Crunch time for the Philadelphia Union as manager John Hackworth starts making roster cuts
There were some pointed questions for Union manager John Hackworth during his weekly conference call Thursday afternoon - and some pointed answers.
The Philadelphia Union have made three player personnel moves in recent days.
You already knew that Alex Mendoza and and Damani Richards are gone, and you may be wondering what the third was.
Well, it wasn't really public information until the Seattle Sounders broke the news on the Union's behalf.
Stephen Okai's arrival at Seattle's preseason training in Arizona on Wednesday caught the Philadelphia-area soccer media off guard. Okai's departure from the Union was never made known to reporters here, whether formally or informally.
That led to some pointed questions for Union manager John Hackworth during his weekly conference call Thursday afternoon - and some pointed answers.
Technically, the Union never signed Okai to a contract after selecting him in the second round of the SuperDraft. As such, the club never formally released him.
"All we have is a guy we have drafted," Hackworth said. "If we haven't signed him there's no process to say we've released him."
Some of you will likely chime in here to say that this is just another case of the media carping about not being catered to.
But on the day of the SuperDraft, Hackworth described Okai as "one of the most ready players in this draft to come into MLS and compete for time."
It turned out that Okai wasn't quite at the level required to beat out the Union's incumbents. The same goes for midfielder Alex Mendoza and defender Damani Richards, both of whom signed contracts and were subsequently released.
"All of these guys are good players, and there's a reason why they were here in the first place," Hackworth said. "But our job is to take a very large number of players with a limited number of roster sports going into our season and narrow that down. That process is extremely competitive."
Regarding Mendoza, Hackworth said that the Harrisburg native and former Pumas UNAM player was "scouted by the league" and presented to the Union with an opportunity for the club to sign him. The team did so and gave Mendoza a shot, but he simply did not measure up.
"We like Alex, we think he does a lot of good things, but ultimately he was not going to make our roster," Hackworth said. "So difficult as it was, we let him go."
Richards' departure was the one of the three that stirred up the most reaction from fans and media alike, chiefly because of Hackworth's strong praise for the Trinidadian when he was signed.
Hackworth acknowledged the impact of what he said last month, but defended his choice of words.
"When we pick players and announce them, I don't know what you guys want me to do except talk about their good qualities," Hackworth said. "I certainly am not going to say that a guy stinks so that when I release him later you can write an article about that."
Hackworth said of Richards:
He brings some qualities that every coach would look for but he's very young, very inexperienced. In fact, he has no experience as a professional athlete at all. And it was very difficult for him to show and ultimately make this roster.
That doesn't mean that we are, in the case of Damani, totally giving him up. We have an affiliation with Harrisburg [and] we're hopeful that he will still be under our watchful eye, and that he can develop. He will be given that opportunity to.
We utilize a lot of opportunities that are very unique to this league that I don't think everybody understands. And again, at the end of the day, you've got to pick the guys that will allow you the best opportunity to be successful on the field. That's a tough process.
I asked Hackworth to elaborate some more on how Richards ended up falling short of the Union's expectations.
"He's a 19 year old who's never played a professional game in his life yet," Hackworth answered. "While he has a ton of potential, there's a reason why he'll be in Harrisburg. That's the process - we're trying to push him to be successful one day for us. All the accolades that we liked about him were fair."
Richards is not the only player in the Union's preseason camp who's likely headed to Harrisburg. Supplemental Draft pick Eric Schoenle, a defender who grew up in Yardley, Pa., is no longer with the Union, and Hackworth expects Schoenle to join the City Islanders.
"If we had a roster spot to keep [Schoenle], we would," Hackworth said.
I also asked Hackworth for his view of the Union's depth chart at left back now. Hackworth affirmed that Gabriel Farfan is the starter, with Ray Gaddis and rookie Don Anding as the backups.
"We had excellent competition at left back and we start this season this season with what we feel are three very qualified players," Hackworth said. "That doesn't mean that Damani's qualities are any less than they were when I talked about him before. But the reality is that there are better players here, and you would hope that I make those decisions correctly [with] our staff."
Hackworth was later asked about three players who have come from Europe for trials with the Union. Former Greek national team midfielder Pantelis Kafes is no longer with the club, but Bulgarian forward Georgi Hristov and Spanish midfielder Jordi Vidal remain.
Hristov, in Hackworth's view, "has a really tough job of trying to beat out a guy who is currently under contract for one of our forward spots, but he is doing very well."
It's a familiar theme – and it's certainly understandable when it comes to the Union's forwards. There are at least five players – Conor Casey, Sébastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney, Antoine Hoppenot and Chandler Hoffman – who are well-established on the team.
Hackworth said Vidal will be an even tougher decision. The Real Madrid youth academy product survived a difficult initial adjustment to life in the United States, and has made a serious case to survive the final round of roster cuts.
"I think it's very tough for a guy coming from abroad… to make an extremely quick transition to a very different culture and a very different environment in a lot of ways.," Hackworth said. "Jordi, to his credit, has done a good job."
The Union currently have 26 players on their active roster. Add to that four non-roster players currently in camp – Anding, Hristov, Vidal and Supplemental Draft pick Leo Fernandes – and you get the 30-player maximum allowed by Major League Soccer.
That's independent of salary cap considerations. The salaries of Homegrown players Cristhian Hernández and Jimmy McLaughlin don't count (Zach Pfeffer doesn't take a roster spot while a year-long loan to German club Hoffenheim). Carlos Valdés is also out on loan, so his salary doesn't count and he doesn't take a roster spot.
But Freddy Adu does count. Which means his guaranteed salary in excess of $500,000 is weighing heavily on Hackworth's ability to do what he wants.
Hackworth didn't mention Adu by name, but you can probably read plenty into Hackworth's view of the Union's roster situation.
"We also have some roster constraints that continue to be some challenges," he said. "I think you all know at least one of those guys that we're talking about. My argument would be it's a shame that we don't have more spots for some of these guys."
It might not be a stretch to say that deciding Vidal's future is the last move Hackworth will make before the March 1 deadline to comply with MLS' roster and salary cap limits.
"I can tell you very honestly that [Vidal] is going to be an extremely tough decision for us to make because of our roster spots that we have open," Hackworth said. "The likelihood is that we will have to have another one of these guys that we have signed released in order to sign Jordi."
Vidal has from now through Saturday to make a last impression. Hackworth said he'll make his decision after the Union's final game of the Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando. The Union will face D.C. United at 1 p.m. Originally, the matchup was to be against Sporting Kansas City. But since the Union and Sporting will meet a week later in the first game of the regular season, MLS re-arranged the matchups.
That will allow Hackworth to play a first-team lineup against D.C.
"We'll probably have seven guys that are going to be starters for sure on March 2," Hackworth said. "Our plan is to get as many of those 11 that we start on Saturday the full 90 minutes, and then we'll use some substitutions to see if some different relationships are maybe a little better than others."
When the final whistle blows Saturday, the countdown to kickoff at PPL Park will officially be on. Until then, though, there's a lot of work left to do.