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Valdés may be leaving Union again; Curtin says 'there will be signings'

The Union hoped to open preseason training without the drama that has clouded past winters. And they almost got away with it.

The Union hoped to open preseason training without the drama that has clouded past winters. And they almost got away with it.

Just three of the 35 players on the preseason roster weren't on the field when the team kicked off its first official practice session Monday morning at YSC Sports in Wayne.

One absentee was midfielder and former captain Brian Carroll. His excuse was simple: he's under the weather.

Another was starting goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi. His excuse was also simple: he's playing for Algeria's national team at the African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.

The last absentee was veteran defender Carlos Valdés, and his excuse wasn't simple. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Over the last few weeks, a flurry of reports surfaced in South American media outlets claiming that Valdés could be leaving Philadelphia for the second time in his career.

Soccer's transfer rumor mill is a cornerstone of the sport's global spectacle. More often than not, though, it produces little more than idle chatter.

This time, there was fire with that smoke. Union technical director Chris Albright confirmed that Valdés may be on his way out - and he may be leaving for good.

"Regarding Carlos, there's a negotiation ongoing," Albright told reporters after the practice session ended. "Nothing is finalized as of yet. We hope to have further news shortly, but in the interest of the negotiation, we're going to resist commenting any further."

Valdés was a stalwart on the Union's back line in the club's early years. But the 29-year-old spent a year and half away from Philadelphia in order to boost his chances of making Colombia's squad for the 2014 World Cup.

In 2013, the Union loaned him to Colombian club Independiente Santa Fe for a year. After that, the Union loaned him to Argentine club San Lorenzo. Those gambles paid off, as Colombia manager José Pekerman summoned Valdés to join James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and the rest of the Cafeteros' rising stars in Brazil.

Valdés' only playing time at the World Cup was as a substitute in a 4-1 rout of Japan. But he nonetheless got to bask in soccer's biggest spotlight - and by proxy, so did the Union. When the Union brought Valdés back last August to help with their push for the playoffs - and gave him a new contract along the way - he was hailed as a returning hero.

Those halcyon days seem a long time ago, though, and not just because of the snow that blanketed YSC on Monday. Valdés wasn't even in the building when practice began. He showed up in street clothes about an hour after things kicked off, and two of his representatives came with him.

Albright spent some time with those representatives over the course of the morning. Later on, Valdés talked behind closed doors with both Albright and Curtin.

A spokesperson for the Union confirmed that Valdés did not practice because of the ongoing negotiations. When asked to name the club that the Union are talking to, the spokesperson said it's in South America. Some reports have pegged the suitor as Uruguayan powerhouse Nacional; the Union spokesperson would not confirm or deny them.

I was later told by a source that Nacional is indeed the club, but the deal isn't done yet.

Valdés was corned by reporters before he left YSC, and was asked for his take on the situation. His answer was succinct: "We will see."

As for matters on the field, Union manager Jim Curtin pronounced himself happy with his team's return to work.

"There's always rust, but I thought everybody was in pretty good shape," he said.

The Union are practicing indoors all of this week, before spending most of the rest of preseason in Clearwater, Fla. Because the players are training on an artificial surface, Curtin said he's trying not to over-work them.

"I told them that this is the only time that they can be selfish and just focus on individual stuff," he said. "When we hit Florida, it becomes about the team - only about the team. Take this week and do whatever you need to do and get your body right and prepared."

It may feel like Curtin has been in charge of the Union for a while now, but it's only been seven and a half months since John Hackworth was fired. This is Curtin's first preseason training camp as the Union's head coach. Indeed, it's his first ever as a head coach at the pro level, with his only previous management experience coming at the Union's academy.

Now that Curtin has a roster of his own making, he can truly lay out his coaching philosophy to Union players and fans alike.

And since his own playing career didn't end all that long ago, the Oreland native can bring some extra savvy when trying to get the best out of his squad.

"I think I have a good idea of when to push things a little harder and when to take the foot off the gas," he said. "But at the same time, they sort things out on their own through playing... the team tends to pick itself out by the end of preseason."

With that in mind, it was no coincidence that Monday's session featured a lot of small-sided games.

"I'm big on team shape, team defense, but I do let them play a lot, and I let them sort things out on their own," he said. "We focus on shooting at the end - I like to do finishing at the end of every session, because at the end of the day, that's what this game comes down to: being good in front of goal."

Curtin conceded that the team's striker corps still needs some reinforcements. The preseason roster includes some intriguing prospects, led by 26-year-old Venezuelan Hermes "Hector" Palomino.

Palomino came to Philadelphia on a recommendation from Tiago Lopes, president of the Union's USL PRO affiliate in Harrisburg.

"We looked at some film of him and talked to some contacts that we have, and we'll give him a good look in this first week," Curtin said. "Whether he's a guy that comes to Florida still remains to be seen."

Another name to watch - albeit for the future, not the present - is 18-year-old Union academy forward Sebastian Elney. Curtin is happy to give Elney and some other academy players a taste of the big show.

"The idea is to have two to three, maybe four players come with us to Florida to be around it for the first time," Curtin said. "To go through that is an important thing for any young player, so that the transition becomes smoother."

Of course, neither Palomino nor Elney is the top-tier striker that the Union continue to chase. They'll need that kind of firepower to keep up with their big-money new neighbors, most notably New York City's David Villa and Toronto's Jozy Altidore.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Chicago has three new Designated Players: Scottish midfielder Shaun Maloney, Ghanaian striker David Accam and Nigerian forward Kennedy Igboananike. Orlando has a rising star in Bryan Rochez, who led Honduras to an Under-20 World Cup berth at this month's CONCACAF qualifying tournament. Check out this tremendous goal he scored against Canada in the group stage

New England, meanwhile, still has MVP finalist Lee Nguyen. Columbus still has Federico Higuaín.

Curtin is well aware of all of this, of course. He made it clear that that the Union are still on the hunt for additions to the roster.

"There will be signings - this is not a final product by any stretch," Curtin said. "There's always things that come right up to the finish line, and it takes time to close the deal. But we're close on some things, pieces that will help, and in a major way."

One deal that is done is the permanent transfer of Maurice Edu from Stoke City. Before he came to Philadelphia on loan last year, Edu played for three different European clubs in three seasons. Now he can settle in a city he has come to love, with a team and a fan base that has come to love him.

"After everything was agreed upon, I was happy to put all that behind me and just focus on soccer," Edu said. "You take the good with the bad - I'm in a good place now and am looking forward to the start of the season."

Edu will head to Los Angeles this weekend to join Fox Sports' studio coverage of the Rangers-Celtic Scottish League Cup showdown. It's the first meeting of the Old Firm rivals since 2012, when Rangers - where Edu played from 2008 to 2012 - were relegated to Scotland's fourth division due to bankruptcy.

"You can try to describe it, but you can't really get a full appreciation for it until you're actually there in the stadium, to witness it live or to take part in the game," he said. "The rivalry between the two teams - I'm a little bit biased, but I would say it's the biggest in the world, because the history of the two clubs is deeper than just soccer... The hatred between the two clubs is still very alive and well."

Dresher native Zach Pfeffer also has a new contract. The Union's first ever Homegrown Player signing probably could have gone signed abroad if he wanted to, but he said he's happy to be staying here.

"This is my home," Pfeffer said. There's nothing better than being able to play in front of family and friends. This is where I'm comfortable, this is where I enjoy playing, and hopefully it will be a big year."

Pfeffer only played in five games last year. The first of those, on May 17, was his first playing time since the end of the 2011 season.

"I'm expecting bigger things of myself," Pfeffer said. "I've been here for a couple of years now - you can look at me as a young veteran, in a way - so I'm definitely hoping for bigger expectations and more time on the field."

Just as importantly, Pfeffer is at full health. A minor injury kept him out of the United States Under-20 squad for this month's World Cup qualifying tournament, but he's aiming to be in New Zealand for the big show this summer.

"I was dying to be there [for qualifying] and help them in any way possible, but I was happy they got the job done," Pfeffer said. "I was pretty sure that they would get their act together and finish strong and qualify... Hopefully I'll rejoin them moving toward the World Cup."

For players and coaches alike, it's worth remembering that Monday was just the first day of many to come before the Union's season kicks off on March 8 at PPL Park.

"I told all of our young guys that you're not going to impress us in the first four minutes of a training session," Curtin said. "You're not going to make the team after four minutes by doing a trick or a stepover. It's about guys putting together a good day, then a good week, then a good two weeks and a good month."

The Union will train for the rest of this week at YSC, including an open practice for fans on Friday from 10 a.m. to noon. They'll spend much of February at a soccer complex in Clearwater, Fla., across the street from the Phillies' spring home at Bright House Field. Click here for the complete schedule.

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