With the 2013 MLS season now officially over, Philadelphia Union fans now look to the 2014 season with cautious optimism. After a disappointing end to an over-achieving season, the Union enter the off-season looking to build upon the squad that got them within a few points of the post-season.
Now that the season has ended, I have found the hometown bias leaving me and I feel much more comfortable viewing this past season in a more objective light. Clearly, the biggest issue with the Union this past season was the midfield. They were unable to be creative, link the black line to the front line and spent countless games tossing up long balls and praying for a result that was rarely there. Many fans, myself included, called for more playing time for long-time Union midfielder Roger Torres and the Brazilian veteran, Kleberson. Fans were not out of line to want more playing time for these players, but as the season went on it seemed as if many fans thought these two were going to fix many of our midfield woes. I don’t completely buy that idea.
I’ll start with Roger Torres. I’m guilty of buying into the idea of Roger Torres early in the season. Many fans that were with the team from the beginning have great things to say about the young midfielder. He has had some great moments in his time with the Union and early in the season I was calling for more playing time. It seemed like a good idea at the time due to the frustrating and stagnant midfield that needed a bit of speed and creativity. But after watching Torres play this season, albeit sparingly, I became unsure of his long term role with the club. One thing we cannot ignore is the size of Torres. At 5’5" and just shy of 140 pounds Torres is small, really small. And in one of the more physical leagues one can play in, he was muscled of the ball often. Sure, Torres can dribble and is a pretty quick player, but his size and defensive deficiencies really stand in the way of him becoming a regular player on this squad. Physical tools aside, there must have been a good reason he played so sparingly this season. I find it hard to believe that John Hackworth was just sitting Torres for the sake of sitting him with the Union’s midfield woes becoming painfully obvious. Hackworth must have been seeing something in training from Torres that we as fans are not privy to. Perhaps he was not working hard on a consistent basis or perhaps there were some fundamental differences between coach and player. Whatever the problem, Torres saw very little playing time throughout the season. I’m willing to give Hack the benefit of the doubt on this because he sees these players on a daily basis and knows them better than any of us. Despite the fan’s love of the young Colombian and his affinity for the club, I feel as though it is time to move on from Torres and explore future options. If the speculation is true, Torres is probably on his way out anyway and hopefully gets more playing time at another club.
Jose Kleberson joined the club on a season-long loan from Brazilian side Bahia as part of the Freddy Adu deal. Most supporters were just excited to have Adu off of the books and Kleberson was seen as a bonus. After seeing that Kleberson had been at Manchester United and had a successful run with the Brazilian national team, I got very excited too. He had a solid start to his Union career and many were impressed with his ability to move the ball and bring a bit of creativity to the midfield. But after injuring his leg against Toronto FC in June, Kleberson would not play again until the end of August. Many supporters were confused as to why it took him so long to get back. He appeared to be healthy several games before the draw at Montreal in August, but Hackworth continued to keep him on the bench as an unused substitute. After his miraculous free-kick in stoppage time against Toronto FC, Hackworth was unable to ignore him and started him for the final three games. While had some good stretches on the pitch, I was underwhelmed by his overall play. He did have the ability to create, but it seemed as though he would disappear for large stretches of the game. And while he did assist the goal that would break Jack McInerney’s awful goal drought, I feel it was the best move to waive Kleberson and seek other options. Kleberson is 34 years and on a deal that is expensive given his overall lack of contribution to the team.
In my estimation, many fans romanticize Kleberson and Torres and their roles with the Union. They are both solid players, but I firmly believe that neither are long-term solutions for this team. The Union already picked up young midfielder Corben Bone in the Re-Entry draft and while he is likely not the future of the Union midfield, I am happy to see Hackworth taking a chance on a young player who could be a useful rotation player in the future. I think it is important to stock up on these young players and see how they work out, especially since Bone was acquired at such a low price. That being said, the midfield should improve from last season and Hackworth has already said the team hopes to sign some new players this off-season. It bears mentioning that I may not have the utmost confidence in Hackworth tactically, he has shown the ability to be rather clever in his signing from time to time. The worst case scenario is that Hackworth makes some bad signings and his time in PPL Park comes to an end. But if he is able to make some solid signings, much like he did with Jeff Parke and Conor Casey, we could be in for an improved Union squad in 2014.