A View from Afar / Commentary

The Union are the worst team in MLS

Photo: Daniel Studio

Exactly midway through their 2015 season, Philadelphia Union are the worst team in Major League Soccer.

Their 0.88 points per game is the league’s worst mark.

Their goal differential of -11 is also the league’s worst — even if you discount the 5-1 beating handed to them Saturday by Los Angeles.

They are also the first team to reach double digits in the loss column this season.

These are the facts.

Behind them, the story gets messier.

The Union’s problems go bone deep, a fact no longer possible to hide. The club appears to many like the classic cheap modern townhouse that crumbles in a hurricane while older, sturdier, better constructed homes withstand storm after storm. This team was constructed poorly. They can win some games, but unless things go perfectly — i.e. no major injury problems, no difficult road trips — they simply cannot compete with quality, modern MLS teams on a broad basis.

You see it in so many aspects of the team.

  • Take Maurice Edu, a talented soccer player who showed Saturday that he simply cannot accept that he does not play the box-to-box No. 8 role that former Union coach John Hackworth promised when he signed the former U.S. international. Now Edu is a center back who so badly wants to play midfield that he spent Saturday taking inexplicable jaunts up field that directly led to at least one opposition goal. It’s a shame, considering he’s a very good center back (and midfielder, actually) when he plays his actual position.
  • Take the Union’s bench, which was populated Saturday by a collection of players who more aptly belong with the USL club the Union are considering launching.
  • Take the Union general manager’s office, which remains nothing more than a hypothetical concept more than seven months after team chairman Jay Sugarman said he’d hire one.
  • Take Rais Mbolhi. Please, just take him, anywhere, as long as it’s off the salary budget.

To summarize: The state of the Union is really, really bad right now.

Firing the coach midseason would be almost pointless. The Union would still maintain the flawed organizational structure that set that coach up to fail from the beginning.

Simply put, the Union do not have enough quality players. It’s not enough in MLS to have 11 good players. You need 20, and you need enough to populate every position, including left back. When healthy, the team lacks adequate depth nearly everywhere but center forward, and thanks to injuries, you can add center forward to the list.

How do you fix this team?

That brings us to the question that everyone rants about but nobody can do anything about, other than the Union’s owners. We’ve been there so many times, and there comes a point at which even a columnist becomes tired of writing it. Since this isn’t the Time for New Ownership column, let’s focus on the more controllable items.

  1. Hire a general manager.
  2. Stop making bad big name signings.
  3. Start making good personnel decisions again.
  4. Make it a rule to find good starters for all 11 positions — including left back. Then do it.
  5. Fix the Union’s USL PRO connection. The Union led the way on this five years ago and have now fallen behind most of the league on it.

The Union’s failure to do those things over the last year are symptoms of the larger problem.

The Union have revealed themselves as small time competitors, outshined by those with more ambition, better vision, deeper pockets, or just more common sense. Their first manager left in a haze of recriminations and litigation, just months after his contract was extended. The team’s two biggest signings both ended their time with the Union by being banished from team activities. That speaks volumes about the organization’s decision-making.

Things need to change in a big way in the front office.

We have reached the point where many fans just don’t want to watch the games.

Personally, I turned Saturday’s game off when Carlos Ruiz entered the Los Angeles broadcast booth. (MLS Live’s feed featured the Galaxy’s television commentary team.) Yes, that actually happened, like Fate evilly twisting its mustache, right after Los Angeles scored their fifth goal. It’s as if the Little Fish That Flopped was waiting around and gleefully stepped in right after the Philadelphia team whose fan base he divided was officially getting pounded by the Los Angeles team he helped win a title.

Whatever he said, I just didn’t want to hear it.


  1. As a sadist, the Union are #1 in my book.

  2. Just need to take a look in the mirror is all…

    • The worst part is that we all (most) knew this was going to happen throughout the entire offseason. Nothing in the near future looks good unless some serious changes are made.

  3. I think it would be worthwhile to fire Curtin for a few reasons. IF (I dont think it will happen) the Union hire a GM, then he should he able to run a coach search beyond Sak’s iPhone. Curtin has lost this team. Edu’s running 70 yards upfield from the CB role to turn it over. That’s some sandlot crap. If Curtin designed it, he should be fired and summarily shot for incompetence.

    This team gives up 1.75 goals per game, 20th out of 20. For a coach who prided himself on a defense first mentality, it is apparent he is not ready for primetime.

    DC put their team together through a series of MLS trades and smart drafting. It doesn’t require millions to be competitive. It does require a plan.

    • I think firing Curtin right now might be among the worst things the Union could do. (Keeping he-who-shall-not-be-named and re-anointing him as the starter would be the worst. So this would, by default, be no “better” than second worst.) My reason? It requires looking at the alternative.
      So, the Union fire Curtin. Who manages? Trick question – it doesn’t matter because whoever it is will almost certainly be another “interim” coach. That coach is going to benefit from a dead cat bounce. And… that’s the problem right there. The Union simply can’t have yet another interim coach, hired mid-season, look like a genius just because of a dead cat bounce.
      Hire a GM. He (or she) spends the remainder of the season observing – observe practice, observe games, observe game tape of Union players out on loan (Hello, Leo Fernandes. How are you?), observes the training staff, the medical staff. Everything. Then when the final whistle blows, he (or she) takes all those observations and starts taking actions.
      This season is dead. It’s over. Getting better right now is meaningless and potentially harmful to future progress. Hire the GM, then let that person sit back and gather copious notes. Assuming those notes say “fire Curtin” over and over in the margins, you do it after the final whistle after the match against Orlando. We don’t need our 3rd interim coach in 4 years.
      The only exception to the above: If hiring a QUALITY GM requires making a coaching change right now to get him (or her) to sign, then so it. Otherwise, ride it out, observe, and take notes.

      • Ok, hire a GM. Who comes to play for Curtin?

        No. One.

      • Everything above you wrote JL wan’t that what Rene was supposed to be doing? Hell if I know.

      • Sure sounded like what RM was supposed to be doing. Minus the “hire him as a GM” part, that is.
        Scotty – I think there are players who prefer Curtin (at least compared to Hackworth), but that doesn’t really matter. That said, they sure as hell rolled over and played dead on Saturday. But that’s immaterial to my point. Right now, there’s no decision-maker in place. So running Curtin out of town and naming an interim is a futile exercise. Save it for the off-season.

      • I would kill to read Rene’s final report. How do you report fire Sakiewicz to Sakiewicz?

      • Dear Nick,
        Hugs and Kisses.

      • That works.

      • My final recommendation to the Union was pretty simple… Vision, Philosophy & Plan.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Beginning to conclude that Sakewicz simply does not want to accept being told that he needs a general manager. He believes he is a good one, and as the managing general partner, he is pretty close to the positions held in the NFL by George Halas and in MLB by Cornelius Magillicuddy (Connie Mac). If you own it, if you want to be GM, or coach, or both, you can.

      • Or Jerry Jones.

      • John,

        The real question is if you decide to fire Curtin now, what manager is going to take that job right now? Any potential candidate with eyes can see what the flaws are with the current set up and are not gonna take that job given what’s happened over the last six years.

        So I totally agree with you that you just ride out the season and resist the urge to sacrifice long-term progress in exchange for short-term gains. The fix here is not a band-aid, it’s major reconstructive surgery.

  4. “. . . but if they win their next game their in a playoff spot!”
    (spoken sarcastically in one of a Jim Curtin/Nikky Sak/Jonathan Tannenwald/Kevin Kinkead voice . . . or frantically typed in all caps from one very optimistic pre-season contributor who unfortunately doesn’t come a visiting anymore.)

  5. 6. Sign some damn Academy players! 3 years and 3 months since the last signing, but who’s counting!

  6. Nothing changes. In 6 years. The same old song…
    …. a 45 skipping on an old gramophone: Vision. Philosophy. Plan. Vision. Philosophy. Plan. Vision. Philosophy. Plan. Vision. Philosophy. Plan. Vision. Philosophy. Plan.
    Maybe we can get Mr. S&S to lend a dime – place on the stylus and get the broken record to stop the ceaseless skipping.
    This club a tib fib compound fracture. So gruesome even averting the eyes will not due for the sound of the snap never leaves.
    This club is a gaper delay on the Schuykill. So maddening and in need of surrender …. that had you just left a minute earlier or checked the news, the forecast even…maybe a different route could have been planned…but you didn’t and now…breath and release and let go for that is ALL you can do.
    Had I known. Had I known… Had I known I was going to snap my leg or be stuck in such traffic…I would have chosen differently. And so it goes with this club.
    Truly. A disgrace. A despicable mess. A missed opportunity.
    Where is the general manager. Where is the Vision. The Philosophy. The Plan.

  7. Andy Muenz says:

    Point number 2 is well taken. As someone who has been a fan of the New York Rangers for many a year (please no hating!), I’ve seen a team that insisted on signing the biggest name free agent every year. Then the team would fail to make the playoffs or go out in the first round.
    Now they have a team built around a goaltender who has been with them for 10 years, talent that they’ve drafted and developed, a few journeyman 3rd and 4th liners, and just two “big” names (Nash and St. Louis) who are mercenaries. The last two seasons they made the finals and then won the President’s Trophy without the overabundance of big name signings.
    I’m sure any Union fan would accept a loss in the MLS Cup as a big improvement, especially if it was followed by a Supporters Shield (even if they then lost in the conference finals).

  8. I think you’re letting Jim Curtin off the hook too easily. While it may or may not make sense to fire him before the 2015 season comes to an end, JC has shown little evidence over the past year that he’s ready for a prime-time coaching position in MLS.

    Even with all the other problems facing this squad, I’m confident that the Union would be in much better shape today had the front office hired a more experienced and talented head coach at the end of last season, instead of electing to continue with their low-cost, in-house option.

    Do the Union need a general manager? Absolutely… but that individual won’t be a success unless he hires a quality head coach to work with in the effort to build a championship-level program.

    • Absolutely agree – and I say that as somebody who likes Curtin. I was a vocal advocate for hiring a manager and keeping Curtin on-board as an assistant and heir-apparent. But… that ship has sailed now.

  9. J in Section 125 says:

    The Sons of Ben and, really, all fans need to continue the “We Deserve Better” crusade against the front office to make a commitment to righting this damaged ship.

  10. It does no good to fire Curtin without having already hired a GM. You hire the GM and let that person decide wether to keep/fire Curtin and hire the replacement if necessary

  11. Let’s not ignore some players who we’ve all loved and praised in the past who we are now realizing suck.

    Le Toux
    Williams (maybe not suck, but painfully average)

    • Le Toux – nearly clinical enough with the ball as a player needs to be in today’s MLS.

      Wenger – guy that has so much talent he doesn’t know what to do with it.

      Gaddis – too hesitant to overlap and get forward

      Williams – average seems right

  12. Here is what I want to know how do you fix the team without hiring a GM or getting a new coach or FO or new players? Because ultimately this is what we get. The FO isn’t leaving and is terrible we’ve all known that for years. The so called GM search is BS (last I remember we’re 2 years or more in waiting for this position). The coaching staff and technical staff are inexperienced and out of their element, in over their heads, anyway you want to put it. And the players are down right not good enough. So while I agree that things need to change and the list looks nice how do things actually change when we know most of these things won’t happen. Ultimately, nothing on a larger scale with the organization will happen so the team is likely doomed, but the players themselves could take it upon their selves to try to develop their own style, plan, philosophy, and vision cause there certainly isn’t anyone else doing it. And to me this unfortunately might be the only option. Yet we don’t have players cohesive enough to develop something like this.

    • Right. At the end of the day, what matters is organization. The Union doesn’t have one. Until it does, players, coaches don’t matter. Perhaps it’s the result of really starting this club from scratch, but either way, there needs to be an institution. We as fans don’t see that institution being built. We have no evidence that anything is going to get better.

    • Surrender. Breath. Repeat affirmation. Surrender. Breath.

  13. It’s sad really. We can talk x’s and o’s all day because that is something we as fans are supposed to do. However, the dark cloud hanging over the fun of having an MLS franchise is the organization. It is this organization that is problematic from top to bottom. It’s easy to point to Edu’s bad performance, or Gaddis’ flaws or Fabinho’s or Le Toux and Wenger. But if you are going to bring in an Edu you’d better surround him with quality. You look at nearly every team in MLS who has a player or players that are expected to make an impact. They all have a core of skill to help showcase that impact player. Edu’s game vs LA was poor as I said yesterday but I think it was poor stemming from frustration with the team, the game, and more over entire Union organization. There are too many players on this team who flat out can not play at the MLS level period. Yet they are on the Union. I have doubts about some of them being USL quality. This organization likes to compare itself to Columbus, KC, DC, NE. However the impact players on all of those teams have a solid support group who don’t struggle to make basic skilled plays or to make and receive passes, shoot on net, finish plays, are professional with the ball at their feet. The Union consistently loose every 2nd ball. They are pathetic with the ball in the air. The coaching staff is woeful and Curtin is a user friendly Hackworth who(depth issues aside)has no plan and can’t adjust on the fly. But again it all boils down to a lack of any professional infrastructure, a clueless ownership and Nick Sakiewicz. It would be great to just talk x’s and o’s but when it comes to the Philadelphia Union this fan base doesn’t have the luxury. It was a nice view at 6th place but we will be lucky to match last years finish. We along with SOB’s campaigned relentlessly to get MLS’s attention to consider Philadelphia. Why can’t the same effort be used to pressure Sugarman and Sakiewicz and the league? We saw what a protest outside of PPL Park did. It made headlines and was the topic of national tv coverage. We need a bigger effort. We deserve better.

    Sell this franchise to a competent and financially competitive ownership.


  14. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Dan Walsh’s most important observation, as I ponder an article with several good one’s, is that an MLS roster needs 20 good players.
    I remember back in late February/ early March guessing a starting lineup and roster and then laying out the best salary information I had under each starter and each backup. Many, many backups were minimum salary players and starters were fairly highly paid without the largesse lavished on DPs. Given that it is a hard salary cap aside from the DP and Generation Adidas loopholes, there was a clear, probably heavy, imbalance onwards the starters. Injuries have shown the flaw in the strategy.
    Does anyone know if the players Union is still going to publish salary data? The “usual” May material had not appeared last time I looked for it.

    • I expect the players union will continue releasing the data. I certainly hope so. We’ll see. There’s a new CBA, so … things could have changed.

  15. It didn’t bother me when we were a laughing stock earlier this season. What bothers me now is the league-wide recognition how poorly our club is operated. The humor has legitimately turned into honest sympathy.

  16. How many fans and potential fans has this ineptitude cost?

  17. We can talk about what they need to do all we want, but we all know the ownership of Sak, Sug, and God knows who else… will never get it right because they don’t care and don’t have a clue. It’s the Ruben Amaro Effect or RAE. You have ZERO faith in the guy (or guys) who are in charge to turn things around. Until that change is made, and for the Union this truly means selling the team, we will just go round and round. The Union have a severe case of RAE, and it could be fatal.
    I agree with whoever said it above: What a missed opportunity this franchise is. Sad.

    • WSSM.
      Cliff of Union Despair.
      now RAE.
      An algorithm for each.

    • I guess nothing will change until we stop filling the stadium up… I’m truly torn between keeping my season tix when we see the F/O “CONTINUE” to repeat the same mistakes, or worse, find new ways to bullshit the dedicated, highly educated fan base here in Philly. FREE OUR FRANCHISE, SELL OUR TEAM NOW…

  18. Atomic Spartan says:

    All 5 points above are indeed excellent, and based on objective and incisive assessment. Just 1problem: None are likely to happen given the current FO. they just make too much sense to trust this Organization to execute. What have they done to trust that they are even capable of such ratiocination, much less aptitude?
    Philadelphia Union: Now the best argument for Pro-Rel in America. ( How do you say “Pro-Rel” in Latin?)

  19. A few years ago on this site I was ranting about something and someone kept responding “what do you want, Barcelona” and how I should find another team. To that eternal optimist I say screw you!!! This organization who I’ve been a founding member with and season tix (the good ones too 😉 just blows. I’m at a loss. I’d like to not go to any games this year but I find it fun sometimes. I’m on the cliff of despair but I want to kick and punch all the eternal optimists on the way down!!!!!

    • The Barca argument is trash and it irritates the hell out of me when I hear about it too. Nobody is expecting Barca. Nobody.
      To even mention Barca in the same breath as MLS is an outrage and insult to that great club- whether you like them or not.
      No….We the people…want a semblance this team belongs in the top tiered professional league of America, a belief in the present and the future with an eye on its evolved past…let alone be a Shield winner or Cup winner.
      Not…Four Score and Seven years ago…bullshit of total epic failure.
      Congratulations Mr. Sakiewicz and Mr. Sugarman… In six short years you have built a dream and stolen the same dream. You suck…..
      ….SO much and missed a GOLDEN opportunity to be magnificent- oh wait, your wealthy regardless of this shit product. Its we who suffer.

  20. Promotion/Relegation will never happen because the owners of these franchises will never back it. Jay Sugerman would never agree to Promotion/Relegation for the money it would cost him if his franchise were to drop. All the current owners are swimming in this same pool, however what separates the Galaxy Ownership or Orlando’s Ownership group is that they actually SPEND $$$ in order to put out a true competitive product that can compete against the best. Sugerman and Co. could care less how competitive their Franchise is because they feel that people will still just show up. Sugerman operates in a “Consequence Free” environment because he doesn’t have to spend to be competitive because what does it matter, they cannot drop a division, they will not lose broadcast rights or sponsorship money………so Until only 50 people show up to a match, the status quo will stay.

    This Front Office has truly bit the hand that feeds them, but nobody wants to put the dog down. Until real hard truths are dealt with, and this Ownership Held directly accountable for making this team and this city the laughing stock of the league……….I am sorry to say that all the above points are a pipe dream.

    Stop drinking the kool-ade, stop looking for a silver lining, and live in the reality that this franchise has been a huge failure over the last 6 years.

    I want to see this franchise sold, dismantled, restructured, re-branded, and the stadium relocated out of a demilitarized zone and into the city for which it is named for. There is no way that there are not other US and Foreign Investors trying to get into the MLS who could really do wonders for the city of Philadelphia and its MLS Franchise. Following the spirit of 1776 these new investors could be spun as the “Loyal 9” like our nations forefathers.

    All I know is that in a little over 2 months the Premier League is back, and all will be right in the world once again.

  21. The sad thing is that I honestly wonder why this article is really needed? What’s next week, an expansion that Messi is a quality player?

  22. I thought the hunt for a world class coach and striker was one of the top priorities while Jim was serving his interim role last season? We got neither.

    I am at the point where I am officially losing interest. Turned the last game off at halftime, never did that before. Didn’t really care when i heard the final score either.

    That’s when you know it’s getting bad, when you dig deep and still don’t care.

    Eventually more and more people will feel like I do and stop going to games. Surprised the attendance is as good as it is still.

  23. Everyone is saying “team can’t compete” etc. — essentially that certain players are not MLS capable — curious if anyone would include Ray or Sheanon in that label?

    I think we can all agree Nogs, Maidana, Mo, Nando and CJ are all MLS quality. I think Richie is definitely worthy too. Beyond that I’d say nawp.

    Obviously, bench depth being well below league quality is understood.

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