Analysis / Union

A coda: Union, 2013

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Somehow, this seems how it was supposed to end this year for Philadelphia Union.

An exciting, fiercely contested home game against a good Kansas City team.

A valiant effort, falling just short.

And the players everyone wanted to see play together all year long.

If you had asked 10 fans to list their favorite Union players, nine of them would have listed the lineup that ended the game, save Fabinho.

Jack McInerney, Sebastien Le Toux, Michael Farfan, Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams, Ray Gaddis, Zac MacMath, Jeff Parke, Conor Casey, and Roger Torres. Yes, that Roger Torres, who received the loudest cheers (as usual) when he entered the game Saturday.

It was only the second time this year that those 10 players played at the same time in a regular season game. The first time was opening day.

The match spoke volumes about the Union — not just what was wrong about the club, but also what was right.

It started with an evenly contested first half against one of the league’s top teams. Amobi Okugo played center midfield, which on a different day might have had many adult, male Union fans squealing like little girls.

Then a young player’s mental lapse led to a goal against the run of play when Antoine Hoppenot was caught ball-watching, lost his mark, and let Graham Zusi ghost in behind him for a header.

But the Union persevered. Goalkeeper Zac MacMath made clutch saves and continued to show how much he has progressed this season.

Then came the comeback, as the Union seemingly willed their way back into the game when Jeff Parke’s all-or-nothing header in a scrum found McInerney for the 88th minute goal.

The Union needed one more goal to win and have a shot at the playoffs, and they chased it desperately. That opened up the counterattack killer from a savvier opponent. And that was it.

As devastating as the outcome was, many fans will probably tell you that was the most fun they had all season.

Tell me that all doesn’t somehow feel right to you.

Wait till next year

In the end, this isn’t the storybook season. The Union don’t get to wear Cinderella’s slipper.

But when Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams talk about this season feeling like a waste, they are absolutely wrong.

As a team, the Union took some key steps. The club’s course was stabilized after a historically destructive 2012 under Peter Nowak. The team was competitive despite clear financial disadvantages. The salary budget has been cleared for next season. Talented young players like McInerney, MacMath, Okugo, and Williams took clear, important steps in their development and cemented themselves as part of the Union’s long-term nucleus. (Yes, Michael Farfan struggled and probably regressed, but he is the notable exception among that young core.) Veterans Conor Casey, Jeff Parke and Sebastien Le Toux established themselves as key on-field cogs who fit the Union’s team-first ethos perfectly.

The problems with the Union are well known. They played ugly soccer this year, lack a central creative playmaker (Kleberson likely won’t be back in 2014), and showed a maddening tendency to deploy attacking midfielders (Keon Daniel, Danny Cruz) who don’t consistently add to the attack. (Cruz had just 25 touches and nine passes in 70 minutes Saturday.)

The foundation is laid, however, for a strong 2014. This is a young team with a good nucleus. They will have two top-six picks in the amateur draft, about one-third of their salary budget will be freed up, and they will have cleared their designated player from the books. Union manager John Hackworth should have the tools he needs to sign players who will help transform this team into one that plays attractive soccer that is as routinely fun to watch as teams like Portland, Salt Lake, and Colorado are. (More on this in a few days.) Meanwhile, Hackworth’s young players should be incredibly motivated after this season’s crushing end.

It’s all set up for a great 2014 that could set the franchise’s course for many years to come.

Next year, there are no excuses.

31 Comments

  1. Agree completely. And I think your assessment of the game much better reflected the reality than Eli’s characteristically dour assessment.

    This team needs 3 midfielders: a left winger, a CAM, and CDM who can actually push the ball forward. That could be Okugo, in which case you need a center back. With even 2 of those 3 pieces (and some defensive depth!), the Union could be a dangerous team next year.

    • Anding, Hernandez and the #2 SuperDraft pick?

    • Union Rumors says:

      I’m hearing that the team is targeting a South American central defender to sign in the offseason. This leads me to wonder if Carroll’s time with the Union is done, Okugo moves back to CDM, and we get someone to partner up with Parke next season.

      • It wouldn’t surprise me if they went with a backline next year similar to what we saw Saturday, with Williams at CB and Gaddis out right. I don’t think Fabinho is necessarily a long term answer at LB so they’d need to pursue that. What else is new?

      • hopefully that partner will be Valdez…one can only hope…

      • Section 114 says:

        It won’t be Valdes. Colombia made the WC and, unless he falls out of the national team’s plans, he’s in South America through 2014. I hope he comes back someday, but it’s not going to happen.

  2. Sums up my feelings pretty well

  3. UnitedPenn13 says:

    “Maybe next year”, the standard Philadelphia sports team refrain.

  4. There were points during the Nowak death spiral of 2012 that I debated giving up my season tickets. Going to the games had stopped being fun — that’s my only criterion for keeping my tickets. This year, despite all the frustrations of lineups and the at-times horrid soccer, going to the games was fun. I’m looking forward to even more fun next year!

    • I agree with Dan’s piece and your comment. Despite not getting into the playoffs, the games were generally more fun this year than last year.

  5. Thank You, Dan!! 🙂

  6. One of my thoughts throughout the season is that the Union had too many ties. The difference between a tie and a win is twice as big as between a tie and a loss. The only team in the playoffs with a double digit number of ties was Portland, and with only 5 losses, they can handle more ties than most.

    I thought it would be interesting to break down the Union’s 10 ties into 3 categories. First, there were the 3 0-0 draws. All of these were against playoff teams and with 2 coming against the conference winners, it’s hard to feel that bad about any of these (with the possible exception of the home draw against Montreal).

    The next group are the three against Seattle, Dallas, and RSL, as well as the one in Columbus. All of these were games where the Union had the lead but couldn’t hold it. Something the team needs to focus on next year is how to play smart in trying to increase the lead while at the same time not blowing the lead. This is probably the area where the lack of midfield ball control probably hurt the most.

    Finally, there were the three come from behind ties with Toronto and DC United. Looking back at the season, these were the 6 points that really cost the Union a playoff spot. These were against BAD teams where the Union did not have the game plan to come out and attack the way they needed to. These were games that should have been put away early the way they showed they could in June against Columbus and New York. If Hackworth keeps his job next year, they are the games he really needs to be judged by since they are the difference between a team that is on the field practicing today and one that is cleaning out their lockers.

  7. Smackey the Frog says:

    Dear Santa, all I want is some midfield depth and a manager with a modicum of tactical awareness. We all saw what Kelyn Rowe did for NE this season, right? Any players half as good coming out of the draft that we can snag with pick numero dos? Pretty please?

    • Steven Neumann. Council Rock/ New Hope, PA native. Was offered a contract with the MLS last year, but turned it down to complete his degree. Looks to be a solid CM/CAM. Second year as a captain. Also plays/played for Reading. We should pick him up with the Chivas’ 1st round pick.

      • Is he a real CAM? Or another one of those “Ah well … he was thrown in a CAM role once in a blue moon and looked decent so yeah, he’d be great a MLS CAM!!!!!!”

      • He’s listed as FWD/MID for Georgetown and plays both positions.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    As the (excellent) article states, next year is big. If the U get this right, they could really set themselves up to move into the upper echelon of MLS teams. They really have a nice mix of youth and veterans. Not to be too negative, but I have little faith this FO can get this done. Prove me wrong!
    .
    All in all this year was fun, and I am glad I renewed for next year. I am looking forward to a better results and more attractive soccer… I hope.
    .
    But for now… LET’S GO FLYERS!!

  9. Don’t forget to add “Choke in the box” to that list. How many times have we had forwards make great runs towards the box and instead of taking shots they turn around and wait for everyone else to catch up or pass to players who are clearly marked. “Just take the shot!!” is something i’ve found myself yelling a lot more than last season

    but alas, we had a much better season this year than last year so it IS an improvement, and much like the eagles I saw this season as a rebuilding year anyway. Still, i have doubts/concerns about Hackworth. Whereas Novak constantly shifted players around, Hackworth is the exact opposite in that he sticks to the same players day in, day out.

    Can’t wait to see how next season turns out. If we continue to play poorly it will be my last season ticket purchase.

  10. Does anyone know whether Jack, Okugo, Shaennon, Zac, and Marfan are under contract for next year? It would be a real downer to see them leave, whether for Union legend Allocation Money or on a free transfer.
    .
    As much as I love seeing Casey, LeToux, Parke, Hoppenot, etc. play, those five young’uns (and Gaddis) are the core of this team. Without them, the last four years are a waste and we are restarting from scratch.
    .
    The only guys I hope are gone, even if I’m grateful for their service, are Carroll and Freed Keon. Not sure about Fernandes yet.
    .
    Guys who have a role, if they are budgeted accordingly and used as reserves: Cruz, Wheeler, Fabinho, Random Young Guys.

  11. Well we finished 15th last year, and 14th this year. So I guess you can call that an improvement. I just don’t think that Hackworth is up to the task. Next year will likely be more of the same. Here’s to hoping for the best but prepairing for the worst.

    • I don’t think it makes sense to judge by position in the standings. Last year the Union were 17 points away from the last playoff spot in the East. This year they were 13 points from the Supporters Shield. That’s a HUGE difference.

  12. Dan, you write “the problems of the Union are well known” but fail to mention that Hack was outcoached more than once. This group of players could have gotten the points required to get into the playoffs with a better coach!! You seem to have accepted mediocracy…

    • No, but I just didn’t see the need to hammer that nail into oblivion. Plus, EVERY coach has been outcoached more than once. It comes with the territory.

      Hackworth has next year to show what he can do with a full salary budget. The true measure of him as a coach will be whether he can put together an attractive, attacking team or not once he’s operating without the handicaps he began this year with. If he can’t, then obviously you have to start looking for someone else. We’ll see.

      • Really? You’re willing to risk another terrible season? We will see shortly what moves he will be making. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t good enough.

      • I wouldn’t call this a terrible season, but yes, I’m willing to risk one. Click here for my argument as to why.

      • He got outcoached once too many, had no plan B once the opposition figured him out (just like last year!), and was unable to get the most out his key players. A coach like Mike Petke clearly can get the most out of his players and in just 1 year won NYRB’s first trophy! That’s the kind of coach we need.
        .
        You should not play with fire with the delicate situation we find ourselves in. Would be different if the stadium was packed. These days it is not and the ‘expansion’ plans we talked about 2 years ago are clearly off the table.

      • Not to say Petke just stumbled into the shield but let’s remember he was handed a pretty stacked roster

  13. I must have been at a different game! My nephew from UK came with us for his first Union match and had to go through that!? Oh how we missed the midfield control of Carroll. MacMath was our saviour and should have been man of the match. Union looked as if they were already on vacation. Great to see Roger but Casey should have come off – his timing wasn’t on – and McInerney has got to get the fire back that he had last season. He is getting lazier (yes, the goal was OK but would have been ho-hum in his older iteration) I’ll be back next season, of course, not a plastic fan, but come on guys. Look as if you are trying, at least. Lower case doop.

  14. See Ya Brian Carroll, don’t let the door hit you in the ass! I would rather have Freddie Adu, at least he could handle passing.

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