Friday, October 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Rais Mbolhi mess: Union roster mismanagement returns

From left to right: Union technical director Chris Albright, CEO and co-owner Nick Sakiewicz, new goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi and interim head coach Jim Curtin. (Kevin Kinkead/The Philly Soccer Page)
From left to right: Union technical director Chris Albright, CEO and co-owner Nick Sakiewicz, new goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi and interim head coach Jim Curtin. (Kevin Kinkead/The Philly Soccer Page)

It seems like a situation only Philadelphia Union would put themselves in. 

You have two good, young goalkeepers, and you need help at left back and left midfield. 

Naturally, your solution is to sign another goalkeeper. So much for logic

Things are playing out predictably since Rais Mbolhi's signing three weeks ago. Zac MacMath's overtime heroics led the Union to their first ever cup final. Andre Blake impressed yet again in a surprise start against Houston. Meanwhile, Mbolhi has yet to play for the Union for reasons not entirely clear.

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  • When Mbolhi finally plays his first Union match - which we're told will happen, some day - it will be with a big cloud of "WTF?" hanging over his head. Mbolhi has missed the three games since his acquisition was announced, and he will likely miss five of the Union's remaining 11 games while on international duty with Algeria during Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. As if his signing wasn't disruptive enough, Mbolhi is likely to be unavailable when he may be needed the most.

    This is what happens when a team makes a major signing in the absence of a (non-interim) manager with the authority to make the decision. The Union can practically fill an entire lineup with starting quality goalkeepers, right backs and defensive midfielders, but they don't have a natural left back or left midfielder worthy of the first 11.

    "I'm personally very excited because now we have three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer, in my opinion," Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz famously said after the signing.

    Too bad you only play one at a time, unless the Union plan to try something like this:


    Altitude Sports showed this three-goalkeeper set as the Colorado Rapids' formation during a game last year. Could it work for the Union?

    Something tells me interim manager Jim Curtin knows better - and was not fully on board with this move when it was finalized. But he has minimal decision-making authority in this matter as an interim manager. 

    A good move - six months ago, or in a vacuum

    This isn't to imply the football guys didn't start the conversation with Mbolhi. Au contraire! During Mbolhi's introductory press conference July 30, Mbolhi said "it's been six or seven months that I've been calling the Union." 

    That clarified what the Union's plan probably was when they drafted Blake with the first pick in January's amateur draft. The Union were rebooting the goalkeeper position, giving up on MacMath, picking another talented young goalkeeper in Blake, and seeking a quality veteran under whom Blake would apprentice. 

    That was a justifiable move - in January. After Peter Nowak prematurely jettisoned Faryd Mondragon and inserted MacMath into the lineup in 2012, MacMath had yet to prove himself as a quality MLS starter. No surprise: Few 21-year-old goalkeepers do. 

    Everyone knew the Union needed to improve the position - including MacMath, apparently. So he did. 

    MacMath has stepped up to become one of the Union's best players this season, stopping penalty kicks at a rate that would make Nick Rimando envious. Has he been perfect? No. Has he been good? Undoubtedly. 

    A manager with authority would have recognized that MacMath was justifying his drafting and changed the plan accordingly. 

    But the Union pressed ahead. It makes you wonder if Drew Brees is a soccer fan

    Roster mismanagement: Could this have been done better? 

    Taken by itself, in a vacuum, the Mbolhi signing is a good one. His impressive displays in the last two World Cups - particularly against Germany this year - confirm this guy can play. No, his professional career hasn't been particularly distinguished. Mbolhi has played primarily in the Bulgarian league– not exactly Europe's best or most corruption-free - without settling anywhere. Of course, would you want toplant roots in Bulgaria's league? Me neither. 

    The Union just didn't need Mbolhi given their current roster holes and the amount of salary budget space they likely have. MLS roster rules and a tight salary budget restrict what a team can do overall. Mbolhi's salary isn't yet public knowledge, but it's probably between $200,000 and $325,000, compared to MacMath's $120,000. 

    That money would have been better spent on a good left back or left winger. 

    The Union may have improved the goalkeeper position, but that spot probably would have improved anyway due to MacMath's continued progression. 

    Instead, MacMath will probably depart in the offseason for far less than he's worth, now that every team in the league knows the Union have too many goalkeepers collecting starter-level salaries. MacMath could even leave in the expansion draft for nothing. Orlando and NYC FC are surely paying attention. 

    Is it possible the Union tried to trade MacMath before the Mbolhi signing but found no takers at a decent exchange rate? Sure. 

    Is it equally possible the Union chose not to trade MacMath yet due to Mbolhi's anticipated absences for international duty? Absolutely. 

    Could the Union have waited till the offseason to sign Mbolhi? Probably not, because he was out of contract after the expiration of his 3.5-year deal with Krylia Sovetov, the Russian side that held his rights but loaned him out all over Europe. They had to sign him now, unless Mbolhi fancied the idea of being without a club team for six months. 

    Still, there had to be a better way than this. 

    Because now you're left with three talented goalkeepers, no talented left-sided players, and a regrettable Sakiewicz quote that encapsulates the dysfunction endemic within the Union organization. Even when the Union get it right, they still somehow get it wrong.

    Dan Walsh The Philly Soccer Page
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