Union's Mbolhi signing leaves plenty of questions

ap-union-rais-mbolhi.jpg

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.

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

ap-bruce-arena.jpg
The Associated Press

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

NEW YORK -- Bruce Arena is returning to coach the U.S. national soccer team, a decade after he was fired.

The winningest coach in American national team history, Arena took over Tuesday, one day after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired. The 65-year-old Arena starts work Dec. 1.

With the U.S. 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to spark a turnaround when competition resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras followed four days later with a match at Panama.

"We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," Arena said during a telephone news conference. "I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we've just got to get them working together as a team.

"There are no real secrets on how you build good teams: It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent, and I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia 2018. It's going to take a little time, a little bit patience and a lot of hard work."

Arena first took over as national team coach after the 1998 World Cup and led the U.S. to a 71-30-29 record. His contract runs through the 2018 World Cup.

"I don't view it as Bruce 2, but sort of Bruce 2.0," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "I think he's got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-round. He's proven and reproven many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he's an extraordinarily capable and successful coach."

A wisecracking Brooklynite known for blunt talk and sarcasm, Arena coached the University of Virginia to five NCAA titles from 1978-95, then led D.C. United to titles in Major League Soccer's first two seasons before losing in the 1998 final. He guided the Americans to the team's best World Cup finish since 1930, a 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals.

Arena was let go after the team's first-round elimination by Ghana in 2006. He coached the New York Red Bulls of MLS from July 2006 to November 2007, then was hired the following August by the Galaxy. He led the team to MLS titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Arena was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010.

"I think 10 years later I'm better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002 and ultimately 2006, so I'm hopeful the experiences I had are going to benefit the program," he said. "One of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously, and the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach in my position how things are happening on the field.