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.

Andre Blake to stay in net for two more games before Jamaica call-up

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Andre Blake to stay in net for two more games before Jamaica call-up

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union are about to embark on perhaps their toughest road trip of the season. 

But it just got a little bit more manageable as head coach Jim Curtin revealed Monday that star goalkeeper Andre Blake will be in the net for both matches before only then leaving to join the Jamaican national team ahead of Copa America Centenario.

The initial belief was that Blake would have to miss at least one of the upcoming games to prepare for the marquee tournament that pits the best countries from North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. But the Union got a stroke of good fortune before hitting the road to face Orlando City on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., CSN) and the Colorado Rapids on Saturday (9 p.m., TCN).

“First of all, Jamaica’s been excellent with us — great to work with,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “We came to the conclusion what is best for both parties is that he is with us up until the Columbus game [on June 1]. So the Columbus game is the only game he will miss.”

Jamaica’s first Copa game isn’t until June 5 when the Reggae Boyz take on Venezuela at Chicago’s Soldier Field. But their training camp opens this week and Jamaica faces Chile in a friendly on Friday, which is why few believed Blake would make the trip with Philly to Colorado.

But getting the chance for another live MLS game — against a Rapids team that currently owns the best record in the league, no less — appears to be something Jamaican head coach Winfried Schafer valued more than a friendly.

And Blake will be happy to try to continue his MLS momentum after earning his third shutout of the season in Friday’s 1-0 victory over D.C. United.

“It’s great,” Blake said. “It’s always a confidence booster getting 90 minutes, getting experience and learning every time you touch the pitch. Every time I get to play a game, it’s great for me and it just builds my confidence. Going into Copa, I’m looking forward to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Jamaica will certainly be underdogs at Copa as they’ll follow their opener vs. Venezuela with matches against Mexico on June 9 and Uruguay on June 13 — two of the top 16 teams in the FIFA World Rankings and the big favorites to get out of that group and into the Copa quarterfinals.

But the Reggae Boyz will likely have a chance in every game because of Blake, who’s made several hard-to-believe saves this season while emerging as one of the top goalies in MLS. Against D.C. United, he made a stunning stop on Alvaro Sabario to help the Union climb to first place in the Eastern Conference, and was later named to the bench of the MLS Team of the Week.

“It was a reaction save,” Blake said. “And as I’ve said before, I’m in net to make the saves and do everything I can to keep my team in the game.”

Soon, that team will be Jamaica. And Blake can’t wait to play for his home country on a global stage, especially after falling to third string on Jamaica’s depth chart during last summer’s Gold Cup because of injuries and a lack of playing time in Philly.

But for now, he’s still ready to do it for the Union. And Curtin is grateful he’ll likely only have to go into battle once without his star ’keeper because of the fact that MLS will go on a Copa break for a couple of weeks in June.

“It’s great,” Curtin said. “Obviously his form speaks for itself. He’s a big part of us getting points. To go into two hostile environments now and know that he’s going to be in there is very valuable.

“Having said that, we are very confident in our two backup goalkeepers [John McCarthy and Matt Jones], so when the decision’s made for Columbus, we’ll make one that gives us the best opportunity to get three points. But to have Andre with us is incredibly valuable. He’s playing at a very high level.”

Defense-first Richie Marquez happy to play unlikely hero for Union in win over D.C. United

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Defense-first Richie Marquez happy to play unlikely hero for Union in win over D.C. United

CHESTER, Pa. — For all of his professional career, Richie Marquez has been a 6-foot-2, defense-first center back with no goals to his name. 

On Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium, he played the offensive hero. 

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’m a defender and I don’t get to score often, so now I know what forwards feel like. It feels good.”

In the 90th minute of what felt like the host’s inevitable fourth straight draw, the game quickly turned when a foul and restart allowed Sebastien Le Toux a cross opportunity near the right sideline outside the box. The Frenchman placed a perfect right-footed cross that cleared the head of C.J. Sapong and went to Marquez, who impressively willed the ball into the goal for a 1-0 Union win over D.C. United (see game story).

“Surprisingly, we train like that,” Marquez said. “In our second sessions, we do some finishing like that, crossing and everyone gets a shot at it, so credit to coaches for that.”

Union manager Jim Curtin also gave his coaches credit for the pinch, stating getting the big defender to be more offensive-minded was a strategy the team has been pushing all season.

“Because he’s such a defense-minded guy, that initial ball comes in, and if it doesn’t go straight to one of our guys, he’s in retreat mode, defense-first mode and he’s running back,” Curtin said. “Mike Sorber, B.J. Callaghan mentioned to him to take a little risk and stay up there every once in a while. If you’re not in the box, you’re not going to score. Richie was committed to stay in the box and scores a pretty good goal.”

Curtin, a former center back, was happy Marquez was able to open his MLS goal account. Still, the manager would much rather his defenders go unnoticed. 

“Richie is a great player, a young center back who is growing in confidence with the ball,” he said. “It’s nice to get a goal, but I do like it when it’s quiet and we’re not talking about the center backs.”

Pontius revenge
Following the emotional 1-0 win over his former club of seven years, Union forward Chris Pontius, who was acquired this offseason, played it cool. The emotions weren’t what he expected.

“It felt like a soccer game,” he said. “Once you get on the field, I was expecting it to be different but it actually wasn’t. I kept my emotions in check.”

So, if it felt like just another game, the win wouldn’t be any sweeter, right?

“I won’t say that, I won’t say that,” he said laughing. “Some wins are ugly, some wins are pretty and this was one of the uglier ones. But beating my former team is a bit sweet.” 

Richie Marquez scores last-minute game-winner to propel Union over D.C. United

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Richie Marquez scores last-minute game-winner to propel Union over D.C. United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — Richie Marquez picked a perfect time for his first career goal. 

In the 90th minute, with the match on the line, Sebastien Le Toux’s right-footed cross sailed over the head of C.J. Sapong and to the feet of center back Marquez, who smoothly buried the volley to give the Union a 1-0 win over D.C. United on Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

“My first mentality as a defender is to go back and protect my goal,” the 23-year-old said. “I was staying alive for the play and the ball came in from Seba. I just judged it and was able to get my foot on it.” 

But while Marquez played hero, he couldn’t have done it without the heroic second half of Andre Blake, who made two saves for his third shutout of the season. 

“It’s a great feeling,” Blake said. “I haven’t had a shutout in a while so to get this one tonight, hat’s off to the guys. It wasn’t our best soccer but we stuck to it. If we’re going to be a champion, we definitely have to win games like these.”

In the 63rd minute, Blake made one of his best saves of the season, when a play into the Union box was one-hit with an acrobatic shot by Alvaro Saborio. 

With superhuman speed, the keeper was able to extend his left arm and keep the ball out.

“It was a reaction save,” Blake said. “As I said before, I’m in net to make the saves and do everything I can to keep my team in the game.”

The win continues the Union’s home dominance, pushing their home record to 4-0-2 and overall record to an impressive 5-3-3, keeping the club atop the Eastern Conference standings. D.C. United continued their inconsistency at 3-5-4.  

“There’s a belief within the group,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I think it’s clear. Even when it’s not our best night, we can win a 1-0 game and roll up our sleeves and fight. I think it’s a testament to the group. The belief in the group is strong.”

The two evenly-matched clubs weren’t shy in trading equal pressure early on, but neither side could find the urgency needed in the final third. But as the first half pushed on, it was the Union that began to take control. 

Led by the active play by Fabinho, who had the Union’s only shot on goal of the half in the 37th minute, the Union went into the break with 54.9 percent of the possession with three corners to United’s one. The score, however, remained 0-0. 

“I’m disappointed that we weren't man enough to see out the game despite that call,” United manager Ben Olsen said. “It’s a game that could probably go either way. We’re disappointed, but it is what it is.” 

The Union pressure wavered in the second half, but could be chalked up to the fact that the club was missing Vincent Nogueira, who suffered an oblique strain in practice on Thursday. Filling that spot was Warren Creavalle, who played beside Brian Carroll.

“Vince is a key to our team, so it hurts,” Union forward Chris Pontius said. “But we have quality guys who have played significant minutes stepping in. For the whole team, it wasn’t the prettiest of games and D.C. did a good job making it that way for us.”