Commentary / Opinion

Preseason malaise

Photo: Earl Gardner

No season opener will top that first one.

I remember walking into the Linc with my dad, about as nice a day as one could hope for in mid-April, and gazing out onto a sea of humanity behind the end zone — the Sons of Ben, loud and already in form. Down on the field, an anonymous collection of men wearing blue-and-gold warmed up. I’m pretty confident that, at the time, I thought the star player was going to be Stefani Miglioranzi. (Because, you know, he’s Brazilian.) By the end of that day, of course, we would all know the name Sebastien Le Toux, a player many of us fell in love with over the course of those 90 magical minutes.

What I remember most of all was the seemingly limitless potential. We were all excited because no one knew what would happen next. The future, as they say, was unwritten.

I’ve felt much the same way about each subsequent season opener, the anticipation of waiting for first kick, the thrill of seeing your team take the pitch for the first time, often wearing some new kit. Every year there’s been something to look forward to: new signings, yes, but most of all the promise that this year would be better. Every year, I’ve thought the Union were headed in the right direction, whether led by Faryd Mondragon or Lionard Pajoy (ha!) or John Hackworth or Maurice Edu.

Until this year.

It’s been so hard, uniquely hard, for me to get excited about this team, even as we sit less than three weeks until kickoff. For the first time in my life as a Union fan (and, more recently, Union writer), I’m struggling to find anything to look forward to. A malaise has settled in.

Frankly, I think this is a rational reaction to an utterly underwhelming offseason. The Union have made essentially no quality signings — Steven “Dikembe Mutombo” Vitoria is an interesting player, but he arrives in place of one of my all-time favorite Union players in Carlos Valdes.

Youth has been offloaded with almost no return, as Zac MacMath, Amobi Okugo, and Pedro Ribiero will all play elsewhere this season.

And despite the endless statements that the club is intently in search of a DP striker, at this late stage it’s difficult not to conclude we’re going to enter the season relying on an erratic youngster (CJ Sapong), an ancient battering ram (Conor Casey), and a complete unknown with a cool name (Dzenan Catic) to try to score goals.

(An aside: Catic is a player I am genuinely curious about. His statistics in NAIA are impressive, he’s been turning heads in preseason, and he seems like an affable fellow. I’m rooting for him. But he’s no designated player.)

Meanwhile, Jim Curtin has been relentless in his campaign to lower expectations for his side. In interview after interview, he claims that the goal is to win “lots of 1-0 games,” that the Union are going to have to scrap because they’re not as talented or wealthy as other teams. In essence, he describes a club that’s lacking in ambition. What a far cry from the highlight of the offseason, Jay Sugarman’s rare, candid press conference — and what a sad statement that a press conference from the owner was the highlight of the Union’s offseason.

Now, I think it’s entirely possible that the Union will, in fact, be better this year than last year. I’m sympathetic to much of Dan Walsh’s exploration of whether greater consistency will strengthen the squad more than any individual player signing could. There is certainly a scenario where this team improves.

But, in the context of an offseason that has been nothing but disappointment and departures, it’s very hard to see that scenario developing, and it’s even harder to get excited about. Dan also suggests, in part, that it’s good to have low expectations — there’s less pressure on the squad, and it’s much easier to be pleasantly surprised when your expectations are lower.

I’m sorry, but that’s a disappointing way to look at this team. I want to expect great things from the Union. And I think it’s fair to ask that the Union expect great things from themselves. At the moment, though, the Union are content being Aston Villa, hanging out in the lower-mid-table with no real ambition or direction.

The Union are a team that I fell in love with five years ago, just as many of you reading this column did. They’re a team that has, year after year, given me excitement and entertainment, the team’s potential fueling my passion. I’ve always believed that the next step was possible.

Now, I start to feel that passion waning.

That bright day at the Linc feels like it might be a hundred years ago, the memory of a promise that might never be answered.

40 Comments

  1. Wow. So well put. I’m trying so very hard to stay somewhat optimistic, but I feel myself following you down the same path.

  2. God i’m depressed….

  3. This is depressing because it’s true.

    Still hoping we can sneak into playoffs somehow.

  4. James Lockerbie says:

    Bravo,Bravo! You nailed it. I believe you have just written the perfect words to describe how many,many,many of the Union fans are feeling at this very moment.

  5. The Town Crier (see what I did there?) says:

    I have to agree. The lowering-the-bar approach by our penny-pinching ownership is the complete antithesis of Philadelphia sporting culture. Your goal, at least in this market, should never be mediocrity but it seems like that’s exactly where this club will be on starting day and Curtin has no choice but to resort to expectation damage control. Even with the lowly Sixers, at least they have a CLEAR long-term plan (while I don’t necessarily support tanking intentionally, at least it’s a plan and is transparent. I, as a fan, can see the intended direction). I have no clue what the Union’s long-term plan is because I don’t think they’ve ever had a consistent one. Full roster turnover in 5 years, 3 new coaches, and far too many head scratcher personnel decisions. Ultimately, I’m not saying that an ownership group has to spend crazy dollars like LA, Seattle, Toronto, NYC (that’d be nice, but not required). What I am saying though is, if you aren’t going to spend with the big boys, than the minimum expectation is to have a starting 11 that can at least compete with the big boys. Looking at our current roster, the FO has failed to meet that minimum expectation. And with a little over 2 weeks to go before the start of the season, this supposed forward signing we’ve all been promised has had to have fallen to plan C or D with how much time it’s taking. Doesn’t instill any confidence… End rant

    • +1. It’s not their lack of signings that has me completely dismayed, it’s their lack of a plan.
      .
      I would gladly embrace mid table mediocrity for years . . . literally years . . . if it involved promoting the youth movement. Don’t waste $300K on aged veterans who will give you zero ROI, spend that on signing 3 Academy players each year and build ground up. I would rather pay to see a year where Jimmy McLauglin and Zach Pfeffer failed miserably than one where Michael Lahoud, or some one year rent a player succeeds. They say that’s the plan, but once again here we sit 3 straight years of no Academy signings and they ship out our existing young talented pros for nothing. It’s all talk no substance. This organization is completely frustrating and teetering on hopeless

  6. Bill Quiroga says:

    WOW very well put. As a 5 year season holder SOB member, I feel the same way. I don’t understand what is going to take for us to get a good striker so all of us fans can look forward coming to each game at PPL.

  7. A DP striker at this time is unlikely. However, Kevin Doyle is available and is a proven goal scorer at all levels. He is the Irish Brian McBride. This would seem to be a viable option at a reasonable price. Why is Colorado the only team linked to him???

    Would I prefer someone younger, yes! But certainly an upgrade.

  8. You aren’t the only one the Union just put tickets on sale because they can’t sell out the home opener.

  9. I get it. Like the next guy, I await the quality striker signing as well..but I still look forward to Opening Day. Something about that first Beer in the lot and first time back in my seats.

    A 6’5″ CB = the hope of improvement on set pieces. Mo shifting into the MF with Chaco and Nogueira at his side. Wenger’s continued development. Hopeful resurgence of Sapong. A chance for Rais to prove himself as one of top GK’s in the league.

    Again, am I thrilled with the offseason thus far? No…but I still think 2015 will be better than 2014.

    • I’ve been pretty pessimistic this offseason, but I do agree there are some things to look forward to. However, as it stands now, I don’t see how we are better than last year.

  10. I would be willing to overlook all the malaise that seems to surround the other Union fans on this site and get excited about the season opener in March. Except it doesn’t sound like there will *be* a season opener in March.

  11. I was less optimistic in 2012 when Seba and Faryd were gone (and we didn’t even know that the two Danny’s would both be gone by May).
    .
    To me, the biggest reason I’m not getting overly excited for opening day is the lack of clarity as to when opening day is going to happen.

  12. Vision. Philosophy. Plan.
    .
    this is me, like LL Cool J with a white Kango coming in for a close up in a music video. Singing it over and over. Vision. Philosophy. Plan.
    .
    As far as Peter’s article. Word.

  13. This is why you need to support a 2nd team. Can’t wait for todays Chelsea game against PSG! Tir Na Nog here we (Philly Blues) come!

  14. old soccer coach says:

    The youth movement is still in place, but in the here and now they are changing from relying on draftees to importing the spine from overseas. As I think about why, they newer owners are driving that change perhaps. The 2014 super draft was characterized as having one player. Did any of the rest of them have a major effect? Tesho Akindele. The difference makers in the present day are coming from outside the American system(s). The Union are trying to build an academy to create some difference makers in the long term, but farm systems are huge organizations that produce one or two candidates, let alone starters. And they take extensive scouting infrastructures.

  15. I, too, would be more willing to buy into the Dan Walsh ‘consistency beats change’ argument IF the Union were a young squad that was showing improvement at the end of last season.

    Unfortunately, the Union collapsed down the stretch in 2014, and since then many of the team’s top young players have moved on to join other clubs.

    Very depressing.

  16. I’m still positive about the upcoming season, though possibly somewhat naively. I think consistency is the hallmark of most good teams across all sports. That stated, we added little; yet jettisoned some talent(Okugo, McMath). The “small market/small budget” allusions are disappointing, considering the support the team has garnered. This coupled with the lack of a name DP, thin scouting staff, Albright with OTJ training, etc….
    In any event, DOOP! Lot C here come!

  17. I tapped out after you said Carlos Valdes was your all-time favorite player.

  18. Great article! I have been posting the same comments. At this point I’m waiting for the kid gloves to come off and for more public confrontations and challenges to be made by the SoB’s the media covering the Union, and the fan base. I loath NY fans but I admire the NYRB fans, and supporters group for openly and in a public forum, taking the Red Bull ownership,FO and management to task.

  19. OneManWolfpack says:

    Only thing worse than our depressing offseason, is the fact that we probably don’t have an actual season to look forward too. This CBA needs to get handled, and from the sounds of it… that is just not going to happen. Oh well, March home games are cold anyway. Hahaha!! 🙁

  20. If Hoppenot touches the pitch during the first game I may projectile vomit on the row in front of me

  21. Taking a look at the team that’s been put together so far, there’s Williams and Gaddis at RB, CB has Vitoria alongside either White (who’s proven himself capable) or Marquez (who, having seen a lot of in Harrisburg last year, I honestly think could become one of the better CBs in the league). LB is admittedly dodgy, with the choice of either Fabinho or Gaddis out of position, but the Union are really not much different there than most of the rest of the league. Face it, there aren’t a whole slew of great left backs in MLS right now, so it’s not quite the problem as people are making it out to be. GK has M’bohli, Blake, and John McCarthy. Certainly not bad in the back, I’d say.
    In midfield, there’s Maurice Edu behind Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana, with Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger on the wings. Now they’ve all played together for a year, plus Edu’s back in his natural position.
    The only real question mark is up top. I could well be over-optimistic here, but if there’s a surprise breakout player from the draft this year, it could well turn out to be Catic. Plus, it could be interesting, to say the least, what C.J. Sapong might be able to do now that he’s not a square peg in KC’s system. Plus, you can now have Connor Casey coming _off the bench_ if you need a big guy in late game situations, or Antoine Hoppenot (who definitely stepped up his game in the second half of the season with Harrisburg) if you need a speedster late. And that’s all WITHOUT any further signing of some hypothetical quasi-DP-caliber striker. And let’s not forget there are guys in the midfield who will certainly contribute some goals, too.
    Maybe I’m missing something here, but someone please explain how this is supposed to look like a mediocre team.

    • Not to sound like a prick at all, but what you are missing is the fact that the coach has repeatedly stating that we are HOPING to be mediocre, not even that we are mediocre. That’s not the fans, that’s the coach saying it.
      .
      Also, this similar group finished last season flamed out. Casey and Letoux are both beat up and a year older. We lost Okugo. Our CB’s have not played together (and we have no idea really how good Vitoria is,although I like him). Sapong scores less often than Jack Mac. Most of all, our depth is horrendous.
      .
      So while there are definitely things to look forward to, we are looking to “punch above our weight, no doubt about it”.

    • Because:
      – That roster was mediocre last year & is now a year older
      – You lost Okugo who for a lot of games was the best player in the back
      – Teams below Union in the standings like Toronto improved
      – Of the teams above, only NYRB have gotten worse
      – Two expansion teams with deep pockets have joined the conference.

      • Bingo. This.

        We’ve presumably found a sufficient replacement for Valdes, much as I will miss him. And as much as the GK situation befuddled us, I can’t see that MacMath will be a loss — in fact, we’ll likely improve there. But have not replaced Okugo, who was a linchpin player. Nor have we substantially improved anywhere else.

        Now if we sign the DP striker, you could say that minus Okugo, plus new stud striker = roughly equivalent team. And you can make the Dan Walsh argument for consistency, which might indeed have some merit. But the league improves every year, and we are, at best, treading water. It’s been an inauspicious offseason.

  22. Everyone keeps mentioning a DP striker. That is 100% not happening. Kevin Kinkead has made it pretty clear that the current target, who they are close on, is NOT a DP. He is someone that we would be happy having, but NOT a DP. We need to be prepared for that in advance, if it happens.

  23. It just occurred to me reading this that perhaps the biggest bummer of this offseason was losing Okugo and Ribeiro. By the standards of most people who comment here regularly, I don’t even qualify as an Okugo fan.

    But had we not lost those two, I think I’d feel maybe 50 percent better about this season.

    I’m definitely not despondent. I think this team has a good shot of making the cup playoffs. Again, I base this opinion on this being the team that took Seattle within an inch of an Open Cup Final victory. But I do wish we had done more this off season, just one nice signing to make us feel better about our prospects going forward.

    • I’m not sure why people bemoan Ribeiro so much. He is certainly a promising player, but his contribution last year was quite modest. So it’s not like losing him makes them a worse team this year. Losing Okugo, and not replacing him, is the real hurt.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Ribeiro’s loss was more about future potential. He showed promise, but had a way to go. The fact that we didn’t replace his promise is what gets me.
        .
        The Okugo decision was just bang asinine.

  24. If Dan’s argument about consistency being our biggest asset is true, then we should be tearing up the league in the first few months while other teams are still figuring out how to play with each other. So far, this preseason hasn’t suggested this to be the case.
    .
    I’m also most depressed by the plan to play ugly, 1-0 ball. Last season, despite being so frustrating, was actually one of the more entertaining we’ve had. The vision of grinding out 1-0 wins does nothing to inspire my passion.

  25. Fernando Aristeguieta. Our newest striker. Let the whining and complaining begin!

    • The Black Hand says:

      Is it finalized? You don’t like it?

    • Hmmm. This is a very intriguing signing. Dude is only 22, was playing in Ligue 1, and was signed to a team in La Liga before the deal fell apart.

      Plus Le Toux played very well with our last Venezuelan striker.

  26. I like him. Would have preferred a guy who could also play on the wing. Definite upside.

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