With a little over a week left until they kick off the 2013 MLS season at home to last year's Eastern Conference top seed, Sporting Kansas City, the Union have taken a step backward in addressing their most glaring preseason need. Having shored up the attack and brought in veteran Jeff Parke to replace away-on-loan captain Carlos Valdes, most observers singled out left back as the Union's most pressing weak spot.
In a letter to season ticket holders last month, head coach John Hackworth outlined his reason for leaving a number of left backs on the draft board, including local Greg Cochrane, a native of Holland, Pa. and a former member of Union affiliate Reading United AC. (Cochrane was taken by the Los Angeles Galaxy with the final pick of the SuperDraft. The Union also passed on Dylan Remick and Jimmy Nealis, who were snapped up by Portland and Houston, respectively.)
That reason was Damani Richards, an 18-year-old Trinidad and Tobago youth international.
"Damani is a true left back and we feel as though he had more potential to be developed than any left back we saw in the draft," wrote Hackworth. "Yes, he’s young and we need to develop him, but this is a player with international experience, who is extremely gifted athletically. The chatter of us needing to draft a left back was laughable because we knew what we had in Damani."
Hackworth stressed the "patient development" angle multiple times in the following weeks.
"Damani, being a young player from Trinidad and Tobago has had the most difficult time [adjusting]," the second-year head coach repeated earlier this month. "But that’s to be expected. We need to give him time and to be patient with him, both as a young player and coming from a different culture to adapt."
Richards was waived on Wednesday, a mere 32 days after signing with the Union.
For a player with so much apparent promise - a member of several T&T youth national teams, rated over every available left back in the draft - to be released so soon by a coach long lauded for his youth development expertise, it's a public embarrassment for all parties. And it makes the fears expressed by fans and media look like a lot more than "laughable chatter."
So where does this leave Philly? The same place they were last year: playing players out of position. Gabriel Farfan is Hackworth's current first choice, but he's always looked far more comfortable playing further up field, a shift which saw his twin brother Michael make the MLS All-Star squad last season. Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams have slotted in when called upon, but both are naturally right-sided players.
The Union have a spotty history with left backs. The team has gone through four starters in the position since its inaugural year in 2010.
David Myrie was infamously cut after one game, the abysmal franchise opener against the Seattle Sounders. After expansion draft selection Jordan Harvey nailed down the position as his own and became a fan favorite and a member of the team's early 2011 apex, he was shipped off to Vancouver. The Union then failed in a reported bid to sign Italian World Cup winner Fabio Grosso, balking at his wage demands. Costa Rican international Porfirio Lopez was supposed to be the answer in 2012, but ended up a figure of ridicule and was frozen out soon after Hackworth took over. Gabe Farfan has thus been the default choice for most of the time since Harvey's departure, with brief periods where alternatives were tested and discarded, but the Union haven't adequately replaced the former Colorado Rapids man in nearly two years of trying.
No decision maker is perfect, and Hackworth shouldn't be crucified for every mistake, especially those made before his time in charge, but given the Union's history of head-scratching moves, maybe he shouldn't be laughing so much.
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