A matter of perspective

Photo by Daniel Gajdamowicz

Disclaimer: One win from eight games—and a mere point per game—is not good enough. Worse still have been the performances in those games, especially the last couple. At the start of the season, against Portland, New England, and Columbus, the Union seemed like a team that was a few more practices away from becoming a real contender in MLS. That feeling is quickly becoming a memory only.

It’s important to say that, because judging by the comments on this site of late, a lot of folks are pretty fed up. They see the players on the field and know how good they could be—should be—and vent their frustration at a coach and leadership team that seem incapable of maximizing that talent.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the Union could have won basically all of the games to date. They’ve never lost by more than one goal, and, in fact, are one of the tougher outs in the league. Five draws from eight games ain’t fun, but it beats losing.

But man, one win? Even DC United have two wins. DC United.

So, I am not here to say the glass is half-full. The time for blind optimism has passed.

However, it’s possible to have some perspective. The season is long, and much can change. At the end of it, we may look back and laugh at how bad things felt, just before things turned around. Or, we may see this as the beginning of the long, tortuous end of a lost season.

So, to provide a little hope, look at a couple of examples from MLS’s recent past that show a way out of the collective darkness.

Who says you need a good start? 2011 Sporting Kansas City didn’t.

In 2011, Sporting Kansas City, current MLS Cup Champions and perennial contenders, were languishing. Their brand new stadium yet to open, KC started the season with a record of 1–6–1. That’s right, they lost six of their first eight games, with a points total half that of the Union’s now. That team looked like a joke, floundering at the absolute bottom of MLS. Soccer City USA? Not by a long shot.

But where did they finish? Oh yeah, they were first in the Eastern Conference and won their first-round play-off series before losing to Houston in the Conference Finals. After their first eight games, they went undefeated over the next 14 matches, with a record of 6–0–8. They lost only three more games before the playoffs and have barely looked back since, becoming one of MLS’s juggernauts.

Kissing your sister? The 2013 Portland Timbers beg to differ.

Last season, the Portland Timbers won the Western Conference. They lost only five games, by far the fewest in MLS. The only other team without double-digit losses was the Supporters’-Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. But do you want to guess how many draws the Timbers had? 15. The Timbers drew nearly half their total league games.

That’s a lot of ties, and Portland took it’s fair share of criticism for it, but looking back on their season, do you think they care? All they see is five losses, a Western Conference title, and a trip to the MLS Cup Conference Finals.

In the end, it was really hard to beat the Timbers. They might not have won as many games as they would have liked, but the proof is in the pudding: If you don’t get beat, you’re going to do well in MLS.

Emptying half the glass

Are either of those teams perfect analogues to the 2014 Philadelphia Union? No, they are not. Kansas City played most of their early games on the road, and the Timbers play in an absolute cauldron of a home stadium, where it’s tough for any visiting team to hear, let alone win.

The other thing both those teams had, and continue to have, is excellent coaching. Peter Vermes and Caleb Porter are two of MLS’s finest coaches. You can quibble with their tactics, if you like, but it is undeniable that most teams would take them in a heartbeat.

That’s what this Union season will come down to. If John Hackworth is a good coach, he should be able to get results with these players. In past seasons, the roster was not up to snuff. While this year’s team may still have some holes, it is full of talented players all across the field. It’s the coach’s job to make those pieces mesh together, to implement a system that gets the most out of each and every one of them.

Because, for all the hullabaloo surrounding big name off-season signings like Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey or those DPs of yore like Thierry Henry and David Beckham, MLS is not a star’s league. It is a coach’s league.

Is John Hackworth a good enough coach? He has 26 games to prove that he is.


  1. My feelings on this matter are well known.

  2. What is the perspective on watching a coach ruin the career of someone like Riberio?

  3. Watching the team play on opening night in Portland, I do see the potential is there. What troubles me, as I wrote in the Postgame Video article is the coaching directive, willingness by team, plan? to just become a team that heaves balls into the middle. Finding space down the sidelines and crossing the ball is one thing….
    ….changing the game plan from the possession centered build the attack work from the inside out team I saw in Portland then NE to the one that has been playing these last four weeks is deeply troubling because it displays a lack of identity.

    Your point about Vermes and Porter and it being a coaches league are well taken and while I was initially thrilled with the Hackworth appointment, it seems more and more The Union may have gotten this one wrong- which in my mind means they are 0-2 in choosing coaches.

  4. The next 3 games will tell us a lot about John Hackworth. He will have to coach. He’ll have to implement plans and make competent in game decisions and adjustments. The starting line up can not have Wheeler at CB. You don’t go to all the trouble to bring in a stud CB in Austin Berry and keep him on the bench to start a backup. If Wheeler was going to be a CB then he should have been sent to Harrisburg until he became efficient at it. Okugo spends way too much time covering for Wheeler. To me the problem is that Hackworth can not communicate and get the most out of his real talent. I don’t know what kind of training he runs during the week because it’s not being put into action on the field. Noguiera is the only competent (Player)coach on this team because he is the only one making smart decisions. I hope that Hackworth is gone after this season.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    I haven’t studied Portland’s season last year that closely but the fact that they were 14-5-15 means they were probably turning games like the Union had against Columbus, RSL and NYPC into ties but they weren’t turning the games the Union had against Portland, Montreal, and Chicago into ties.

    • For this erudite comment, Andy, I will bring out the “BOOM!” Please, no more long throw ins. Please, no more long throw ins. Did I just repeat myself repeat myself.
      To be fair the long throw in, I guess is 9th on the list of 10 things amiss. Obviously though it irritates the hell out of me. Sorry.

  6. I think part of the problem is that Hackworth picked his system – what he calls a 4-3-3 – and is more or less forcing the players to play that way. A good coach will also mix up his formation in order to get the most out of his players, plain and simple.

  7. When you think you can change everyone’s position and not focus on what you have but rather what you want, your doing your players a disservice. Again, round peg, round hole….square peg, square hole.

  8. My issue is the parallels between this season and last season. Yes, we have new, more talented players this season, but the team’s failures from last year still persist in 2014.
    Why does this team still give up late goals?
    Why do they struggle so much when playing up a man?
    Why are they still terrible on set pieces?
    Why are players being thrust into positions that they don’t naturally play? (btw I’ve seen more than a few “Wheeler is young” comments on here. The guy is almost 26 and is hardly young enough to completely alter his position.)
    I’ll give Hackworth all the credit in the world for roster building. He did a great job last year with bringing in Casey, Le Toux, and Parke. He’s done an even better job of bringing in talent this year. But so far, the guy has not gotten results on the field and has continually made questionable decisions. Yes, it’s early but the similarities with the team from last year should give us fans every right to be worried.
    I hope Hackworth proves me wrong, but the sample size is getting larger each and every game.

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