I have two passions in my life, soccer and music. It's always been that way from what I can remember. Other kids got cool BMX bikes and Air Jordans and I got my first Arsenal kit, a bass guitar and a Ramones album. It's just part of my DNA at this point. The funny thing about passions is that although they never really fade, the longer you have them the more perspective on them you acquire. I remember as a young man my friends trying to introduce me to musicians they thought were amazing. There were a few that changed the way I looked at music but many many more that did not. I remember listening to any number of obviously talented musicians and thinking to myself, "They are technically gifted, they can write melodies, and the production and overall presentation is good......but". I could never get past the "but" and it always came down to pretty much the same thing, they just made poor choices. You could dissect them anyway you wanted and each individual component was completely fine but it just simply never added up to anything special because they made consistently bad choices. Nothing major, just small choices like red instead of blue or a seemingly innocuous word choice, but the sum total of all those small decisions would be a product that is meh at best and will never set the world alight.
The Union have become that class of artist. They have a good stadium, front office and team. On the surface the Union "got it right", and perhaps they did. You could take any individual decision they have made and argue that it made sense or was the best they could do at the time. In fact many of my colleagues make a living doing exactly that, there is no dishonor in it, and it would be impossible to say that they are wrong.
I won't try to make a case that any single decision surrounding this club was either right or wrong. That's a rabbit hole for fans on social media who will spend countless hours and characters relishing the opportunity to rail against a hated member of the organization or a smarty pants super fan who will use every ounce of bandwidth available to engage someone and spout a thousand reasons that the club got it exactly right. I won't get involved in that discussion, here or anywhere really, it's folly.
Weeks before the lists were due, the staff started to talk amongst ourselves about who should and who should not be protected. I followed the conversation but really didn't get involved, instead I asked myself a few questions:
Who are the players on the roster that are good enough to start in New York or Orlando?
How many players would qualify as worth the salary cap to a NYFC or OCSC?
Who does this franchise value?
The answers didn't leave me uneasy as much as gave me a sense of liberation. I realized that the culmination of all those little decisions over the last five years has given the Union a roster that doesn't need 11 slots to protect valued assets. The list actually writes itself, and in my mind they could have turned in a blank list. The fact of the matter is that the Union have precious little worth protecting. There will be other posts here breaking down the rules and going thru each player one by one but in an informal poll of our staff weeks before the lists were due, most of us could come up with approximately SEVEN players worth protecting.....SEVEN.....and most will tell you that after 3 it started to get hard.
The last question brought me back to my musical inclinations. When I was a young lad there was a popular fascination with guitar virtuosos, it was difficult not to find someone prattling on about the technique of Steve Vai or the chops of Yngwie Malmsteen. All talented players but "meh" artists in the bigger sense. As good as they were, they just never had "it", whatever "it" is. The it is that undefinable variable that is so elusive, that special mixture of talent, savvy and luck. The it manifests itself thru action. It was then that I came to realize that no matter what comes out of your mouth, what you value is evident in your actions. You are as you do.
What did the Union do and what does that tell us about the club in general? Well, The Union traded Amobi Okugo to Orlando City in a deal that may either see him leave for Europe or play against them for a division rival. Additionally GK Zach (or Zack or Zac, who can even follow anymore) Steffan will be snubbing the Union and going to ply his trade in Germany with Freiburg.
Chances are if you clicked your way here, you are pretty familiar with the discussion. So what the club has said publicly is pretty well known. In one day they let one of the most promising young American midfielders walk away from the club, they let an elite youth GK leave the league, and left two starting quality keepers go unprotected while shielding a second choice LB from selection. Those actions speak volumes about what the club values, or more specifically, doesn't.
This list is so Union. It's impossible to argue that any one particular name on the list is wrong, but the hundreds of small wrong decisions that got the club to this moment are writ large on the entire thing. The first and most glaring example is the continuation of the keeper debacle. Neither Rais nor Zac are protected. Which again you can say is a smart choice because many assume that Orlando made a deal not to pick a keeper and NY already has a keeper and many other teams left big keepers unprotected so perhaps in a gaggle of keeper they may not look as attractive..... Again all arguably correct decisions, but what series of decision lead the Union down the path that they have two starting quality keepers that they feel comfortable gambling with?
I am not sure anyone could be too dissatisfied with the rest of the list, each player makes sense when you consider the salary cap and contract status and such. You can see that LeToux and White and Wenger and of course the stand out international duo of Maidana and Nogueira are protected, as is Mo Edu. It shows what the club values on the field. The most glaring omission is obviously Amobi Okugo.
Amobi Okugo, the devilishly eyebrowed, high ceilinged midfielder/defender. The fan favorite, the hot young prospect. I could go on and on about how Amobi is seen by the fans or has been spoken about by the media or the club. Let's just say that we can all agree that he is a franchise player kind of guy. Well maybe we don't ALL agree,the club let him go to Orlando City SC in return for a SuperDraft pick and the ever popular Allocation Money. Again, in a vacuum, this makes sense. Okugo was out of contract and very publicly stated that he wanted to try his luck in Europe and the Union are only technically trading away his rights if he goes. It was a sound business move that gave them something when they could have received nothing, etc. That's fine, it makes sense....until you consider the cumulative circumstances that makes a player of his caliber want out of a franchise that he should be leading. Okugo is exactly the guy that you should value and be holding on to if your club is making good decisions. He did not want to stay, take that as you will.
The case of Zack Steffan is very similar. He is widely considered one of the most promising American goal keepers of this generation. He is always in the conversation as an heir to Meola, Friedel and Howard. He's a local kid and is playing his college soccer at a great school with a long and excellent tradition of developing keepers. He should be getting his diploma and heading straight to Chester. He is choosing not to. He feels his destiny lies across the ocean, and not a single person will blame him for that decision. It makes sense when considered by itself. In a wider context, his home MLS club needs to be creating an environment that makes MLS in general and specifically his club as an option. The fact that it is not means that the club and the league have failed to live up to their promise of developing and valuing young players and building from within.
I know this was a lot of words and a bit on the rambling side. I appreciate you making it this far if you did. The problem with an article like this is that there is no clear cut issue to take a stand on, you can't say what is contained here in 500 words. This is a one sided discussion, a hypothesis of sorts. It's tough to explain and even harder to write down. Again I think about music. There were a million bands who were better than the ones who changed the world. Better in any and every was you can think of. But the bands that changed the world all have one thing in common, they got all of the little things exactly right. Maybe it was fate, surely there was a good measure of luck involved, but it worked. Success if the hardest thing in the world to define but it is the easiest thing to recognize. So I leave you with one more question:
Does this look like a successful club to you?