A View from Afar

They are who we thought they were, 2014 edition

Photo: Earl Gardner

They are who we thought they were.

A good team.

Six months after we predicted Philadelphia Union would make the playoffs, the Union stand within reach of that goal. Since Jim Curtin took over as interim head coach, they are 11-2-3 in competitive matches. Their best 11 are perhaps the best this team has ever had. They are controlling games they should control and catching lucky breaks when they need them, such as Toronto’s ping-pong game with the woodwork Saturday.

On any given day, the Union can beat any team in the league. They are hitting stride at exactly the right time, building confidence as they look at a push toward the playoffs and a shot to win their first ever trophy on Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup final against Seattle in PPL Park.

Repeat: This is a good team. It’s OK to say it. It’s OK to get excited. Because they could do what everyone hoped they would. They might be the best team in the Eastern Conference right now.

They had the talent early this season, but it took time to figure out how the pieces mesh. Vincent Nogueira and Chaco Maidana are in their comfort zones playing positions they typically played overseas. The back line injuries that marred the season’s start are a thing of the past. The oft-overlooked Sheanon Williams is healthy again and playing good soccer on both ends of the field, while Maurice Edu and Carlos Valdes have rectified the center back mess with some help from Ethan White. Sebastien Le Toux is playing as a striker again, and Andrew Wenger … well, that’s where we have to start talking about coaching.

Wenger has netted three goals in his last three games playing as a target winger, akin to how Peter Vermes successfully deployed Kei Kamara in Kansas City. Since he entered the league, the question has been where Wenger fit on the field, having starred as both a striker and defender in college. So far, target winger has been better than either. Wenger has confidence. He is the missing piece that completes the Union attack.

The lack of an adequate left winger is what prompted former Union manager John Hackworth to try Maidana in the role and Nogueira as a No. 10 central attacking midfielder. Each played well enough, but they were both slightly out of their comfort zone and best position. Wenger’s ability to lock down the role means Maidana and Nogueira can slide more permanently into their best roles: Maidana as the creative No. 10, and Nogueira as a No. 8 linking midfielder.

This may be the single biggest difference between Curtin and Hackworth. Curtin keeps it simple and tries to put players where they would tell you they feel most comfortable. Hackworth tried players where he thought they fit best.

Hackworth was often right to do so. Amobi Okugo’s breakthrough came as a central defender, even though Okugo prefers midfield. Hackworth was right to play him at center back when he did, and he was probably right to experiment with Nogueira farther up the pitch. If only Hackworth had more time to see how those experiments played out, he might be reaping the benefits of the very good roster that he assembled. His potential future employers should take notice. Hackworth was a whiz at player acquisition, and the one deal he took heat for — Wenger for Jack McInerney — suddenly looks pretty good.

Curtin has benefited from that talented roster, but he has done a fantastic job in his own right. He made simple tactical and lineup changes that needed to be made more quickly than Hackworth did. Le Toux, Maidana, Nogueira and Okugo have all shifted to their favored positions and benefited accordingly, while Wenger has flourished in an entirely new role.

Hackworth tried to turn his counterattacking squad into a more attractive possession team, and it didn’t work out due to injuries to the back line that turned the defense into a sieve. By the time he adjusted and returned to a more pragmatic style, his job security had evaporated.

Curtin has learned from that and has continued Philadelphia’s progression back to a counterattacking squad. He’s been able to do that because of Edu, Valdes and Ethan White in the middle and Zac MacMath’s fine play in goal. Curtin is content to win 1-0 games. He may win a few more.

When we said last year that the Union were who we thought they were, it was because their masquerade as a good team had ended and they had revealed themselves to be perfectly mediocre.

In 2014, it is just the opposite. The good soccer is not a mirage. If they keep this up, the Union can win a trophy or two this year.


  1. The one thing that could screw this up (besides critical injuries) is the mess that the FO has created at the keeper spot.

    • I think you do the difficult thing and… find a new home for Mbolhi. If this squad has proved one thing it’s that continuity pays off.

      • I am fine with this move. I have no issue with the FO re-evaluating that move and deciding it is better to move M’bolhi. That doesn’t exactly equal out to admitting a mistake (it may very well be), it’s more about seeing that the goalie you had has now progressed even further through your inadvertent motivating move.

    • McMath has played well at times and cost us games at other times. He continues to have trouble dealing with balls in the air in the box and his continued forays outside the box to deal with oncoming forwards more often than not are a problem. What he is is a shot stopper. In this game that is probably not enough.

      We all tend to overvalue what we have become accustomed to.

      • Statistically this year Zac is at least a top 10 goalie (better in some rankings). If that has value that we lose entirely (say, expansion draft) that’s on the FO. Also you can’t keep 2 international GKs because of national call ups. Zac is not going to stay to back up Mbohli. Sak hasn’t seen fit to reveal the master plan to untie these knotty problems – that FO created – because . . . .

  2. I think the most telling comment about how things have changed under Curtin came from Sebastien Le Toux when he started scoring soon after Curtin’s appointment as the interim manager. SLT noted how he had a much greater sense of what his role was on the field and how to play it once Curtin was put in charge.
    As well as Hackworth did piecing the team together behind the scenes, it is Curtin who has been able to put the pieces together on the field and get them to function with a purpose in each position. Impressive to watch right now…hopefully it maintains. This might be the most tactically astute the team has been in the history of the franchise.

    • This is exactly why Sack may move to a GM and Manager setup. Let the GM and technical staff hunt down the players that are needed for the manager. Let the manager motivate and put them in positions to succeed. If this is the case, I am in favor of keeping Curtin as manager. He obviously has performed the role I just defined.

  3. Seriously, guys, player announcement.

  4. “or two” !!! So bold for just 5 letters snuck in at the end. Love it! Excited for the next month.
    A big test for Curtin will be roster management between NYRB on Sat and USOC on Tuesday. As much as I want us to beat NYRB, the USOC takes priority for me. We may need some squad players to step up against RedBull.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I’d go balls out with the lineup this weekend and the Final Tuesday, then worry about the fallout against Houston Saturday. I know it’s damn near impossible to do so, but that’s just my thought.

      • John O'Donnell says:

        Right now you need to catch New York, more than hold off Houston, so I agree with you. You beat New York you take momentum into a home game with Seattle, who also have a big game with RSL and have to fly across the country. It also gets you into striking distance of KC as they would trail them by three points with a game in hand and we play them one more time at home.

    • Yeah. Or two. 🙂

  5. I would bet that Curtin is a much better communicator to the players than Hackworth ever was. I think it shows in Curtin’s sideline demeanor. He’s very even keel without the histrionics that Hackworth went through (i.e. – moaning to the 4th official, yelling out instructions, etc.). I also think it helps that Curtin played professionally and he understands the mindset of a pro player versus a youth player.

    I think Matt Doyle (the Armchair Analyst) has had some interest observations about the Union as well. I don’t think it’s a stretch for us to expect to get in the playoffs and make a strong case for coming out of the East.

  6. This team looks like it’s more than up to the challenge of beating every team in the east right now. With Chaco, Nogs and Amobi in the midfield, anything is possible. Eager to Get Valdes back as well. This team looks killer right now. And at the perfect time.

    Union definitely need to spare no effort in beating NYCRB this weekend. I’ll be following that NY v DC game tonight to see how they look.

  7. They’re good. How good it’s too soon to say. The XI against TFC was very good & subs were good. GK will be an issue. Health & stamina up front, too. Right now there is a big drop off in the subs. Getting Brown & Ribeiro untracked would be really nice. The view from up here (not just from afar) is different, & opponents are going to raise their play level for matches against the “new U.” And these are all the problems we should love to have. Except that FO. Doesn’t Sak need to go to Europe for a few months – or can’t you at least invite him, Dan? Per favore?

  8. I think you are being too charitable to Hackworth. Whatever his strategy and player deployment was it clearly didn’t work, and Curtin managed to fix it promptly. For many games early in the seaon it seemed the U didn’t have any strategy at all, there was no cohesion. That is on Hackworth too.

    You didn’t mention the complete disappearance of Hackworth favorites Hoppenot and Fabinho since Curtin’s arrival.

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