Category Archives: Soccer

New Union Jersey!

Steve Moore from the 700 Level wrote this article about the new Union home jersey. The new kit is pretty amazing. Overall, I think the Union actually have the best 3 jersey combination in the entire league. LOOOVVEEE the gold pinstripes. Bravo, Union. Topping off a fabulous offseason in style, literally.

 

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Union Preview Part 2: Depth Chart

The 2014 Union season is rapidly approaching. In only 6 days, the Boys in Blue will begin their 5th campaign off of the coast of the Pacific in Portland. There are  many reasons for Union fans this season to be more optimistic about their team’s playoff chances this year more than any other Union season. In Part 1 of my preview, I looked at 5 new players who could be huge difference makers as the U look to reach the playoffs for the 2nd time in their short history. In this part, I will take a look at the Union in a more general sense, by looking at the entire roster, and who coach John Hackworth will look to start. Overall, the personnel on hand makes the Union a playoff team; anything short of that would be a disappointment.

Union Depth Chart:

Goalkeeper– 1. Zac MacMath 2. Andre Blake 3. Brian Holt

For the first time in his young career, MacMath will face stern competition from the 1st overall draft pick Blake, who many believe to be the best goalkeeper prospect in the league for many years. MacMath is talented in his own right- he played a splendid last 3 months of last season, showing improvement at collecting balls in the air to his decent shotstopping skills- and he will not give up the #1 shirt without a fight. In order to retain the starting job, MacMath must continue to improve at dealing with balls in the air, and must improve greatly in his distribution. He could also be more aggressive in organizing his defense. In Blake, the U have a GK prospect who has the total package: athletic, mature, good in the air. Blake will certainly push MacMath hard. Holt is the last resort, and will probably get very little game time this season.

Centerback– Starting- Amobi Okugo, Austin Berry; Reserves- Richie Marquez, Ethan White

Okugo and Berry are the clear starters. Okugo is primed for a breakout season, one which could cement him as one of the 5 or 6 best CB’s in the league. Since entering the league in 2012, Berry has won a Rookie of the Year and has played in 62 games, including playing every minute of the Chicago Fire’s 2013 campaign. The most important part of a defensive partnership is continuity and comfort, and with both players very durable and won’t miss many games, expect the pair to develop chemistry early on. They could be one of the 3 or 4 best pairings in the league by the end of the season. Out of the backups, White is more experienced, though I think he has had a disappointing camp, as he has gotten very little playing time with the 1st team. And, if he was playing well in camp, Haackworth would not have needed to acquire Berry to pair with Okugo. Marques is a rookie, but I think he will get some playing time this year, considering he beat out the more heralded fellow rookie Kevin Cope for a centerback spot.

Right back– 1. Sheanon Williams 2. Ray Gaddis 3. Matt Kassel

This is Williams’ spot. Last season he broke the record for most appearances for the Union, and he did so while quietly putting in a campaign that some people rated as the best for a right back in the entire league. He is able to both defend solidly and attack with real results, leading the league in assists for a defender with 8. Gaddis is an excellent backup. With his amazing speed, he is able to overlap on the attack with ease, knowing he can run back to cover on defense when needed. He is far more comfortable on the right side. Kassel is the emergency option, and in limited minutes last season played okay.

Left back– 1. Fabinho 2. Ray Gaddis

It seems that Fabinho narrowly won the starting spot over Gaddis during the preseason. Fabinho provides some things that Gaddis cannot on the left side; as a left footer who has spent some time at left midfield during his career, he is able to attack and send in crosses down the left flank. However, his defensive skills are lacking. Gaddis is far more effective on the right than on the left. On the left, his crossing ability is negated, and he is far less effective as an offensive weapon. However, Hackworth did surprisingly start Gaddis at left back last season, so do not be surprised if he gets the nod again.

Center midfield– Starting- Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera, Brian Carroll; Next subs- Pedro Ribeiro, Zach Pfeffer, Michael Lahoud; Last resorts- Corben Bone, Keon Daniel, Leo Fernandes

There are so many center midfielders on the roster that many of them will only make the Union’s gameday roster, much less start, a few times this season. Edu and Noguiera are definite starters. They were both paid a lot of money to come here, and the U’s fans will expect a lot of results. Both players are in the prime of their careers and have a lot of pedigree; Edu is a former national team player, while Noguiera was the captain of a French Ligue 1 side for many years. Expect Edu to do a lot of work in defense while running forward to connect the side, and Noguiera to act as a “faux-creator” in John Hackworth’s system (more on why he is a “faux-creator” as opposed to just a “creator” in my look at the Union’s tactics). Captain Brian Carroll is virtually a lock in the side, occupying the 3rd midfield role. However, there is concern among the fanbase that Carroll may be redundant in the side, and that the U require a more offensive 3rd midfielder. That other option could be rookie Pedro Ribeiro. At 6’4″, he has the physical stature to dominate other teams with his strength, but he also is extremely gifted technically. He could be a real difference maker for the side this season. Pfeffer is a player with a ton of potential. He is Homegrown, having went to Upper Dublin. With all of the midfielders on the roster, he may not get much playing time this season, but he still has a ton of talent. Expect Lahoud to be a defensive option for Hackworth late in games. Bone, Daniel, and Fernandes may not get much time. I can’t see any of them making a major contribution, although Bone was a pickup this offseason, so it is possible that Hackworth plays him, and Daniel is a veteran who has shown flashes of talent in years other than 2013.

Right wing– 1. Sebastian Le Toux 1b. Danny Cruz 3. Jimmy McLaughlin

This battle is close between Le Toux and Cruz. Both are limited technically, but are excellent athletes who use their athleticism in different ways. Le Toux is one of the most fit soccer player I have ever seen. He is capable of running for 90 minutes every week. Last year, he added a new dimension to his game, as he became an accurate crosser, even taking the lead of Union corner kicks. This technical skill is a huge boost to his game, as he is not a great passer. Cruz, on the other hand, expends all of his energy in a 55 minute stint. He is constantly buzzing around the opposition fullbacks, looking to win the ball off them high up the field to start quick attacks. However, he is limited tactically, as he often doesn’t supply enough defensive cover for his fullback. Add that to his seeming lack of all technical skills, and the U have a player who can infuriate the fanbase. But Hackworth likes him a lot, and even though Le Toux is the better player, Cruz will get a ton of time this season. McLaughlin is the last option and may be sent down to the Union’s lower division affiliate, Harrisbug City Islanders.

Left wing– 1. Cristian Maidana 2. Cristhian Hernandez

This is Maidana’s wing to roam. Signed as a Designated Player like Mo Edu (meaning the U went over the individual salary restriction to sign him), Hackworth desperately needs Maidana to provide tangible results in goals and assists, not just improved technical play on the left flank. On all accounts Maidana is a very skilled player, able to dribble at players and create for others. In fact, he has played a lot of his career as the central attacking midfielder, meaning that he could provide an essential creative option for the side. The Homegrown Hernandez could play with the big club this season. He is versatile, able to play multiple positions, but he won’t get much time unless there are injuries.

Forward– Starting- Jack McInerney; Bench- Connor Casey, Antoine Hoppenot, Aaron Wheeler

This is the year for Jack Mac to cement himself as one of the MLS’ best forwards. After leading the league in goals through May, McInerney only added 2 more the rest of the way. A very intellegent player, who makes excellent runs off of the ball to put himself into good positions, he must prove he can add quality in the buildup. But, his most important task will be becoming a consistent goalscorer. The Union probably need 15-20 goals out of him, and he has the ability to do it. Casey is a very good backup who provides a very different look than McInerney, as he is a very physical player who excels in holding up the ball. However, injuries have hampered his preseason, so he may not provide as much of an impact as last season. Hoppenot is Hackworth’s spark plug off of the bench. But, while he certainly provides energy in the last 30 minutes of games, able to dribble directly at opponents and create dangerous offensive opportunities, he must become a more capable goalscorer. Wheeler is a big body while limited technically, and a bad sign for his playing time this season is that Hackworth had him playing a lot of centerback this offseason.

Now that I have went over the entire Union roster, next time I will focus on their tactics: what Hackworth will implement, and what I think they should play.

Philadelphia Union Preview Part 1: New Faces

2013 was a tough year to be a Union fan. The team, while picking up many good results that saw it in the race for playoff spots until the final day of the season, played ugly soccer and seemed to win many games because of luck rather than outplaying their opponents. About midway through the season, the Union had a chance to seize control over the Eastern Conference playoff race, as other top teams like New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City were faltering. However, the Union failed to take advantage of this opportunity, and ended up just short of the playoffs. Every Union fan knew that massive changes were needed in order to improve the quality of the squad, in particular in midfield, where none of the usual starters were quality passers. But past poor performances in the offseason by the Union’s front office did not give the fan base much hope that the U would significantly improve before their first game on March 8th against the vaunted Portland Timbers and their rabid home fans.

Boy, were Union fans wrong.

The Union have had a nothing less than stunning offseason. Not only have the finally spent money on quality midfielders who can do more than run a lot (like, maybe, pass), they have been aggressive in both foreign and domestic markets to improve almost every inefficiency on the team. This effort to improve has most Philadelphians feeling very good about the upcoming season. In a few parts, I will explain why the 2014 season will feature the best Union team to date, and why the Union should certainly make the playoffs this year. Today I will look at the top 5 new players, and how they will impact the squad.

5. Andre Blake- The 1st overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, Blake has a ton of potential. Some MLS analysts have hailed Blake as the best keeper product in the league since Brad Guzan, who now plays for Aston Villa in the English Premier League and is the backup keeper for the United States National Team. Blake is an excellent athlete; however, the thing that really helps him stand out is his maturity and reading of the game. This often does not develop in goal until later in one’s career, and it is an essential skill to have because a goalie must organize his backline well.

4. Cristian Maidana- This tricky Argentine winger has the potential to fill a huge hole for the Union this season- the left wing. Maidana has the technical ability to come back and help the U maintain possession, while also boasting the speed and directness to attack the other side’s goal or isolate the other team’s fullback one on one. Maidana will bring much needed flair to the side.

3. Austin Berry- Berry, the newest player on the squad, was just picked up in a trade with the Chicago Fire. A rugged, 6’2” defender, Berry has played in over 60 consecutive games for the Fire, and played every minute of last season for the squad, while winning Rookie of the Year the year before. The importance of this addition cannot be understated; he is a perfect partner for the smaller, quicker Amobi Okugo (who is poised to have a breakout year). Berry will help the U boast one of the 5 best defenses in the league.

2. Vincent Nogueira- This French midfielder will have a huge impact on making the U play more attractive soccer. He is an excellent passer, mobile, and is able to play both attack and defense. The 26-year old is also a great leader, as he was captain for French side Sochaux for many years. A team can never have enough technical midfielders on its roster, and Nogueira will certainly prove his quality this season as he is asked to play an important central attacking role.

1. Maurice Edu- The biggest splash of the offseason for the Union, Maurice Edu is a former national team player who has not played too much in recent years after signing with Stoke City of England. However, do not think that Edu has nothing to offer; he is an incredibly talented player who can do everything in midfield. The pair of him and Nogueira will rapidly change the side. As great soccer coach Jaunma Lillo once said, “Tell me who your central midfielder is, and I’ll tell you what sort of team you are.” The Union are poised to find out the truth of that statement in a great way. Central midfield is the most important position on the field, and the Union have just increased their talent there exponentially.

NEXT TIME: a look at the broader Union roster, its coaching staff, and strategy.

North London Calling: Why Tottenham are Favorites in EPL- If They Keep Gareth Bale

The most popular soccer league in America (and the world for that matter), the English Premier League, is set to kick off in just over two weeks’ time. In the United Stats, most of the news focuses on a few select teams: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal. But over the last few weeks, Arsenal’s neighbors in North London have not only dominated American soccer headlines, but the soccer press around the world. Tottenham Hotspur, always viewed as Arsenal’s little brother to the public at large, have been the focus of the soccer world, all because of their star commodity, Gareth Bale.

Bale, 24, a Welshman, is an unbelieably talented individual. A supreme athlete, Bale would be a star wide receiver or center fielder if he had grown up in the States. Instead, he has turned into one of the most talented players in soccer, a player defenders are terrfied to face. Bale scored 21 goals in the English league last year, carrying Tottenham to a 5th placed finish. Unfortunately for Spurs, however, Bale’s excellent form, which won him the Player of the Year award, has turned the head of one of soccer’s global powers: Real Madrid.

Real Madrid’s insane president, Florentino Perez, turns this story from a rational one into a story from a totally irrational world. You see, various European media outlets have reported that Perez is willing to break the world record fee of $131 million he shelled out to Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, Bale is a fantastic player, one whose best years are ahead of him. But to consider him better than Ronaldo is preposterous, and this is coming from a Spurs fan. However, the influence of Madrid is colossal. They can offer Bale Champions League soccer this season, and the Champions League is the ultimate prize for all soccer players, while paying Bale far more than he could make with Spurs.

Now Tottenham’s famously stubborn chairman, Daniel Levy, has a fascinating question on his hands: take the money by selling the best player in the EPL, or hold on to a player who has apparently demanded a transfer? I’m hoping, as a Spurs fan, that Levy holds on to his man. Because with Bale in hand, Spurs can not only move into the immensely valuable and prestigious Champions League places by the end of the season (4th place and higher), they can actually challenge for the title.

The biggest thing that the Bale media circus has concealed is that Spurs have an extremely strong squad even without their wizardly Welshman. Jan Vertonghen, a Belgian entering his second season in North London, was probably the best defender in England last season, and was justly named to the EPL’s Team of the Season. They have a promising English right back, Kyle Walker, and decent center back depth alongside Super Jan. Spurs boast an excellent midfield, one of the best in the league. All three of the projected starting midfielders (another Belgian, Moussa Dembele, and two Brazilians, Sandro and the newly signed Paulinho) are phenomenal athletes who will provide steel and class in the middle of the park. Paulinho, a signing from Corinthians in Brazil, even was named the third best player in the Confederations Cup, an international tune-up for the World Cup which Paulinho’s Brazil won. And this is without counting Hugo Lloris, Spurs’ masterful French netminder who is one of the two best goalies in the league.

One position, however, where Spurs aren’t as strong is at forward. This was evidenced last year when Bale, who is a natural left midfielder, played much of the season as a center forward. However, chairman Levy is currently making an astute signing, bringing in Roberto Soldado from Valencia. The Spaniard was prodigious during his time with his old club, scoring 81 goals in 141 appearances. While this signing isn’t official yet, Spurs and Valencia settled their final issue of agent payment today, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see an official announcement as early as tomorrow. So, when Soldado is signed, this gives Spurs huge talents across the pitch, and one world class player as the key man.

And that is why it is essential that Bale remains at White Hart Lane for at least one more season: Spurs need him. Without him, Tottenham becomes a very good side, one with a ton of good players, but without a proven star. If Bale does leave, Spurs will go through a season much like their arch-rival Arsenal went through last year: they sold their star man, Robin van Persie, to Manchester United, then watched as RVP scored 26 goals in the league as United won the title. With RVP last year, Arsenal could have certainly won, instead of finishing fourth. So there is evidence that, with Gareth Bale, Tottenham really has no limits next season.

 

 

Stu Holden’s Latest Setback, And What It May Mean For the US Soccer Team

Today, during the Gold Cup final which the US won, 1-0, over a resilient Panama team (a recap will be coming your way later), talented center midfielder Stu Holden went down to injury. Again. Holden reportedly suffered a sprain to his right knee. The biggest shame of recent times for the USMNT has been Holden’s persistent injury problems. Holden has not played significant minutes for his club side, Bolton Wanderers in England, since the spring of 2011, as he has battled major knee injures, from an ACL tear (which I am actually recovering from right now, so I know how painful it is and how grueling the 9-month rehab period is) to microfracture surgery to repair torn cartilage.

The US missed Holden dearly during his time on the sidelines. Holden is the rare American player who is completely comfortable in possession, and he is capable of impacting the game both offensively and defensively. He demonstrated when he returned from his injury nightmare that he can still be the same player.

Luckily for the US, central midfield is one of their deepest positions. Michael Bradley, the engine room for a quality Roma side, and Jermaine Jones, a bruiser from German club Shalke, man the two starting positions in Jurgen Klinsmann’s team. And Landon Donovan has shown that he is more than capable of playing alongside Clint Dempsey as a more attacking midfielder. However, Holden could have proved a vital addition to the squad during the World Cup next summer. Playing him instead of Jones would allow Bradley to become more defensive while still using his ball retention skills to great effect. The US side would become much more attractive with those two sitting behind Donovan in midfield, and Holden could replace most of Jones’ defense physicality while adding his own passing signature. Now, after Klinsmann said after the game that “It’s not looking good for Stu”, it is safe to assume that Holden’s injury to his knee is more serious than the sprain that was originally reported. For such a class act (he even won the 2008 Humanitarian of the Year Award in MLS) this latest setback can only be classified as a shame.