(Published on the Philly Soccer Page on Aug. 4, 2010.)
Major League Soccer’s all-star game was last week, but Philadelphia Union only just passed the 15-game mark. That makes it time for a midseason review that may come a bit late to some but hopefully just in time for the rest of you. The team is 4-8-3 and in 6th place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, but the record is less relevant for an expansion team. What’s important is how the team actually plays on the field and what’s building for tomorrow, and that’s the focus of this review.
GK Chris Seitz: C+
Seitz has looked steady at times, questionable at others, and occasionally spectacular. Questions still remain over whether he’s the guy long-term, but sometimes those questions are unfair. Is it his fault a free kick took a bizarre bounce over his head against New England? Can we blame him for the ref not calling foul on Jaime Moreno’s rule-breaking interference? Goalkeepers need wide shoulders, and Seitz’s shoulders need to carry some of the responsibility for the Union being the league’s only team without a shutout yet. Still, he looks like a potential keeper at the keeper spot. At just 23 years old, he’s a baby in goalie years. He still has something to prove, but he’s earned the time to prove it.
GK Brad Knighton: C/incomplete
Knighton remains somewhat of a blank canvas to many. He looked solid against Manchester United, but other than appearances in friendlies, we haven’t seen much of him.
DF Jordan Harvey: A
Harvey has been one of the team’s two most consistent players, along with Sebastien Le Toux. The left fullback has played solid defense and he’s been increasingly dangerous on the attack down the left flank. With the Union often opting for a 4-2-2-2 formation, it’s given more opportunities for attacking fullbacks. His crossing hasn’t always been spot on, but he hustles, plays solid defense, rarely loses possession of the ball, and has a nose for the ball in the box. A terrific pick-up and a player that his former team, Colorado, sorely misses.
DF Cristian Arrieta: C+
Arrieta started off brilliantly, showing his accuracy on crosses and excellent field vision. Then he hit such a funk that manager Peter Nowak yanked him from the lineup and then began experimenting with him at left center back, where he’s now playing. At times, he looks like he doesn’t hustle and that he gives up on plays, but it may be that it’s simply a lack of speed combined with poor body language, as Arrieta has a laconic demeanor and posture that may obscure the actual truth. What’s clear is that he is a gifted natural soccer player and a good pickup for the team. What’s not clear yet is whether he’s a long-term starter and, if so, where.
DF Danny Califf: A-
Yeah, so the season started with a booking one minute into the first game and the PPL’s Elbow earning him his first ejection at Toronto. Then off came the mohawk and the Mr. T persona and in came the smart defender who was always in the right position at the right time. Califf has been excellent since those first games, settling in as the defensive anchor and team leader. Early in the season, we talked about the Union possibly having one of the league’s best center back tandems. Califf has held up his end of the deal.
DF Michael Orozco Fiscal: B-
If we can ever figure out where this guy belongs on the field, we may really see what Orozco can do. He’s talented, aggressive (sometimes overly so), and fun to watch. In fact, he might be the most athletically gifted player on the squad. But he’s moved around to so many positions – left back, right back, center back, left midfield, center defensive midfield – that he’s yet to settle in anywhere. It’s not clear where he belongs on the field either, but one thing’s clear: He definitely belongs.
MF/DF Toni Stahl: D
Stahl has had a rough time of it. He started the opening game at center back, got ejected after two yellow cards (one of which was questionable) and hasn’t seen the field in a regular season game since. He got ejected again in the Celtic friendly in less than a half, and considering it was just the second time most Union fans had seen him play, it branded him with an unfortunate impression. He played defensive midfielder in college, so playing center back may not have helped. But on a team stacked with holding midfielders and lacking any depth on the back line, the experiment made sense. He’s appeared at both spots so far, and it’s unclear where he belongs or whether he belongs at all. Many thought he was the most pro-ready of the Union’s draft picks this season. Apparently not. The jury remains out. He still has time, but maybe not much.
MF/DF Shea Salinas: A-
Salinas has been awesome when he plays. He’s probably the team’s fastest player, and every time he touches the ball, he looks like he’s about to go “Beep beep!” as he flies past Wile E. Coyote. That ability injects the game with excitement and forces defenses to adjust in his direction, as defenders must be ready to help on the second level when he beats the first defender off the dribble. He’s moved between right back and the midfield winger roles without settling in at either, but he’s looked good at both and could be a future starting right back for the national team if he gets fully comfortable there. The problem is staying healthy. He got injured in preseason, again in late spring, and now he’s out with a fractured fibula. He’s the team’s most fun player to watch, but sadly we don’t get to watch him enough.
MF Stefani Miglioranzi: B
Miglioranzi does so many things that nobody notices. He maintains defensive positioning to keep a disciplined shape for the squad, cuts off attacks before they begin in earnest, and is at the beginning of so many counterattacks. He’s a smart player who, occasional red card aside, plays a key role for the team. Unlike many Union players, however, he’s already at his ceiling. He never scares on offense, which could eventually force him to step aside to make room for Andrew Jacobson or Michael Orozco in the holding midfield role.
MF Andrew Jacobson: B-
Jacobson began the season as a surprise starter. He played fairly well but lost his spot as it became a revolving door of players in the role. Now, he seems to have hit his stride on the field, but he’s finding it increasingly difficult to find his way there due to the Union’s stockpiling of holding midfield players. He hasn’t hit the net yet with his long-distance sniping, but it’s clearly just a matter of time. That’s a weapon that Miglioranzi doesn’t offer, and it could help Jacobson get back on the field.
MF Eduardo Coudet: incomplete
The 35-year-old new signing has only played one regular season game. So far, he looks solid. His experience at high levels, as an integral part of River Plate for years, gives him the presence to not be intimidated against anyone. He seems a good link between the defense and attacking players, and his presence could help put the Union in the playoffs. The only problem is that it may marginalize promising young players such as Jacobson.
MF Kyle Nakazawa: C+
Nakazawa earned a few starts before getting injured in the spring and displayed excellent dead ball ability, sending up the best free kicks of anyone on the team. He also played fairly well in the course of play, though he didn’t stand out in a holding midfield role. The jury remains out on him, but we know at least some of what he brings to the table. He needs more time to show where he fits on the field.
MF Amobi Okugo: C+
Okugo looked ungangly and awkward in his first appearances, but the defensive midfielder looks to be catching up to the speed of the game. He looked terrific against Celtic and has shown that he can do the job as a second half reserve. He’s fast and, when he’s on his game, rarely turns the ball over by choosing smart, simple passes. The U.S. youth international is still just 19, and he looks like a good pickup and core part of the club’s future.
MF Fred: B-
Fred finally seems to be getting his footing with the Union. Early on, we’d see him make spectacular plays with his footwork and then pass up the wide open shot on goal, and it would drive us nuts. Now he’s gotten to know his teammates better, as well as his place on the field, and he’s performing accordingly. He rarely loses possession of the ball, and that’s key for this team. Still, his positioning on the field leaves something to be desired at times. He’s a natural center midfielder, and he always seems to move inward if he’s starting on the wing, which he sometimes does in the 4-2-2-2 or whatever other version of the 4-4-2 (4-1-3-2, etc.) that Nowak is bringing out that day. It’s not always a bad thing, but it is a tendency that leaves gaps and collapses the team’s width a bit too much at times.
MF Roger Torres: B-
Tons of talent on the ball, excellent on crosses, drives us nuts with his tendency to dribble into traffic and lose the ball, dives like Greg Louganis. But he’s just 19. That makes him an excellent pickup, because almost anything he does is just gravy on top. He has good field vision at times, but it sometimes disappears under heavy defensive pressure. With time, that will improve. Here’s hoping the Union keep him long enough to give him time, because he should be part of the team’s long-term foundation.
MF Justin Mapp: incomplete
The new arrival has played in just one game. No grade for him, but it definitely was a coup to acquire him at such a low cost.
MF J.T. Noone: incomplete
We’re just glad he’s finally officially on the roster. Finally, we got a guy with Philly ties in the rookie from Temple. He also looks like he can play, but we’ve still seen too little of him to know just how much.
MF/FW Nick Zimmerman: C
Zimmerman has only gotten snippets of time here and there, and when he has, it hasn’t been enough time to impress. He’s been a serviceable substitute, but he needs more extended periods of time on the field to show what he can do.
FW/MF Sebastien Le Toux: A+
What more can we say about Le Toux that hasn’t already been said? Eight goals, seven assists, constant hustle, versatility to move between forward and right midfield, and the kind of player who raises his teammates’ level of play by showing the hustle that Philadelphia Union expects. He is the standard-bearer for this team, a clear statement about everything Union players can and should be. His humble, never-say-die attitude on the field is everything that Philadelphia fans love in their teams and players. He is, without a doubt, the single most important player on this team for so many reasons, and he has rightfully earned a spot for himself in the MVP discussion.
FW Alejandro Moreno: B-
Moreno played a crucial but oft-unappreciated role in the spring. His hustle and tough hold-up play led to excellent through balls to create goals for his teammates. He knows how to find gaps in a defense (his throw-in to Le Toux on the doorstop of the goal two games ago epitomized that), and he unselfishly takes a role that brings him no glory. Since he got injured, however, he hasn’t been the same player, and it makes you wonder if he’s playing at full strength. He lacks the speed to be dangerous as a goal-scorer right now. And he’s taking a beating from opposing players, as refs seem to be taking his reputation for diving into account and not giving him calls he should get. Also, he remains a forward without a goal this season. His starting spot is beginning to look tenuous, but don’t underestimate his importance on the field.
FW Danny Mwanga: B+
Let’s remember that he’s just 19. Right now, he looks like the MLS Rookie of the Year. He’s shown excellent finishing ability, a nose for the goal and the instinct for securing position to accept passes from teammates. Mwanga appears limited once he has the ball at his feet, however, and hasn’t shown he can beat defenders off the dribble. Given time though, he could be a superstar.
FW Jack McInerney: B
Like Mwanga, he’s so young at just 17, but he’s a completely different (and much smaller) player. He’s extraordinarily creative and daring with the ball, and he thinks to take chances that no one on the field would consider. Some might say that’s a folly of youth, but I personally can’t wait to see what it means once it’s leavened with experience.
Grading the franchise
Front office – player personnel issues: A
The Union management team has pulled off trades that have netted them several players at apparently low cost. The pre-draft deal that netted Fred and a draft pick for the rights to pick Troy Perkins looks like an absolute steal. Expansion draftees Harvey and Le Toux have been the team’s most consistent players, and fellow draftees Moreno, Miglioranzi and Jacobson have been regular contributors. The only misstep appears to be the release of fan favorite Brian Perk, though with two apparently open roster spots and just two goalies on the roster, another pickup may be in the works.
The complex is not done yet, but PPL Park is just beautiful, already a gem of a field. Each game increases the appreciation for it. The front office appears to have done everything right with this stadium, so much so that fans are perfectly accepting of the delays in completing the complex.
Overall franchise management: A-
They’ve done so much right. They chose youth and a long-term foundation over quick fixes to make the playoffs, and it’s installed the mindset of slow growth in fans, making them far more patient than they might otherwise have been given Seattle’s success last year. They’ve mixed in veterans like Califf, Le Toux and Moreno who set the right example for young players. They chose to play attacking, exciting soccer in search of wins, which is more fun than watching a team that plays not to lose. CEO Nick Sakiewicz is refreshingly open about the team, and mercurial Peter Nowak seems almost a force of nature, a brilliant soccer mind mixed with a fearlessness and experience in MLS. Likewise, the team has intelligently used online social networking and modern technology to stay in regular contact with its fans, a major plus for a sport with too little mainstream media coverage.
The most notable flaw has been the secrecy in player personnel issues. Strategically, there is clearly an advantage for it, but it can disconnect a team from its fans. When Salinas breaks his leg, fans want to hear about it. When a new trialist shows up on the field against Manchester United, people want to know who he is. Every time a fan reads about the club, the relationship between the two is strengthened. Every time the club cuts off the fans, the relationship frays. A fan base must be cultivated, respected, and communicated with, not stonewalled. With mainstream media devoting relatively few resources to soccer and operations like ours working only in our spare time, that burden falls increasingly upon the club’s front office to inform people. For a franchise that has done so much right, the Union should take care that this one perceived flaw – and perception is key when talking about how fans view you – doesn’t undo so much else that has been good, particularly when it has an adept PR staff available. Because in the end, the first half of this season has shown that Philadelphia Union could be one of the greatest successes of American soccer.