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.

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta is going home.

In an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, the Union declared that the skillful Swiss attacking midfielder will not renew his contract with the club and will return to Switzerland following the 2016 season to play for his hometown club, FC St. Gallen.

According to MLS Players Union, Barnetta’s exit will free the Union of $687,500 next season.

“The entire soccer community here was so welcoming and I’m so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated,” Barnetta said. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can’t resist.”

Although the timing of the announcement is a surprise, the move isn’t one. With Alejandro Bedoya now in the mix, currently playing out of position in a box-to-box midfield role, the Union will replace Barnetta with Bedoya at the center attacking midfield spot. It’s a position that Bedoya is comfortable in, playing there with his previous club, FC Nantes.

Bedoya played for the injured Barnetta in the center midfield spot last Saturday and scored his first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

But even with Bedoya ready to take over, the Union will miss Barnetta. Since joining the Union in 2015, Barnetta, 31, has been one of the better possession playmakers in MLS, scoring six goals and seven assists in 37 games.

“Tranquillo has been a key piece in what we’re trying to build here in Philadelphia but we appreciate his decision to return to Switzerland,” said Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose club has three matches left in the 2016 season, and will likely make the playoffs. “We look forward to continuing to push for the postseason.”

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

The Union left the country for a big game over the weekend and did not return to the United States with a win as they hoped.

But they did come back with a hard-earned point against the top team in the conference as well as the first MLS goal from their marquee summer signing, while inching closer to the playoffs. Here’s a look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Toronto FC and what lies ahead with three regular-season games left.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. It took Alejandro Bedoya almost two months to score his first MLS goal … but what a goal it was. After collecting a pass from Fabian Herbers midway through the first half (just barely avoiding being offside), the U.S. national team starter took one dribble and fooled goalkeeper Clint Irwin with a clever chip over his head and into the net. You don’t see those kind of chip goals often and when you do, they’re usually delivered by big-time playmakers — the kind of guys the Union don’t usually have but do now with Bedoya. Head coach Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya at the No. 10 attacking midfield spot with Tranquillo Barnetta injured also paid big dividends and showed the Union have more midfield options going into the playoffs … and into next season.

2. Coming into the game, a big storyline centered around center back Ken Tribbett, who got the start at center back about a month after getting pulled at halftime vs. Toronto. Another centered around right back Keegan Rosenberry, who was trying to bounce back from a rare off game in Portland the previous week. But, in the end, both players had some very good moments and helped limit the Toronto attack for much of the game, especially in the first half. Much of that had to do with another Curtin lineup decision as the Union head coach put two defensive-minded midfielders in front of the backline: Warren Creavalle, who also had a great hustle play that nearly led to a second goal right before halftime, and Brian Carroll, who’s now made two straight starts after missing six straight games with Plantar fasciitis.

3. Saturday’s game didn’t end without some late fireworks from the league’s hottest player, Jozy Altidore. Riding an eight-goals-in-nine-games streak coming in, the U.S. national team star struck the post in the 87th minute and was taken down in the box by C.J. Sapong in stoppage time on what initially looked to be a clear penalty. If you look at the replay from Sapong’s perspective, however, you could probably make the case that Sapong was going for the ball before getting impeded by Altidore. Either way, the idea of a ref not making a call that would likely decide a game (on a play that wasn’t a real goal-scoring opportunity) took some guts, especially as he got lambasted from the home team and its fans.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The brutal three-game road trip ends Saturday as the Union, after a loss in Portland and tie in Toronto, take on the rival New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., The Comcast Network). As conservative as it might sound, another point would probably make it a mildly successful trip considering the caliber of opponent. Either way, the Union’s playoff hopes and seeding will likely come down to their final two home games against Orlando and the Red Bulls. At this point, the best they can likely hope for is to hold off Montreal, D.C. United and New England for the No. 4 seed in the East, which would ensure them an opening-round home game. Luckily for them, Montreal and New England both lost this weekend, and although D.C. picked up a big win, they did so against another team in the playoff hunt in Orlando.

2. Another week means another question about captain Maurice Edu’s health. It’s now been more than two months since he returned to the practice field and almost a month since he started playing rehab games with the Bethlehem Steel. With only three games left in the season, it’s hard to see him becoming a starter after being out so long with a stress fracture. It also doesn’t help his case that Carroll and Creavalle are both playing well at his position. But if Edu’s healthy, there’s no sense not utilizing him as a midfield reserve or even as an emergency defensive replacement. The question, as always: is this the week he finally makes his season debut?

3. While Curtin’s lineup decisions played well in Toronto, one interesting one was not playing Roland Alberg. With Barnetta out, many Union fans probably expected Alberg to start at the No. 10 position — or, at the very least, come off the bench. But with the Union never falling behind, Curtin probably didn’t feel the need to bring in such an offensive-minded player. It was an understandable move considering the context but one that was surely disappointing for Alberg, who despite having nine goals in just over 1,000 minutes, has played only 19 minutes over the last three games and has started only once since the beginning of August. By now, you have to wonder what role the dynamic Dutchman will have in the playoffs — if he has one at all.

Stat of the week
With his seventh assist, the rookie Herbers moved into the top 10 in franchise history in career assists. He’s tied for ninth all time with Barnetta, Alejandro Moreno and Conor Casey.

Quote of the week
“I kind of even surprised myself.”

— Alejandro Bedoya, on his first MLS goal

Player of the week
Gotta give it to the guy who scored one of the best goals of the Union’s season, right? The Union now hope there’s more to come from Bedoya during the final stretch of the 2016 season.