Analysis / Season Reviews

Season review: Re-evaluating those early season assumptions

Photo: Earl Gardner

Don’t say it. It’s too cliché.

All the same, it’s also totally appropriate when reviewing the Union’s 2014 season. Hindsight is 20-20.

Opening day brought with it a bucketload of expectations for how the season would play out, and so many of them came crashing down.

There was so much we thought we knew about the team, but the team confounded us all.

Which isn’t to say everyone was wrong about everything, except . . . maybe they were.

Let’s take a look at those early season observations and how they played out.

Claim: The Union won the offseason

It sure seemed like it at the time. Between trades, international transfers, and the draft, as well as jettisoning some dead wood, the team looked like one of perhaps two teams, with Toronto being another (and their season didn’t turn out so hot, either), that could make that claim.

Acquisitions: Say what you will about how the season turned out, but it’s hard to fault the front office for their purchases in midfield—Chaco Maidana, Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu. But the trade for Austin Berry didn’t go as planned, and the eventual purchase of Rais Mbolhi led Union watchers to wonder if there was any real strategy behind the personnel decisions. Still, the big moves before the season were sound, and the play of that midfield trio has largely validated the hype.

The draft: Here’s where things take a nosedive. After the draft, arguments could be made that the team’s later picks and particularly the move to trade up and grab Andre Blake with the first pick were good ones. Blake was the best player available, and even if Zac MacMath had been okay, Blake seemed a real upgrade, though there were other needs left unaddressed as a result. When it came to actually playing the games, though, it took John Hackworth getting fired for any draftees to even see playing time with the first team. The most promising of them, Pedro Ribeiro, is now an Orlando City player, so even if he was a good pick, he wasn’t valued highly enough by management to get anything out of him. Not to mention that the Union brought in Mbolhi later on, making the goalkeeping situation not just tense but absurd. And still there remain positional needs! Add in the players the team could have drafted (Patrick Mullins, a ready-made back-up for Conor Casey; any competent left back) and the 2014 Union draft performance begs the question of whether random selections could have brought in any less value.

Verdict: False. The Union did not win the offseason. While Nogueira and Maidana are beloved and Edu was a good addition too, the draft and other acquisitions force us to question the ability of the management to make good personnel moves with regularity, let alone “win” anything.

Claim: The Union will find success through a possession-based attacking game

This claim is somewhat more difficult to judge. Those midfield additions led John Hackworth to claim repeatedly that the 2014 Union would play a more attacking and possession-based game. While this came true, to an extent, it did not result in wins (read Adam Cann’s column from yesterday for an excellent breakdown of this). The midfield could hold the ball well, but because the wingers weren’t on the same page, any turnovers led to counterattacking goals for the opposition. What’s more, the possession didn’t lead to Union goals either, with Nogueira and Maidana playing positions that did not highlight their strengths.

After Jim Curtin took over, those two were played in their preferred roles, for the most part, and the team reverted to a pragmatic, counter-attacking style that eschewed possession for its own sake. This resulted in a string of good results for the team, culminating in the ALMOST! of the USOC final. That’s where the string ended, but possession-based attacking never returned.

Verdict: False. Possession was not something that worked positively for the Union in 2014. A handful of players on the squad had the ability to retain the ball, but not enough to make it count.

Claim: The Union will make the playoffs

Verdict: Obviously not. They sure did come close, though, didn’t they? Close enough for a punch in the gut.

Looking ahead

The point of this isn’t to invalidate the very idea of preseason predictions, but to point out just how many variables exist in MLS. Had Austin Berry stayed healthy, for instance, maybe he stabilizes a defense that went through way too much changes over the course of the season, and some of the late goals the Union gave up get stopped. Had Andre Blake outplayed Zac MacMath, perhaps Nick Sakiewicz (or whoever’s decision it was) never feels the need to bring in Mbolhi, and brings in a striker instead, to pick up Casey and Le Toux’s late-season slack. If John Hackworth had gotten out of his own way and played Maidana and Nogueira in their best positions (not to mention Amobi Okugo or Aaron Wheeler), perhaps possession ball works better, or the transition to a counter-attacking model happens faster.

In short, while at the time it was totally reasonable to think the Union’s offseason purported a great season, the MLS season is decided by what happens during it, not what comes before.

So, while the next 10 or so weeks will be full of player moves and prognostication, it’ll be a year from now before we know what any of it truly meant.


  1. I cant beleive our technical director is a 35 year old career MLS fresh in his first after-playing job.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Meulenstein. We have no idea what or how. But presumably they are paying him for something in the way of advice and counsel.

    • Currently Meulenstein is advising the footballing world that United is in trouble and Louis Van Gaal is one of his least favorite people. Scathing commentary on espnfc regarding his fellow countryman.
      See now how cool would it be if Rene was able to broker a relationship/partnership between United and the Union. Manchester makes my Legion of Doom list pretty easily but I’d throw that distaste away and prance around in Red Devil regalia for that relationship to bloom- all the while singing, Valli’s, “My eyes adored ya.” Maybe? Just Maybe?
      That’s a windmill worth chasing.

  3. We only have Curtain bc the Union don’t want to pay a more qualified coach. I for one am more concerned about Albright. His recent interview with PSP was notable for how defensive he was. And not at all forthcoming with a plan. I suspect that means he doesn’t have one, other than “get a striker bc the fans and media say so on social media.”

    • Why would Albright be forthcoming with his plan? It’s difficult to acquire players in a very competitive global market place so why should he telegraph what he’s looking for and reveal any details about it on a podcast?

      A GM or technical director needs to be very guarded in what they say to the fans and the media. This is made doubly difficult in MLS when you also have to deal with discovery claims for potential foreign signings. Judge him in Feb after most, if not all of his business is done.

      • Good points all George — though more than once I thought to myself while listening to the Podcast, “Hmm that was a rather defensive or worse yet, smug interview.”
        Smug. One thing you can’t be in Philly without being called for it. Mr. Albright knows that pretty well I imagine. Albright and Curtin- two Philly boys made good. We shall see.

      • Thanks, Albright definitely sounded defensive in some of his comments, but I’m sure that the most difficult part of that job is getting used to fans questioning your moves.

        As thick-skinned as we all like to think that we are, I’m sure that we would all react in a similar manner if we were under that type of pressure and scrutiny.

  4. It is all certainly fluid. This time last year, we were mocking Corben Bone and deriding the front office for doing nothing. Two months later, we were talking about winning the offseason, it is all very fluid.

  5. Tell you what, I’ll agree it’s fluid and Albright is right to play it close to vest if we actually trade Fabinho for anything/anyone of worth. And you agree that Albright is in over his head if we don’t.

    I for one don’t believe that secrecy buys you much. Everyone knows the Union suck and are looking for a DP-quality striker without having to pay DP dollars.

    Oh, and we’re willing to trade a guy who has already been fired into the sun (Albright: “What?!?!? You fired him into the sun? I wanted to use him as trade bait!”) and one of our 18 goalies for that striker. Any takers? No? Anyone?

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