Union's Mbolhi signing leaves plenty of questions


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 offering great deals on field level seats ahead of MLS Cup Playoffs

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Union offering great deals on field level seats ahead of MLS Cup Playoffs

Playoff soccer is returning to Chester for the first time in five years, and while fans prep for the Union’s first postseason games since 2011, there is no shortage of seating options for Union tickets on the primary market.

Perhaps most importantly, fans won’t have to break the bank to be on hand as the Union compete for their first MLS Cup in franchise history. Union field level seats are available for both the team’s final home regular season game against the New York Red Bulls and the Eastern Conference Semifinal on October 30 should they advance past the knockout round.

The team’s official website lists feet-on-the-pitch seating starting from $155 per ticket for this weekend’s game against the Red Bulls. The first-place Red Bulls head to Talen Energy Stadium with a first-round bye secured, but Union head coach Jim Curtin expects them to bring the pressure with them on Sunday. Fans can look on up close – and for relatively cheap - as the Union look to hand the Eastern Conference leaders their final loss of the regular season.

The Union will take on either New York City FC or Toronto FC in the knockout round either next Wednesday or Thursday. Pending a victory on the road, they’ll return to Talen Energy Stadium to host an Eastern Conference Semifinal game on October 30. Field level seating is still widely available for the team’s first home playoff game since 2011 and start from $178 per ticket.

2016 marks the franchise’s second MLS Cup Playoffs berth in its seven-year existence. They clinched a first-round bye in 2011 but fell to the Houston Dynamo by a 3-1 aggregate in the Conference Semifinals. The Union bring a much different vibe into the playoffs this season, however, after a formidable stretch from September on nearly drowned their postseason hopes. The team won its last game on August 27 against Sporting Kansas City, losing four games and drawing in two others since. 

Despite the team’s recent struggles, there is a sense of renewment that will carry them into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Records are cast aside and the slate is wiped clean, beginning a new path on the long and often tumultuous road to a national championship.

As playoffs near, newcomer Alejandro Bedoya delivers message to Union

As playoffs near, newcomer Alejandro Bedoya delivers message to Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union coaches were about to wrap up a team meeting earlier this week, Alejandro Bedoya raised his hand.

The new midfielder had something he wanted to say.

“I was able to give a talk to the team Monday and let them know we’re all in this together, this is the end of the season, guys are playing for their livelihoods really,” Bedoya said Wednesday. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen next season. Some guys are gonna retire, some guys are gonna leave, get traded, go somewhere else. 

“This is a great opportunity we have in front of us now with the playoffs and trying to win an MLS Cup here in Philly.”

Bedoya, of course, is one of the team’s least-tenured players, coming over in August from France for his first stint in MLS. And there are other players on the team who have worn the captain’s armband, including Brian Carroll, Tranquillo Barnetta and Maurice Edu.

But Bedoya, a U.S. national team starter who forged a successful career in Europe, brings a unique viewpoint into what will be his first foray into the MLS Cup playoffs. And Curtin was happy to see his new midfielder emerge as a locker room leader after a lifeless 2-0 loss to Orlando City SC on Sunday sunk the Union's chances of possibly hosting a game when the playoffs begin next week.

“To be honest, it’s one of the first time it’s happened, where guys put their hand up and looked in the mirror, which is important,” Curtin said. “I think that shows good leadership, it shows we are a team that’s in this thing together. It’s kind of commonplace for the coach to take blame and put his hand up because I am ultimately in charge of the lineup and what goes out there. But for whatever reason, on the day it just wasn’t us, it didn’t feel like us. And to have guys recognize that was important.”

Bedoya certainly took his share of the blame for the loss to Orlando, admitting he wasn’t at his best after returning from a rib injury that held him out of two recent U.S. national team games.

To be fair though, nobody was at their best, which made for an awkward situation after the game when the Union learned they all but guaranteed a playoff berth — thanks to a Chicago Fire win over the New England Revolution — but didn’t much feel like celebrating.

“It doesn’t take a genius to look at that game and say that was a lackluster effort at best,” Bedoya said. “For us, it’s just staying optimistic. We know we have a great group of guys. We know we have a good team. When we’re playing well, when we’re on our game, we can compete with anybody in this league.”

The Union will get a chance to show that when they host the New York Red Bulls in Sunday’s regular-season finale (4 p.m., TCN). 

The Red Bulls are an MLS Cup contender and have the top seed in the East all but locked up. The Union are also firmly planted into their own spot, so the game doesn’t have many implications aside from Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips’ Golden Boot chase.

But for the Union, the game is still being viewed as a big one because the last thing they want is to enter the playoffs on a seven-game winless streak — and then, perhaps, enter the offseason on an eight-game winless streak, a dubious distinction that would cast a shadow over the accomplishment of making the playoffs for just the second time in club history.

“It’s very important,” Bedoya said. “I think it’s more than about pride. You gotta play for yourself, for each other. You’re representing this club, this organization, this city. I think we know the last performance was not good enough, not nearly good enough at all. It can only be better. We just have to try to get a result and play our best so we can get some momentum going into the playoffs.”

Considering the Union are playing the best team in the East followed by a playoff game against possibly Toronto FC or New York City FC — two teams loaded with stars — any win from here on out would be considered an upset. 

But Bedoya is a star in his own right, and the team’s new Designated Player is trying his best to spread a positive message heading into what will be the defining moments of the 2016 season.

And his teammates are listening.

“Definitely, he is a big-time player, a guy who can make big plays and make stuff for us and it’s great to have him,” goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “I think on any given day, when all the guys are bought-in and sharp, we can stand up against any team and give it a good run. And I think hopefully this Sunday, we can get back on a run going into the playoffs.”