The Earnie Stewart era kicked off late in 2015 and the action was fast and furious. The Philadelphia Union trailed only the Chicago Fire in terms of player movement last winter, and that change was more than welcome by a disillusioned fan base tired of the goalkeeper parade and lack of a clear plan. This year the change might be far more painful. Key players from a marginal Union playoff team are gone or very likely will be gone, and Earnie Stewart will need to come up big if the Union are to continue their upward trajectory.
Each area of the team faces either glaring holes or big questions. For an executive with big aspirations to impact American soccer, this off-season will be a telling chapter on how that story plays out.
Measuring success always starts with expectations. When Jay Sugarman and the ownership group jettisoned Nick Sakiewicz and hired Earnie Stewart, the initial expectation was that Stewart would build a winning culture in Philadelphia. The new Sporting Director didn’t need to immediately build a playoff team but certainly that would be a reasonable goal for year two. The second year now starts with a playoff berth already in hand, and the team clearly cannot go backward. It’s playoffs again or questions will be raised about the direction of the team.
The defense was the key issue for the Union this past season. The team allowed 55 goals in 2016, the exact same number that they allowed in 2015 despite sporting the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. That’s some bad defense. The trouble is that the Union will need the defense to get better with experience, as most of the starters project to stay with the team. Keegan Rosenberry and Richie Marquez seem firmly entrenched as starters, and Stewart gave high praise to both Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett during his postseason press conference. That doesn’t mean that the Union won’t add talent in those areas, but they did use high draft picks to secure Yaro and Rosenberry and they have shown enough promise to allow their continued development. The most likely spot for an upgrade would be at left back where the swashbuckling Fabinho resides. He is not known for his defense and at 31 years of age, it’s not likely to improve. The Union could sign a stronger and still younger defender to add stability to the defense.
And then there is Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake. Rumors were hot at the end of the season that the Union might look to sell him this winter. Stewart denied any activity, but that there is smoke indicates something might be cooking. The Union will no doubt be looking to cash in on the global interest in Blake. That might be a wise move, but it will leave the Union without their most critical player on defense. If it happens the Union would find themselves with a drop in talent they can’t afford.
If the Union want to take the next step the improvement will have to be made on defense, and it’s not clear right now exactly how that will happen outside of the improvement of the current players.
It was only July that Vincent Nogueira, arguably the Union’s most important player, left the team. Months later, Tranquillo Barnetta announced he would also be leaving the team to finish his career in Switzerland. The Union lost their two best midfielders in the blink of an eye. They did sign US national Alejandro Bedoya late in the summer, and it appears he will assume Barnetta’s role as the central attacking midfielder. That still leaves a significant gap where Nogueira used to roam as the box-to-box midfielder. The 8 role will be Earnie’s most significant test this offseason, as the Union completely fell apart once Nogueira departed.
The defensive midfielder role in the 4-2-3-1 is slated to be given to Maurice Edu. Jim Curtin said his target position for the Designated Player, who missed all of last season, is indeed the 6. Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll provided solid service there last year, but this is another spot where the Union could improve their defense. There are questions about whether or not Edu is committed enough to his defensive assignments in that role but there is no doubt he brings physicality and leadership to the defensive area of the field.
On the wings, Chris Pontius is set to return, and the hope is that he can continue his emergence as a goal scorer for the Union. The right side is another area that could use an upgrade. Both Ilshino and Fabian Herbers struggled to make a strong impression. Given Herbers is younger and ended the season as the starter he appears to be the incumbent, but if the Union are looking for a place to improve the right wing is certainly a opportunity.
The Union also need to figure out what to do with Roland Alberg. Curtin has him slated as a 10 but he will be behind Bedoya if he stays on the roster. His nine goals in limited play suggest he needs to be an attacking midfielder, but can the Union afford to keep an expensive player as a backup? If the Union can move Alberg they could use that money for one of the more critical starting positions.
While the Union offense was improved last season, C.J. Sapong showed that he can’t be the full time striker. Despite getting more than enough opportunity, CJ scored only seven goals and disappeared down the stretch when the Union needed him most. The Union absolutely have to upgrade this position to be a serious contender.
As far as depth goes, the Union said they are negotiating with Charlie Davies and might still keep Sapong, and both could be good bench options. Herbers is more natural as a forward than on the wing, but he isn’t a hold up striker, which is what Curtin prefers in his system. Expect Herbers, Sapong and potentially Davies to compete for backup minutes while the Union look to make an impact up top.
The rest of the bench
The bench has a mix of youth and experience but seems especially thin on the defensive front. John McCarthy is currently the only backup behind Blake. Ray Gaddis, Ken Tribbett, and Auston Trusty are the only reserves along the back line. The midfield is where the Union have the most depth. In the attacking midfield the Union have Eric Ayuk to go with Ilshino and Alberg. The central midfield the immortal Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle as well as homegrown player Derrick Jones. It’s very likely that one of those players is taken in the expansion draft which could create a hole.
The Union have up to nine roster spots open to improve the depth on the defense and otherwise bring on prospects. However, their roster flexibility is a bit limited by the salary cap.
The salary cap situation
Do the Union have the money to pay for all of these starting holes and roster spots? When adding up the 2016 salaries of the players currently on the senior roster and comparing that to the $3.854 million salary cap for 2017, that becomes a big question. Last year’s Union salaries for the players that are currently on the senior roster is about $3.4 million which means raises and a Charlie Davies signing could easily eat up the rest of difference, and that doesn’t include the big needs discussed above. One glaring issue is that supposed bench players Ilshino and Alberg take up more than 20% of the cap which is simply, um, Way. Too. Much.
The Union still have room to operate because the big signings will use the money provided by the central league office referred to as GAM (general allocation money) and TAM (targeted allocation money). The league just announced that each team will receive $1.2M in targeted allocation money to be spent on players above the Designated Player threshold of about $480K but below a salary of $1M. One option would be to buy down Edu’s salary with TAM opening up a Designated Player spot. They would still have enough TAM money to sign another high priced player.
Even with central money the Union will likely need to create some space under the cap and Alberg and Ilshino would be likely targets.
Earnie asked Curtin what style of play he wanted his team to have, and Curtin responded by a more proactive offense and implementing a high press, and he showed little flexibility to adjust the system as the year wore on and the defense struggled. The 4-2-3-1 “Utrecht” system is here to stay, and that’s important because Earnie not only needs to fill these holes with limited resources but he needs to find players that fit the system - midfielders athletic enough to press, forwards who hold up the ball, and full backs who can defend and add width to the offense. Many teams try to operate within a system so this isn’t unique to the Union but it is another consideration when examining the pool and finding players interested in playing in Philadelphia. Perhaps another year of practice in the system will yield improvement but to the extent the players don’t fit the system there will continue to be weaknesses teams can exploit.
It’s Earnie Time
Despite the swoon that marked the Union’s finish the 2016 season was a step forward for the club. Maintaining that momentum is the new challenge and to do so the Union need to improve a poor defense, find a midfielder that expertly possesses the ball and a forward that adds a new dimension in the final third. It’s a daunting list because the Union appear to have limited resources outside of the league monopoly money. Good thing the Union have Earnie Stewart at the helm. His time is now.