Why do we fall?

Photo: Earl Gardner


I wasn’t at PPL Park last night. As much as I wanted to, I simply couldn’t get to Chester, a function of having a new job and a life ninety miles up I-95. But, even though I had to follow along through the worthless GolTV broadcast, the loss still felt like Eric Lindros being checked out of the Conference Finals by Scott Stevens. (The original simile here was “like Clint Dempsey being kicked in the face,” but I can’t quite sympathize with the U.S. captain right now, for obvious reasons.) I can’t imagine how much worse it was in the park, where not even GOLTV could minimize one of the best crowds in Union history turning up, full-throat, to support our team.

(As an aside, GOLTV produced this game as though they were trying to put together the worst soccer broadcast in the history of the known universe. Announcers obviously calling the game off monitors? Check. Play-by-play guy who couldn’t pronounce the names or follow the action? Check. Color guy who appeared to have no idea what “soccer” is? Check. Add to that cameras that were adept at missing the action and a healthy dose of pixelation and you have one awful experience. This Cup deserves better, and hopefully a new TV deal next year will match the history of the tournament and the caliber of last night’s match.)

It’s not as though the Union were destroyed; in fact, the power of their performance is what made the loss feel even more painful. The team’s splashy winter signings dominated the game — Cristian Maidana running the final third, Maurice Edu destroying through the middle (and bagging the lone goal), and Vincent Nogueira the omnipresent conductor around which the entire team tried to pull together a symphony. Six inches to the left on a chance in the 91st minute, and Nogueira would have grabbed the most important goal in Union history. The Union got a huge performance from their lame-duck keeper, Zac MacMath, and the suddenly revived Andrew Wenger put the screws to DeAndre Yedlin all night long. It was an incredible game, and the Union gave a performance they can be proud of.

And yet they lost. 

Though they hung with the Sounders for a hundred minutes of soccer, the result exposed flaws in both roster construction and management. The Union have a talented defense, a deep midfield, and (most importantly!) a limitless arsenal of goalkeepers. But, at forward, the options after Conor Casey are an out-of-position Pedro Ribeiro and an in-over-his-head Brian Brown. Both are nice prospects, and I would wager that they will both be productive MLS players some day. They’re not there yet, though, and Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins slicing through the defense in extra time planted the thought in everyone’s minds. The Union still lack a quality MLS striker as cover for Casey, a skillful mountain of a man who can’t go more than 60 minutes a game at this stage in his career.

Jim Curtin has pressed almost every button correctly since stepping into the manager’s chair, but he overthought his midfield last night. If Zac MacMath deserved to start in goal, then Amobi Okugo deserved to start in the midfield. The lone remaining Union original has been the club’s most loyal soldier over the past five years, and nothing in his form suggested he deserved the drop. Edu was fantastic in midfield, but the cost was a severely weakened backline. Carlos Valdes, still working his way to fitness, was asked to carry Ethan White all game. Their chemistry and skill was off on the night, and it’s hard to think that Edu slotting in for White wouldn’t have settled things down. Combined with the choice of a bench that featured all three of Okugo, Carroll, and Lahoud — in what possible situation would all three of these defensive midfielders be necessary? — and Curtin didn’t put the Union in the best spot to succeed last night.

So it hurt, both to lose and to know that the elusive first trophy was so close. That said, the Union wake up today still in a great position, with the Major League Soccer campaign far from over as we move into the fall. There are six games left, all in the Eastern Conference and all but two at PPL Park. After a disastrous start to the season, an improbable trip to the playoffs remains in sight. There is little question that, on both talent and form, they are one of the five best teams in the Eastern Conference. They have six more games to prove it, and possibly do even more. And the audition continues for Jim Curtin; he, like his players, has everything to fight for.

Pain fades with time, but the memory of pain can be almost as powerful as the thing itself, the spark that brings a stagnant engine to life. This team, for the first time in a long time, has fuel. They will remember staring at the victors, clad in radioactive green, celebrating on their home turf. They will remember the roar of a crowd rising as one, backing a team that put it all on the line. They’ve been knocked down, but the season is not over, and there’s more work to be done. Will the Union learn how to pick themselves up?


  1. You lips to God’s ears Peter. When I saw the boys walking out and didn’t see Amobi Okugo I was really sad for the team and mostly for him. Edu is an excellent player and he would have carried the day fine at CB with Valdez. White is a nice player but the man was in Harrisburg to start the season -and his playing had Okugo resigned to the bench. A bit insulting to me if I am Okugo. Truth be told it will be interesting to see how things play out as that is a slight that would not be taken lightly were it happening to me when it comes to a new contract.
    I was fortunate to watch on TCN which was reasonable coverage though Pappas really brings no insight to the circuitry and structure of the game. Not one mention that I heard about the line up leaving off one of the original players from day 1.
    I can tolerate the loss. I can tolerate the team not having the weapons yet to deploy. What I cannot tolerate is keeping a weapon in the holster. Total over thinking job by a manager who up to now has carried himself respectfully.
    I am back on my wagon of wanting a more qualified manager to lead the team forward for a few years till JC learns some more nuance. My wife was annoyed that I was a frump watching the game- but as a loyal supporter of the team and certain players its hard not be dejected.
    Could you imagine Rodgers leaving Gerrard on the side line for a Cup final because some reserve player has been showing decently lately. And no I am not comparing Okugo to Gerrard. Or am I.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Your not. You are, however, exactly right. Valdes and Edu in the back, with Okugo and Nogs in the midfield. That is out most talented team. Curtain pulled a Hackworth and over thought it. Sucks. That may have cost him the permanent job.

  2. I truly admire how Jim Curtin turned this team around and appreciate the job he’s done, but he got a number of decision wrong last night. We signed a world class keeper….you have to use him in the most important game in club history. Anyone who needed a reminder of why we signed him saw it on Henry’s goal Saturday. On the first goal, McMath started off his line, then retreated and got caught back on his heels (from your article, you probably couldn’t see this on GolTV’s broadcast!)…on the second goal, he got beat at the near post. Add in a number of questionable distributions and you have a less than impressive performance. Yes, the one save was brilliant….but don’t let it mask a number of other flaws.

    The second huge mistake was the substitution of Wenger. Wenger caused enough problems that he kept Yedlin pinned down, worrying more about his defensive responsibilities rather than going forward. Once Wenger left the game, Yedlin was free to join the attack. Maidana (again, I appreciated what he’s done throughout the season) was sub-par last night (I base this not only on my own observations, but from the continual groans from those around me as he perpetually lost the ball). Subbing Okugo for Maidana and pushing Noguiera more advanced would have helped deal with the Seattle subs of Martins and Pappas and kept Wenger in to occupy Yedlin.

    All-in-all, still a great experience to be there last night and hopefully our form will continue that we get to see a home playoff match as well!

    • Last night, I thought MacMath was at fault for the first goal, but the more I look back at it, I blame the defense. Edu, Valdes and White were all in the area of the first header, and none of them jumped for it. That’s twice this year that Seattle had scored on us because a defender didn’t jump to clear a ball out. If we ripped Wheeler for it earlier this year, we’ve got to do the same now.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Ethan White CAN NOT distribute. He struggles clearing the ball. He’s not terrible, and played ok last night, but he’s not ready to be the starter in the most important game in Union history (so far!!)

      • At the game, I was sure it was McMath’s fault. On replay, I don’t think so. He had the right instinct (to move for the ball), and then a combination of a slight bump by Barrett and the lack of height on the Valdes “clear” had him change his mind. As a former keeper, I don’t think he gets there after that bump.
        He then got back on the line and made a beauty of a kick save. Unfortunately, the rebound fell wrong.
        The game was lost not by Curtin, or McMath, or anyone in particular, but the team just came up a touch short on finishing. Whether we are talking about Ribeiro’s sitter, or whatever, we left a couple of goals on the pitch in the first 90.
        That said, Dempsey left two sitters out there too (and those fall on Valdes and White). In the end, we played a great game, came up tantilizingly close, but were beated by what is probably the best team in North America. I hope we get another shot in the MLS Cup.
        Finally, I agree that Okugo belonged on the pitch. But that wasn’t the cause of the loss. We got beaten by a team that was incredibly talented and deep and outplayed us by a smidge. Not every loss has a villain.

  3. “Combined with the choice of a bench that featured all three of Okugo, Carroll, and Lahoud — in what possible situation would all three of these defensive midfielders be necessary? — and Curtin didn’t put the Union in the best spot to succeed last night.”
    Part of that, I think, was not having much in the way of other options. USOC games are limited to 5 international players. (Le Toux, Fred, and Lahoud have green cards and don’t count.) Lahoud wasn’t on the bench as a midfielder; he was your backup fullback, most likely. And while Carroll and Okugo are both DM in name, they bring different skill sets. If Nog bags that goal at 91 minutes, would anybody have been surprised to see Carroll come on for Maidana? Okugo is cover for either an issue with Nog, Edu, or a center back.
    I mean, don’t get me wrong. I really wish we had better options for offense than Pedro and Cruz – and I like Pedro. But between the international limit, some players being Cup tied to Harrisburg, and others being loaned to Harrisburg, I’m not sure what other options Curtain had for his bench.

    • old soccer coach says:

      Thanks for the clarification about USOC international player rules, and the reminder about HCI cup tied possibilities, altho’ Ribeiro’s status might be interesting since he was an HCI center back when they would have been starting their cup play, perhaps. I had not realized that Fred has a green card; much obliged.

    • So you are saying that Brown was left off the team to make space for M’bolhi as a backup keeper, right? I know that’s not your point, but it’s a good one. It’s really silly for this team to have two internationals as keepers — both for international windows and for the US Open Cup. You should not waste one of those five slots on someone who has a very minimal chance of seeing the pitch, but Curtin didn’t have a choice.

  4. I look at last night’s game and it all comes down to lack of a dynamic striker. Credit Conor for the type of game he plays, but he can’t be played a through ball. Everything he does is back to the goal or in the air. It causes us to get very one dimensional. Granted, Wenger’s growth as a wing has been incredible, I think we still need a striker with pace that can make dangerous runs and create space for others to run off.
    Sak and Albright certainly have to address this in the offseason. I’m not sure where we lie from a cap perspective, but I’d really like to see a move made for a household name poacher. With the stable of cdm’s we have, it makes no sense not to have a player that can push the opposition back line.

  5. The only criticism for the lineup is not having Okugo on the field as DM by sacrificing White. The team picked itself last night. I think our weaknesses were exposed by a deep and talented team. That’s ok, we played 100 minutes toe to toe with possibly THE best team in MLS. Let’s not forget that. We lack an impact bench. Even if Okugo plays, Ribeiro or Brown is not a good enough attacker off the bench. Cruz is not a threat just a pest. The rest of the bench is a Goalie and 3 DM (2 and a CB if Okugo played). What can you really do with that?
    As pissed as I was about Okugo, I am still slightly partial to Curtin keeping his role. At the very least he gets the remainder of the season at the helm. We are still in the playoff hunt. There is still a chance, a chance provided by Jim Curtin.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Given our lack of a bench, I would have started Cruz and brought Wenger on at half. I would rather have Wenger for 45 (or so) mins plus extra than Cruz for some regular time, then all of extra time, like we did.

      • maybe you should be head coach If you were honestly thinking that pre-game, and not just after you saw the sounders do it with Martins. for lack of a better expression…its easy to be a monday morning quarterback.

  6. We fell because we did not score more (even though we had plenty of opportunities). And we will fall again (in the play-offs; should we get that far) if we have another similar night. It does not matter whether Okugo played or Rais; it was just a bad night for us when on another night some of the chances would have gone in.
    In general this team scores plenty.
    One thing they should improve on big time are the corners. We must have had (again) close to 10 and during one the ball bounced around and just needed a small touch but our conversion ratio is abysmal and just does not seem to get any better.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Like the one that went through the box untouched in extra time, when we still just down a goal?!? Frustrating…

    • I agree. They were 6 inches away from a win in which case we’d be having a completely different discussion. It would have been one thing if the Union had been blown out or hadn’t generated any offense or if White had played horribly. Then the criticism for not having Okugo starting would be justified. But in the current situation it’s not clear things would have been different. We all knew Curtin had a tough decision to make and he went with what he thought gave the Union the best chance to win the game AND to be in playoff position in 6 weeks. And he was almost right.

  7. The simile you’re looking for is ‘the loss felt like Rocky I’. Here’s hoping the MLS Cup is Rocky II.

  8. We lost fair and square to a superior team. Almost forgot I hate Danny Cruz.

  9. Sad that discussion of yesterday’s loss has devolved to whether Okugo was in the lineup or not.
    If Ribs or Nogs, had scored would we be arguing that Okugo’s inclusion would have led to a loss?
    This is poor writing and observation (Edu and Valdes would have great chemistry cuz?) and takes away from the performance of our team.
    The Union played a great game and I’ve never been more proud of them. Special shout out to the three center mids. Edu, Nog and Chaco were amazing (great argument to put Okugo back at CB).
    Also, Joel…just ask him out already 🙂

    • My man crush stays clearly on the side of heterosexuality. 🙂

    • Great that the discussion focussed on the failure of the coach to make the most important decision of his coaching career so far. Yes we may have lost with Okugo playing after all we have not won every match he played. But not playing a player of his caliber in the teams’ most important game was stupidity at best. We also seem to to focus on the ONE goal that Nog missed and yet ignore the fact that Seattle easily would have scored 5 goals in that match.

      Jedi- The whole point is that the best player did not play because wanted to attempt his luck. Thought he had learned that “Good Luck is Not Good Business”.

  10. Philly fans should hold their heads high. Okugo being on the bench could have been a fitness issue. Philly created lots of chances against arguably the best team in the MLS. Philly could have won the day in the first 90 were it not for a post and brilliant positioning on the part of Seattle’s keeper in the first 30. Moreover, one could argue that the reason why MacMath is not ready to be a number one– that is is decision making on when come come out and challenge deep in his 18 and when to stay at home– had EVERYTHING to do with the first and third goal of the match. I believe he has the potential to be a world class keeper and I hope the Philly front office does all it can to land him in a club that will see him spend two seasons behind a fantastic and seasoned #1 so he can learn how to dominate his box and organize his defense. They owe him that for putting him in a #1 position before he was ready for a season and a half. Once he figures that out, combined with his incredible shot stopping ability, he will meet his potential.

    The upside for this team is insane. We just need to maintain and be patient now.

    • PD-Did you not read or hear Curtin say that not playing Okugo was the toughest decision going into the game: so how does your fitness issue come into your head.

  11. James Lockerbie says:

    mtl won, Union a win, NE W and Chi W. That would be the perfect results for this weekend if anyone was wondering.

  12. Great night, Tuesday. Atmosphere was awesome. Sprang a lung….With the talk of the teams lack of depth the new CBA should a sizable increase in the salary cap. Spend it on a striker. Here is another thought. Pickup Kenny Cooper in a trade or the discard draft from Seattle. Also Rais and Blake are tied to their national teams. They will both miss significant amount of games. Sign MacMath and keep him as the backup. Loan out Blake.

    • This is the best idea on how to deal with the GK situation, I’m only worried no one will take Blake on because he’s raw and fairly unproven.

      Kenny Cooper is half right in my mind, he’s got a quick trigger, but I think we need someone with more speed.

      The way the team plays, they need to be able to run onto the ball when played through to be an effective counterattacking team. Ribeiro could be the real deal here, but I’d love to see him season a little more.I think he and Pfeffer may form the offensive backbone of the future.

      Offseason should be interesting.

      • Zac has started here since 2011. He’s 23. Why would he agree to back up Mbohli?

      • Cubo Torres in the dispersal draft from Chivas. Massive upgrade at striker and he can create a chance out of nothing. If he actually came to a team who could provide service, he could be unstoppable.

  13. Anyone making comments about Curtain’s lineup decisions are simply making excuses. He did not over think anything – the Union were inches away from winning that game. He put out a perfect team who played a damn near perfect game for the first 100 minutes against a team that has been on a record setting run all year.

    You want to blame someone? Blame Ribeiro for not being able to pump in a goal on a practically empty net. I still cannot believe he did not put that away.

    The one glaring takeaway from that game is that the Union desperately need a quality striker up top. It’s that simple. If they had one, that game finishes 3-1 to the Union’s favor.

  14. Isn’t on JC that the team got bum rushed at the start of the second half?
    Now for a show of hands: who had us close to winning the Cup when this all began in June – or after regular time against HCI? Thought so.
    I toast JC and all his men for the excitement this run gave to a widening fandom. On the heels of the WC, it came at the perfect time.
    Now it’s gut check time against a surging Dynamo that owns the only league win in the interim manager’s tenure.

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