Season Reviews

Season review: 2014’s late collapses and how to fix them

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editors’ Note: PSP’s season review series will look at various aspects of Philadelphia Union’s 2014 season with the new perspective of having had a little bit of time to reflect. One post will run per weekday till Christmas.

Philadelphia Union’s first game of 2014 foreshadowed everything that came after it.

After “winning the off-season” through canny acquisitions and a good draft, the Union opened with a game away to one of 2013’s best teams: the Portland Timbers. It would be a good test, and the Union seemed to pass with flying colors. The new midfield trio bossed things, the team contained Portland’s vaunted attack with aplomb, and took a lead into the final moments.

Had you watched just the first 93 minutes, you’d have seen a team that looked confident and composed, working in new pieces, and definitely on the upswing and ready for a return to the playoffs.

That’s not what happened, of course.

The Union’s season sputtered, precipitating a midseason coaching change, a loss in the U.S. Open Cup final, and a limp to the finish, one place out of the playoffs.

All that was foreshadowed in Portland.

Brian Carroll, trusted veteran leader and captain, made a foolish play that night in Portland by clearing a ball long when a simpler short pass was available and turning the ball over due to his mishit. The Timbers ran straight at the Union, and a Steve Zakuani shot deflected out for a corner. A quick corner kick surprised the Union, who hadn’t recovered into a proper defensive shape. Carroll stuck out his foot and the ball skipped off him and straight to Gaston Fernandez at the back post, where he tapped in the game-tying goal.

Full time. Draw game.

Despite the disappointment of the tie, spirits in Philly were high, as the team performance overall was superb.

Surely, this was a growing pain, not a sign of things to come.

It was a sign of things to come.

The league’s best team . . . for 75 minutes

Every team gives up late goals. It happens to everyone: Protecting a one-goal lead, the other team pushes and pushes and pushes until the dam finally breaks. Or an individual error happens. Or a breakaway after a corner kick. Or the ref misses a foul call. And on, and on.

No one likes to give those goals and games away, but it’s part of life. As long as steps are taken to avoid the same mistakes happening again, it’s no cause for concern.

For the 2014 Union, however, giving up late goals became an art form.

Here is just a selection of the games in which the Union had a lead or were tied and gave that up in devastating fashion:

March 29, Union 1–1 Montreal: Nogueira gets his first MLS goal, but the Union give up an 80th-minute Marco DiVaio leveler.

April 4, Chicago 2–2 Union: The Union go up 2–1 after an early Mike Magee goal, but Chicago scores late (86′). Only an epic 96th-minute PK save from Zac MacMath preserves the point for Philly.

June 7, Union 3–3 Vancouver: In a rollicking match, the Union go down after two first-half Vancouver goals, only to storm back in the second half and go up 3–2. They then surrender an 81st-minute penalty kick to take the tie, which helps lead to the firing of John Hackworth.

July 12, Union 3–3 Colorado: After 75 minutes, the Union are up 3–1. They then give up goals in the 79th and 86th, one a PK, for yet another tie.

September 16, Union 1–3 Seattle (USOC Final): With the teams tied late in regulation time, Nogueira hits the post. Seattle then scores twice in the extra period to win it.

October 2, Union 1–1 Chicago: The Rais Mbolhi game. Amobi Okugo scores an absolutely vital goal in the 88th minute, only for Mbolhi to give it away with an epic blunder.

October 11, Union 2–3 Columbus: The Union take a two-goal lead into the 77th minute, then give up goals in the 78th, 79th, and 82nd to lose in soul-crushing fashion.

October 26, Columbus 2–1 Union: Zach Pfeffer’s first MLS goal in the 85th minute levels things, only for a Bernardo Anor goal in the 90th to take the point away.

That’s a minimum of 14 league points and a U.S. Open Cup trophy that the Union could have—perhaps should have—earned this season, which would have put them safely in the playoffs and owners of the franchise’s first silverware. And that was just the obvious cases.

As Jim Curtin said, the Union were one of the best team in MLS in the first 75 minutes of each game, and the worst team by far after that point.

Fixing the problem

So what to do? There are a few simple steps to take, and none are out of reach for the Union.

Curb attacking instincts late: By the 75-minute mark, the Union have usually scored. Whether or not they can play 90 minutes of 1–0 ball like Curtin would like, they certainly can play compact and conservative for 15 minutes. All it takes is concentration and communication. Players like Danny Cruz should not be late substitutions in situations like this. His verticality and attacking aggressiveness are the wrong tools for that moment., when players who can run into the corner and hold the ball are more valuable substitutions.

Situational awareness: Contrary to popular belief, when holding a lead late and playing defense, the long clearance is not always the best option. Just look at Carroll’s gaffe against Portland. If a safe pass is available, make it, while avoiding movement toward your own goal. That said, a backwards pass to an unmarked teammate is better than a pass forward into pressure or a lump forward. Mbolhi’s error was not because Nogueira and Edu made the wrong passes, but because Mbolhi made the wrong choice with his kick.

Show composure: Don’t tackle when you have support. Several of the above games feature late penalty kicks given up by the Union. Forcing attackers away from goal without diving in is something most players learn about in middle school or earlier. Stay calm. If the team is playing as a unit, most tackles probably aren’t necessary. That said, closing down crossers intelligently is also imperative.


Of course, those are obvious solutions. Ask any Union player or Jim Curtin what they need to do, and they’d likely list the same things. But in the heat of the 2014 season, they were not being communicated effectively either from the bench or on the field.

For the Union to avoid the mistakes of 2014 in 2015, Jim Curtin will need to improve his tactical substitutions and communication late in games. Likewise, the Union need to find vocal on-field leaders who can organize and calm the team during the frisson of late-game pressure from teams needing to score. Do it well often enough, and the practice becomes second nature.

The Union have certainly been up late in enough games to work on it.


  1. Gruntled Fan says:

    Thanks for the bringing back those great memories of all the blown games this past season…

  2. Don’t forget that on the Montreal game the Union were on the power play when they gave up the tying goal.
    Also, October 26 was in Columbus, not Chicago.

    • Good catch. Fixed.

    • I for one had a good ass pucker each time the Union went on the “power play” the last two seasons.
      Playing a man up for Union is like watching the Flyers in a shoot out. Hide your eyes and read about it in the paper the next morning.

      • I regularly ask – only half-joking – if the Union can turn down the opponent receiving a red card.

  3. old soccer coach says:

    The season they made the playoffs with several 1-0 wins was the year of Mondragon, a vocal effective leader from the back. Perhaps that is why the goal-keeping situation is as it is.

  4. Uh, let’s not forget the must-win October 11 game against Columbus where the Union were up 2-0 and then Columbus scored in the 78th, 79th, and 82nd minute. That’s enough of a “late-game” breakdown to be included in this discussion, for sure.

    Sorry. Am I not helping?

  5. Interesting that your recap of what happened in Portland mentioned Carroll twice, but no one else by name. If you look at the replay of that goal, he was one of the few players that was switched on and in a reasonable position when the ball came into the six. Unfortunately, he sliced his clearance, but if everyone else is in the right position, the ball never reaches Fernandez and even if so, you have Hoppenot on the post. It was a massive team failure.

    This is obviously a huge problem for the team. Not sure if it’s fitness related, tactical naivete or lack of leadership, but they have to correct this in ’15.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      You’re absolutely right. Carroll’s real mistake in the sequence was the clearance, but he did play the unfortunate role of being the only person in a position to clear the corner, and failed.

  6. August 12 – USOC vs. Dallas, gave up the tying goal in the 81st minute. Eventually won on PKs, but still showed the same trend as the other matches.

  7. Pablo Mastroeni the coach of the Rapids is in the English Championship league furthering his education. It’s just my opinion but I think this is the type of thing Curtin should be doing right now. American coaches need to see another side of coaching that extends beyond playing and/or coaching in MLS, College, USMNT, or the U/whatevers. I’m all for Curtin, but I think he needs to do more than on the job training.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      It will not happen. Curtain, while I wish him success, will learn on the job, and if he fails will be replaced by RM in the summer. It is the Union way.

    • If you’ve watched a lot of the English Championship, you would not want Curtin to do that. Many of their matches are brutal to watch.

      • It would be nice if he could hook up with an EPL organization. I just think American coaching needs to expand their thought process. Curtin has said some things that concerns me and he clearly needs help managing his bench and adjusting to game situations.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    Man, that list was LONG… too many points lost…

  9. Sorry Jeremy……………the Mbohli screw up was not just his fault. Tell us further about situational awareness, its rather comical. Nogs and Edu should have never played that ball backwards. Curtain even said it in the post match conference. They should have played that ball to the corner and stepped on it…killing as much clock as possible and then making the opposition come a full 120 yards to try and score. True, there is nothing wrong with playing a safe pass…..but in that situation….with that much at stake….you get the ball to the corner. Barca and Arsenal can play the ball backwards to stall….the Union or any other MLS squad for that matter…..cannot. Asking any MLS team to kill the clock with possession will not work…..someone will turn it over.

    • and giving up late goals is not something that just happens in footy! Where did you get that from? Good teams kill matches and win 1-0. Tactically or mentally inept sides give up late goals. Did the Onion write this?

      • Yes, we hired a satirist to write something so that you could enjoy distorting what was written and turning it into something completely different. That’s exactly what we like to do. How did you know? What’s perfect is that he was able to say that soccer was the only sport in which a team surrenders goals/runs/points late in a game — and he did it without actually saying it! It’s awesome, we know.

      • Dan, the play by play for each late conceded goal was spot on, including the Carroll mistakes on match day 1. The larger issue I have is when you stop telling what happened…..and you start telling what should have happened. Your walking a slippery slope when you guys start talking about how professionals should play…….unless one of the writers has a strong playing or coaching CV…..I haven’t seen that from many of the people who write on here, thats all I’m saying.

      • And I quote:1. “Every team gives up late goals, it happens to everyone”-false
        ….the best teams close out 1-0 wins.
        2. ” No one like to give those goals away and games away, but its part of life”-false again.
        ……its not part of life, it makes draws feel like losses. One of the biggest NO-NO’s in footy is conceding late goals.
        3. To be fair: You guys have acknowledged the Union made an art form of it this past year!

  10. Great article! But Fernandez did not score the game winner in Portland, he scored the game tying goal.

  11. I still don’t know if trying to hold on to a 1-0 lead for an entire game is the way forward. It’s that old adage that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If you are willingly going to allow the opponent to have the ball in your half, you are naturally going to give up more goal scoring opportunities. If you don’t have one of the best back 5’s in the league, this will be hard to do.
    Look at Liverpool as a great example. Last season, they played attacking football for 90 minutes, scored a ton of goals, and let in a ton of goals — ultimately coming within a Gerard-slip of the title. Everyone criticized Rogers saying he should play more conservative and hold on to those late leads. So this year, he bolsters the defense, plays more tight tactically in the back, and looks to counter, rather than possess…and what happens? They are near the bottom third of the table.
    Holding onto 1-0 leads works if your team is Chelsea, but it is not always effective if you don’t have a dominant team.
    And personally, for all the late goals we gave up, this season was one of the most entertaining the Union have had. Ultimately, that’s what we’re paying for right…entertainment?

    • IMO the title was conceded when Liverpool played tight against Chelsea as a result of blown lead against Palace.
      Liverpool is a defensive mess- they are playing like green newbies and Louvren has not been the stabilizing solution BR counted on and Johnson needs to sit. Jon Flanagan needs to be fit ASAP- he is the way forward at RB. I am not entertained by losing 8 or so games and those points in 86th or so minute

      Beyond that there is no way to account for the 50 lost goals by Suarez and Sturridge.

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