With the Union’s preseason drawing to a close, the club’s opening match roster has tightened, leaving touted youngsters Damani Richards, Eric Schoenle, Alex Mendoza and Stephen Okai seeking employment elsewhere.
“We still have a number of decisions to make in terms of players that we think will make us the most competitive team we can be on the field,” Union manager John Hackworth said from the team’s preseason camp in Deltona, Fla. “Those are tough decisions but they are ones you want to have because it means we’re having good competition for spots.”
Knowing that their camp would be a competitive one, the Union’s coaching staff was ready to make tough roster decisions. And even though the Union only have one exhibition game left to play on Saturday before returning back to Philadelphia on Sunday, releasing Okai, the 31st pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Schoenle and two young recruited talents, left many observers wondering.
“Stephen Okai is simple, we go through an MLS draft and we have his rights. But if that player is not going to make your roster, you release him,” Hackworth explained. “That’s the case with Okai, he’s a good player. All these guys are good players and there is a reason they were here in the first place. Our job is to take a large number of players and narrow it down in compliance with roster spots and salary cap constraints. That process is extremely competitive.”
That noted competition also pushed defender Richards, 18, who signed a contract with the Union on Jan. 19, off the club’s roster and into more of a developmental path.
“He brings some qualities that every coach looks for,” Hackworth said. “But he’s very young, very inexperienced -- in fact no experience as a professional athlete at all. It was very difficult for him to make this roster, which is very competitive and has very few spots. That doesn’t mean we’re totally giving him up. We have an affiliation with Harrisburg [City Islanders] and we hope he will still be under our watchful [eye] and can develop.
“The reality is there are better players here.”
The biggest surprise however may be the release of Schoenle, a 2013 Supplemental Draft selection out of Yardley, Pa. The defender was considered a sleeper prospect. He just missed the cut.
“We have released Eric Schoenle,” Hackworth said. “He’s a guy we really like and he’s a fantastic soccer player, and if we had a way to keep him we would certainly keep him. He’s a guy we want to put on a developmental path. It’s important for him to grow and continue developing.”
The Union also released 34-year-old Greek international, veteran and trialist, Pantelis Kafes.
“He’s a guy we wanted to look at and he’s had a fantastic and illustrious career,” Hackworth said. “He’s a good player but he’s a little older and doesn’t really fit what we were trying to do. So he will not be with us and is not with us any longer.”
Though the Union have released some noticeable talent, the young players looking to make the Union’s final roster for the March 2 opener against Sporting Kansas City are just as intriguing.
Drafted 26th overall, 21-year-old Don Anding has impressed Hackworth and is penciled in on the left-back depth chart behind Gabe Farfan and Ray Gaddis. Leo Fernandes, another Supplemental Draft pick, also is expected to make the team in the midfield.
“I don’t know if you watched the game [1-1 draw versus DC United] last night, but Don Anding started at left back probably made one of the best plays of any game I’ve seen,” Hackworth said. “We have had excellent competition at left back and we start this season, this moment, with three very qualified players. In our humble estimation as coaches, we have elected the three best guys for us to be successful heading into the season.”
One battle still playing out is between former Real Madrid youth, 21-year-old
Jordi Vidal and other depth forwards on the Union roster. Shrugging aside the tough transition from Europe to the MLS, Vidal has the Union very intrigued.
“Jordi is with us and we really like him,” Hackworth said. “He has a really tough job of trying to beat out a guy who is currently under contract at one of our forward spots but he is currently doing very well.
“Jordi is a good player, technically he’s sound. He came through a very famous youth academy at Real Madrid. The one thing I think is tough for a guy coming from abroad, they have to make an extremely quick transition to a very different culture and different environment. But he’s still here with us and he’s giving us an extremely tough decision to make.”
For Hackworth this offseason, it wouldn’t be the first.