Kerith Gabriel: Time for Union to reach into back pocket for star talent

Posted: July 27, 2012

THE FINAL pieces of confetti have fallen onto the pitch at PPL Park. MLS and the weeklong caravan that brought Wednesday night's All-Star spectacular to the Chester waterfront has packed up and set sail for its headquarters in New York's Midtown district.

For the Union, it's back to business, and for the coaching staff there is a lot to consider as the second phase of the season resumes.

The summer-transfer window heated up last week and quite a few opponents, New York in particular, added some firepower. Red Bull New York welcomed Australian international and former Everton captain Tim Cahill to the fold, beefing up an already-impressive lineup that features high-priced designated players in Thierry Henry and defender Rafa Marquez. Tack on the acquisition of forward Kenny Cooper, which has paid dividends since his move from Portland during the offseason, and the recent trade for former Union star Sebastien Le Toux, and on paper it's hard to envision a club that can thwart RBNY's quest to capture an MLS crown. It is a quest that has eluded one of the league's 10 original franchises for 17 seasons.

You almost hate to say it, but the Union, as talented as it is, can't compete with teams beefing up with high-priced talent. Can it put forth a solid showing? Without question. Perhaps even make it a good contest? Sure.

But unless there is a decision to spend the stockpiled mound of allocation dollars the team has garnered before the close of the international transfer period on Aug. 15, expect the second half of the season to mimic the first.

Mind you, this mound is one I vividly recall Union CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz saying gave his club the "flexibility" to go out and bring in a potential game changer.

The seeds for such a move were planted with the arrival of defender Bakary Soumare, who I'm told by Union trainer Paul Rushing is a week away from regaining full fitness from a meniscus injury in his right knee. Soumare's pedigree is what the Union needs to secure an already-stingy, but small backline. I was an advocate that tenacity and grit can overcome a lack of height until I watched Cooper singlehandedly murder the Union with headers in a 2-0 loss to Red Bull just before the All-Star break. At 6-4, Soumare's height alone — not to mention his toughness on the ball — will give goalkeeper Zac MacMath some added relief.

In a recent weekly press conference, Union interim boss John Hackworth said that goals were going to have to come "by committee." That instead of having one player with 15 goals, the team needs to have a group of players with five or six goals to their name. It makes sense to build around the team concept and it sounds quite admirable, but with the hole the Union is in and with the talk of qualifying for the playoffs, doesn't it make sense to bring in a player who will get you 10 to 15 goals to complement guys like Jack McInerney and Lionard Pajoy?

Makes sense to me.

I know that bringing in a player like that isn't easy. In fact, it's pretty darn hard. Trying to balance what a player (or player's agent) will claim he's worth and what you think he's worth, and stay within MLS' nearly impossible salary cap, requires Einstein-like skills.

But it's also MLS, and in my time covering this league I've learned there are loopholes and bypass routes to get almost any deal done.

Bottom line here is that the MLS' trip to the Philadelphia region managed to turn a few heads. All-Star midfielder Michael Farfan said it best, that having the All-Star Game in the area "only benefitted our team."

There is no doubt that PPL Park's impressive showing made a few new believers who will keep a closer eye on the hometown team. It's up to the minds among the club's coaching staff to make correct decisions, ensuring the right pieces are brought in to turn intrigue into fandom.

By the numbers

4: Number of times the Union has played the New England Revolution in its history, and the amount of goals both teams scored in the last meeting, when the Union scored three straight in the second half to forge a 4-4 tie at PPL Park last September.

0: Number of times the Union has lost to the Revolution. The Union is 2-0-2 all time against New England. The Revolution and expansion Montreal are the only two clubs that have never beaten the Union.

Send email to @gabrielk@phillynews.com. Follow Kerith on Twitter @sprtswtr.

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