Philadelphia Union

Union's Mbolhi signing leaves plenty of questions

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Union's Mbolhi signing leaves plenty of questions

CHESTER, Pa. — About midway through Wednesday’s press conference to announce the signing of new goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz offered a sarcastic reminder.

Clearly agitated by the line of questioning from reporters who were trying to dig into what the acquisition might mean for highly touted young goalies Zac MacMath and Andre Blake, Sakiewicz pointed out that Mbolhi “played in this little tournament in Brazil about a month ago — just a little tournament.”

He was referring to the World Cup, which of course, is actually a very big tournament. And Mbolhi certainly played very well there, leading Algeria to the knockout round for the first time in the country’s history before making 11 saves in a narrow Round of 16 loss to eventual champion Germany.

But to think questions wouldn’t immediately come up about MacMath — who has started all but two games for the Union since the start of the 2012 season and has grown by leaps and bounds this year — is naïve and shows the disconnect between Sakiewicz and the team’s fans.

While Sakiewicz may have expected all of the press conference questions to sound something like “On a scale of amazing to amazing, just how amazing is it that you signed a World Cup star?”, the truth is that many people are skeptical about the deal (which, if Twitter is a good indication, is putting it mildly).

Sure, Mbolhi may turn into an excellent MLS goalkeeper and provide veteran leadership at the position over the next few years. But was goalie really the biggest need on this team? Does Mbolhi’s World Cup performance immediately supersede his rocky career at the club level? Was paying big money to a foreign goalkeeper worth the investment, especially after the Union used two first-round draft picks in the last four years on goalies (the only two goalies to be taken in the first round since 2010, mind you)? And what exactly will now happen to those two young ’keepers?

It was the last question that people wanted answers to because the idea that the team’s starter (MacMath) will now be a backup and the top overall pick in the 2014 draft (Blake) will now be a third-stringer seems hard to believe. And the Union may very well have a plan to trade or sell one or both of them. But the only plans they revealed Wednesday were short-term options of loaning them out to get them game experience while Mbolhi takes over as the team’s starter.

“We have an affiliate in Harrisburg, there’s a lot of NASL teams, there’s in-league loans — there’s 50 different ways you can get young goalkeepers games,” interim manager Jim Curtin said. “If you look in Europe and the rest of the world, where do 22- and 23-year-old kids get handed the keys to clubs? It doesn’t happen. Anywhere. Does it happen in MLS? Occasionally, but it can be a roller coaster with the younger guys.”

This, of course, leads to another question: If the Union are truly of the mind that young goalkeepers can’t be trusted in net, then why have they started the 22-year-old MacMath since 2012? Have these last two-and-a-half seasons been a waste? Or was this the case of Curtin and technical director Chris Albright trying to change the course set by former manager John Hackworth and former technical director Rob Vartughian (both were fired earlier this season and both were big MacMath guys)?

It’s hard to know for certain if they always wanted a new goalkeeper or if they jumped at the opportunity to sign a World Cup player just after the World Cup. But according to Albright, the Union had their eyes on Mbolhi even before he starred in Brazil.

“It’s a position we thought could be upgraded,” Albright said. “And it’s an important position for us going forward. We know we’re going to compete against some of the elite strikers in this league when you look around at the David Villas and Thierry Henrys and Kakas of the world. And we know the one place we have to be absolutely sure is in the back. So this was the start of making sure we’re solidified back there.”

The fact Albright mentioned two players who are coming into the league next year on expansion teams — Villa with New York City FC and Kaka with Orlando City SC — could be telling. It’s almost as if he’s saying that if the Union don’t have the millions of dollars to spend on a world-class striker, they might as well do the next best thing and bring in a player a tier or two below who can perhaps neutralize them.

Sakiewicz, after all, has never spent huge money on the world’s biggest soccer names — but he does occasionally like to make a semi-big splash. According to Mbolhi, he was convinced that Philly was the right choice when he watched a game with Sakiewicz, who told him all about the club’s “vision.” U.S. national team veteran Maurice Edu — the other biggest name on the Union — used the same word when he came to Philly on loan this past offseason.

You get the sense that Sakiewicz, while leaving the gritty contract details to his coaches and technical directors, loves the chance to wine and dine these players and tell them about his “vision.” If nothing else, he seems like a great salesman.

Of course, the problem is that Sakiewicz has always maintained that the franchise’s ultimate vision is to groom homegrown players and develop young talent. And that’s one reason why kicking MacMath to the curb — just as he was starting to come into his own — is a mystifying decision.

Sakiewicz can talk all he wants about his vision but it’s hard to figure out the true direction of the franchise when there’s so much roster turnover and the plans seem to change with every new coaching regime (which so far has happened every two years).

And so when the Union play their next home game — against the Montreal Impact next Saturday — Sakiewicz should expect some fans to question why one of the team’s most promising young players (MacMath) is on the bench while their best young player from last year’s squad (Jack McInerney) is wearing the other team’s uniform.

And just because the Union will be starting a goalie that played in a little tournament in Brazil doesn’t mean those questions shouldn’t be asked.

Earnie Stewart denies report Union received European offers for Andre Blake

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Earnie Stewart denies report Union received European offers for Andre Blake

Since Andre Blake emerged as a game-changing goalkeeper for the Union in 2016, he’s been considered the club’s top candidate to graduate to European soccer, via either transfer or sale.

But on Wednesday, Union management threw cold water on any reported interest.

“What does it help us as a club, if there was an offer, to say absolutely nothing?” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said to the media on Wednesday, when asked if the club is keeping quiet about any movement surrounding Blake. “If you want to sell a player, you throw it out there and get as much interest as you can. I can only look in my email box, my telephone and that hasn’t happened.”

The topic of Blake to Europe sparked questions early in the week when it was reported by Goal.com that the 26-year-old goalkeeper was a subject of interest from English Premier League clubs, Crystal Palace and Brighton. But the multi-million dollar deal never materialized as a result of Jamaica’s low FIFA ranking, which blocked United Kingdom work permit availability.

Union manager Jim Curtin wasn’t impressed with the widely circulated report.

“It’s kind of a non-story because there haven't been any formal offers made to us,” Curtin said. “Different things come up, agents come up with different ideas to benefit their players. Nothing concrete came from the clubs that were listed. Nothing to them. It’s talk.”

Stewart also shrugged off the notion that Blake was being seriously targeted.

“There has been no offer so it’s hard to comment on that,” he said. “It happens a lot, there’s a lot of rumors out there about a player moving. In this case, it’s not the case.”

Blake, who is coming off one of his best outings of the season — an eight-save shutout of New York Red Bulls — is out of contract after the 2017 season, but is bound by a team option which the club will activate for the 2018 campaign. If he’s not moved, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, who helped propel Jamaica to the 2017 Gold Cup final, will be happily welcomed back to the Union.

Blake is 18-25-17 in his career as Union starter with 16 shutouts.

“I can only look how we view Dre,” Stewart said. “Dre is an import part of our group and he’s been tremendous. I can’t look at other club's philosophy and how they go about their transfers. We’re very happy with Dre and we’d love to keep him longer.”

Whether they move Blake or not, the struggling Union are expected to have an active offseason. But if they decide to do so, selling Blake, along with the added resources from both the league and Union owner Jay Sugarman, could provide Stewart enough financial ammunition to significantly alter his roster.

“We want some difference makers,” Stewart said. “You have to go out and spend money because good players are never free.”

Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

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Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

Under normal circumstances, finding a way to earn a point at Red Bull Arena would be a decent accomplishment for a Union team that’s won only one time there in 10 trips.

But considering where they are in the standings and how little excitement came from the game — except for the performance of one player — you’ll have to forgive Philly fans for not getting fired up about Sunday’s nationally televised scoreless draw vs. the New York Red Bulls.

Here’s a closer look at the game — and more — in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. What more can you say about Andre Blake at this point? The star goalkeeper has been the team’s brightest star over the past two years, winning the Union points in games in which they had no business winning points. Sunday’s game was the latest example as Blake made eight sparkling saves, including seven in the first half, to keep the Red Bulls off the board. And Union fans can exhale after the goalie went down with what looked like a neck injury before popping back up. This was easily his best game since returning from his Gold Cup injury and a good sign heading into the offseason next month.

2. The team’s center back pairing has been in flux for much of the season, and on Sunday, Richie Marquez made his first start since April, alongside rookie Jack Elliott. Perhaps the most interesting part of this pairing is that Elliott, a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft, has been the best and most reliable center back of a group that also includes veteran Oguchi Onyewu and Joshua Yaro, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft. And Marquez, a former late-round pick himself who emerged as one of the team’s top young players in 2015 and 2016, had fallen off the map until this weekend. So the biggest question now is whether Elliott continues his upward trajectory — the rookie put in another strong shift vs. the Red Bulls — or if he plummets on the depth chart like Marquez, who likely didn’t do enough to win back a starting role when everyone is healthy and available.

3. There was nothing doing offensively for the Union, who have generated very little in that department in road games this season. Against the Red Bulls, they had only two shots on target, missed a lot of passes, won only two corner kicks, and had less than 40 percent of the possession. The problems? Ilsinho getting yanked after playing only the first 45 minutes and Roland Alberg not getting on the field is another example of their inconsistency at playmaker. And over on the wings, Chris Pontius remains stuck on zero goals this season, Fafa Picault was absent with an illness, and Fabian Herbers’ injury absence continues to be a noticeable void. Aside from striker CJ Sapong, who’s enjoying a career year, which offensive player can you really count on going into 2018?

Three thoughts for the week ahead
1. What will the reception be like from Union fans when they return home to face the Chicago Fire on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) for their first game at Talen Energy Stadium in nearly a month? Although not yet officially mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with five games left, the Union have less than a one-percent chance to get in thanks to a six-game winless streak. And although there have been a smattering of boos for head coach Jim Curtin in recent games, it seems apathy has set in for most of the fanbase as they come to terms with another lost season.

2. The biggest noise from the crowd may be for Bastian Schweinsteiger if he takes the field for Chicago; the German legend has been nursing an injury. But the Fire, in third place in the East and coming off a 3-0 shellacking of D.C. United, still have plenty of other weapons if he can’t go. And, in many ways, their rise from last place in the East the last two seasons to a legitimate MLS contender shows how quickly teams can turn things around — if they make shrewd moves and spend money in the right places. Can the Union learn from that this offseason?

3. Who will start at center back with Onyewu poised to return from a suspension and Yaro potentially back from a minor knee injury? Curtin has said he doesn’t want to just throw young guys in there but it might be nice to use a few games — especially against high-octane offensive teams like Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle — to try to figure out who would be a better option between Yaro or Marquez to play beside Elliott next year. Or maybe Onyewu showed he has enough left in the tank to return to a starting role next season? Or will they have to bring in someone else? There will, for sure, be some interesting offseason decisions at center back.

Stat of the week
The Union have won just one game and earned only nine road points through 15 contests this year (with two road games left). Aside from their 2010 expansion team, when they earned seven points in 15 road games, their lowest road point total for a season is 13 (2012 and 2015).

Quote of the week
“These are results now, on the road in recent weeks, where if we did our work early on in the season, they would be positive results. But right now, as we chase from behind, it’s difficult.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
Blake is the easy choice here. The final score could have been ugly without him.