Fans' View

Fans’ view: What’s the course, skipper?

Photo: Earl Gardner

I’m getting sea-sick. This Union ship (yes, that’s a “p” not a “t”) seems to be drifting aimlessly while we third class passengers sit below decks, without windows, just hoping that bump we felt was the dock and not an iceberg. Is there anyone at the helm? Has a course been plotted, or are we just reacting to the tumult and toil of the unforgiving MLS Next seas?

I have to admit, the white-space is not drawing me in. I’m becoming less and less optimistic about what’s “Next” for our Union.

How will the collective bargaining talks affect the Union? We know that the club lacks deep pockets. Increasing base salaries, raising the salary cap and the potential for adding a fourth DP slot to teams that actually can afford them might further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. With the addition of NYCFC and Orlando both prepared to splash the cash, we are going to have a very rough time of keeping up with the Joneses. If the league loosens its grip on parity, we could surely slip through their fingers down the Chivas USA rabbit hole.

But I’m not just worried about that. What direction is this team heading? What kind of product on the pitch should we expect under Curtin? If you look at other leagues around the world where money is king, poorer clubs tend to favor defensive-minded players and tactics. Are we heading the same direction?

Under Hackworth, the team actually made some very impressive improvements in the level of entertainment provided (in my opinion). While the results were the same, few could argue that the acquisitions of Edu, Nogueira and Maidana resulted in a significant rise in the quality of soccer played. Sure, we were letting in a bunch of goals, but we also put a bunch in the net ourselves while controlling possession and tempo and generally creating a lot of exciting chances. It was great fun to watch.

Look, I’d love to make the playoffs as much as the next guy, but I don’t get to take a trophy home if the Union win hardware. I’m paying for entertainment. My biggest concern is that all of this mounting pressure to perform in an increasingly difficult league will result in us going for grind-it-out, bare-knuckles, Philly-tough, 1-0 and 0-0 games.

Some call it pragmatism. Others call it boring.

Pragmatism vs. entertainment

While I can certainly appreciate great defensive performances, it is personally not nearly as entertaining as seeing a wide-open game with more goal-scoring chances created. And strategically, (as I’ve posted about before), I think it is not as effective in earning points as some would believe.

So far, Curtin seems to be heading in this defense-first direction. It would be safe to assume that the former MLS Defender-of-the-Year might have some bias towards defense. Here is a sampling of his quotes that give me concern:

“I would say that my style would be a defensive one, defense first. We have to prevent goals, something we need to improve on.”

“We need to get bigger, stronger, and faster.”

Clearly, he did not believe that we had the quality to go toe-to-toe with some other teams:

“Right now, we’re not one of those teams, and that’s what we’re trying to fight through. In the course of 34 games though, I’m a big believer in you are exactly what your record says you are. I really do believe that and, right now, we’re about a .500 team. That’s what we are.”

And the message is being received by the players:

“I think that’s what we need to do next year is being able to grind out results from minute one to minute 90 throughout a game.” – Wenger.

So, that’s my biggest fear for next year. It’s not missing the playoffs again. It’s missing the entertainment. From a business standpoint, parking the bus and holding on doesn’t get fringe fans excited. I brought some newbie friends to a couple of games last year, notably the 3-3 Colorado game, and the 3-2 collapse against Columbus. And for as frustrating as they were for me as a hardcore Union fan, my friends loved those games and were on the edge of their seats. The poor results did nothing to dampen their desire to return for more.

Pragmatism doesn’t sell tickets.

My hope is that we continue to build on our midfield improvements, add attacking threats, and continue a balanced approach. I don’t want “defense-first.” I want us to go out on the front foot, assert our style of play on the game, and create more chances than the other team. I want to be on the edge of my seat. I want to hold my breathe when we have the ball in the final third rather than when the other team does.

And if we barely miss the playoffs again next year after a string of 3-3 draws or 3-2 losses, I’ll stand up like Russell Crowe in Gladiator and yell out to the PPL faithful:

“Are you not entertained?!”

41 Comments

  1. The rosters that they have assembled over the past 5 years didn’t allow for the wide-open, creative offensive tactics that fans crave. Our best years (or year) were highlighted by solid defense, not a high-powered offense.
    However, if can take any solace from this past season, it was the evolution of the franchise (allow me a rose-colored view of the team for the purpose of this response). The 3 big signings last offseason were all meant to booster offense. Even if Edu slots back to CB this season, he still has a penchant for roaming forward and joining the attack.
    Wenger has proven to be MUCH more dynamic than Jack, so there’s an aesthetic improvement there. Sapong is a more versatile and athletic version of Casey. LeToux is LeToux, flying all over the place.
    On top of these encouraging signs, the back four seem to be fairly established, if we assume that Gaddis will stay on the left, locking down all the right-wingers that challenge him.
    “Park the bus” was all that has even been available to this team. But almost all of the recent personnel decisions (not counting the GK fiascos) have been with an eye towards offense.
    Let’s give it one more offseason and reconvene in March. I have a feeling we’re going to see a greater flow to the offense, now that we know were Chaco, Nogs, Edu, Wenger, et al., belong on the pitch.

    • If they pick up a DP striker and bolster that offensive core, I expect the “entertainment value” to increase dramatically. That said I would much rather see grind-out wins than a 5-4 loss.

    • That calms the dizzy spell a bit. Well said John. To me futbol is a moving meditation so the aesthetic of the game is an important part of my involvement. I fully recognize MLS is not on par with the euro-flow precision paintbrush of the game but it matters to me what our product looks like.
      .
      I’m all for winning a hunkered down game when needed, but when you deem yourself to be the superior team I expect to not just offer up possession.
      .
      Mourinho is the example I hope for us to emulate. He will hunker down and play futbol Floyd Mayweather style but when he feels/knows his side is superior…it is a thing of beauty to watch his clubs play.

      • Mourinho is the man……………they can park the bus ruthlessly if needed……or they can don the white gloves and dance in a 4-3-3 if they think they can work you over………pragmatism at its finest.

      • This is a great point, Joel. The difference is that Mourinho can hunker down, because he has a quality striker that will finish his one chance he gets on the counter. Currently, we don’t have that. We need to generate 10-15 chances on average to “bulge the onion bag.”

      • You make the correct point, Joel (as much as I hate “The Special One.”) His teams have fantastic skill and vision, and can run roughshod over lesser opponents, making them look pretty silly. But when Chelsea plays against the top teams, particularly in CL, they play the counter and know how to defend.
        I have absolutely zero problem with a blend of tactics like that. A win is a win, and you get them however you can.
        But 38 games of playing defense will suck the life out of PPL Park. If that’s what we gotta do, so be it – do what works with your roster. But I think the majority of fans everywhere (in any sport) would prefer that their team wins, and wins “pretty.”
        That’s why football has practically negated “3 yards and a cloud of dust.” If you can’t pass, you can’t win. It’s a more fan-friendly way to play.

  2. I think if this club were to mirror the likes of Arsenal (though I hate to admit it), ALL Supporters of this CLUB would be very very Happy. Think about what I am saying for a moment….

    Arsenal CONSISTENTLY qualify for the Champions League (Top 4 Finish in the League), Are more often than not sniffing around for the League Title, and have won the FA Cup. They are historically very Frugal in the transfer market, but do sign quality when needed, and have an Amazing youth academy system. Play very attractive football (not as recent), but Arsenal are a great team to watch beautiful/ATTRACTIVE football.

    What if the UNION can mirror that…..Build the club to always be in the top 4/5 of MLS (MAKE PLAYOFFS EVERY YEAR), ALWAYS CONTEND FOR/WIN THE LAMAR HUNT, and Continue to build the marque Academy and bring the cream of the crop through the 1st team and build the next generation for the National Team!

    If the UNION could build the club around that sort of “philosophy,” PPL would be FILLED to the rafters week in and week out.

    I think the SOBs need to have more freedoms, and I truly feel that the River End needs to be expanded. PPL should be the loudest most intimidating stadium in the MLS…..but to get there, there needs to be a real “shot in the arm” and the club needs a NEW solid model to go after…….

    My expectation is not that overnight the Union become like Arsenal overnight, but the crux of my argument is if they are looking for a “blueprint” outside the MLS to build from…..The North Londoners have a pretty excellent one.

    ** I know the hardcore Arsenal fans will jeer me a bit for my estimations on how I view their club, but I feel the Union would do well to model Arsenal than any other club (in my opinion).

    • I’m a Spurs fan, so I have to object to everything you just said out of sheer principle! (Ignoring all of the logical arguments you made.)

      • It’s ok John, if I told you who I support you would roll your eyes and tell me to jog on. LOL

        But having a Union team consistently in the top 4 in the east, playing attractive football, winning Lamar Hunt, and maybe nicking a MLS title once in awhile would be great.

        5 seasons of back pedaling needs to end and a new war-footing needs to begin….hopefully real progress will be made…Holding on hope

      • its cool dude, it was just as offensive to this Gooner…….I can’t believe the two were even brought up in the same sentence.

    • Sign me up. My expectations are right there. I want this team to be smart with signings and be successful through grit. I expect the team to have a chance. They don’t have to be LA-like MLS beaters, but a team that’s perpetually in the conversation.

      My main rationale for being more optimistic than pessimistic is that Open Cup final. This Union team played Seattle within an inch of winning that trophy. That game was fantastic in every way save the final score. That team on the field is still with us. And in some ways it’s even better just factoring in Sapong for Casey. And I’m sure there’s more top come.

      see here for a little reminder. http://www.mlssoccer.com/video/2014/09/16/highlights-us-open-cup-final-philadelphia-union-vs-seattle-sounders-september-16-20

      And yes. As we saw with the enthusiasm for the open cup, winning will bring fans and excitement. I do think we’re closer to this model than the season’s dismal ending and Okugo loss have us feeling this week.

    • Well, we already have the “collapse down the stretch” thing perfected just like Arsenal

  3. ask Chelsea and Real Madrid about defensive tactics, it got them nowhere! This article is funny on many levels. So, you want attractive footy that gets no results? Then go watch an U-13 match! You sound like one of the parents who doesn’t know anything……….”We lost 3-0, but we possessed the ball 80% of the time and were the better technical team…they just caught us over the top a few times because all they did was kick and run!” I’ll take Thirty-Four 1 nil wins all day long. Thats shows your team has quality. Teams that consistently win 1-0………win hardware!

    • Alicat, I’m in agreement with you in that I’ll take well executed 1-0 wins all day long. I disagree though with your take on Scott’s post and that he sounds “like one of the parents who doesn’t know anything”. I’ve read enough of Scott’s posts to clearly see he knows soccer and has well informed opinions (which is what a Fan’s View column is all about). Fans will have different perspectives on what they want to see from the teams they support. That to me was his main message.

      • Sorry, but saying you want 3-3 matches and 4-3 matches because it attracts the casual fan……..makes you sound exactly like the demographic your trying to court…….

      • Thanks for the kind words, ScottE, but your rational and open-minded comments are not welcome here. 🙂

      • Good point – not sure what got into me at that moment. I lost it and got all open-minded.

        Maybe just trying to earn some positive vibes for whenever I post next in Fan’s View.

    • Amen about taking a win, however it comes.

    • “We were unlucky today.”

    • Alicat. Thanks for the feedback. Actually, I probably am like “those parents” who might appreciate their kids developing skill at a young age rather getting their own ego boost when their kids win a U9 game.
      .
      And you’re missing the point. I may not know much, but I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some beautiful masters of catenaccio in Italy and won lots of 1-0 games. If I’m playing in a game myself, of course, the only thing that matters is winning.
      .
      But it’s different for me, when I cross the white lines and go back to being a FAN. If you want to use Chelsea as the example, look at last year’s EPL race when they relied much more heavily on the counter. Now, compare them to Liverpool who played reckless attacking football. Both teams came very close to winning the league, BUT look up the statistics for which team gained more viewership in the US. Liverpool dominated in that area. The club enjoyed unprecedented marketing and fan-generated revenue. That’s what I’m talking about.
      .
      I don’t disagree that for us football purists, we can enjoy both sides of the ball. But for me…personally, I just happen to enjoy watching more attacking football, and the $$$ says that a majority of people agree with me. I want this young, fledgling club to succeed, and for that to happen, they need to keep bringing in new fans. Turning into Houston Dynamo or Stoke City might not be the way to do it.

      • STOP! The reason Liverpool is so marketable in the States is because they have American owners who also own the Boston Red Sox! Do you think American television wants to give time to a Russian oil oligarch who has ties with Putin and the rest of the Russian elite? Come on, your smarter than that! P.S………look to the present as to where Chelsea and Liverpool stand……ones running away with the title…with the same philosophy….and ones fighting relegation……with the same philosophy!

      • Houston always seems to be there in the post season or at least make a run at the end, dude……I think thats all that fans really want. I agree, the rest makes for great speculating and writing…and arguing!

    • I would argue that the parent who can see the game for how it was played rather then look simply at a score is a parent who knows the game. I’m referencing your U13 comment. It was a poor analogy as the U13 level should be about development and learning to play the game the right way. I won’t argue your point that wins matter for the U, because they are paid proffesionls and the paying customer wants wins. But your slight on parents being satisfied with a style of play and development over pointless victories at the youth level only serves to undermine your comment and display your ignorance. And yes, I am a coach and a parent. And at the youth level I’d much rather play the right way, results be damned.

      • sorry dude, parents are getting fed up with that line…….technical development is obviously most important. But also teach the kids how to open up a match. There was an article in this past months NSCAA about playing verse competing….this is what I’m talking about. By U-13….kids should be learning tactics and more than one way to play. And yes by U-15 results matter……..do you think a college coach is going to go watch the 8th and 10th ranked team in PA at a tourney? NO……..they are going to watch the 1 v 2 match in the top flight! As you become a big boy…..results matter too!

      • Doesn’t just apply to youth soccer. Having grown up wrestling by about age 10-12 you start learing that results do matter. Top college and prep school scouts are watching the medal rounds to see who can grind out wins. They’re not necessarily concerned with how pretty the loss was.

      • +1

  4. With all due respect, winning sells tickets as much as entertainment. Fringe fans may not come to the games on their own if the team loses a bunch of games 3-2, but if they see the team is winning they may venture out to see what all the fuss is. After watching a 1-0 win they may not come back because they were “bored,” but if that’s the case they were probably never really into it anyway. I personally want wins, be they 1-0 or 4-3.

    That being said, 1-0 because both teams play poorly is different than 1-0 because both defenses and the goalie are playing great. This the loss to Belgium this summer where Tim Howard played out of his mind was exciting. On the other hand, the Argentina-Netherlands semi-final match went to PKs at 0-0 and wasn’t particularly exciting, in my opinion.

    • Good points, Brian. I’m in total agreement that it’s not actual number of goals that I care about as much as I’m looking for quality and skill. My cup of tea-just don’t field 10 linebackers.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    “Just win baby” Seriously. Just win games. I will not complain about how that gets done.

  6. River Schuylkill says:

    I just don’t know if this team will ever be able to afford the type of players that can play consistently attractive, possession-oriented, attacking soccer. The Union have to try and win within their means. A defense-first mentality, coupled with pacey fullbacks and wingers who can launch quick counter-attacks can be exciting enough for the average fan. Defense and pace are cheaper assets to find out there, and you splash the cash on a DP striker. The hardest thing to do in soccer is score goals, that’s where the big money should be invested.

    • great point………I think people need to be realistic. We are not Barca and our academy is not La Mesia……they have been around for a century. We need to be pragmatic to get results and stop trying to be something we are not.

  7. We have one playoff appearance in 5 years and we still have these articles about playing style and if it is attractive or not?? Are you kidding me? Just win. Period. I don’t care how, just do it. Grind out results. Win 1-0 games. Play on the counter-attack. Winning sells tickets. Winning is fun for the kids. Winning gets fair-weather fans interested. Winning fills the stadium and sells swag. Just win. Period!

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