Vincent Nogueira

Union fill midfield need, sign playmaker Haris Medunjanin

Union fill midfield need, sign playmaker Haris Medunjanin

The Union have answered a midfield question.

On Tuesday, the club announced the signing of 31-year-old central midfielder Haris Medunjanin to a two-year deal with an option for a third. The move was made using Targeted Allocation Money.

“We are extremely happy to add a player of Haris’ caliber,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in the team’s official release. “Having played at the highest levels of our game, he brings both quality and experience to our midfield. We’re anxious for Haris to join our group as we continue to prepare for the start of the season.”

Known for his playmaking skills, left-footed Medunjanin is expected to fill a role similar to the one left vacant by Vincent Nogueira, who departed the Union for personal reasons in the middle of last season.

Highlighting the Union’s reliance on a strong central midfielder, the club was unable to replicate Nogueira’s ability and went on a 15-game slide and nearly missed the playoffs after a strong start. Medunjanin could solidify the connection between the Union back line and attacking players, while giving the offense some much-needed playmaking punch. 

A national of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Medunjani, standing at 6-foot-1, spent four seasons at AZ Alkmaar before moving to Sparta Rotterdam, La Liga’s Valladolid and Maccabi Tel Aviv, eventually landing at Turkish side, Gaziantepspor. Most recently, Medunjani spent the past year completing a second tour at Maccabi Tel Aviv. He’s earned 54 caps with Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

After a week of training at The Power Training Complex in Chester, the Union traveled to Clearwater, Fla. on Tuesday to continue their preseason (see story). The club’s first preseason game is on Feb. 18 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

During taxing stretch, Union still adjusting to Vincent Nogueira departure

During taxing stretch, Union still adjusting to Vincent Nogueira departure

CHESTER, Pa. — Almost a year ago, the Philadelphia Union knocked the New York Red Bulls out of the U.S. Open Cup with such an inspired and gutsy effort that head coach Jim Curtin deemed it the biggest win in franchise history.

And a big reason they were able to pull out that shootout victory after going down a man in the first half at Red Bull Arena was the play of Vincent Nogueira, whose absolutely dazzling counterattack set up the team’s only goal.

For Union fans, that play was incredible to watch but probably not much of a surprise. One of the team’s best players over the last two years, Nogueira had a knack for rising to the occasion in the Open Cup, especially in the last two title games of the historic tournament.

But as the Union prepare for an Open Cup rematch vs. the Red Bulls tonight at 7 p.m. in a Round of 16 game at Talen Energy Stadium, they’ll have to do so without Nogueira, who left the team suddenly two weeks ago due to a personal health issue.

Two weeks may seem like a long time in pro sports but the Union have barely had time to catch their breath since, playing three games and giving up three goals in all of them as they’re still trying to figure out a way to cope defensively without their top box-to-box midfielder.

When asked how the players have handled the quick adjustment — on and off the field — Union head coach Jim Curtin harkened back to a meeting Nogueira held with the team before deciding to have the team terminate his contract and move back home to France.

“First and foremost, it was emotional,” Curtin said Tuesday. “Vince addressed the whole group and explained the situation to the team. What was said will stay in the locker room. It was a tough week for sure but, at the same time, the game doesn’t stop.”

The game doesn’t stop.

It’s a phrase Curtin uses a lot, usually when a player gets hurt or the team is coming off an especially tough loss.

Nogueira’s departure may be more unusual, especially with the midfielder recently signing with a second-division French club. But Curtin denied any “speculation out there that he was unhappy here,” stating unequivocally that “people in the room know that’s not true.” And as Curtin hopes Nogueira’s health will improve in his native country, he also hopes his team can adapt to the Frenchman’s departure, just as they’ve dealt with other moments of adversity throughout his tenure.

“We have a deep team,” Curtin said. “Vincent was a big part of what we did in terms of being a true No. 8 that kind of connected us from the back to the front. But I think Tranquillo has stepped in and done a great job in that position. It’s still a new position for him but one he’s done very well at. Vincent is no longer with us, so that’s kind of in the past.”

Making things even more difficult for the Union is the fact that captain Maurice Edu, who can certainly help fill the void left by Nogueira, is still recovering from a long-term stress fracture. And standout striker C.J. Sapong also remains questionable with an ankle injury, though he did look sharp during cutting drills Tuesday.

On top of all that, the Union are in the midst of a grueling stretch in which they’ve been playing two games every week for three straight weeks.

But Curtin pointed out that “every team goes through stretches when they’re missing guys,” and promised to do whatever he can to help the Union advance in the Open Cup.

“We’ll play our best available lineup, obviously keeping in mind where guys are physically after the taxing stretch that we’ve had,” Curtin said. “The moral of the tournament is to survive and advance.”

Some MLS teams, of course, like to sprinkle in some reserves for Open Cup games — which is something the Union did in their opening win over the Harrisburg City Islanders two weeks ago (which, as it turned out, was Nogueira’s final game for Philly). But they won’t do that tonight. And the Red Bulls, led by Curtin’s good friend Jesse Marsch, likely won’t either.

“It was instilled in us by Bob Bradley that you take the Open Cup very seriously,” Curtin said. “And I think both clubs do. Last year’s game was a crazy game .... a special day and a wild one for sure. [Tonight] will be the same. I know Jesse’s gonna play his best lineup.”

The Union’s best lineup includes Andre Blake, who Curtin confirmed will get the start in net even though John McCarthy started Philly’s Open Cup game two weeks ago and was sensational in the Open Cup win over the Red Bulls last year.

Recently, Blake was asked how he and his teammates have handled the Nogueira departure, and gave a thoughtful response about the Union moving forward without him, in both the Open Cup and MLS play.

“It did happen sudden,” the Union goalie said. “We were all surprised when we heard the story. It’s very sad and we do miss him. We are just trying to work hard — and maybe win this for him.”

Inside Doop: Union begin post-Vincent Nogueira era in rough fashion

Inside Doop: Union begin post-Vincent Nogueira era in rough fashion

CHESTER, Pa. -- Just two days after agreeing to mutually terminate Vincent Nogueira’s contract due to personal health issues, the Union made the short trip to take on New York City FC at Yankee Stadium.

And it was clear from the start the Union will miss the French midfielder, as they struggled to maintain possession, fell behind by three goals and saw a valiant comeback effort fall short.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a closer look at Saturday’s 3-2 loss that ended Philly’s club-record eight game winning streak and how they can get back on track without Nogueira.

Three thoughts about this past week
1. For the first time this season, New York City FC was able to field a lineup that included marquee stars David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard — a trio that makes over $17 million per season combined. For context, that’s nearly nine times as much as the Union’s entire starting lineup from Saturday makes. And the disparity showed at times as all three of NYCFC’s Designated Players scored while the Union, with Maurice Edu and C.J. Sapong injured, lacked a little bit of star power. To be absolutely sure, having big-money players isn’t always a key to success; NYCFC is a club with plenty of problems and the Union are still in first place with a relatively small payroll. But with an important playmaker like Nogueira gone and Edu still fighting to make his season debut, it’s still fair to say that the Union could use a talented reinforcement.

2. The player who figures to benefit the most from Nogueira’s absence is Roland Alberg. After the Union struggled to get in gear with Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll in the defensive midfield, head coach Jim Curtin went with a more offensive look to start the second half with Alberg coming in for Creavalle. And the Dutch midfielder responded by scoring the team’s first goal on a penalty kick — after confidently running to the ball to take the attempt before anyone else could — and nearly drawing another penalty on the game’s final play. And this came after he scored two goals in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup win over the Harrisburg City Islanders. Curtin has talked in the past about trying to play the offensive-minded combo of Alberg and Tranquillo Barnetta together in the central midfield — and now appears to be a good time to keep that going.

3. Overall, it was an interesting week for the Union, who blew a two-goal lead in the Open Cup before Alberg bailed them out with a stoppage-time winner and then rallying for two goals after falling behind by three in New York. And the Union could have escaped Yankee Stadium with a point if a penalty was called on NYCFC defender R.J. Allen on the final play as it probably should have been. In both cases, the Union showed some of the guts and grit that have defined this year’s team. But in both cases, they also showed that winning will probably never be easy. Buckle up.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. For the second straight week, the Union will play two games as they welcome the Chicago Fire on Wednesday and the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday. Being at home for both certainly makes the stretch less taxing but Curtin will still have to carefully manage his lineup. Will Alberg and Ilsinho find their way into the starting lineup for one of the games? Will Carroll and Creavalle play together again or perhaps alternate games? Will Ray Gaddis and Fabinho be platooned at left back? There are certainly some decisions Curtin will have to make as the Union look to secure six big points at home.

2. Perhaps the biggest question is whether Sapong can return from his sprained ankle — and how the Union might manage without their top striker and leading scorer if he can’t. Fabian Herbers has shown a lot of promise as Sapong’s backup this season and recently logged his first MLS goal and first MLS start. But the Union don’t have any other true strikers on the roster, meaning they’d likely have to utilize Sebastien Le Toux in that spot to spell Herbers. It’s not an ideal situation, and it’s probably not a stretch to say Sapong is the player this team can least afford to lose to injury.

3. Speaking of injuries, the clock continues to tick for Edu, who’s been out all year with a stress fracture. He’s said all along he wanted to take his time with his rehab, especially as the team was winning in his absence. But with Nogueira now gone and a big hole suddenly in the midfield, you have to wonder if he’ll feel more pressure to return sooner. Either way, we know fans are anxious to see the team’s captain and highest-profile player back in the lineup.

Quote of the week
“I would like to apologize to our fans who traveled here — also our fans watching at home in the first half. That was not us. That was not what we are about.”

- Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 3-2 loss to New York City FC

Stat of the week
In the eight games before Wednesday, Roland Alberg played a combined 15 minutes. In the two games since, including the Open Cup, he played 135 minutes and scored three goals.

Player of the week
This has got to go to Alberg, who finally got to show why he was one of the team’s biggest offseason acquisitions. Can he keep it up?