[MLS] Rather than operate through agents and intermediaries to find and sign South American talent, the Philadelphia Union has brought that facet of team operations in-house. The hiring of former Fire and Kansas City defender Diego Gutierrez (a native of Bogota, Colombia) as head of scouting and player development aided the Union in the signing of goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and defender Carlos Valdes.
Those acquisitions were announced yesterday at a pub in Philadelphia -- where else? -- and Coach Peter Nowak bluntly explained which needs they address.
“We conceded too many goals,” he said of the Union’s 49 goals allowed, which tied for second worst in the league. “We acknowledge that. We don’t hide the problems. We tried to stabilize during the season the backline - we tried to make it better. I believe at the end of the season the group finally found a rhythm.”
Mondragon, 39, a veteran of more than two decades of club play in Europe and South America, and Valdes, 25, will be expected to stabilize a defense that lacked cohesion until late in the season. Left exposed by a porous midfield, a central pairing of defenders Michael Orozco and Danny Califf failed to click. Keeper Chris Seitz struggled mightily and has moved onto FC Dallas.
While Gutierrez is pleased the club has added two more of his countrymen, he stressed the quality of the players, not their origin, is what drove the club to acquire them. Defender Juan Diego Gonzalez and midfielder Roger Torres are the other Colombians who played for Philly last year; both are expected back, though the loan deal for Torres has to be reworked or extended.
“Look, I’d like to think that I bring a little more to the table than just bringing in Colombian players,” said Guiterrez. “But having known Faryd and having known Carlos was a big factor. At the end of the day, it’s not just about getting Colombian players. Our view of the market is very, very large. As we narrowed down prospects and candidates to bring in, they just happened to be Colombian.”
Brad Knighton stepped in for Seitz last season but is not expected to challenge Mondragon for the starting job. The Union also picked up U.S. U-20 goalkeeper Zac MacMath with its first-round selection in the SuperDraft, and he will have an able mentor in Mondragon, who played 50 games for Colombia and performed impressively at the 1998 World Cup. He left German club Cologne to sign with MLS.
“[Mondragon] is an idol to me,” said Valdes, who comes to MLS from Independiente Santa Fe in his native country. “Not just for me, but for Colombian soccer, he’s an icon. He’s a very important acquisition for us and by having players like Faryd, we’re going to really be able to make history.”
Nowak would settle for leadership and dependable goalkeeping as he attempts to build on the team’s expansion season with a strong push for the playoffs. “Faryd, right now, is such an experienced guy who can command the backline from his goal, a position that is crucial,” Nowak said.
“I am a very strong personality in the goal,” Mondragon said. “I know when to shout a little bit, and I know when to keep calm. That comes from playing competitively all these years. It’s very important to have the trust of all the players in front of you, so you can build a team with 11 guys. It takes all of us working together to win. But no, I’m not shy of raising my voice if needed.
“I play this game and this sport with all heart and I put everything into it. My teammates will see that on the field. I’m very happy to be a part of this great organization and to be competing with my new teammates together as one.”
The arrival of Valdes increases competition for the starting centerback slots, though Orozco also played on the outside and at defensive midfield. Califf, the team captain last year, committed some clumsy fouls and was red-carded in the fourth week of the season while readjusting to the ways of MLS in his return from a three-year stint in Denmark. He settled in toward the end of the season yet Nowak expects both of his new players to make an immediate impact.
“Valdes is a very skilled player,” Nowak said. “He is a technically sound player who can mix it up. I think he will be a very valuable addition on the backline. He’ll get acquainted with his new teammates and we’ll all learn each other in preseason training. I think with his international experience, he will be a big help. He makes our team better.”