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.

Union rally to reach Open Cup quarterfinals amid ejection-filled finish

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Union rally to reach Open Cup quarterfinals amid ejection-filled finish

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union’s U.S. Open Cup magic continues. 

Extending their quest for a third consecutive Open Cup title run, the determined Union came from behind to topple the New York Red Bulls, 2-1, in the Round of 16 on Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

“That’s a big-boy win, because that’s a good Red Bull team,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I thought we stood up in the second half and showed we’re a darn good team, too.”

As victors, the Union advance to the Open Cup quarterfinals, where they will visit the New England Revolution on July 20. The Union’s Open Cup record extends to 10-2-0 over the last three tournaments and 14-6 all time.

“We’re happy with this result and whoever we play next, it’ll be another fight,” Union veteran Brian Carroll said. “We’ll be up for the challenge when it comes. But we want to enjoy this now.”

Wednesday was a match of two completely different halves for the Union. 

“Players win games, coaches lose them and referees ruin them,” Curtin said. “It’s all credit to my players, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

The hosts were utterly dominated by the Red Bulls' high press in the first half, getting outshot, 13-1, and trailing, 1-0, when a free kick played into the box deflected off Chris Pontius and right to Mike Grella. The forward powered his shot to the right of Andre Blake for the 17th-minute lead.

“I tried to inform our team that in the second half Philly was going to pick it up,” said Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch, whose club was outshot 7-3 in the second half. “That they were going to get laid into by their coach because they got their butts whipped in the first half."

And Marsch was right. In the 55th minute, a perfectly played through ball from Ilsinho found a streaking Pontius, who split the Red Bulls' defense, gathered the ball and fired off a right-footed shot past Ryan Meara to tie the match at 1-1.

“I see [Ilsinho] has some space, I see they’re playing pretty flat-footed, so I made a run across,” Pontius said. “He plays me a great ball, and at that point I know Meara is going to be coming out, so I tried to chip it over him at the back post.”

With momentum leaning heavily in the Union’s favor, the pair connected again in the 60th minute. Off the rush, Tranquillo Barnetta slung a right-wing pass to Ilsinho, who, while on the move and with the Red Bulls' defense closing, launched a cross that landed at the feet of Pontius, who one-timed it home for the 2-1 Union lead.

“We were able to break pressure. That was the major turning point,” Union midfielder Warren Creavalle said. “Once we were able to break pressure, we forced them to spend a little more energy and we were able to put the game back on our terms.” 

The match unraveled in stoppage time when Union assistant coach Mike Sorber was ejected for tossing a ball onto the field of play. Moments later, Marsch was ejected for arguing a call. On his way out, Marsch picked up two game balls from the scorekeeper’s desk and chucked them at the Union bench, before storming off.

“I had to try to induce change with the referee somehow because he was basically calling every foul for the Union,” Marsch said. “Laughable.”

Curtin, a former teammate and current friend of Marsch, said the Red Bulls coach wasn’t aiming for him with his ball throw, but that the sight of Marsch red with anger brought back memories.

“Jesse and I are good friends from old times,” the coach said. “But I like to beat him and he likes to beat me. We’re competitive. I think it’s the heat of the moment. Jesse was upset with the referees, obviously. Maybe lost his temper a bit, but I’ve seen that face before in training sessions and it still does make me smile.” 

During taxing stretch, Union still adjusting to Vincent Nogueira departure

During taxing stretch, Union still adjusting to Vincent Nogueira departure

CHESTER, Pa. — Almost a year ago, the Philadelphia Union knocked the New York Red Bulls out of the U.S. Open Cup with such an inspired and gutsy effort that head coach Jim Curtin deemed it the biggest win in franchise history.

And a big reason they were able to pull out that shootout victory after going down a man in the first half at Red Bull Arena was the play of Vincent Nogueira, whose absolutely dazzling counterattack set up the team’s only goal.

For Union fans, that play was incredible to watch but probably not much of a surprise. One of the team’s best players over the last two years, Nogueira had a knack for rising to the occasion in the Open Cup, especially in the last two title games of the historic tournament.

But as the Union prepare for an Open Cup rematch vs. the Red Bulls tonight at 7 p.m. in a Round of 16 game at Talen Energy Stadium, they’ll have to do so without Nogueira, who left the team suddenly two weeks ago due to a personal health issue.

Two weeks may seem like a long time in pro sports but the Union have barely had time to catch their breath since, playing three games and giving up three goals in all of them as they’re still trying to figure out a way to cope defensively without their top box-to-box midfielder.

When asked how the players have handled the quick adjustment — on and off the field — Union head coach Jim Curtin harkened back to a meeting Nogueira held with the team before deciding to have the team terminate his contract and move back home to France.

“First and foremost, it was emotional,” Curtin said Tuesday. “Vince addressed the whole group and explained the situation to the team. What was said will stay in the locker room. It was a tough week for sure but, at the same time, the game doesn’t stop.”

The game doesn’t stop.

It’s a phrase Curtin uses a lot, usually when a player gets hurt or the team is coming off an especially tough loss.

Nogueira’s departure may be more unusual, especially with the midfielder recently signing with a second-division French club. But Curtin denied any “speculation out there that he was unhappy here,” stating unequivocally that “people in the room know that’s not true.” And as Curtin hopes Nogueira’s health will improve in his native country, he also hopes his team can adapt to the Frenchman’s departure, just as they’ve dealt with other moments of adversity throughout his tenure.

“We have a deep team,” Curtin said. “Vincent was a big part of what we did in terms of being a true No. 8 that kind of connected us from the back to the front. But I think Tranquillo has stepped in and done a great job in that position. It’s still a new position for him but one he’s done very well at. Vincent is no longer with us, so that’s kind of in the past.”

Making things even more difficult for the Union is the fact that captain Maurice Edu, who can certainly help fill the void left by Nogueira, is still recovering from a long-term stress fracture. And standout striker C.J. Sapong also remains questionable with an ankle injury, though he did look sharp during cutting drills Tuesday.

On top of all that, the Union are in the midst of a grueling stretch in which they’ve been playing two games every week for three straight weeks.

But Curtin pointed out that “every team goes through stretches when they’re missing guys,” and promised to do whatever he can to help the Union advance in the Open Cup.

“We’ll play our best available lineup, obviously keeping in mind where guys are physically after the taxing stretch that we’ve had,” Curtin said. “The moral of the tournament is to survive and advance.”

Some MLS teams, of course, like to sprinkle in some reserves for Open Cup games — which is something the Union did in their opening win over the Harrisburg City Islanders two weeks ago (which, as it turned out, was Nogueira’s final game for Philly). But they won’t do that tonight. And the Red Bulls, led by Curtin’s good friend Jesse Marsch, likely won’t either.

“It was instilled in us by Bob Bradley that you take the Open Cup very seriously,” Curtin said. “And I think both clubs do. Last year’s game was a crazy game .... a special day and a wild one for sure. [Tonight] will be the same. I know Jesse’s gonna play his best lineup.”

The Union’s best lineup includes Andre Blake, who Curtin confirmed will get the start in net even though John McCarthy started Philly’s Open Cup game two weeks ago and was sensational in the Open Cup win over the Red Bulls last year.

Recently, Blake was asked how he and his teammates have handled the Nogueira departure, and gave a thoughtful response about the Union moving forward without him, in both the Open Cup and MLS play.

“It did happen sudden,” the Union goalie said. “We were all surprised when we heard the story. It’s very sad and we do miss him. We are just trying to work hard — and maybe win this for him.”

Union's red-hot Roland Alberg named MLS Player of the Week

Union's red-hot Roland Alberg named MLS Player of the Week

CHESTER, Pa. — Roland Alberg has never in his life been on a tear like he’s on right now.

And he’s being rewarded for it.

On Tuesday, the Union midfielder was named MLS Player of the Week after scoring four goals in his last two games, including the second hat trick in franchise history in Wednesday’s 4-3 win over the Chicago Fire.

“It’s a good honor,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said following Tuesday’s practice. “I’m really happy with his contribution right now. And I think it’s the just start of something.”

Before his four-goal week, Alberg scored on a penalty kick in last Saturday’s 3-2 loss in New York City FC and logged a pair of goals in Philly’s 3-2 U.S. Open Cup victory on June 15.

That win set the Union up for a U.S. Open Cup showdown with the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday at Talen Energy Stadium, where Alberg will once again likely be asked to carry much of the offensive load with standout striker C.J. Sapong questionable with an ankle injury.

“You need multiple players that can score goals,” Curtin said. “And he’s a guy that can, whether it’s with his right foot, left foot. You’ve seen in very limited minutes, he’s already second on the team in shots on goal. He gets on the ball and his first look is to play forward and go to the goal.”

Curtin still hopes to see some defensive improvements from Alberg, whose playing time sharply increased following the sudden departure of Vincent Nogueira due to personal health reasons.

For now, though, the Union are thrilled with the offensive production of a player who now has five league goals in only 512 minutes. He’s second on the team in scoring to Chris Pontius, who was named MLS Player of the Week earlier this month.

Alberg’s honor marks the first time in club history two players have been named MLS Player of the Week in the same season.

Before this season, the only players to win the award were Jack McInerney (2013), Justin Mapp (2011) and Sebastien Le Toux (twice in 2010).