Union select goalkeeper Andre Blake in Major League Soccer SuperDraft
This article has been corrected. It is not clear whether the transfer deadline closes on January 31, or whether that is simply a working deadline for the Union to complete the purchase of Maurice Edu.
The Union kicked off their big day at the Major League Soccer SuperDraft with a bang. They traded up for the No. 1 overall selection, and took the player who was rated as by far this year's top college prospect.
That player is University of Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake. The 23-year-old already has international experience with the Jamaican national team, having been called up for some of the Reggae Boyz' World Cup qualifiers in 2013. He never played, but it was still a significant accomplishment.
"We got the best player in the draft, and that, I think, is really important," Union manager John Hackworth said.
Blake is the first goalkeeper ever selected first overall. As the rapid rise of his career has shown, he has no problem shouldering the pressure that comes with the spotlight.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure being selected No. 1," Blake said as he met the press for the first time as a pro. "I'm going to just go out there on the pitch and work hard as usual, and show everyone that it was a good pick."
To get the No. 1 pick, the Union sent their first selection, No. 2 overall, to D.C. United. United used that pick to select highly-touted University of California central defender Steve Birnbaum.
Blake comes to the Union with the added bonus of being a Generation Adidas player, as he left UConn after his junior season. That means he won't count against the salary cap.
Hackworth hailed Blake as a player who "can do stuff now that nobody in our league can do," but he was quick to preach patience as as well.
"He's got a ways to go," Hackworth said. "He's got to come in here and really learn but, he's the type of person that this is a great opportunity and chance for. He wants it."
The Union have a fine starting goalkeeper in Zac MacMath. But they don't have a backup. Blake will serve that role for a while. He could even give MacMath a challenge for some starts, and has a high enough ceiling to project as a pro for a while.
"We now have real competition for Zac," Hackworth said. "In the past, I think Zac was our No. 1, and we had a good No. 2 or No. 3 for him. But this is a guy who has tools and plays the game in a way that is going to challenge Zac, and that real competition is going to help Zac and push him."
It is a luxury that the Union have not had since MacMath backed up Faryd Mondragón in 2011. Coincidentally - or perhaps not? - that was the year of the team's only playoff berth in its history.
"We've been pretty fortunate to be able to get through the last few years without having to bring a backup goalkeeper into a significant position with [regard to] playing time," Hackworth said. "We feel like this is a guy who can come in and play if something does happen to Zac."
Philadelphia also has a promising goalkeeper in its youth ranks, Downingtown native Zack Steffen. But it's likely that the academy product won't be ready to leave the University of Maryland and turn pro for another few years. That will give MacMath time to remain the starter and Blake the time to develop as MacMath's immediate successor.
The Union's next selection was to be No. 6 overall, but they traded with FC Dallas and moved down to No. 10. They then traded with Toronto FC and moved down to No. 15.
When the time finally came to make the pick, the Union selected Coastal Carolina creative midfielder Pedro Ribeiro. The 6-foot-4 Brazilian will take up an international slot, but he's well known to the Union having played for their Premier Development League affiliate, Reading United.
"He's got serious tools," Hackworth said. "The way he plays - his technical ability, his creativity, [and] he's got great size and pace to go with it."
Though Ribeiro had to deal with a hernia injury this past season, the Union had scouted him more than well enough to know his true talents. And they weren't alone.
"He was never healthy in this college season, but clearly people took note," Hackworth said. "We feel like we got a little bit of a steal with them."
The Union also ended up with a net gain in allocation money from the two moves down, after sending some to D.C. to move up to No. 1.
"We had to pay a little bit, but we recouped that with the two trades," Hackworth said, "and we still got the player we were thinking about drafting at six."
After making their two first-round selections, the Union waited for the second round, where they had the No. 6 and No. 8 selections. With the first of those, they took Michigan State defender Kevin Cope. With the second, they took Akron defender Robbie Derschang - a player who could help fill the team's hole at left back.
"We've taken care of some positional needs," Hackworth said of the defensive reinforcements.
It was a bit of a risk for the Union to trade down twice, as the technical staff watched some players they rated very highly come off the board. But Ribeiro has the talent to make a major contribution as a rookie.
With Ribeiro still available, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said moving down twice wasn't much of a gamble."
"Of the players here, there's 20 to 30 guys who are all very close," he said. "It's not like the first pick is so far and away better than the second, or for that matter the second from the 20th."
Sakiewicz knows that from experience. When he was general manager of the New York-New Jersey MetroStars (the team now called the New York Red Bulls), he selected U.S. national team star Michael Bradley with the 36th overall pick in 2004.
The Union aren't done making moves yet. There are still two rounds of the draft to go, via a conference call next week. And after signing Argentine midfielder Cristian Maidana on Wednesday, there could be two more Designated Players coming: French playmaker Vincent Nogueira and former U.S. national team defensive midfielder Maurice Edu.
Negotiations over the Edu signing have been drawn out this week, due primarily to disagreements over salary. Edu would come to the league as a designated player, and according to multiple media outlets, he wanted a salary of around $1.2 million per year.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said Thursday that the reported salary demand "would be perhaps on the low end" of what was discussed behind the scenes
There have been conflicting stories over whether the Union were willing to pay that sum, and also whether MLS headquarters - which owns all player salaries – was the entity which balked at that figure.
Sakiewicz and Garber insisted that the league did not "block" any agreement that had been previously reached by Edu and the Union. They said the league and the club have been working in tandem.
But it's clear that somewhere along the line, someone in power said no to something.
All that is known for sure is that there isn't a deal yet. Sakiewicz said that the Union, MLS and Edu have until January 31 to come to an agreement. That is the date of the close of the transfer window for transactions within Europe. MLS has a different transfer window, so it's possible there could be a bit more time.
It seems clear, though, that both parties want to get the deal done by the end of the month.
"We want to make sure that we do it right for Mo, right for the league and right financially for the Union," Sakiewicz said. He added that the talks have been and will be "difficult," but he emphasized that the Union "want him here and he wants to be here."
Above all, Sakiewicz preached patience.
"I know everybody's excited and anticipatory and blowing up Twitter and all that, but we've just got to take a step back," he said. "In any negotiation there are stalls, stops and movement."
If the Edu and Nogueira signings are completed, the Union would have three Designated Players on their roster in 2014. That would likely do a lot to address fans' perceptions that the team hasn't spent as much money as their rivals in recent years.
The last round of salary figures published by the MLS Players' Union showed that the Union had the 12th-largest payroll out of the league's 19 teams, and the team has been in the lower half of the rankings for some time.
Sakiewicz is aware of the perceptions, and the criticisms that have come with them.
"We always said from the beginning that we were going to spend some money [this offseason] and we allocated some significant dollars," he said. "We're serious about winning."
Hackworth has had to endure a fair amount of that criticism as the most public face of the team's brass. Now he has been given an opportunity to show that his past promises to fans in 2013 are coming true.
"I've been saying it for a long time, but I couldn't really prove it until we brought some of those guys in," he said. "I asked the fans to be patient, and trust that we were really trying to build this thing."