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Union's off-season shopping list headlined by creative playmaker, attacking winger

There is clearly room for the Union to open their checkbook, but there are also limitations on how much they can spend.

Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said the team’s winter transfer window shopping list includes a playmaker and a winger.
Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said the team’s winter transfer window shopping list includes a playmaker and a winger.Read moreYong Kim/Staff Photographer

The Union have made no secret of wanting to upgrade their attacking firepower this winter. They haven't run away from the fact that their end-of-season roster house-cleaning took nearly $3 million in salary cap space off the books.

Combine that with recent reports that MLS is likely to dramatically increase teams' sums of targeted allocation money — a means of accounting that brings a big-ticket player's cap hit below the Designated Player threshold — and there is clearly room for the Union to open their checkbook.

Sporting director Earnie Stewart said in a recent interview with the Inquirer and Daily News that his shopping list is ready, and that it's aimed toward "the offensive part" of the field.

"We would like to add something extra," he said, noting that his standard of measurement is former Union playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta.

"That's a person who is a really creative type, but he was a person who had the creative mind going forward but also had the defensive responsibilities that he had," Stewart said. "That is something we are definitely looking for."

Who specifically will do the looking? Stewart for sure, given his many connections in Europe. Technical director Chris Albright leads scouting of the Americas. The staff also includes Kyle McCarthy and Terrence McFadden, whose official titles are technical coordinator and scouting analyst, respectively.

Stewart acknowledged that his staff operates under limitations. His team is one of Major League Soccer's most spendthrift. That is more the fault of owner Jay Sugarman than Stewart. But no matter how much Stewart, manager Jim Curtin or anyone else lobbies Sugarman, at the end of the day, they have to work with what they're given.

"A lot of times, we're not just better than anybody on the field. … The Torontos of this world, they can have a not-so-good day and then have somebody do something very special," Stewart said. "We'd like to have that, too — within our means, and that's everything. We try to add where we can. … I know what we are capable of and what we are not capable of."

There is one thing Stewart doesn't know: just how big the aforementioned increase in targeted allocation money will be. Nor do many other people across the league, including executives at other clubs. You can add Stewart to the list of the frustrated.

"I like planning. Anything that holds me back from planning, I think it's — well, I'll refrain from that," Stewart said. "It's just good [practice] that when a transfer period comes around, your work should already be almost done, and you've got to finish the details. Unfortunately, that's not the case."

Curtin said the shopping list also includes a winger. With Chris Pontius' departure, there is room on the roster and the salary cap for a substantial signing at the position.

But the team is not looking to upgrade at striker right now. In the wake of C.J. Sapong's team record-setting 16-goal season — and his strong performance in the U.S. national team's 1-1 tie at Portugal on Tuesday — Curtin and Stewart are keeping Sapong atop the depth chart.

Asked directly if Sapong is enough at the position for the team, Curtin answered directly: "Yes."

"If you now talk about C.J.'s progression, and the year that he had: a really strong year," Curtin said. "And in C.J.'s defense, if you now sprinkle in — if you add at the No. 10 spot, and you add a winger now in Pontius' absence, one that can get him service — C.J.'s game doesn't go down — it goes up for me."

Stewart said he was recently asked by a fan at a Starbucks if the Union would be signing another striker. Given the Union's commitment to a one-striker tactical formation, Stewart asked the fan whether the new signing should play at Sapong's expense. The fan said no.

"Well, you've got to choose, then," Stewart responded, and the fan confessed to being stuck.

Curtin acknowledged that Sapong's playing style has limitations. But Sapong's virtues are also clear: physicality, hold-up play at the top of the line, and willingness to press defensively. Curtin believes that is a foundation for the Union to build around.

"Is he ever going to be as clinical as David Villa? Is he ever going to be able to hit a free kick like [Sebastian] Giovinco? No, he's not, and I'll say that to C.J. to his face," Curtin said. "We have a good relationship. I know he is a top-caliber MLS striker. I think he's shown that throughout his career. It's up to us now to give him a couple more pieces where he gets easier goals."