The news came and went, overshadowed by a momentous US national team game in the Copa America Centenario quarterfinals. Vincent Nogueira, one of MLS’s most quietly effective midfielders since 2014, was headed back to France after two-plus years in Philadelphia.
In a move that took most by surprise, Nogueira had come to an agreement with the Union to terminate his contract by mutual consent because of personal health issues. It was a compassionate gesture by the organization and sporting director Earnie Stewart, but one that immediately shakes up the first-place team in the Eastern Conference and almost certainly requires a move when MLS’s secondary transfer window opens on July 4.
Frankly, the Union can’t afford to sit on their hands. If the Union want to stay in first place, a perch that’s changed the narrative around a club desperate to return the the playoffs, they’d be wise to tap into Stewart’s scouting network as soon as possible to find a replacement (or perhaps even an upgrade) for one of the most league’s most underrated players.
“This is very fresh,” Stewart told reporters Thursday night. “We didn’t expect this. We weren’t looking in this direction. We have enough depth so we can find a solution – that’s not going to be a problem. But we’re going to look further, yes.”
And while it’s true the Union have options, which Philly insider Kevin Kinkead broke down in detail, there’s no doubt Nogueira’s departure leaves a glaring hole.
He wasn’t just a box-to-box terrier. He was the Union’s deep-lying playmaker. He was their metronome, a safe outlet in possession who was precise and cutting once he received the ball. Oh, and he scored the occasional goal, too.
Playing in just eight of 14 games this season, the 28-year-old was second on the team in completed passes, third in recoveries, fourth in completed passes in the final third and fourth in touches. He’d scored two goals. And while the numbers say he wasn’t a chance creator, the numbers aren’t everything.
Nogueira didn’t make the final pass; he made the pass two or three passes before the final pass. He gave Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta and Sebastian Le Toux the space and time they need to be effective. His movement and late runs threw off defenses. His composure in possession gave confidence to a talented young backline and allowed veteran Brian Carroll to do what he does best. He was a glue guy with the talent to be a difference maker as well.
For the time being, Warren Creavalle is the most likely replacement alongside Carroll in the double pivots head coach Jim Curtin prefers in his 4-2-3-1 formation, with Roland Alberg an option should attacking nous be preferred to defensive bite. And despite Maurice Edu’s potential return in the next month or so, that’s certainly not enough depth to weather the rest of the season along with fluctuations in fitness and form.
Creavalle can plug the gap and Edu may find his feet quickly whenever he returns – or he may struggle after a long, complicated recovery from a stress fracture – but Union can’t justify waiting around to see whether they can sustain their early success without at least scouring the international market or looking for a solution in MLS.
With Nogueira’s contract off the salary cap and two Designated Player slots open, they’ve got the flexibility to find a for a replacement or an upgrade. They also hold the second spot in the Allocation Order. Perhaps it’s time to get Alejandro Bedoya, who acknowledged he’d been close to signing with the club last year, back on the phone.
No matter what the Union decide to do, this is Stewart’s first real test as he attempts to transform the club from playoff observers into a team that punches above its weight and turns postseason appearances into an expectation rather than an outlier.
Philadelphia’s got a little more than two weeks to get their ducks in a row. The clock is ticking.