The good old days that never were

(Published July 25, 2015 in The Philly Soccer Page)

There was a time not all that long ago that Philadelphia soccer fans brimmed with optimism.

They had a new team, it was full of young and promising talent flanked by a few likeable and capable veterans with strong character, and the future of professional soccer in Philadelphia seemed exciting. By Philadelphia Union’s second season, they had recorded a winning record and made the playoffs, despite the mad scientist in charge already beginning to show he was more mad than scientist.

The trade of Sheanon Williams, even more than the termination of Carlos Valdes’s contract, probably closes the door on those lingering memories with finality. All that young talent has scattered to the winds, taking with them the naive optimism that arrived with them.

Consider that core of young players and where you thought they’d be today:

  1. Amobi Okugo
  2. Jack McInerney
  3. Danny Mwanga
  4. Sheanon Williams
  5. Michael Farfan
  6. Gabriel Farfan
  7. Roger Torres
  8. Zac MacMath

Today, not one of them is locked in as a game-in, game-out starter — anywhere.

Maybe Okugo and Williams will nail down starting spots with their new clubs, Kansas City and Houston, respectively. Maybe Michael Farfan will do the same with D.C. United upon recovering from a hamstring injury, as he appeared to be before getting hurt. Maybe Jack McInerney, who has started 13 of Montreal’s 18 league games, just needed that target forward to play off in Montreal, and now he has it in the recently signed Didier Drogba.

Maybe they were never as good as they seemed at times. Considering the various barriers that young core has hit, it’s entirely possible.

Or maybe the Union just broke them.

They seemed like they could be so good, didn’t they?

Take Mwanga, who scored seven goals in 1,461 minutes in his rookie year — one goal every 209 minutes, or almost a goal every other 90-minute game. He hasn’t scored an MLS goal in three seasons. He’s just one example.

Nearly every one of those players seemed to have hit the same problem. In each case, they hit a roadblock, either created by themselves, their coaches, or mere circumstance.

  • Okugo wanted to play center midfield when he was a borderline all-star center back.
  • McInerney somehow turned off his original patron, John Hackworth, likely in the same way he has occasionally and bluntly called out his current manager.
  • The Farfans wanted to play in Mexico after each was played out of their natural position (outside midfielder) for most of their time with the Union.
  • MacMath was just beginning to blossom when Rais Mbolhi arrived.
  • Williams struggled with injuries and competition and seemed to plateau.
  • Torres never won Hackworth’s trust despite his moments of creative brilliance.
  • Mwanga seemed to lose all confidence by his third season.

You thought you would watch that young core for years.

We didn’t imagine Michael Farfan breaking ankles when he dribble-danced along the end line while deployed on the right flank. We physically watched Okugo cover vast stretches of ground and make all those smart simple passes. Mwanga actually scored those goals, and nobody made it up. We saw that beautiful Roger Torres pass against Houston and all the brief glimpses of brilliance that he showed. MacMath did in fact stop those penalty shots last year in the U.S. Open Cup. And Williams did lead all MLS defenders in assists two years ago.

These things actually happened.

Where did it go? What went wrong? What happened to the Union’s original mantra of youth development?

It’s all history.

Today, what’s left is a mismatched cast of players on the senior roster, an academy whose most talented players have gone abroad rather than sign with the Union, and a salary budget that has been in shambles ever since Peter Nowak wrecked it during the 2011-12 off-season.

The club still has some talented players in Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Richie Marquez, Maurice Edu and C.J. Sapong, the latter of whom is showing that everyone who gave up on him as a winger was wrong to forget he was always a center forward.

But there’s no identity. Or certainly, not what there once was, an identity built around a young core of developing players and a handful of key, likeable and capable veterans.

Hints of a new identify are starting to emerge, in moments.

You see it when local kid John McCarthy stands on his head in goal to lead his club to a remarkable overtime victory over the rival Red Bulls, despite playing most of the game down a man.

You see it when C.J. Sapong just manhandles opponents and looks like the national teamer he briefly was, when Maidana creates goals out of nothing, when Nogueira does what Nogueira does and you notice.

Then the team collapses in historic fashion against D.C. United and reminds you that they have little quality depth, dogged as they are by the management mistakes that have set back this team time and time again.

The elements are there. The signs are there. The possibility that, perhaps, this team could actually get somewhere — It’s there.

It’s just hard to be optimistic when you see what’s come and gone.