HOUSTON - MARCH 19: Philadelphia Union head coach Peter Nowak yells out instructions from the bench at Robertson Stadium on March 19, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
There is one thing you have give to the Philadelphia Union, so far during this and the previous off season they've had needs on the team and pretty much filled them up. After the inaugural season it was painfully obvious to anyone that wasn't Helen Keller that Chris Seitz was not going to be the answer at Goalkeeper. Not to mention the fact that the offense, while prolific due to an MVP caliber season from Sebastien Le Toux, couldn't cover up a defense that gave up 49 goals in the 2010 season.
What did the front office do? They went out and signed Faryd Mondragón and Carlos Valdés. Two players who immediately impacted the team and helped drop the goals allowed to 36 in the 2011 Season.
Those of you might say that "13 goals isn't that big a difference" and I would say that only one team had fewer goals allowed: the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Union were actually tied for second with Real Salt Lake and considering that Philadelphia is only a second year club is extraordinary.
Looking at the 2011 season it was plain to see the two big issues that the Union had. Those issues were in the attack and at left back.
Jordan Harvey was of course traded to Vancouver and Gabriel Farfan was thrust into the left back role, a role that he never really played. Farfan performed admirably but it was plain to see that he was still learning his new role, that's fine but not something that you really want during a season.
The attack of course sputtered for a good chunk of the season. This was partly due to the slump of Le Toux who seemed to have all the hallmarks of being a one hit wonder, however he managed to turn it around and ended up with a good season.
But the fact remained that Le Toux needed help, the departure of Carlos Ruiz and the disappearance of Danny Mwanga meant that the Union were in the market for a striker to partner up top with Le Toux.
Now, before we get underway, I wanted to clarify that this evaluation is being done on December 23rd. Part II will come after the Superdraft when I can break down whomever the Union pick up there, as well as any other signings Philadelphia makes between now and then. Furthermore, this evaluation is done off the basis that the players that the Union have reported to have signed are indeed, going to arrive to the team without any issues.
That said, lets do the Players In and Players Out list shall we?
Looking at the Players Out first, it's honestly a good thing, the Union didn't lose really any quality. In fact, looking at that list, Justin Mapp is the only player on that list that you would want as a starter if you were making an MLS team, while I didn't hate his play like so many did, the fact was that he was a very one dimensional player and the Union were always going to lose someone in the expansion draft and losing Mapp was probably the best the Union could've hoped for.
Holder was always going to be cut due to the fact that he took up an international roster spot and that he apparently made noises about wanting to be a first team goal keeper. Add that with the fact that he suffered injuries throughout the season and it should have surprised no one, Holder included that he was left out of the team.
Migz and JDG were two roster cap moves that needed to be made, Migz earned his way out of Philadelphia with sloppy play and the ONLY way he would come back would be if he took a severe pay cut to be a backup CB, something that I don't see happening. JDG will go down as one of the Union's greatest roster questions in history. The guy pulled nearly $200,000 and never saw the field. Not even when Philadelphia' starting CBs were out of the game. Getting rid of him was a priority and needed to be done.
Chase Harrison was pretty much the only outgoing that I'm not totally on board with. The guy is a veteran GK and said that he wanted to stay in Philadelphia. He didn't seem to object to being the team's third string GK and said that he wanted some stability in his life. Including his stint with the Union the guy has been on 6 different clubs since 2009. The Union didn't need an amazing player back there with Mondragon and MacMath in front of him, Harrison to me fit the bill as the happy in his role player that Philadelphia could've held on to cheaply.
But that is just a small nitpick, I strongly agree with virtually every move that the Union have made so far in terms of letting players go and my final grade reflects that.
Grade to Date: A
Now let's look at the incoming players. As stated above the Union needed some attacking help as well as a natural LB. With the signings of Martinez, Lopez and Gomez they pretty much ensured that on paper at least the Union are even more improved then they were last season.
I've broken down Josue Martinez in another article so I won't retread that ground too much. However, I will say that Martinez should be able to "keep up" with Le Toux in ways that Ruiz never could have dreamed of. His speed should be deadly on the field and hopefully he'll be able to finish in MLS.
Nizar Khalfan is an interesting pick up. Arguably the "replacement" for Justin Mapp, he last was with the Vancouver Whitecaps where he started 9 games, came on as a sub in 13 others. He scored once and had 3 assists during the season. At 23 Khalfan is a player that has tremendous upside, but I don't see him really coming into the matches as anything but a sub or emergency start in case of suspension or injury.
The Union signing Lopez from his Costa Rican team of Alajuelense pretty much solidifies the club's backline. Lopez will no doubt assume the starting left back role come opening day. This will push Gabriel Farfan up into the midfield or onto the bench. My money is on the former. Farfan was good in the attack and it was obvious that he still had much to learn about being a pure defender.
I fully believe that he could be a good starting left back for the Union in the near future but for now, the Union need a guy who has handled the position for his career. This will reduce pressure from Farfan and enable him to learn it at a more sedate pace rather than throwing him into the fire every week. Furthermore his combining with Sheanon Williams in the defense will the Union the best LB/RB combo of curly/awesome hair in history.
Becoming the Union's 2nd ever homegrown player, joining Zach Pfeffer, McLaughlin is further evidence that the Union fully intend to utilize their youth structure to gain players. In the limited time I personally saw McLaughlin play in the Everton and Real Madrid friendlies I was very impressed with how he took on opposing players with speed and skill (especially in the Everton friendly, I distinctly remember him utterly burning one of their players). McLaughlin will probably see the field once or twice much like Pfeffer did, but I don't expect him to be a regular starter for a good two or possibly three seasons.
I saved Gabriel Gomez for last because his signing intrigues me. On paper Gomez is a fantastic pickup, he's a solid player by all accounts. However, that part that makes me raise my eyebrow is the fact that he is basically a defensive midfielder. Now, most people said that he would slide into the defense when he arrives to the team, however the singing of Lopez pretty much negates that. Furthermore, the Union already have a very good defensive midfielder (Brian Carroll) and his heir apparent (Amobi Okugo). What this does point to (for me at least) is Nowak's future lineup decisions.
You see at some points during the season, Nowak and the Union fielded what many came to call the "bucket" 4-4-2 formation. Normally this would occur during away matches when perhaps Nowak thought that he wouldn't get good attacking opportunities and wanted to give up as few chances as possible. The "bucket" 4-4-2 generally had a pairing of two DMs which generally included Migz in the equation and it never really worked.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that Gomez is by all accounts a far superior player to Migz and the move might be designed to rotate both Carrol and Gomez out to keep both players fresh down the stretch of the season or maybe Gomez will be part of that defensive depth that the team needed later in the past season. I can't argue with picking up a player like Gomez though. However, no one should be surprised if the Union see a lineup with two DMs trotted out early on in the season, especially in the first game at Portland.
I will argue that the Union still are in need of some pure central defenders a need I believe they will address in the upcoming MLS Superdraft. The Union can't hope for the good fortune that they had last season when it came to injuries on Philadelphia's back line (in that Philadelphia never really had anything major) and with the deluge of attacking talent in this year's MLS draft the Union should easily be able to pluck some young, talented defenders since other teams will be focusing on the attacking talent for the most part.
Grade to Date: B+
One further thing I will discuss about this off season is just what the Union plan to do with all these international players they have or supposedly will have. With the signings I mentioned above, the Union will have 11 international players, MLS rules allow only 8. Unless of course you trade for one which as far as we know, the Union haven't.
At least three international players will be out the door by the first kick of the season. On the chopping block are Joe Tait, Levi Houapeu, Keon Daniel, Veljko Paunovic and Roger Torres. I said some time ago that I think that the Union protecting Torres meant that they will try to either extend his loan or buy him outright. However, the situation has changed back in Colombia. Torres' club, América de Cali has been relegated from Categoría Primera A.
Combine that with the fact that América de Cali is known for selling its good, young players in order to make money and the Union have the potential to swoop in with a bid for the small play maker. However, América de Cali might refuse to sell or even extend Torres' loan because he might be viewed as a player that they could use to get promoted back up to the Primera A.
But at the end of it the Union might not be willing to buy Torres or extend his loan. After all in terms of midfield talent, the Union are pretty stacked at this point. I'm not saying that they should just that they might.
But lets say you are Coach Nowak, from the players mentioned above who do you leave off the roster? Remember, pick three.
Until next time fellow DOOPers.