Jeff Rueter examines the history of the Philadelphia Union’s Designated Players in his ongoing series.
When the Philadelphia Union joined MLS in 2010, the city had been long overdue for professional soccer. After all, Philadelphia is one of the United States’ marquee sports cities, with a soccer culture that also runs deep. They were unveiled in 2009, boasting the best branding in the league (second best once Minnesota joins–it was a good run, Philly). While it wasn’t Los Angeles or New York, it was easy to envision Philadelphia becoming a powerhouse in the league.
The club made the post-season just once in their first six seasons, never seeming to settle on a roster core for more than two years before doing a complete overhaul. Likewise, their coaching situation was a rotating door (understandably so in Peter Nowak’s case), and up until this season the brand, perennial U.S. Open Cup runs, and off-field culture were seemingly the biggest draws for the club. How much of a part did Designated Players have in this?
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.
Introduction to Series and Updating Chart of Profiled Clubs
DC United: C
FC Dallas: C+
Columbus Crew: B
Sporting KC: B-
New York Red Bulls: B-
San Jose Earthquakes: C
New England Revolution: C+
Los Angeles Galaxy: B+
Chicago Fire: C-
Colorado Rapids: B-
Real Salt Lake: B
Chivas USA: B-
Toronto FC: B+
Seattle Sounders: B
Philadelphia Union (founded 2010)
FAVORITE FRUITLESS RUMOR: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, May 2016
Freddy Adu (2011-2012)
Age When Signed:
Average Base Salary per Season: $475,884
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.390
He’s the reason we refer to Pelé as “the former Freddy Adu.” Adu was a prodigy whose level of praise was unparalleled before him. He made his MLS debut at 14 with D.C. United, playing 30 games in 2004 and scoring 5 goals while adding 3 assists. After three years with D.C. United, he was traded alongside Nick Rimando to Real Salt Lake in exchange for allocation order, goalkeeper Jay Nolly, and undefined “future considerations.” After a stand-out performance at the 2007 U-20 World Cup (which featured the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani), Adu stole the show and became an international celebrity, with Pelé going so far as naming him his protégé. He was sold to Benfica in July 2007 for a $2 million transfer fee, playing 11 games and scoring twice with the Portuguese club. He spent time on loan with AS Monaco, Belenenses, Aris, and Çaykur Rizespor through 2011, failing to make an impact on any of his clubs (each had a purchase option on the loan and turned it down) and at 22, Adu had already lost a once-regular spot with the USMNT (17 caps, 2 goals from 2006-2011).
Adu returned to the United States in August 2011 and was signed by Philadelphia on a free transfer. (Note: while the club at first claimed he wasn’t a DP, multiple sources confirmed him to be one over the years. The league’s website also lists him as a “Former Designated Player.” I’m basing his place in this article off of this information instead of the initial press conference.) He played in 11 games in the fall, scoring twice and adding an assist while playing a total of 37 minutes in the Union’s two postseason matches. He found more of a rhythm in 2012, starting 20 matches, scoring 5 goals, and earning his only MLS red card. After the season, he was transferred to Bahia in Brazil, in exchange for Kléberson. More on him later.
While the list of clubs he played at while under contract with Benfica is impressive, his next journeyman phase has been far less inspiring. Adu was released from Bahia that next November, beginning a phase of unsuccessful trials with clubs like Blackpool, Stabæk, and AZ Alkmaar before signing with Serbian side FK Jagodina in July 2014. He made one senior appearance in three months before he was released, ultimately landing with KuPS in Finland. After three more months, he signed with the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies (July 2015), marking his twelfth professional club, where he’s made 11 mostly-substitute appearances. He’s still just 27 years old.
Adu has become soccer writers’ thinkpiece fodder with his vagabond career. While he’s at an age where he should very well be in the heart of his prime, Adu is failing to get minutes while advertising vacuum cleaners on Twitter. He wasn’t much of a fit with the Union, either. Despite playing under a former manager at both club and country (Pietr Nowak), he never found his rhythm. His seven goals with Philadelphia are his most recent he’s scored in a country’s top league.
Age When Signed: 33
Average Base Salary per Season: $495,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.508
Kléberson was one of the highlights of Brazil’s Golden Generation in the turn of the millennium. The 5’9″ central midfielder started his career at Atlético Paranaense, making his debut at 20 and earning 100 appearances in four years. He was a part of the World Cup-winning 2002 Brazilian Men’s National Team, ultimately parlaying this into a European bidding war. Amongst the likes of Barcelona, Newcastle, and Celtic, Leeds United appeared to be the victors; however, he refused to move without his girlfriend, and she couldn’t leave the country until she turned 16 (he was 24). Eventually, he accepted a transfer to Manchester United, who paid a total of $7.5 million in transfers. He was injured in his second appearance with the Red Devils, and after 20 appearances in two years, he was transferred to Beşiktaş. He stayed for two seasons until the club failed to make his payments on time, ultimately heading back to Brazil and Flamengo for the next five years. He spent time at Atlético on loan before a transfer to Bahia. Who loaned him to Philadelphia for a year in return for Adu.
Across the 2013 season, Kléberson made 6 appearances, scoring a match-winning goal off of a free kick in October but contributing little else. He failed to stay healthy regularly, and when he was fit he still didn’t look up to speed with the Union, who finished seventh in the East and failed to make the post-season.
After his loan expired, he was a free agent, ultimately signing with Indy Eleven in NASL and playing 20 games in 2014 (8 goals) and 1 game in 2015. He then was signed by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. While he hasn’t played a game with them, the club has pulled a Beşiktaş and failed to pay their players on time. Full circle?
Between a failing bill of health and a lack of fitness, Kléberson never seemed to make a strong impact with the club. Playing only a fifth of the club’s games doesn’t help his cause.
Cristian Maidana (2014-2015)
Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $185,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.651
The Argentine winger came up with Banfield, debuting at 19 and playing 41 matches in his first two years. He was purchased by Russian giants Spartak Moscow for $3.5 million, scoring 3 goals across 34 games from 2008-2011 in between loan stints with Recreativo and Huracán. Wishing to be closer to home and play more regularly, he signed with freshly-promoted Chilean side Rangers de Talca. Having played well in his first year, he spent the next year on loan with Mexican side Atlante and had a five-match stint with Argentinos Juniors. At each stop, his creativity and selflessness were his biggest assets, more than willing to set up teammates rather than force play through himself.
Maidana signed with Philadelphia in January, with the club making a flurry of moves to start the Jim Curtin era off right. He scored his first goal in May, sealing a win against Sporting Kansas City. He finished his debut season with 2 goals and 11 assists and continued this trend in 2015 to the tune of 1 goal and 15 assists, the second-most in MLS.
(Cameo by Danny Cruz in the following video.)
Despite Maidana’s strong play, the Union once again shook up their core, trading Maidana and Andrew Wenger for allocation money and the #6 pick in the SuperDraft (used on forward Fabian Herbers). He’s slowed down with the rest of the dormant Dynamo attack, netting 3 goals and adding 3 assists through 24 appearances.
While the Union may not have been very competitive, this was far from Maidana’s fault. The lone bright spot in some dark times, his delivery set up a career resurgence for C.J. Sapong. Overall, he came as an absolute bargain.
BONUS ROUND: Rais M’Bolhi (2014-2015**)
Age When Signed: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $480,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.483
Born in Paris to a Congolese father and an Algerian mother, M’Bohli joined the Olympique de Marseille academy at 16. However, he never made a senior appearance before he was released. He signed with Hearts in Scotland, but also failed to make an appearance. He earned spotty playing time in Greece and Japan before signing with Bulgarian side Slavia Sofia in 2009, ultimately named the 2009 Best Goalkeeper of the League. He was transferred to Krylia Sovetov in Russia, loaned to CSKA Sofia, Gazelec Ajaccio, and went to CSKA on a permanent basis in 2013. While his club career was unstable to say the least, he was the regular starting keeper for the Algerian Men’s National Team from 2010 on, making 47 caps going into the 2014 World Cup. USMNT fans may remember him as the goalkeeper whose save rebounded to Landon Donovan in 2010, sealing the USMNT’s group victory. This was the only goal M’Bolhi conceded in the tournament.
**This is where things get murky. While his salary and transfer fee exceeded the DP levels, the league doesn’t list him as a DP on their official website. However, when the club left him unprotected for the 2015 Expansion Draft, he was marked as a DP. We’re going to follow the latter.
After another impressive World Cup in 2014 (earning man of the match and making 11 saves in a 2-1 defeat to eventual champions Germany), M’Bohli turned down a transfer to Turkish side Trabzonspor to join the Union. He was in a car accident after the World Cup and joined Philadelphia in August, making his debut in a 4-2 win over San Jose. He made four starts in 2014, securing five points for Philly (1-1-2) and conceded four goals. However, his start to the 2015 season was shakier, allowing 10 goals in five starts as the club stumbled to collect two points. Jim Curtin benched him in April and he didn’t see the field again, with a rotating cast that included Andre Blake, Brian Sylvestre, and John McCarthy taking his place.
He signed with Antalyaspor in August 2015, making 19 appearances in the season. He’s also the current starting keeper for Algeria, set to represent the nation in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
A 2.0 Goals Allowed Average is a great way to get yourself out of MLS. Having come in later than desired, M’Bohli was never a fan-favorite, and few noticed that he had been benched until Curtin said something. One of just three DP goalkeepers, M’Bohli ranks a distant third.
Maurice Edu (2014-Current)
Age When Signed: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $683,333
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.132
A mainstay of the Bob Bradley-USMNT era, Edu spent three years at the University of Maryland before going pro. He was drafted first overall in 2007 by Toronto FC and scored 4 goals in 25 appearances, earning MLS Rookie of the Year. In showing flexibility as both a centerback and in the midfield, Edu was lured by Rangers in Scotland for $3 million, signing a five-year deal. Across four seasons, he scored nine goals in 96 appearances, forming a partnership with fellow USMNT player Alejandro Bedoya. As Rangers fell to shambles, he signed with Stoke City on a free, only playing once in 2012/13 before going on loan to Bursaspor. Internationally, he represented the USA in the 2010 World Cup (he wasn’t offside) and was one of the last players cut for the 2014 installment.
Edu was sent on loan to Philadelphia in 2014, making 31 starts and scoring three goals despite mostly playing defense. The club was able to purchase him in full before the 2015 season, after which he made another 22 starts for a club that finally looked to be getting things together. However, recurring injuries forced him into an off-season sports hernia surgery, and he suffered a stress fracture in his left leg this March. While he hasn’t played a minute in 2016 yet, he made his USL debut with affiliate Bethlehem Steel, figuring to be ready to make his MLS debut within a couple of weeks.
It’s tough to grade injuries. While he was one of the league’s best defenders when healthy, the fact that the team has performed so well in his absence is suspect. Hopefully he’ll be a key contributor in the team’s return to the playoffs, and when healthy, he truly can take a game over.
Fernando Aristeguieta (2015)
Age When Signed: 22
Average Base Salary per Season: $350,004
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.432
Aristeguieta was born in Venezuela, coming up with Caracas and making his senior debut at 17. He scored 31 goals in 71 games and is the only player in history to have scored a hat-trick in the Clásico between Caracas and Deportivo Táchira. He signed a six-month loan to FC Nantes in 2013, helping the club secure promotion after scoring eight goals in half of a season. He moved into Ligue 1 with the club, settling into a supporting role with the top-flight incarnation and providing two goals off the bench.
With only six appearances in fall 2014, Nantes looked to loan the striker. He was brought in by Philadelphia as a Young Designated Player in February, serving as a member of the opening day lineup. His playing time waned as the season went on, finishing the year with 21 appearances (14 starts) while scoring 5 goals. The club declined to acquire him on a permanent basis, and he returned to Nantes.
Aristeguieta went back to Nantes for the second half of the season, made three appearances, and scored once. He wasn’t moved over the summer transfer window and will try to play his way back into both FC Nantes and the Venezuelan Men’s National Team.
For a young talent with potential, Aristeguieta fit a need to an extent. $70,000 per goal isn’t a bad rate, but he was maddeningly inconsistent and ended up fading out of the picture as Sapong came back to form.
Alejandro Bedoya (2016-Current)
Age When Signed: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,000,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.000
The New Jersey-born midfielder had a very interesting path to MLS. Raised in Florida, Bedoya graduated from Boston College in 2008 but decided to look elsewhere instead of entering the SuperDraft. He landed with Swedesh side Örebro SK, where he went on to play 65 games and scoring eight goals. After a trial with Birmingham City, Bedoya signed with Rangers FC in 2011, joining Edu. However, he too was left out of contract as Rangers entered administration, signing a short-term deal with Helsingborgs IF in 2012 before landing with Nantes in 2013. He became a cult hero in France, leading fans in the “I Believe” chant after major wins. He made 87 appearances (mostly starting) across three seasons, scoring 11 goals and being praised for his high work-rate and on-field intelligence. Internationally, he earned his first cap in 2010, narrowly missing that year’s World Cup roster. He became one of Jürgen Klinsmann’s favorite players after coming into the fold, serving as a key part of the 2014 WC side and earning 55 caps thus far.
After years of speculation that Bedoya would join MLS with clubs ranging from Los Angeles to Columbus, Bedoya was lured by Philadelphia for a $1 million transfer fee on top of his salary (also $1 million). With the Union firmly in the playoff hunt, Bedoya has continued to anchor down the midfield while the club gears up for the post-season.
Not much to say here. On paper, this is a very solid signing, with a player in a key role still in his prime. He’s from the area (relatively) which adds an extra layer for player and fan alike, and he’s fit into the club’s culture very well. Just don’t ask him what he thinks of Eric Wynalda.
Philadelphia Union Recap:
Average Signing Age: 27
Average Base Salary: $495,603
Average Grade: C- (C without M’Bohli)
Seven years into their MLS run, the Union are starting to figure it out. While they’re far from flashy players, Bedoya and Edu are solid pieces of a club’s foundation and the club still has flexibility to sign a third. Before these two, only Maidana earns a passing grade in my book. The Union were something of an on-field letdown for much of their tenure; as they’ve gotten smarter with the signings, the product on the pitch is reflecting this.
Next week: Portland Timbers