Much was made of the Union’s rise to the top of the Eastern Conference during the first couple of months of the 2016 season. Even more was made of their 5-11-4 collapse down the stretch. Jim Curtin’s side stumbled into the Knockout Round of the MLS Playoffs, and to nobody’s surprise, fell to the eventual runner-up Toronto FC.
What made the slide from the top spot in the conference at the Copa America break all the way to sixth place in the East even more difficult to swallow was the midseason departure of Vincent Nogueira. To make things worse, the Frenchman signed with RC Strasbourg Alsace within a week, meaning the Union got nothing in return for a huge difference-maker.
Nogueira’s departure played Curtin’s hand a bit, forcing him to shuffle around a midfield incapable of replicating their former star’s production on the field. The Union initially sent out a pairing of Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle as they looked to find a solution. After that it was Tranquillo Barnetta dropping deeper to fill the void as the No. 8 while Roland Alberg found himself starting as the attack-minded midfielder. Alberg scored six goals in six starts while Curtin stuck with Barnetta as the box-to-box guy. It was clear that while Barnetta is a clever passer of the ball, he never seemed comfortable holding his ground defensively and spray balls around the park from his deeper position.
On August 6, everyone surrounding the Union thought they finally had an answer to their prayers when the club announced the signing of Alejandro Bedoya. Three wins in five games had fans, players, and the technical staff optimistic once more. Unfortunately, it was all for nothing as the form dipped again to seal the fate of the 2016 season.
The Union’s failure to duplicate Nogueira’s presence in midfield has been a hot topic since the dip in form, but in all fairness, Bedoya can’t be blamed. In hindsight, to think that Earnie Stewart brought him in to be similar to Nogs is laughable. Bedoya, known for his defensive work rate and discipline, is from a completely different breed of players compared to Nogueira, who made a name for himself in Philly for his ability to constantly keep the ball moving and successfully hit nearly any type of pass from anywhere on the field.
In eight games in MLS for Nogueira, his traditional stats are a far cry from eye-catching. With two goals and zero assists, it’s hard to draw any conclusions about his impact from numbers. His passing percentage was slightly higher than Bedoya’s, but nowhere near how much you would expect. The reason why has to do with the types of passes played. Bedoya was far more reluctant to play longer passes, in particular diagonal balls to switch the point of attack. Nogueira, on the other hand, tried them regularly and as expected, that brought down his success rate just a bit.
Bedoya is much more of a physical presence in the middle of the park than Nogueira. When it comes to getting stuck in, intercepting passes, and stifling the opponent’s attack, the USMNT regular did it better than anyone Curtin ran out in the No. 8 role. That’s not to say that Nogueira was poor defensively. Sure, he wasn’t going to win a ton of challenges, but time after time he was exactly where he needed to be for the Union to keep their shape and stay organized.
The moral of the story is, the Union’s form dipped at the worst time for a multiple of reasons. Did Nogueira’s departure play a role in it? Absolutely, but for us to think that the Bedoya signing was anything close to a like-for-like swap for the Frenchman is just plain absurd.