There is no denying it: The Philadelphia Union need help. Some would argue that this team is just a move or two from becoming a playoff contender. Others however would argue that the new USL team Bethlehem Steel FC should just replace the Union and relegate Philadelphia to USL. At the very least we'd get to look at those cool BSFC kits that were removed from the kit selection this season.
Jay Sugarman has started the offseason on a great note with the hiring of the Union's first Sporting Director Earnie Stewart. But there is still much more work to do. The Earnie Stewart era means a new staff for the Union, and with our apologies to the current staff, we are offering our services to handle this very important offseason. One of us will act as the assistant to Stewart while he winds down his affairs. Another of us will take over as manager and a third will take over as head analyst. In this statistics driven sports world we've come into, it would be foolish not to include an analytical department to work hand in hand with the front office as well as the coaching staff. Their first choice in who is guiding the team, coincidentally may also be their first mistake (hold your laughter until all names are announced) will be hiring our guest writer JC Escobar as Assistant to the Sporting Director, our favorite statistical analyst Jared Young as our Head Analyst, and last and definitely least myself, Doug Gobrecht, as manager.
You may laugh now.
Analysis of Current Roster
In the beginning of the 2015 season, the Philadelphia Union had a roster that when compared to the rest of MLS, looked much like any other low playoff-seeded roster - at least that's how it appeared at the beginning of the season. Due to the lack of moves during this past offseason, the only shot at the playoffs was thanks to Don Garber and his inexplicable move to expand the playoffs to twelve teams. The Union weren't overall better than their 2014 selves, but the 2014 version of the Union were good enough for sixth.
With the additions of Fernando Aristeguieta and Steven Vitoria, it seemed that the team would be assured again in the back as well as on the forward line. The addition of CJ Sapong also seemingly bolstered this case, and it appeared that thanks to Ethan White's performance to end the 2014 season that Maurice Edu would slide back into his more comfortable defensive midfield role. Unfortunately for the Union, they were neither assured nor confident once the season started. White regressed to the form that made him so worrisome, and Edu had to cover alongside Vitoria. Despite a strong start for Aristeguieta, injuries and struggles mounted and the emergence of Sapong altered things up top. Going forward things weren't necessarily a problem for Philadelphia, despite a lack of creativity in the final third. Strings of injuries to key players at key times may have affected the chemistry of a Union roster that struggled to make their mark in the 2015 season. The strong play of second year player Richie Marquez and veteran captain Brian Carroll gave the Union defense some bite even though they finished near the bottom of the league in goals allowed.
A run to the US Open Cup final for the second year in a row counterbalanced one of the worst finishes in Union history in league play. With just 37 points in a possible 34 games, there isn't any reason to believe that this team was ever a playoff contender. Cristian Maidana was once again the team's MVP, finishing second in the league to Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco in assists - a remarkable feat considering Maidana was playing alongside very little in the way of an attacking threat. Consistent play from Vincent Nogueira would earn him an MVP runners-up place, and Brian Carroll likely gets an honorable mention. Standout youngsters on the team easily is a tie between Richie Marquez and our favorite Cameroonian Eric Ayuk, who both exceeded expectations quite a bit.
There were spotty performances all around from all players and the main problem with this Union team is consistency. One week they're high flying and look like they could take on anyone, and then the following week they look like Chivas USA incarnate. There's only a few players that should most definitely be around next season. This is a roster that needs depth and major overhaul.
The Offseason Shakeup
First task at hand is recognizing who needs to stay and who needs to be let go to free up money. Looking at the roster, there are 10 players that need not be part of this roster. First phase is to recognize who the easy choices are: Danny Cruz, Antoine Hoppenot, Conor Casey, Brian Carroll, and Fred. The first two are simply not talented enough and the last three are past their prime. While Carroll may already have verbal commitments from the current regime, he wouldn't under Assistant Sporting Director Escobar. And while Fred is also a coach as well as a player, both positions would be filled by someone else in 2016. Having veteran experience can help a club, and fortunately the Union has enough veterans without these guys that can lead the way.
The next phase is to decide whose salary is bigger than their contribution. Steven Vitoria ($400K), Fernando Aristeguieta ($350K) and Maurice Edu ($769k) should not be making the amounts they do. That right there is the number one issue with this team.
Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux make way too much money. There are much better players for that cap hit. It will be difficult to lose Le Toux, the franchises one and only face, but in this scenario there's a trade in the works I think the fans will be okay with.
Next, clean up the rest of the dead weight - Fabinho, Austin Berry and Ethan White get pink slips. They are not good enough and there are better depth options for the club.
Last and most essential - turn these players into better players and/or free cap space. Ten of the above players that will be gone next year were in an Union uniform last season and only three were starters, yet the Union paid over $2 million for their services. That's terribly inefficient in a cap-strained league.
Here are a list of trades that the Union should make. If you believe these trades are unreasonable, the goal is really to get a player of this caliber (but picking actual players to trade for is way more fun).
- Maurice Edu to Norwich City for Gary Hooper: With Maurice Edu there is value in a physical and versatile midfielder. Having played at a high level at both central midfielder and center back, Edu warrants some interest to desperate teams in Europe. Eyeing up one potential team there is a once prolific striker reduced to barely playing. Gary Hooper, of Celtic fame, rots on the bench of Norwich City. Going after him gives the Union a striker proven in the Scottish Premier League and a viable threat up top. Trading Edu, who isn't exactly a needed piece, to a Norwich squad looking to bolster its lineup come the winter window would reduce the probably transfer fee for Hooper.
- Fabinho, Sebastien Le Toux, and a second round draft pick to the Houston Dynamo for David Horst: Free up over $200k of cap space while getting a solid, veteran center back.
- Andrew Wenger to D.C. United for Michael Farfan: Free up over $150k of space and bring back Marfan, a versatile midfielder that can play both in the middle and on the wing.
- Danny Cruz to Toronto FC for Daniel Lovitz and Allocation money: Getting a left footed winger with the ability to play left back while getting allocation money and freeing up over $70k in the cap for a player who didn't impress here or in Norway is a no brainier.
- Austin Berry to the New England Revolution for Steven Neumann: Austin Berry needs a change of scenery, bringing local kid Steve Neumann as a depth piece behind the big five in our midfield is a little bit of embarrassment of riches.
- Allocation money to the Chicago Fire for Greg Cochrane: Giving up allocation money to bring in another local young player, one that has proven to be able to play left back at a high level is an easy decision.
- Second round pick to the Seattle Sounders for Jimmy Ockford: I continue to bring in more defensive youth and depth. Another local kid that can be in the mix to back up what will be a solid defense.
In addition to the seven trades there would be free agent acquisitions and a new Designated Player. Our salary guru, Mr. Jared Young, has approved the acquisition of United States Men's National Team player Alejandro Bedoya. In addition the Union should go hard after free agent Dax McCarty if he becomes available. It's probably a long shot that the Red Bulls would let him leave, but perhaps he's looking for a new beginning and a midfield of Bedoya alongside Maidana, Barnetta, Nogueira and Dax McCarty will by far be the strongest midfield in MLS. If McCarty is not available the Union need to upgrade their CDM position with a player from Europe. Last year William Kvist was rumored to be coming to the Union. A player of that type is essential to anchor the new midfield.
Another free agent that is needed is former Union player Jordan Harvey. Along with new acquisition Greg Cochrane, Harvey will provide much improved left back play and depth.
In addition to the trades, free agents and DP that would be bringing in, I would sign Keegan Roseberry, Connor Maloney and Darius Madison to Homegrown Player contracts. The Union brags about having a great Academy, yet they have two average players to show for it. Let's start reaping the rewards of having this great academy by signing these experienced College players. If they don't make the team, they go up to Lehigh Valley and start every game.
There are three more moves need to be made. The first is the purchase of Christian Ramirez from Minnesota United of NASL. Christian is the leading scorer for Minnesota over the last two seasons and will bring experience and added depth to our striker core.
My next move is to bring in Jonathan Spector. Jonathan will automatically step into the right back position and solidify a revamped defense. This move will push Gaddis to backup, where he will flourish as a spot starter, giving us unrivaled depth.
The last move will be to draft Brandon Vincent with the 2016 first round draft pick. The scouts say he's a solid defender and a future team leader.
How it comes together
The roster cooked up has a whole lot of turnover. The roster just wasn't good enough. The first thing that needs to be done in order to effectively transition this roster is figure out which set of players would benefit the most from an extended trip to Lehigh Valley. There is no doubt that the set of Homegrown players signed need some time to further develop and having the outlet in Bethlehem to do so would be ideal. Keegan Rosenberry, Darius Madison, and Connor Maloney will be the first three that will have extended time down in USL.
The roster is designed for flexibility. There are hungry and local players on this roster underneath the starting XI and rotating the squad won't be too much of a problem. The most prominent improvement with this roster is the individual players and their ball skill. The formation won't change from the current incarnation of it unless experimentation becomes necessary:
This is a team that is built for controlling possession. We're not talking Hackworthian possession where shots on target don't matter. This team is also far more talented than the one John Hackworth lined up in the 2014 season. Key pieces such as Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira are now complimented with the wing play of Tranquillo Barnetta and Alejandro Bedoya. A natural ball winner to allow the creativity of these players to really go all out in Dax McCarty would give the Union a nudge into one of the best midfielders in MLS.
McCarty doesn't just bring about the ability to take the ball back in the midfield, but as the Union control possession, he also can distribute the ball to the right places on the field. His ability to control the point of possession is smart and he rarely turns the ball over doing such things. McCarty is widely considered one of the best holding midfielders in the game and would be a huge upgrade over Brian Carroll, who in his day was quite good himself.
With the creativity flowing through a very talented midfield, chances won't be falling far and few between. The main problem with a talented midfield as we've seen this past season is that there's no one to finishes chances! CJ Sapong led the team with nine goals. Given the amount of shots he had, his goal conversion rate is among the best in the league. The problem with this, however, is why doesn't CJ score more? We can get real in-depth with this, but the hypothesis is that CJ is currently deployed mainly as a hold up forward. He's designed to win aerial challenges to springboard the counter. When the midfield gets up in front of him, more times than not, CJ doesn't make it to the positions a true forward should be in.
Enter Gary Hooper.
He's been prolific in the Scottish Premier League with Celtic, prior to his move to Norwich where his success has been limited. His playing time has also suffered with Norwich since they were promoted back to the English Premier League this season. It wouldn't be totally unreasonable to swoop in for a guy with limited success in England, in his mid to late 20s, and offer him the opportunity for moving stateside to rediscover that prolific flame. Pair Hooper, who has a terrific knack for goal and makes smart runs with the creative midfielder that is Chaco Maidana and you have something lethal.
The pinpoint of the attack comes through multiple channels and isn't limited to their ability to catch the defense off guard or the aesthetically pleasing "Route 1" football. It comes from the creative midfielders to attack and find the weakness of a defense, find pockets of space in behind the lines of defense, expose the movement of defenders out of position, and unlock them. We've seen the abilities already of players like Maidana and Nogueira to unlock defenses with a deft pass. Sometimes the chance doesn't always pan out, but with an improved cast of supporting players, the Union may be a serious threat going forward from multiple places.
Now offensively this team looks exciting going forward and defensively this is a team built with a solid, veteran foundation. David Horst, a relatively local product, pairs alongside the surprising defensive standout from last year Richie Marquez, giving the Union much needed height in the face of having a rather short team. The return of Jordan Harvey would be music to the ears of Union fans and the influx of more national team talent in Jonathan Spector would continue to add stability. The defense would sit back a little more than the marauding fullbacks we're used to seeing from the Union. Harvey and Spector aren't your typical attacking wingbacks, despite Jonathan Spector's capabilities of sending in a decent cross from afar (see 2009 Confederations Cup).
The main objective defensively is to win the ball back higher up the pitch. Its not a high energy, super pacey, high press of a defense that is ever so popular today. The main objective is to prevent the counter. High possession teams are burned on the counter very frequently. A main reason the Union are always competitive against Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas' reign over the West this past year was evidence of a solid counter attacking football team in the face of possession heavy crop of teams. The idea is to possess well enough to not heavily involve the defense, especially the full backs, into the attack. Numbers will become a problem as teams sit further and further back opening up the counter, but a team disciplined and organized in their defensive roles will be able to extinguish or contain a potent counter attack by being positioned cautiously going forward. Not necessarily anticipating the counter while in possession, but more like being prepared for the counter while the first priority is to attack.
The arrival of "moneyball" to the world of soccer has been both exaggerated and underestimated at the same time. One the one hand there are clubs who take the use of data to find inefficiencies in the market very seriously, but on the other hand the tools to do that well are still being developed and haven't proven to be useful over an extended period of time. But the Union can't afford to miss this boat. As a club that will never be a top spender in a league that already has proven to have a half a dozen major spenders, they need to find their edge in other areas. Their academy system is one area, but leveraging data to enhance their decision making, should be another.
There are a number of clubs the Union should model after. Matthew Benham is the owner of two clubs that have become high profile petri dishes for embracing data to drive decision making. He is the owner of Brentford FC in the English Championship and Midjyitland in Denmark both of which are taking unique approaches to running the club.The darling of the Premier League, Leicester City is also using data to drive personnel and coaching decisions.
Building proprietary tools takes time however. The Union do have a solid start with analysis but they need to take the next step. Many teams have a performance analyst but the skillset to develop unique capabilities is hard to find in one person. A good data organization needs (at least) three skills. They need to have someone who can envision metrics that will help the club gain advantages. This person must understand the sport of soccer incredibly well but also the data that is available for all of the games. The second skill is more of a technical analyst who can use a multitude of analytical methods on large data sets. Last but not least is someone who understands databases and how they operate. The use of Big Data isn't necessary but it's probably the cheapest architecture the team could leverage. It's certainly possible to find those three skills in one person but more than likely the Union will need to build a small team focused on bringing the gap between the data and the coaches and Sporting Director.
Once the organization has the proper skills the team can start building the tools. The goal would be to use available data to define what a quality player looks like and then look for quality players that happen to be less expensive in the market. The team would develop what amounts to a performance score for players, which may be different for different positions. For example, to define a good central defensive midfielder a team might look at forward pass completion percentage, defensive interceptions, tackles and the effectiveness of the central attacking players of the other team. All available players would be scored and then assessed against their expected salary. The most efficient players money-wise would be the key acquisition targets.
The Union need to develop this proprietary capability and they need to do it better than the competition to have an advantage over the long term. While the players acquired this season will help the team immediately, it will investments in the academy and in data analytics that will help them build a competitive advantage over the long term.
Summing it all up
There you have it - a complete and brave overhaul of the roster within the budget, and a team that will play proactive possession oriented soccer. That and we're taking advantage of the Academy system and building a club that can differentiate itself with the latest in data analytics. If the Union can't compete on salary they need to gain every other advantage they can. The league is only going to continue to improve and the Union have to improve even faster than the league since they're starting so far behind. Let's go get this offseason.