Another stretch run to forget

Photo: Earl Gardner

This was supposed to be the year.

No, it wasn’t likely to be the year that the Philadelphia Union would lift the MLS Cup, but contending for it was an expectation held by everyone in the Delaware Valley. New players — no, good players — were brought in to augment a youthful core. It seemed a sure recipe for success — or at least a berth in the not-so-exclusive MLS Cup Playoff bracket.

Instead, that’s all but over now. Even after a disastrous beginning to the season where points were handed out to opponents like candy on Halloween, there was still a chance in September for the Union to give us some Spooky Season soccer. But somehow, some way, like the shadows that once hung on a late October evening, playoff soccer is a haunting memory for Union fans.

We’ve seen this disappointment before.

It wasn’t quite the same in 2013, when an overachieving band of grinders hung in it for most of the season, inspired by John Hackworth’s “Philly Tough” mantra. Of course, toughness and hustle expend energy, and without ample reserves, that team faded down the stretch in rather predictable fashion.

Rather, 2014 has been more like 2012. Does this sound familiar:

  • Stumbling out of the gate
  • Midseason coach firing
  • Great results to return to the playoff hunt
  • Unnecessary front office meddling
  • Late season failure

In 2012, the front office meddling wasn’t so obvious, with John Hackworth’s interim tag removal being a reasonable move given the team’s turnaround. But this year, it was much more conspicuous.

Yes, this is a professional sport, and all professionals must understand that business is business. Any day, you could be replaced by someone who is younger, smarter, and/or better. But sports are a different beast. It’s a brotherhood, as anyone who follows the team’s camaraderie on Twitter or Instagram can see.

I believe that Zac MacMath has been the Union’s most maligned draft pick. The kid comes out of school and shoulders the burden of following a legend, Faryd Mondragon. Sure, he experienced his struggles, even this fall with a bit of a blunder against New York. But that was the first in many months. He wasn’t a problem on this team.

But if you look at the big summer spend, Nick Sakiewicz made MacMath a problem. He literally created a problem that the team didn’t have.

Meanwhile, fans could only anticipate the lack of quality at forward to finally catch up when they needed goals the most. While the Union picked up unproven Jamaican Brian Brown on loan, the Los Angeles Galaxy were out acquiring veteran Alan Gordon for a sack of peanuts. Gordon, a physical beast much like Casey, already has 4 goals for the Galaxy as a late-game sub (1 while starting). Brown has 1.

When it became apparent that Brown was the only forward help coming, Curtin had a choice: stay with what was working, or change tactics to try and preserve Casey. Curtin chose the former, and it worked for a while. But predictably, as Casey’s form has faded, so has the team’s.

Aside from a miracle 9 points to close out the season, and an unlikely collapse from one of the teams they are chasing, 2014 is the end of the road for a number of Philadelphia Union stories. MacMath will likely be gone. Any one of the high-profile players (Edu, Maidana, Nogueira) either has an out or could probably request it. Okugo, the last original draft pick remaining, appears to be outside the team’s future plans. And what about these three Homegrown Players who have rarely sniffed the main squad?

Which brings up the most disappointing part of this journey, the lack of clear direction. If winning was the direction, this team was right there on the doorstep. A piece or two was all it needed to get over the hump and have a chance at the crapshoot known as the MLS Cup Playoffs.

But just as it seemed the team was pulling together, behind a coach that pragmatically pushed them towards solid, sustained performance, they ran out of steam. And when that happens, the eyes move from those on the field, to the one who ignored the obvious and addressed a problem they didn’t have.


  1. Hiring Curtin long term would be a mistake

  2. Brian Brown has played 161 minutes. Perhaps others are ready to judge him after this much time but I am not. Everyone wants a striker, well, we got one and he barely plays. Coach Curtin has stuck with 4-3-3 on a team with a surfeit of midfielders, has preferred Danny Cruz to Amobi Okugo. I am not naive; I understand that a signficant tactical change in the middle of the season would likely have written off the rest of 2014. Nevertheless, it has become obvious over the last few matches that Philadelphia is very easy to defend. The new coach missed an opportunity to shake things up: 4-4-2, 4-5-1 (4-2-3-1), 3-5-2 take your pick.

  3. Does Alan Gordon even take Sak’s call? If he hears from Arena, i think we lose out. When you fire your coach in June, the season may be over unless your interim coach works a miracle. So you conduct a thorough but urgent search so you can tell everyone as soon as possible the result & get moving in the new direction. Or you’re Nick Sakiewicz.

    • Does Alan Gordon have a choice, if the Union offer more than the Galaxy?

      • Oh, sure he does. Does he want more money or a nice cup to put a little less money in? If we’re really run like Chivas of the east, it may be an easy choice.

      • Alan Gordon was under contract with MLS, playing for San Jose. San Jose owned his rights. They could trade him to anyone they chose for whatever price they chose. Alan Gordon had absolutely no say in the matter.

      • Thanks, Earl. I get it now. But how does it work? Are all teams informed that his rights are for sale & the highest bidder wins? Is there a place where it’s all explained for me? I feel so Sakky. Sorry.

      • You have to look at the entirety of MLS as a single club. Every player’s base salary is paid by one entity, the league itself. This allows them to move (trade) players WITHIN the league outside of the typical transfer window set by FIFA.
        This single entity structure has enabled the league a mechanism to deny free agency for current MLS players, and former MLS players who may look to return after departing. Teams forfeit the rights to an outgoing player in only certain cases; for instance, a) a transfer where the team receives a fee, or b) expiration of a contract and the team fails to offer the player suitable terms.
        The rule structure for player acquisition and retention is muddy, and often subject to change with little to no announcement. This is a criticism of MLS, which is driving much of the current discussion about the expiring labor agreement. Going into 2015 things could chance considerably within the realm of player rights and acquisition, or they could remain much the same.
        You can find the current set of rules at this link, though don’t be surprised if there are situations that leave you scratching your head:

      • I think what he meant is that MLS owns his contract. If the Union outbid LA for Gordon’s rights, he has to either go to Philadelphia or pay the contract termination fee, whatever that may be – usually into six figures.
        …and now I see he’s already clarified

  4. A little early for this article, I’d say. Why not just root for the team until the season is well and truly over? We’ve got a whole offseason for hopelessness and despair if it comes to that. For now, Come On The U!!

  5. Man this damn team. Every article now and probably into the offseason is negative. And it shouldn’t have been that way! How did they find away to take the life out once again?

  6. Am I the only one pissed off that Kai Kamara signed with the Crew? He’d look mighty fine in a Union kit. Where were we when that was happening??

    • Columbus had the number one spot in the allocation order, so they got first dibs. Nothing we could do about it unless we traded Columbus for that spot, and they clearly need a player like Kamara more than anything we’d give them.
      Earlier in the year, though, we DID trade DC Jeff Parke for Ethan White and that very number one spot, and we then used it to secure Edu.

      • So Aaron Wheeler could try out starting CB during the season.

      • Old soccer coach says:

        Around the edges, I’m fairly sure Jeff Parke asked to leave the area for personal reasons, if I remember one story quoting John Hackworth correctly.

  7. Houston helped make things just a little but more interesting last night. I have to say, I think Toronto fans have more right to be frustrated than we are. They could not get a goal to save their lives, despite some close calls from Defoe (including a PK) and a red card giving them a one-man advantage through most of the second half.

    I’m still hanging on for the chance that we luck into a playoff spot, but we need help every week to make that happen.

    IF we can manage to beat Columbus (love their new logo, btw), NY stops Toronto and DC beats Houston, we move to sole possession of 6th place.

    Next weekend, we have the tough contest with a match against KC while Toronto is served Montreal. Houston’s surge should be stopped by New England by by then. Columbus faces NY which is a coin toss, I’m afraid. If we can beat KC and Columbus draws, we move two points ahead of them., in 5th with one week to go.

    That brings us to the final week. If Columbus has lost it’s last two (and would be three points behind us) We’ll need at least the draw to keep hold of 5th place. Can’t say it’s not exciting. My expectations are not at all high, but I’m open to the fact that getting that playoff spot is possible.

    • I don’t disagree about Toronto FC being more frustrated. MLSE has been on my radar for a completely different reason this summer, namely their pursuit of the Buffalo Bills (I grew up a “Western New Yorker,” though technically at the far reaches of northern PA). I wrote something about this at World Soccer Talk early in September:
      Basically, Toronto could have been building with youth, but Leiweke was brought in to help in the pursuit & relocation of the Bills. Since that endeavor fell through, TFC is in a similar situation to the Union, except with even higher-earning players that may not be willing to stick out another go-around.
      Houston helped the Union, but they also helped themselves. Another reason for the team to be disappointed in that home draw against the Dynamo…

  8. It would be a HUGE mistake to let Okugo go. He’s young, extremely talented, versatile, and someone who if we kept a few more years would only grow in value. He’s one of our original players and to see them all gone in 5 seasons would make us look like a losing franchise rather than just having a losing season. He makes an impact in the midfield or in the backline. Ranked 13th in MLS 24 under 24. Just makes no sense to me, but either did the MBohli deal. There are so many other less talented players that we could offload and still make some decent cash on to use where we really need it, striker! Keep the main 11 as it is and look to spend some serious cash and bring in a proven forward talent. See that Jozy Altidore wants out of Sunderland. He would be the perfect fit, but why bother even dreaming of it as a Union fan? We all know the front office will piss that prime opportunity away. All I can do is shake my head and pray for a new head coach to come in this offseason and take control from our owners who clearly are more concerned about driving this team into the ground vs. keeping what is working and adding value to the pieces that aren’t.

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