The Union finalized the signing of Roland Alberg on Thursday, tapping into their Targeted Allocation Money depository to acquire the 25-year-old Dutch midfielder. The former ADO Den Haag player was first linked to the Union about a week ago, as the process accelerated quickly before culminating in an official announcement.
Given the recent revitalization of the attacking midfield and a rumored pursuit of a DP striker, signing an impact midfielder comes as a bit of a surprise. The Union seemed to have had an attacking midfield in place, but Alberg's arrival has caused a shakeup both on the field and on paper. Below, I try to figure out how Alberg impacts the roster, and consider what his signing means for Sporting Director Earnie Stewart.
Alberg's role with the Union
Alberg, a skilled creator, is seemingly capable of playing anywhere across the front four, which is something that Stewart values very highly:
"Roland has the versatility and ability to play multiple positions at a high level of class," Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart said. "He's a player we immediately identified as a perfect fit for our club as he'll add additional quality to our midfield."
Despite his fluency in a multitude of attacking positions, Alberg probably cannot play multiple positions simultaneously. The Dutchman is able to lead the line in a 4-3-3 or one of its variants, but he is hardly the archetypal center forward. The presence of CJ Sapong, the possible acquisition of a high-priced center forward, and Earnie Stewart's own admission make it much more likely that Alberg will occupy a spot in the attacking midfield.
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Head Coach Jim Curtin is now tasked with finding space for Alberg in a pricey and experienced attacking midfield. Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta, and Sebastien Le Toux were the presumed starters below Sapong prior to Alberg's arrival. Now, one of them will likely take up a reserve role in order to make way for the club's new signing. But who will that be?
If only because of the large investments the Union have made in them recently, Pontius and Barnetta should be in the first team to start the season. It would be hard for management to justify benching one of their three highest-paid players. That leaves Le Toux, who has clocked more than 2000 minutes in each of the seasons he's played with the Union. The 32-year-old will likely be the odd man out in a much-improved midfield this season, though his versatility will allow him to impact the game from the bench.
Whether Alberg lines up on the right wing, just as Le Toux had, remains to be seen. He is a right-footed player who prefers to play on the left side, allowing him to vacate the wing and operate more comfortably in the left channel. Unfortunately, Pontius likes to play the exact same way. If both do in fact start, one will have line up on the right.
With Alberg and Pontius out wide, Tranquillo Barnetta will be the club's playmaker in the middle. Barnetta played all across the midfield last year, but he looked most comfortable when he was allowed to stay central.
An international dilemma
As many have noted, Alberg will occupy the Union's seventh and final international spot (Eric Ayuk, Tranquillo Barnetta, Anderson Conceição, Fabian Herbers, Vincent Nogueira, and Joshua Yaro comprise the rest of the list). The Union traded their eighth spot to Houston in last summer's Sheanon Williams trade. With rumors of an incoming DP striker, and the roster not yet complete, the Union have work to do if they wish to add another international player.
The most straightforward solution would be to acquire an additional spot in a trade, allowing the Union to add another foreign player without having to sacrifice a currently rostered player. There are a number of teams with surplus international spots that may be willing to part with them for a reasonable fee.
The Union may not need to trade for an additional spot if they can create one themselves. In the run-up to last year's U.S. Open Cup semifinal, the Union were pursuing green cards for Fabinho and Nogueira. While Fabinho did receive a green card, Nogueira is still deemed an international. If the Frenchman can secure a green card soon, the Union won't have to do a thing to free up another international spot.
If the Union are unwilling to acquire an international spot and Vincent Nogueira is unable to secure a green card, there is a third option: loan Eric Ayuk to Bethlehem Steel FC. Thanks to the quality added on the wings this offseason, Ayuk has taken a sharp drop down the depth chart. This is at no fault of his own; in fact, he had a promising campaign in his first year with the club. Though he shows a lot of potential, Ayuk still has much to improve, as do all 18-year-old players. A loan to BSFC would grant him loads of playing time while also allowing him to train alongside the first team for much of the season.
Earnie's first dip into the Eredivisie
When Earnie Stewart was officially announced as the club's sporting director back in December, it seemed a near certainty that he would bring in some players from the country where he's spent most of his soccer career. Stewart has held a role in a Dutch front office since 2006, shortly after the end of his playing career.
His extensive knowledge of Dutch soccer first bore fruit for the Union during the SuperDraft, when the club selected Fabian Herbers with the sixth-overall pick. Herbers, a German, had spent time in FC Twente's academy. After the draft, Stewart told reporters that he had talked to his connections back in the Netherlands in an effort to gain information on the Creighton player.
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Seku Conneh, a recent Bethlehem Steel addition, has a stronger connection to Stewart's birthplace. In his brief playing career, the young Liberian has made stops at more than a half-dozen Dutch clubs, including a stint at Ajax's legendary youth academy.
Alberg is the first Union signing to come directly from the Netherlands. Save for a brief spell in Turkey, the 25-year-old's whole career has unfolded in his home country. Alberg was a member of AZ Alkmaar's youth academy when Earnie Stewart joined the club as sporting director back in 2010, but the midfielder did not sign with the first team. He began his pro career with Excelsior and later joined ADO Den Haag after returning from Turkey.
Fairly or not, Alberg will be the most public barometer of Earnie Stewart's success. While player development and the youth academy will ultimately be what defines Stewart's tenure, new signings can be judged before they even pull on a jersey. The Union have drawn some modest skepticism for the acquisitions of Chris Pontius and Anderson Conceição, but neither of them possess as close a link to Earnie Stewart as Roland Alberg does. Alberg is undeniably one of Earnie's "guys," a term we've become all too familiar with during the Union's constant front office churn. His success--or failure--will be positively correlated to that of his compatriot.