Coming off of a year where the Philadelphia Union missed out on the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and were a lick of paint away from winning their first trophy in the US Open Cup, it was going to be an interesting off season for the Union. There was added intrigue because this is Jim Curtin's first winter in charge of the Union, so he can get his players in. The offseason started with Rene Meulensteen coming on board as an advisor, which gave some hope that he could use his contacts to help strengthen the squad.
After the end of the season, there were a few major questions to be quickly answered. The first of which was will Amobi Okugo return to the Union. Linked to that, will the Union turn Maurice Edu's loan spell into a permanent deal. Lastly, how will they solve the goalkeeping conundrum in terms of who is the number one, and who is sold.
The first of these questions was answered quite quickly. The Union traded Amobi Okugo to Orlando City SC on December 8th, and in return the Union got some Allocation money as well as a second round pick next year. This was a predictable outcome, as Jim Curtin didn't seem to rate Okugo enough to play him in the US Open Cup final. There is also a belief that Amobi wanted to head to Europe when his contract expired with the Union, so the Union got something while they could. Who knows how much Allocation money was received, but it could always come in useful at some point.
Around the same time Okugo was leaving, the Union traded away their 2015 first round draft pick for striker/winger CJ Sapong. Sapong is a player with experience, winning an MLS Cup with Sporting KC in 2013. With a poor looking draft this year, it was a deal the Union would have been mad to give up. Joining Okugo in Orlando was Pedro Ribeiro, who was selected in the expansion draft by the MLS newbies.
On January 6th, the goalkeeping question was answered when the record holder of every good Union goalkeeping stat Zac MacMath was loaned out to the Colorado Rapids. In return, the Union got a second round pick in this years SuperDraft, which turned into Eric Bird. At the end of this season, MacMath will return to the Union. At that time, after a good season then MacMath may end up back as the Union number one. If Colorado wants him, the Union can gain another draft pick. The Union may also sell him off to someone else for more than that draft pick. This allows Rais M'Bolhi to be the regular starter, and the Union will need to get a third choice keeper for international dates when both M'Bolhi and Andre Blake will be unavailable.
On January 14th, the Union announced they had a deal with Stoke to complete the signing of Maurice Edu to a three year deal. Edu will likely become the matchday captain if not club captain. It is with that signing that things were looking up for the Union. At every public event, Jim Curtin was constantly saying that there would be signings. Things should have been building up to important signings for the Union.
Other than the new draftees, the only names that Philadelphia have inked have been re-signing Conor Casey, Fred and Brian Carroll. I am sure that those aren't the players that Curtin had in mind when talking about signings. They are going to be good for depth, but not much else. As important as depth is, it is starting players the Union need to improve their chances of bringing home silverware and making the playoffs. If the season started tomorrow, then the team would probably be :- M'Bolhi, Williams, Valdes, White, Gaddis, Edu, Noguiera, Wenger, Maidana, LeToux, Sapong. It's probably a stronger team than the Union had last year, but could still be better (a left footed left back and decent striker allowing Sapong to play on the wing and Wenger to drop to the bench for example).
Even worse for the Union is that suddenly Carlos Valdes has yet again been linked with a move away from the Union. If that happened without someone else coming in, then it means either Austin Berry with White in defense, or White and Edu in defense with Michael Lahoud or Brian Carroll coming in at defensive midfielder. That is a drop in quality (as long as Valdes tries) and one which would almost definitely put the Union into rebuild mode. However, back when the season ended there was already rumor of the Union swapping Valdes for Roman Torres, an equivalent quality defender who may want to play here. it is certainly possible that one of the signings Curtin talked about was always going to be a replacement for Valdes.
So there you have it, the Union current off season in just over 800 words. If tomorrow was opening day, the Union would probably be in trouble. However, thankfully it isn't. March 7th is over four weeks away, which is plenty of time to make the moves needed to make the Union a contender in some way shape or form. There are certainly some reasons to be patient, which i'll go into now.
1) Jim Curtin has promised publicly there will be signings.
This means he has basically banked his future at the club on making these signings. If he fails this season, the likelihood is his professional coaching career may be over. He is going to make sure that signings are made.
2) The Southampton example.
Southampton are an excellent model club for the Union. They aren't going to be signing big name players ahead of the bigger clubs in the league. Southampton are known for one of the best clubs built around youth in England. Players such as Real Madrid's Gareth Bale and Arsenal's Theo Walcott came through the ranks, and just this year they sold Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers for a combined cost of over 100 million pounds. Most of these players were sold at the very start of the transfer window. For most of the transfer window, under new management, Southampton fans were joking that the club wouldn't have a team to play when the season was opening.
However, Ronald Koeman didn't panic, and spent money on Dusan Tadic (July 8th) and Graziano Pelle (July 12th). There was still a lot of holes on August 1st, and the season was just 2 weeks away. Still, Koeman didn't panic. By the time opening day came along, he added Fraser Forster, Florin Gardos, Shane Long, Sadio Mane and Ryan Bertrand to add experience and quality to the young players in the squad. If you watch the Premier League at all you'll know how well things have gone for the Super Saints.
The Southampton fans that panicked now look foolish for doing so. They are having the season of their dreams, and enjoying things despite their issues. Let us hope similar things are in store for the Union.
3) The European leagues transfer window just closed.
This is one of the big reasons that things may only be warming up in terms of the negotiations for players. FIFA rules state that in every league there is a pre-season transfer window, and a mid-season transfer window. You are only allowed to register transfers during these times, meaning that players can't play for you (and may even change their mind in terms of signing for you). In Europe, the preseason transfer window goes from June until the end of August (which is actually after the start of the season). The midseason transfer window is the month of January (unless the last day falls on a weekend, when it is usually extended until the first monday of February).
In MLS the mid season window starts in July, and that is when Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will be joining their respective MLS teams. The preseason window, for those that don't know, opens on February 12th and closes on May 6th. This means that there have been no official transfers into MLS, only teams making agreements that don't mean anything.
There's a major benefit for MLS clubs for this transfer window date. There can be no more transfers in European clubs, but they can sell players to MLS. For those teams who have made last minute signings to improve their team, it means that there will now be players who are out of favor and may be available for the Union to sign. If you want to speculate, have a look at the last minute transfers and see who may be available now.
Another reason that the Union may not have signed anyone yet comes from the fact they don't have a lot of spare money to overspend on players. Many of the impact players signed so far this year are being paid far more than they should be, and certainly more than they would in other countries. The Union will have to be more patient than the Toronto FC's of the world because of this. Now that there is only really MLS of the top leagues able to buy players, Philadelphia becomes far more attractive, and you don't have to overspend as much. Players will come here instead of playing in reserves, as they don't have the choice to continue playing in Europe.
While in MLS there isn't free agency (yet), in the rest of the world there is. This is thanks to little known Belgian Jean-Marc Bosman, whose successful lawsuit means that when a player is out of contract, he can move to any club he wishes for no transfer fee (at least in general, there are some exceptions depending on age). However, most professional players have contracts that expire at the end of a season (think of Steven Gerrard, who is moving at the end of his contract for no fee). This means the Union can have a look to see who is out of contract at the end of the season, and maybe sign two or three of those players. Since the transfer will not be finalised until July, this will not help the Union in March to June if that is the route they go down. With the MLS window open however, a team that knows they will lose a player for nothing at the end of the season can sell players to MLS clubs for a small fee. When this happens, as long as it is in the window between February and May the player can sign for the Union and play immediately.
If you also add in the uncertainty over the CBA and Carlos Valdes, then it certainly isn't a shock that the Union haven't signed anyone despite being linked to players (whether or not those links are true). It isn't something to be worried about yet. There's still plenty of time to sign players and make an impact, and as a warning it may even be the summer transfer window that the Union make their move - something that with the way the playoffs are run doesn't rule out the Union this year. If there is no signings on March 7th, then you can start to worry. If there are no signings half way through July then you can start to panic. I bet that if that is the case, Jim Curtin will be right there panicking with you. You never know, by the time you are reading this, the Union may have signed a few new starting quality players.