A View from Afar

The arc of momentum

Photo: Earl Gardner

Momentum is a funny thing. It’s intangible, hard to quantify. You usually can’t identify where it starts, but you can recognize it once it flows — and once you lose it and see it reverse from positive to negative.

Philadelphia Union have lost it.

Maybe it disappeared the moment they walked onto the field at PPL Park in the U.S. Open Cup final with a lineup card lacking Amobi Okugo’s name. Maybe it faded after a moment of brilliance by Vincent Nogueira resulted in a ball slamming a post instead of going six inches to the right and into the net. Or maybe it left when Zac MacMath went to the bench with Okugo and the players realized anew that they were disposable chattel, whether earned or not.

Or perhaps it wasn’t some intangible aspect of human-to-human chemistry at all.

Maybe over time, opposing teams have studied enough game film of the Jim Curtin era to see they must double-team Andrew Wenger on the wing, sit deep off Cristian Maidana because he seldom shoots, or some other successful trick that we’re not yet identifying because there isn’t a large enough sample size yet to spot the trend.

Maybe these are just the circumstances of a long season, fatigue and talented opposition. Philadelphia loses to Seattle because Seattle can bring a guy like Obafemi Martins off the bench and Philadelphia can’t. The Union drop points at home to Houston in a disappointing home draw because Curtin plays most of the same players who were fatigued after the Seattle match earlier in the week, and they have nothing. Then leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux gets hurt early in the D.C. United game, and the Union can’t score against a defense that has surrendered the second fewest goals in MLS.

The Union have a best 11 to rival anyone in the league, but they lack attacking depth. Conor Casey looks tired. I typically dismiss people who call the 33-year-old Casey old, but after watching him a step off an Andrew Wenger low cross that could have been a goal, one has to at least acknowledge fatigue.

Last spring, team officials openly acknowledged their need to sign a proven forward in the summer transfer window.

Instead, they signed Brian Brown for just over the league minimum and paid $240,000 for a new starting goalkeeper they didn’t need nearly as much. The bench includes a 6-4 attacking midfielder learning to play striker (Pedro Ribeiro), two players who have been marginalized (Antoine Hoppenot and Andrew Wheeler), and Brown, a young player with potential who still has to catch up to the physicality of MLS. When Wheeler and Hoppenot were in form, they were good options. Now, they’re not even making the bench.

Momentum may be intangible.

Fatigue, lack of depth and poor personnel decisions are not. In fact, they’re all related, particularly for the Union.

The Union now get three straight home games — against Chicago, Columbus and Kansas City — and they are all must-win affairs that will make or break the season. They sit in seventh place, three points out of the final playoff spot, though sixth place Toronto has a game in hand. The Union’s fourth and final game is a road affair against Columbus, meaning the Union play twice against one of the teams they need to outpace to make the playoffs. That’s a good thing, even if Columbus is playing well. It means the Union have more control over their fate.

This team is good enough to win all four of those games, though it won’t be easy. To do so, they’ll have to make some tactical adjustments and get key players as healthy and rested as possible. And they’ll have to recapture and show some of that intangible quality — momentum/confidence/etc. — that became evident the longer their hot streak went on.

If they pull it off and make the playoffs, few will forget this season.

If Philadelphia falls short, you can toss the 2014 season on the rising pile of mediocrity known as the Union’s reputation.

18 Comments

  1. The Union from ownership to the players on the roster need to realize that they are fooling no one. What I have often referred to as a dog and poney show still holds. Sakeiwicz is the ring leader. The fan base is hopeful but not blind. The media who cover the Union appear to be growing a pair by probing, digging and questioning…sort of. I’m still hopeful for restructuring that would somehow bring in new ownership with deep pockets and finally moving Sakeiwicz out of the picture. This market and fan base has earned and deserve only the best and nothing short of the best should be accepted. To me Philly tough is about respect an integrity not what the media,outsiders and to an extent we ourselves have taken it to be due to some misguided Buddy Ryan Eagles and Broad Street Bullies last century way of describing who we are. Sakeiwicz is NOT Philly Tough!

  2. Wow. This is a pretty bleak article from a guy I usually think of as looking at the Union with the rosiest of rose-colored glasses, even in the bad times. What happened, Dan?

    • You haven’t been reading PSP long enough then. 😉

      I’ve always called it as I see it. I never tried to be positive or negative, just accurate and fair. I think I was the first to start tearing Nowak a new one, and that was during a playoff season. Maybe folks thought I had rose-colored glasses during the Hackworth era, but I called it as I saw it then too. (Wait till you read my column about how Hackworth should be the new Union GM. People will love that one. 😉 ) How I see it just isn’t always the same as everyone else.

      That said, is this post really that bleak? I don’t think so. I think it just breaks down the situation as it is. The Union are standing on a balance. The scales could tip toward good or bad. I think the Union are a very talented team with a coach who could in fact be a very good one.

      How will they go from here? It could go either way.

  3. Apparently the fine espresso hasn’t clouded your judgement or discernment. You have said what many around these parts feel. Well written.

  4. Not that this has anything to do with this specific article, other than Dan mentioning the play above –but to me some have argued Wenger’s pass to Connor was poor in that moment- including the commentators who said he got it wrong. I think Casey got that one wrong not Andrew. At the last moment Connor makes a hesitation move towards Wenger which alters what should have been a dead square ball to Connor and a sitter finish which is what it appears Wenger was expecting– until he saw the space diminished. Connor closed the space between the two players when he should have maintained it. IMO.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Earlier this season, Casey scores that goal.

    • Casey stopped running to goal to maintain the size of the hole to pass it to him, but Wenger passed it like he was continuing his run. You would think by the end of the year these types of kinks would be worked out, but that’s life.

  5. Looks like Mr. Mo Mentum may be changing his address

  6. “Maybe it disappeared the moment they walked onto the field at PPL Park in the U.S. Open Cup final with a lineup card lacking Amobi Okugo’s name…”

    I’ll never figure this one out. That’s where Curtin lost me. Maybe he’ll bounce back and I hope he does because his common sense in the media is refreshing. That move was a red flag to me that this isn’t the right guy for the job and that’s too bad.

    • Neither party signed Mo up to play CB. He played it as asked after he missed WC squad. But JC needed to get Amobi in that game if he’s in our future. And in the next – before injury. Going for the Cup was the easier path to hardware. After the Texas trip, the schedule was set & roster management & preferred tactics through season’s end could be planned. Maybe HCI’s deep run complicated things, but Cruz was never the answer to “What if: LeToux?” & Fred wasn’t the answer to “What if: Nogs?” If JC chose them or if Sak chose them, either is a bad answer. Now it’s a knife fight to the death. Or a mercy killing.

  7. I think other managers are much better getting their team to peak at the right time; during the last few weeks of the season with focus on the play-offs. We possibly focused on the ‘wrong’ thing (the Open Cup) which was sooo close to being a success. Hopefully we can peak again but, based on recent results, it looks like the other teams want to get into the play-offs more than us. I hope I am wrong

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    MLS is not all about money, as most other leagues are. So, with the Union, it isn’t strictly about money and spending. It’s about spending wisely. It’s great to bring in a WC keeper, but why? If this team hack addressed it’s need at striker, we’d be fighting for 2nd or 3rd place instead of 5th.
    .
    Sack says we’re all about youth, yet young guys rarely see the field (i.e. Pfeffer, McLaughlin). As stated above by LCB: “The Union from ownership to the players on the roster need to realize that they are fooling no one.”

    • It’s not about youth anymore. That’s another column I’ll get to writing one day soon. But that ship sailed away this season. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a thing.

  9. The Chopper says:

    I think there is an element of fatigue that is obvious. A lot of pyhsical and emotional energy was poured into the Open Cup run and when that moment past the fatigue set in. They are tired.

    Carlos Valdes looks like he needs a few months off now. He has played a ton of soccer and extra training the past two year cycle and it shows. Noguiera is slowing down a touch too and he will welcome a break when it comes. Casey can’t trsIn much, so he can be fit enough to play and his fatigue is obvious.

    Unfortunately this team does not have a bench with those natural energy boosting kind of sparks that are on other rosters. They will have to suck it up and find something by tomorrow night or the rest will come soon enough.

  10. James Lockerbie says:

    Well, according to MLSsoccer.com looks like Antoine hoppenot might be the answer to a bench problems.

  11. Remember this team was barely breathing when handed to JC. First order of business was resuscitation. Check. Then stabilize. Check. But not without a big price paid for running out LeToux, Casey, Noguiera, Edu & Valdes every game for as long as possible. The former player in him doesn’t want to damage the younger guys by putting the pressure on them to produce immediately in crucial matches. Even our wins were close. But figure out a way to play Okugo. And after Fred & Cruz can’t help us score, find a way for Brown to play. Use Ribeiro to sub for Noguiera. Recall Hoppenot. Get Wheeler in for Casey. At least once. Now he has to work magic.

    • I remember this team had won one game and then drawn an immensely entertaining match against Vancouver right before Curtin took over.

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