –
Shaun Francis, Deian Boldor, Samuel Piette
10. New England – Claude Dielna (DP), Krisztian Nemeth
11. D.C. United – Deshorn Brown, Bruno Miranda, Zoltan Stieber (paid down with TAM), Russel Canouse, Paul Arriola (young DP)

By my count, that’s four new designated players in the East and eight in MLS, if you count Carlos Vela to Los Angeles FC, this summer.

Let’s flesh out the qualitative aspects. Chicago gets a promising goalie to fill a need after Jorge Bava’s injury, plus they strengthen the defense with Christian Dean. The Red Bulls compensate cheaply for the injured Mike Grella in Columbus cast-off Dilly Duka plus add a 22-year-old defender in Fidel Escobar who’s a regular with Panama.

For all of Atlanta’s attacking strength, their defense was porous. Enter Bobby Boswell to add stability on set pieces and augment Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst in that veteran spine. Orlando made the splash with Dom Dwyer … and added a designated player in Yoshi Yotun … and poached an ill-fitting young player with upside in Dillon Powers. Montreal nibbled, but Samuel Piette could be a long-term replacement for the aging Marco Donadel.

But there are three clubs I want to specifically highlight. First, the Union are often lumped in with arch-skinflints New England and D.C. United. Well, both outspent the heck out of the Union. D.C. moved a mint to get Paul Arriola as a young-DP (we can debate if it’s too much, because it’s probably too much money). They landed 28-year-old Zoltan Stieber at a DP salary paid down with targeted allocation money. And Russel Canouse gives them, along with Chris Durkin and Ian Harkes, one hell of a young midfield nucleus.

New England, which notably doesn’t have new stadium bucks flowing in anytime soon if ever, splurged on a DP in Claude Dielna to shore up their leaking defense. They also moved a bounty of allocation money to Columbus for Krisztian Nemeth. Whether they needed him is an open question, but it’s an assertive move nonetheless.

The most intriguing case and most relevant to the Union is Columbus. They flipped Ethan Finlay, who has become an ill-fit, to Minnesota for $425k in allocation money (more than Finlay’s $290k salary). They reaped a similar fortune in cash from New England for Nemeth’s rights in the allocation order.

The Union didn’t possess a valuable asset like the top allocation spot, so that’s perhaps not exactly comparable. But the Crew’s other deal is applicable: With Federico Higuain announcing this is his final season with the club as his influence has waned due to injuries and formational changes, the Crew landed his replacement in Pedro Santos. The DP winger isn’t a direct substitute, but he’s the main attacking piece the Crew will presumably build around. (New England is in a similar boat as they ponder a post-Kei Kamara future in January, but Columbus’ situation with Higuain is more blatant.) In a series of moves, Columbus strengthened its claim for the playoffs this year and built for the future, in players and allocation money.

This is the situation the Union failed to capitalize on. Maurice Edu will cease to be a DP in January. With the possible rejuvenation of the side divesting them of (potentially) Brian Carroll, Charlie Davies, Fabinho, Edu and Ilsinho and/or Roland Alberg, the Union had around $1.5 million in play. Those funds are still available in January. But with the club three points out of a playoff spot last week, they chose not to pull the trigger in advance.

That’s a decision that some in the media agree with and some don't, and it may yet pay dividends if they make the right moves in January. But for a team that each of the last three summers has made major acquisitions – one excellent, two irretrievably disastrous, and one on which the jury is still out – the silence was deafening, even more when juxtaposed against a competitive and assertive East.

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