A View from Afar

The end: A substitution that didn’t happen

Photo: Paul Rudderow

“These next five minutes are important.”

— Union color commentator Peter Pappas, 76th minute

Philadelphia Union’s playoff hopes effectively ended after Jim Curtin failed to make a particular decision.

It was at the 75-minute mark. Andrew Wenger had just scored to put the Union up 2-0. The Union needed to kill the game.

Fabinho needed to come out. Sheanon Williams needed to come in. Ray Gaddis needed to move from right back to left back.

The Union’s lone natural left back had put in a good shift through 70 minutes, producing 18 defensive takeaways (tackles, interceptions, recoveries or clearances) and assisting on a goal.

But it was still typical Fabinho. He spent too much of the game on adventuresome forays upfield, well out of proper defensive position. Fortunately, he had recovered impressively from poor positioning on several occasions by hustling back to make late plays.

Then fatigue kicked in. (After making 18 defensive takeaways the first 70 minutes, Fabinho produced two the rest of the way.)

Fabinho stats 10-11-14

Fabinho’s defensive takeaways: First 70 minutes (left), final 20 minutes (right).

Thus began Fabinho’s — and the Union’s — nightmare finish.

In the 78th minute, Fabinho botched a clearance that Tony Tchani collected a few yards past the center circle in the Union half of the field. Tchani then found Hector Jimenez past Andrew Wenger on Fabinho’s wing, and the left back failed to close Jimenez down in time to stop his cross in to Ethan Finlay.

Just like that, it’s a 2-1 game.

A minute later, Fabinho sought to make up for it by aggressively pressing upfield with his teammates, a good 10 yards past the midfield stripe. His effort produced a deflection out of bounds and a Columbus throw-in. Fabinho then jogged back on defense as Columbus hustled the throw-in and led an attack right into the space on the flank where Fabinho should have been defending.

One nasty Justin Meram move later, it’s a 2-2 ballgame.

The Union cashed in their chips moments later by shipping the game-winner.

The intent here isn’t to beat up on Fabinho, who played fairly well before running out of gas. He is what he is: A good second string option at left back who pushes aggressively into attack and makes mistakes in defense.

Nor is the intent to beat up on Curtin, who has generally done a fine job in his role.

Rather, it’s to illustrate the difference between the Union and a good team.

An experienced coach replaces Fabinho after the second goal. An experienced coach remembers Fabinho has consistently been a defensive liability for the Union. An experienced coach remembers he has Sheanon Williams available on the bench. He recognizes that he got what he wanted out of Fabinho, and it was time to leave the roulette table.

Curtin will be an experienced coach one day. But he will have his Ben Olsen foibles too. The same Ben Olsen whose team set the league record for futility last year will probably be the MLS Coach of the Year in 2014. Curtin could be that kind of coach too.

You have to take the good with the bad. This is the team that you have. Your World Cup veteran center back hasn’t been in form since returning to Philadelphia. You still don’t have a natural left back of first team quality. Your forward depth has evaporated. You have too many first teamers at right back and holding midfield and not enough elsewhere. Your coach designed a solid game plan that sent the Union to a 2-0 lead, and that same coach failed to make the necessary adjustment once he had the lead.

Demystify it. Break it down. Effects have causes, each time. That’s how it goes.

This is how you miss the playoffs. Things like this happen, over and over. Add them all up over time, and you have your answers.

No matter how much talent the Union have, they’re just not a playoff team after all.


  1. Great analysis. It was clear that Fabinho had nothing in the tank at the end, and Wenger was fairly gassed as well.

  2. old soccer coach says:

    Perhaps there is a shibboleth at the professional level that you do not change the positioning of your backs once the whistle blows? Certainly at lower levels, changing defensive positions to control mismatches is an integral part of coaching. Given what I had read about Finlay I was surprised Gaddis was not on his side at tap off, looked and saw Williams on the bench, and assumed Williams was not fit for 90 minutes. Fabinho had played well the previous game; it is not usual for Curtin to substitute in the back line save for injury.

    • Personally, I wondered why Williams wasn’t starting. There was some talk of an injury at first, but it appears he was actually a healthy scratch. I would have started Williams, but it’s hard to truly second-guess the choice to start Fabinho when he actually played well for most of the game. So it was a successful choice to start him, just not to keep him in.

      Generally, I think it’s better to not have to change your back four. I play central defense, and the unit always plays best when it is comprised of players more consistently playing together. But Fabinho is a known defensive liability and Williams was consistently playing with the back four, so that erases the problems with changing your back four.

      • That Curtin didn’t allude to it in any way in post game remarks reinforces this blind spot to me. With experience he looks like a future MLS head coach. But has he already been given that job here next year?

  3. I was away this weekend and didn’t get to watch the game until last night. This result really started week 1 in Portland when the team didn’t hold the lead at the end. They became a team that didn’t learn from their mistakes. How many times did they hold a lead in the 75th minute or later and not win? Off the top of my head, I can think of Portland, Chicago twice (and one of those would have been a loss if MacMath hadn’t saved a penalty), Montreal (with a man advantage for the Union), Colorado, and this weekend. (There might have been more, but I didn’t go through and check.) That’s something that should have been taken care of long before Saturday. A month ago I was leaning towards Curtain as the full time coach, but now I think they need to go outside the organization.

    • Vancouver as well. Also Dallas in the Open Cup (although we won on PKs).

      17 times this season (MLS league play), we have held a second half lead. Eight of those times (the ones you listed, plus Vancouver and Seattle), we did not come away with a victory. That is close to a 50% failure rate.

      • It is more that the team has no depth than the manager. I think Curtin has made some mistakes but he looks to be a good long term manager for the Union. Having stability at the manager level and adding depth and a striker would do wonders.

        When he says the team is not a playoff team I cannot disagree.

      • Serious question: why do you think Curtin “looks to be a good long term manager for the Union”?

        I understand that the team went on a nice run soon after the coaching change, but in the critical past month the Union have not won a single game. (Last win was way back on September 6.)

        Do you really want to hang your hopes on a young coach with such a short resume? Didn’t the Union just make that mistake with Curtin’s predecessor?

      • and the wins on that run were against some suspect competition- i.e. NY Cosmos and Harrisburg.

  4. At 2-0 I told my brother that I didn’t trust Fabinho or White at this point. I wanted Williams and Carroll to come on and have Edu play with Valdes for the duration….and Fabinho is out of position and White gets beat on two crosses. Maybe I can apply to coach?

  5. The more I read, the more I’m starting to feel a little bit sorry for Curtin. Agree 100% that he made the wrong moves, but it’s too bad he didn’t have a little cushion. He has been in a situation in which any bad moves would have so much more consequence. He needs to learn, but there hasn’t really been any room for learning on the job.

    To be honest with you, I would be fine with him getting the full time job, because I don’t think he represents the real thing between this team and winning. Getting a better roster together is the main thing for me. A new manager at the helm of the same team would be meaningless as far as I’m concerned.

    • Also, now that I think about it, it’s a higher priority to replace who ever does audio for Union press conferences. Fire that guy.

  6. James Lockerbie says:

    2 minutes of an 8 minute news conference had audio. I agree time for a new audio man.

  7. It’s more than fair to point out the absence of a margin for error for Curtin. But beginning with the biggest match in franchise history and culminating with Saturday, his personnel decisions became harder to accept. And keeping the press strategy up 2-0 at 75 minute mark is just wrong. If Sak has already pulled the trigger but is mum about it, how much better will it get next year?

    • That’s true Phil,

      I think it’s safe to pin a lot of blame for Saturday’s loss on Curtin. But it’s hard to pin other losses on his shoulders so squarely. The Chicago draw was not his fault. Houston draw? In part. But we were short handed. He came 6 inches from winning the Open Cup and say what you want about losing to NYRB, but the strategy was what it was. He was rolling the dice for the open cup and, again, was an inch away from having that gamble make him look like a genius.
      Not trying to be a Curtin apologist. Just questioning even my own judgments of assessing him unfit to coach. The question has to be would another manager have done a better job and I think the only obvious “yes” is last Saturday.

    • I can’t stay away anymore. I tried. One and a half days of detox and I feel like my old self again. Hello all.
      Could you imagine Mourinho using the philosophy we saw displayed? The minute he needs to nurse a lead who comes in- John Obi Mikel. There is no better game manager in the world than Mourinho and if he goes DM- you gotta go DM.
      That game screamed for Brian Carroll, giving up possession and hunkering down for 15 minutes. To me it is an insult to Carroll for nearly 15 years of stellar organizing defensive play to leave him on the bench in that instance. Why not just cut the guy.
      I’m all for attacking and pressing- I am also all for preservation of a 2 goal lead in the third to final game of the season when wins are the only thing that mattered. HUGE misstep by the interim manager. The Union had room to give up only 1 goal in that game.
      If I knew this at the 75th minute- why didn’t he?

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    This analysis is the reason Curtain can not be the manager next season. He is just not ready.

    • By that rationale, Ben Olsen probably should not have been DC manager either. Did they make the wrong call when they promoted him and kept him in the role?

    • Yes, he’s made mistakes. Why is everyone assuming he is incapable of learning from, and correcting, those mistakes? Give him a Technical Director that can be a sounding board for ideas, and keep Curtin.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I don’t believe Curtain is ready for the job. I am not ready for another season of him learning as the guy in charge. He can easily do that in an assistant role.
        Did DC make the wrong call on Olsen… obviously not. They are tops in the East. and clinched a playoff spot with 2 weeks to go. But if they had let him go, or moved him to an assistant type role, would you (if you were a DC fan) have been mad? I’m not advocating dumping Curtain all together. But I am not advocating him to be the manager… yet.

      • Why is everyone assuming one would want to pay thousands in season tickets to witness a learning curve?

  9. Maybe we all got what we wished for?
    Halfway thru the season, Rene Meulensteen was the man getting the job. But, popular pressure on websites (we know NS reads them) was to give Jim Curtin a chance. Well, instead of a Champions League winning coach with no MLS experience,we got what we asked for, giving a guy a chance who had MLS experience, but no coaching experience. Sak got a lot wrong, but, for me, listening to the fans was a big one on this call. He had a gut feeling that Meulensteen was the man, and back tracked cos of the ‘bounce’ that JC had.
    Did we get what we pressed for? Maybe

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I have no problem seeing out the year, which is all Sak had to do. Instead he jumped the gun in both directions, first talking about hiring Meulensteen… then removing the tag from Curtain. To me, all he had to do was nothing. He opened the can of worms. If he wanted Meulensteen all he had to do was wait. Doesn’t matter though, because if he wants Meulensteen he’s gonna hire him regardless. See: M’Bolhi

  10. So I have some trouble with this analysis. So on the first goal Fabinho def. had a bad clear but it still made it almost to the midfield and there was time for our defense to get organized enough to mark tight in our 18. So, there is no blame for valdes or white marking up the man in the middle who scored?! And on the second goal. Fab. Was definitely pushed up but if we look, we can see that each crew player that was on the attack could have been marked between okugo, valdes, and white. You’re telling me that no one is to blame for not stopping the crew player from single handily dribbling through our defense and scoring?

    • No, I’m not telling you that. I am simply highlighting the key role Fabinho played in those breakdowns. It’s a narrow case study from which you can extrapolate bigger ideas.

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