Another missed opportunity

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It was a game that probably never should have happened.

For most of February, it looked like the CBA negotiations would scratch the Union’s season opener right off the calendar. Then, just as those negotiations came to a (surprisingly) fruitful conclusion, another storm in this seemingly endless winter dropped six inches of snow on PPL Park, requiring the cavalry (in this case, the Philadelphia Eagles) to swoop in and save the day.

But when the day finally came, the skies parted for a beautiful, brisk afternoon, about as good a day as you could ask for in early March (muddy parking lots aside).

It was a perfect backdrop for a home opener, coming at the perfect time in the Philadelphia zeitgeist. While the Union were quietly training in Clearwater, the state of sports in this town continued its slow decline. The once-great Phillies will be lucky to win 60 games this year. The Sixers are the Sixers. Just before kickoff of the home opener, the Flyers blew a heartbreaker to the Bruins, effectively ending their already-slim playoff hopes. And the Eagles… well, no one knows what’s going on there, producing more anxiety than excitement. There aren’t a lot of places to channel the city’s passion right now — a void that might be filled by the Union.

All the stars had aligned. The Union took the field against a Rapids team short on talent and even shorter on tactical acumen, behind their cheering fans — and, it turns out, the team’s largest local broadcast audience in its history. It was their turn to bask in the spotlight.

90 minutes later, they walked off the field. Goalless. Having put together a thoroughly uninspired, discombobulated game of soccer against one of the worst teams in MLS.

Missed opportunities

Over the years, the Union have had a real problem with seizing opportunities. When a chance to do something special presents itself, this franchise has usually found a way to let it slip through their fingers. I think of 2012, when the Union came off their first playoff appearance by getting rid of all their best players. I think of 2014, when the Union came off a strong offseason by dropping two points in stoppage time of the season opener and spending the next three months aimlessly spinning their wheels. I think of… 2014 again, when the Union turned the momentum of hosting the U.S. Open Cup final into a crushing defeat and a spectacular collapse down the stretch. Et cetera.

Now, it’s true that each of the situations outlined above come back to three different managers, each operating in a different situation — Peter Nowak (lost his mind), John Hackworth (over his head), and Jim Curtin (finding his footing). All three of these guys, though, made their biggest mistakes when they overthought their decisions. Players weren’t trusted to play the positions and formations they know, simple tactical decisions were ignored in favor of unnecessary complication, and the product on the field suffered as a result.

That’s what happened on Saturday. I’m not the tactician that Adam Cann is, so you should go read his article to get his outstanding tactical analysis. To me, the simplest way of putting it is that Jim Curtin overthought his XI. Instead of trying to get his best players on the field — in a formation the team has played regularly — the Union took the field in an unfamiliar two-striker set, left Cristian Maidana on the bench, and struggled to impose their vision on the game. You could see the team take control after Maidana’s introduction in the second half, but one half turned out not to be enough to find the tiebreaking goal.

If the Union had been in that familiar setup from the beginning, it seems to me that they would have won the game.

And so, once again, an overthought decision leads to disappointment, a drab and uninspiring draw, the equivalent of a frustrating day at the office played out across a large grass field.

Look, it’s a long season, and soccer teams take time to gel. There were definitely some positive signs from the weekend — mostly, I liked what I saw from Fernando Aristeguieta, and if he develops into a consistent goal-scorer that will alleviate a lot of this team’s problems. Also, Rais Mbolhi did not turn around and punt the ball into his own net, so there’s progress there. Maybe this team will go on a playoff push, finding an identity and catching the attention of the league and their city. Even if they don’t, I was glad to see my favorite team running around the pitch again, a reminder that winter may seem endless, but eventually it will be replaced by green grass and blue sky.

But, for now, the Union must see at this result not just as two points dropped, but another big opportunity squandered, and another link in a chain that they need to break.


  1. I agree 100% with this assessment. The Union are a team still trying to find their way in MLS. The home opener after an off season of angst is not the best time to try something different.

    • I thought all this after the game on Saturday. Said most of this in a post yesterday. Still totally agree today. This loss is Curtain’s fault. I thought he was going to be a good choice as manager. Now it just looks like the cheap choice.

  2. It’s always darkest before the dawn. Five years of pain are in the books, let’s not write off a sixth too quickly. If the Union put out their best XI and smartly fend off the Mormons, it’s not impossible they come out of the RioT with three points. We’re not a bad team, we’re not a bad team, we’re not a bad team.

    • if we show up there in a 4-4-2, 4-2-4(wtf?), or a 4-1-3-2…..we will get flamed. I don’t think its in Jim’s DNA to play a 4-3-3/4-5-1. I’m hoping he at least goes back to our 4-2-3-1….and subs Casey straight up for Nando late in the match if the opportunity presents itself…….keep it simple stupid, let the players play where they play best. You don’t go into RioT looking for 3 points. You go there playing for a point……then capitalize if RSL makes mistakes…….which all MLS clubs do!

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    The next two weeks can tell us a lot. Both are games against teams that the Union have never beaten (excluding PK shootouts in the open cup).

  4. discombobulated.
    i have never ever seen the word discombobulated used in the written language- tends to be a spoken word.
    exactly. (The) perfect word.

    • this club cracks me up in the fact that they always seem to screw things up when things could take a positive turn in the club’s direction. Case in point: record TV viewership of a match that probably a lot of casuals watched….not hardcores……they needed to see goals, a win, a vision………and what did they see? Good Luck earning them back!

      • First game of this season or 170th game in a franchise (ballpark guesstimate) —- I am.. ..have been…… and continue to be….. thoroughly disheartened.
        The club IS the prodigal child. I am bound by oath and bond to love them, even though, often, I don’t like what it is they do or how they go about doing it very much.
        Leaves an ache in the heart- just like the prodigal child.

      • It certainly is a love/hate relationship. You give her your heart….and she kicks you right in the bean bag!

  5. and sometimes people………………its not about putting your best 11 on the pitch. Its about putting the best 11 out there that fits what your are trying to do tactically! Putting your best 11 players on the field is sooooooooo high school………..putting your most efficient 11 in doing what you ask of them is how its done most places with a clue. Seriously, most coaches worth their grain of salt already conduct their teams this way…….you rarely see a teams best 11 “on paper” walk out to start. Does Wenger start his best 11? Does Pep? Does Jose? No, they start the guys who are going to execute exactly what they want done on the pitch!

    • Just look at those mighty Gunners yesterday against United. Did Ox start for Arsenal? Did Falcao start for United? Wouldn’t you conclude that those guys are pretty good? Maybe better than some that are on the pitch? Today is one of those days….you just have to laugh…on the utter absurdity of this…..that its even a discussion.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Those Gunners…damn fine…for a 5th place team;) #LFC

      • +1 LFC!

      • yeah…..have fun at Eawood Park…….you scousers! 5th……please. We’ll lock 3rd this year and win the FA Cup! Good Luck in Europa;)!

      • The Black Hand says:

        Bahahahahahaha…silly Gooners!!!

      • Dude, I actually thought Blackburn was going to take another Prem scalp. When Skertel went down… had no one that could win a header against those goons! Every time they sent one into the box…it was oh $hit, here it comes! Its cool, the last 5 minutes were the same for us dealing with Fellaini!

      • The Black Hand says:

        You and me both…

    • Of course its a discussion. MLS is not the same leauge as the leagues the coaches you discuss work in. The drop from your best players to your bench players and backups is much more precipitous. When those coaches shuffle lineups they have the luxury of doing so because they have more than eleven very, very good players.
      In MLS, you cannot afford even 11 top tier players, let alone a locker room full of them, so them strategy becomes much more about maximizing your best pieces. Orlando’s year is not going to be about tactically adjusting to opponents, it’s going to be about how to best support Kaka, just like how NYRBs last several years were built around how to support Henry.
      I’m not saying that I agree with Curtin’s lineup decisions, but I think you’re painting with much too broad a brush here. The “get your best 11 on the field” mentality is not ignorant, it’s practical. MLS is not a top level league yet, no matter how hard we might wish it to be.

  6. J in Section 125 says:

    One game does not a season make and the state of the other Philly teams still leaves the door wide open for positive attention in the coming months. Let’s hope the U gets it together and give us something good to route for.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Yeah it is gonna be a bare summer for sports, with the Phillies being so terrible. If this team can put it together, it can really be a magical 2015, and a great step forward for our still young franchise.

  7. I really shudder at the thought of a record audience seeing that game. Might have been the worst MLS match I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely up there.

    It’s definitely too early to get bent out of shape. Let’s see how we fare against RSL.

  8. azog d'filer says:

    I looked at the stats and rewatched the game. We had chance after chance and lacked the finish. We owned the game and just could not score but the positives are far greater than the negatives.
    A couple of reminders:
    1. Nando (el rojo) has been with the team how long? Not enough time to jell
    2. Same with Vitoria
    3. 60% posession and a hell of a lot of shots
    4. Even the 22 yr old Venezuelan agrees that it will only get better
    5. Playing a team down a man is a lot trickier than most people think and Colorado parked the bus very well. Complaining that we could not win against a 10 man team is stupid because you are not taking the opposition’s tactics into account. Anyone who has played the game at a competitive level knows this.
    6. Maybe we should see what happens on Saturday before jumping off the cliff and taking Jim with us.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Colorado is SO bad…

      • azog d'filer says:

        Agreed, but they sure know how to park the bus and beat up on players

      • The Black Hand says:

        That speaks more about us.

      • How does it speak more about us?

      • The Black Hand says:

        That we were unable to put down a terrible team…let alone being up a man for a half-hour. Colorado (bad team) were able to go on the road and eke out a point. We (bad team) were unable to secure three points…in a game where we were, basically, being gifted countless opportunities.

      • it means we cant break teams down that park the bus……..footy 101. Exactly, Colorado came into PPL to get a point……………..and they succeeded!

      • I challenge anyone to remember a time they saw this team score a goal that wasn’t a free kick, penalty kick, corner kick or on the counter. When have we seen them build play, move the defense around intentionally- and ever have it result in a coordinated run of play goal?
        A breathless expression of the beautiful game. Even once? Sebastien took my breath away once in Season One on a perfectly played ball from either Mapp or Torres I believe against Houston- Zidane-esqu extension of foot to control then one touch slot shot past the keeper. That’s one. Four years ago. Tragically my wife was in the lieu.

      • They did exactly what they needed to do….to get a point. They did not come into PPL for 3….they came in for 1….and got it. It was completely obvious what they were doing…

    • The Chopper says:

      Exactly. Everyone is jumping off the cliff. But for all the talk about formations and tactics, these facts are simple.

      They generated real chances in the first half. They generated even more chances in the 2nd half. They should have been awarded at least one and probably two pks. Our goal was threatened once.

      It should have been a 3-0 game. Missed finishes and poor officiating took care of that. If they don’t finish their chances, they won’t win regardless of how pretty it looks and what the formation is.

      I expect this team to finish chances. It was just one of those games. And I expect this team to gel and improve.

      • So how it looks doesn’t matter to you? I agree with you on all fronts about everything you wrote- everything. One cannot argue- should woulda coulda. yep—- but how the play looks matters to me- the simple act of playing well. The Onion have never in five years played well for any length of time of consequence- a fart here a sputter there a tantalizing maybe then nothing again…….
        No…..there is no cliff I am standing on the edge of, what I see is a team only able to string together five passes in a row three times in 45 minutes. There is no cliff just more of the same. The aesthetic of play has not improved one grain. This has been the case in every game of each year since the beginning. It is actually an abyss not a cliff.
        “It wears me out It wears me out It wears me out,” as Thom Yorke sings to forlornly.

      • The Chopper says:

        Joel I like you enjoy watching the game played well. MLS is often an ugly league. But I think most fans would rather win ugly than lose pretty. Right now I am more interested in results than aesthetics.

        With the current roster and some time, I do believe it will get prettier. But not by a whole lot.

        If you lose Ugly (as the Union have too often) you really have nothing.

      • Winning much more important than how it looks. When did we look the best? I would think the 2nd half of the Open Cup and we still lost.

      • Not for me. Aesthetic is almost equally important.

      • “Aesthetic” means something to me too. Only one team is going to win the MLS Cup. With each expansion team winning it in any manner becomes more remote a probability for each and every team. However, each and every team can have some sort of association with the next World Cup cycle. that’s the “aesthetic” for me. It’s a certain look from a certain player. Right now we have former World Cup contributors Edu and MBohli. Neither of them showed that World Cup “aesthetic” Sunday. I’d argue if Ed would get back to CB maybe he’d show it again. I’m not sure what we’re all thinking, including Edu himself… It’s not all about winning, until every four years. Then it’s all about winning. Shit, let’s win the World Cup ugly and I’ll die happy. Joel gets it! Right Joel? Don’t leave me high, don’t leave me dry…

      • The Black Hand says:

        When isn’t it ‘one of those games’?

      • The Chopper says:

        I know. It has always been that way for the Union. But even good teams have those., so for this point of the season, I remain hopeful. Two months from now, if it is the same I will join the contingent on the cliff.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I can’t even drum up the hope, anymore. Have set camp on the edge of the cliff…that way I can just roll…

      • Magic.

    • pragmatist says:

      You reason and careful explanations are not welcome around here! We’re here with pitchforks and torches if we don’t get what we want!
      (Sorry…the negative crap is getting to me.)

      You’re absolutely correct, as has been mentioned in a few comments recently. If we finish our chances, of which we had many, this game is 2-0 or 3-0, and everyone is all Sunshine-and-Rainbows. Instead, people are acting like the typical Philadelphia hyper-reactive crown and calling for the coach to be fired. That’s logical. (Sarcasm, in case that wasn’t obvious.)

      • then you are actually missing the point…..if we had won two to nil…..there would still be plenty to critique.

    • played at a plenty competitive level bro……………and yes, on the training ground… work on breaking teams down a man…10v11…in 20-30 yards of space!…..been there done that! My D1 college coach knew how to train for that situation……guess Jimmy doesn’t. Is it easy, of course not. Are good teams expected to solve it….yes they are.

      • The Black Hand says:

        1. Keep the ball moving. Make your undermanned opponent run more than they want to.
        2. Stretch the pitch. Spread your opponent out…like not enough butter on too much bread.
        3. PRESSURE!!! Get your back line involved to take advantage of an odd-man situation,
        We didn’t do that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *