The building of the 2015 Philadelphia Union roster is just about complete. If there is one team that represents what MLS is, it’s the Philadelphia Union. They play in a league where parity is part of the equation. They have a small market team mentality, for a team that plays in a large market. Union ownership doesn’t have the resources for overspending on players like Seattle, Orlando, Toronto, NYCFC and the LA Galaxy, so they have to be a bit more creative and build the team in a more frugal way.
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Although not ideal in leagues around the world, fans of MLS don’t hope to finish tenth and consider it a good season. If you build smart you can still win a championship at the end of the season. You just have to get into the playoffs and have the team come together at the right time or the year. Although three of the last four years the L.A. Galaxy have used their owners resource to create a small dynasty, the one year they didn’t win it, it was Sporting Kansas City, a small market team. In fact, the Galaxy are the only team to figure out the riddle of high-priced DP’s and depth throughout the roster to win a MLS Cup. So there is still hope for all MLS teams when they start the season.
In their sixth season the Union are led by Jim Curtin, a young coach that has found success in the league as a player and taken the Union pathway to the manager’s job by having the interim removed from his title of head coach.
Standing by his side shaping the roster he’s building is technical director/assistant coach Chris Albright, another former player who has found success in MLS during his career. As of right now, Albright is finding the players Curtin feels the Union need for 2015 as the team also searches for a full-time general manager. Together they makeup the youngest combination of coach and GM/technical director in the league.
If you look around MLS, this is the current trend as MLS enters its 20th season. Veterans of the league have moved into management positions as they start their second career. Most coaches have played in MLS so they know the difficulty of how teams build rosters with a salary budget, playing games in the heat of summer and the difficulties of travel between the US and Canada.
Only Owen Coyle, Adrian Heath, Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid have never taken to the pitch as a player in a MLS game. Two of the four you might know have done well coaching in this league. The other two join the league this year with Coyle replacing Dominic Kinnear in Houston, and Heath leading Orlando City in their debut season.
The Union went with the more current trend for picking a coach and a technical director, and it’s starting to look like the two have a plan in place. Although they added CJ Sapong before the draft, it took a while for the Union to get the players as Curtin promised. This did cause an uproar in”Doop Nation” as players like Kaka, David Villa and Frank Lampard were added to the new expansion teams, while Toronto went out and repeated last years signing spree again. Yet, big names don’t always translate to MLS glory and Philadelphia can’t follow that path of overspending with the budget they have to work with.
Currently, you can see the plan Curtin and Albright are building a team in their own image, as the majority of the targeted players are over six-foot tall. Curtin felt that last year the Union lacked size and were always the smallest team on the field. Both Albright and Curtin are former MLS defenders and obviously rate height as a top priority going into the 2015 MLS season. They both stand over six-foot so they must value the importance of height in MLS.
So how do you go about building a roster when you are not willing to overspend on players you might ask?
Well it looks like the route they chose is to search for players they have rated as MLS starters struggling to get playing time with their current club and through the draft.
The Union started by acquiring 25-year-old forward CJ Sapong from Sporting Kansas City in exchange for the Union’s highest overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. Next they targeted defender Steven Vitoria and acquired him via loan from Benfica of Portugal’s Primeira Liga. The loan will be for the duration of the 2015 MLS Regular Season with an option to buy at year’s end. Finally, they acquired Fernando Aristeguieta on loan from FC Nantes of France’s Ligue 1 with an option to buy at the end of the loan. He brings a consistent goal scoring threat, which many thought they lacked last year.
Each player has talent, yet were languishing behind a player who was blocking their way to starting minutes. Vitoria and Aristeguieta are already penciled in as starters for the Union and should be an upgrade over last season’s revolving door of players at center back and striker. Although Sapong might not start every game depending on the formation Curtin chooses, he’ll get plenty of minutes in 2015.
Staying with the emphasis on height the Union drafted Dzenan Catic, a second round pick out of Davenport University (Mich.), Catic was the 2014 NAIA Player of the Year after scoring 39 goals and handing out 11 assists en route to leading his team to a national championship.
He performed well in preseason and was officially signed by the Union on Monday March 2, 2015. Curtin was looking to build depth for the team in this last draft as the team didn’t have a first round pick so Catic checks a lot of boxes in their vision of the team. He has the height to dominate in the air and a good touch around the net. Earlier this week, the Union signed Catic.
Last year’s additions of Edu, Maidana, Nogueira, Wenger, and Mbolhi the Union are looking to make a playoff push a priority, as fans demand more from the team. A lot of experts think Wenger might have a breakout year as he finally found a home on the left-wing. He has the speed to go by players and the size to power his way by or feed a teammate. If he ever improves his shooting accuracy, he might be the star the team has been looking for.
With MLS having a set budget, most teams suffer at the bottom of the lineup and count on youth to add depth to the roster. The Union are no different from a lot of teams in MLS as they’ll need some added contributions from young players like Marquez, Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Catic in 2015. The Union keep pushing the youth philosophy, so these players need to perform when given their chance this year. Also, Williams, Gaddis, White and Le Toux must stay at or improve their level of play from season’s past, if the Union want to see their goal of reaching the playoffs.
The chance of making playoffs gives teams like the Union a chance to have championship aspirations going into the 2015 season. They’ll play in a conference with two new expansion teams and a team in Toronto that has never made the playoffs in their existence. It’s a strategy followed by teams like Kansas City, Colorado and Salt Lake that have won a championship in seasons past. The question is can it still work in this era of MLS. Union fans are certainly hoping that this young duo of Curtin and Albright know what’s needed to build a playoff team in MLS, so they can have a chance to Doop (cheer) all the way to the Cup.