What we learned from a Kansas City collapse

Photo: Nick Smith, via Sporting Kansas City Facebook page

For the Philadelphia Union, Sunday night’s disastrous result at Sporting KC took the start of the season from bad to worse.

You know what? That might be an understatement. Let’s try this: Sunday night’s result took the start of the season from “hey, is that an iceberg out in the distance?” to “is it just me, or are we starting to sink into the Atlantic Ocean?”

It was a terrible result, thanks in no small part to the efforts — or lack thereof — from Rais Mbolhi. I could certainly go on and on, devoting this whole column to the terrible circumstances by which he joined the team and the wretched performance he’s put on so far.

But I’m not going to.

Imagine this thought experiment: let’s say you get transferred to a new job in, say, Algeria. Even though you’ve never been there before and you barely speak any French or Arabic, you move on pretty short notice, and you’re mostly just thrilled by the prospect of steady employment. But as you’re trying to move to Algiers, you get in a car crash on I-95 and your wife gives birth to your first kid, all in the span of a week. And then when you arrive, you find out that you’re replacing a young, popular employee, and you make a massive mistake on your third day on the job that nearly brings the company to total ruin.

Is it any wonder that you might struggle with your confidence, that you might be wary of your teammates, that a self-reinforcing destructive cycle might begin to ensnare you?

This isn’t to excuse Mbolhi’s pathetic performances. He’s highly paid — taking up tons of cap space — to do a job, and he hasn’t demonstrated any skill with that job so far. But I don’t find any fun in bashing Mbolhi, who seems doomed to a quick exit from Philly and perpetual status as an MLS punchline.

More than anything, he seems lost, and that’s something many of us can empathize with.

Others have covered Mbolhi thoroughly enough. I want to take a look at a few other patterns we’ve started to see this season.

Jim Curtin does not like substitutes

Trying to cling to a 2-1 lead at Kansas City, Jim Curtin made the following substitutions:

C.J. Sapong for Eric Ayuk: Okay, this makes sense. Experienced forward, playing at his old stadium, on for a sparkplug of a winger making his first start.

Raymond Lee for Fabinho: Fabinho did not score a goal for Kansas City, so his night should be considered a net positive. When he was forced off with an injury, Curtin turned to a fourth-round draft pick with exactly zero MLS minutes. I get that Lee is, nominally, your third choice left back. But why throw him in the cauldron at Kansas City when you have Ethan White — a far more experienced option — on the bench? Failing to put White in at right back and shift Gaddis to left back almost directly cost the Union a result, as Lee’s catastrophic performance ushered Kansas City to the victory.

And… no third substitution. No bringing on fresh legs to replace the largely ineffective Andrew Wenger, or wheeling out Vincent Nogueira to try to retain a tiny bit of possession, or even just making a substitution for the sake of wasting time and slowing the game down.

It was a bizarre sequence from the Union manager, as Curtin neglected to do everything in his power to win the match. Normally, I’m an advocate for managers trusting their players on the field, but in the context of a subpar start to the season it’s incumbent on the manager to do everything he can to tip the scales. 

But tipping the scales with substitutions is something Curtin has failed to do all season. So far this season, Curtin has followed an iron rule: barring an injury, he will not make a substitution before the 74th minute.

Colorado: (45’ — injury), 85’, 85’

Real Salt Lake: 79’, 79’, 87’

FC Dallas: (28’ — injury), 74’, 81’

Chicago: 78’, 82’, 86’

Sporting KC: 72’, 78’, none

Looking at this substitution pattern, is it any surprise that thus far this season, no Union substitute has made a positive impact on a match. Waiting until just 15 — or even 5! — minutes remaining in the game to make a change doesn’t give your substitutes enough time to integrate with their team, nor enough time to get on the end of any chances.

For a manager still looking to prove himself, Curtin hasn’t demonstrated much acumen with his substitutions through the first month of 2015.

Edu and Le Toux flourish in new roles

Due to the epidemic of injuries and insane violence affecting the Union, Maurice Edu and Sebastien Le Toux were forced into new roles for 2015 at Kansas City. Edu moved to centerback to replace the struggling White, and Le Toux was moved up top as a somewhat withdrawn second striker.

Both men turned in their best performances of the season. Edu’s presence immediately calmed a backline which had been panic-stricken through the first four games, and we saw Steven Vitoria put together a quality performance as Edu’s partner. Meanwhile, the disruptive, counter-attacking Le Toux which Union fans have loved since day one emerged for the first time this season. The tireless Frenchman paired with Fernando Aristeguieta to rattle KC’s midfield and backline, and Le Toux was involved in a number of quality forward moves. His service from set pieces, much derided, improved tremendously — his looping balls were responsible for both goals and for the second-half goal disallowed for offside.

Edu and Le Toux both are huge pieces of this team, and they have to be at their best. Can Curtin coax this sort of form out of them on a consistent basis? Edu should be bolted into the backline for the considerable future, leaving defensive midfield to the adequately capable platoon of Michael Lahoud and Brian Carroll and letting Vincent Nogueira play his preferred no. 8 role. Le Toux is trickier, but structuring the formation to let Le Toux play as less of an out-and-out winger and more as a slightly wide striker should work — though Sheanon Williams needs to return to the side soon to make that possible.

There’s nowhere to go but up…

Sunday’s result was a complete disaster, and I think the general frustration and anger about it is well founded.

That said, I think the Union are not far away from putting a couple results together.

Two points from five games is objectively terrible. Yet the Union have put together good stretches in four of those five games. They took a point from a dangerous situation at RSL, and lost a couple due to wretched refereeing. They’ve dealt with an injury to their most influential starter — Cristian Maidana — and a bevy of smaller injuries and red cards have weakened their roster and their resolve.

In short, the Union have been dramatically, disgustingly unlucky in these first five games. There has to be some regression to the mean soon. With a pair of games against expansion side NYCFC coming up, the team has a chance to string together some solid results.

And, for a moment, they might stop taking on water.


  1. You are a glass half full kind of guy, huh Peter?

  2. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Maybe if I had a snazzy PSP bottle opener I could be a glass half full kind of guy myself…. just sayin.

    Anyway, we learned that evertything we complained about all off season is 100% correct. This team is in shambles and it starts at the top. The kindest thing I could say about Sak is that he is incompetent.

    • Agreed, pretty much everything that was said is true. That “is it time to panic” article needs to be revisited.
      To me the most fixable immediate problem. Is Curtin and his decisions. Sub smarter and earlier. Make adjustments. Don’t sit Maidana. Be creative.

  3. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in presenting another view for M’Bohli. I have been generally attempting to steer clear of skewering him, though it is getting close. My thing Peter is, this man has traveled the world has stood in against the greatest players in the world against the greatest teams in the world against some of the greatest tacticians in the world and now this is what we get from him- a checkered psyche?

    • If it’s his adjustment to being in Philly that’s the problem, shouldn’t the Front Office and Coaching Staff be doing everything in their power to help him along?? If so and if they are not (no way to know, really), then this is one more failure on all of them…

      • This! It was the same situation with Freddy Adu. We take a risk on a player with a career that includes frequent moves among many clubs, and we fail to address/prevent the fractured nature of their relationship with their team.

      • +11 (this one goes to it). look at his CV – it screams cannot hold a job, even in what shold be not so challenging conditions. or, stated differently, could never get a job in a quality environment nor hold one in any other.

      • A few fans used to volunteer to help the various Colombian players going in and out. Based on those situations I’d imagine the front office does very very little to help foreign players acclimate.

  4. 1) Peter, you make some good points about M’Bolhi. But a big part of what’s going on in his persona. Compare with 2 other people: Jim Curtin, and Zac MacMath. Curtin is just frankly likable, so even the people who think he’s in over his head aren’t asking for that head to be stuck on a pike. Zac made some serious clunkers in his time as keep, but he was always a class act who would own up to his mistakes — and then show that he’d learned something by making clear improvements. Rais, on the other hand, is sullen-looking, refuses to talk to the press, gets into sniping matches with his teammates every game, and remonstrates to the refs for phantom fouls. Maybe if the guy spoke at a press conference and said, “I realize I am not performing up to the standards of the team and the fans, nor to my own personal standards, and I am going to work as hard as I can to get back to the level where I performed during the World Cup”… maybe then we (and the media) would take a respite from ripping him a new one.

    2) Curtin has indeed made several head-scratching substitutions in his time as manager, though I personally don’t know that bringing Lee in was as crazy as people say. The alternatives involve putting people in new positions (White) and moving around people who’d played well all game (Gaddis, Lahoud). Not clear that that would’ve worked out any better. All of this stems from one fundamental problem: our bench is desperately thin right now. Given that, who can blame Curtin for keeping his best XI on as long as possible?

    3) Yes, the Union are not THIS bad. I mean, they ain’t good, but when healthy they actually have a very solid starting XI. Le Toux runs hot and cold all the time, and he’ll pick up again at some point as long as he gets service (which he will when Maidana comes back). Wenger has been cold, but he’ll likely get untracked as well, and we have both Sapong and Ayuk to play on that wing if he doesn’t. The really big disappointments have been M’Bolhi, of course, and Ethan White. Both of those problems are potentially solvable (Andre Blake, when he’s healthy, and Lahoud with Edu in the back). There will be some regression to the mean.

    4) The number one thing that will determine whether the Union can possibly salvage this season is… their performance on set-piece marking for the rest of the year. And that is entirely on ex-CB Curtin. If that never improves then I would seriously consider firing him, because that should be something he does really well, and if he can’t manage that he clearly does not deserve the job.

    • +1 for your No. 1 above.

    • scottso – thanks for your response, and I do appreciate the comparison with MacMath and Curtin. What I was trying to draw out in the article is the idea that Mbolhi may simply be overwhelmed by the different culture here. If I were in Mbolhi’s shoes, playing in MLS, I would stand up and say exactly what you’ve suggested. But if I were playing in the Algerian or Bulgarian league, I would be much more wary and cautious of everything I said, for fear of angering fans or trampling on local custom. That posture comes naturally to MacMath and Curtin – it may not for Mbolhi.

      I don’t want this to be read as me excusing Mbolhi’s performances. He’s played terribly and should sit on the bench, and he does *seem* like a massively annoying dude. All I’m saying is that, on a human level, I empathize with the guy.

      • your POV piece helps to make certain that MBolhi is absolutely overwhelmed. his CV indicates this was to be expected.

      • Peter, I have to say that since the game on Sunday, I have been living off my anger over Mbolhi’s play and waiting with anticipation for the next article bashing him. You are a better man than me, for pointing out the human side of the player, and empathizing with him. Thank you for your perspective.
        Anyway…, I completely agree with your other points (and am glad to have also heard that Mbolhi will not be playing this weekend). If he can play his way back into a starting position, fine, but I think he has to earn his way back to a starting position based on the merits of his play. It should be Blake’s starting position to lose.

  5. The problem is that regressing to the mean isn’t exactly going to make this team a winner.
    Until someone figures out how to manage around the M’Bolhi disaster (both financial and on-field) this team doesn’t look like its going anywhere positive, unless ‘just missing the playoffs’ is the long term goal.

    • John Ling says:

      I’ve said similar elsewhere, but…
      Managing around the financial aspect of the MBohli debacle is simple, at least in the short term. Completely ignore it. To do otherwise is to fall prey to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. The Union have to pay the man, regardless. That part can’t change. Since it can’t change, it shouldn’t factor into any game day decisions. You don’t choose who your starting keeper is based on the fact that he makes $500,000 a year; you make the decision independent of salary, based on who you think gives your team the best chance to win. (Assuming “win” is the goal, frankly.)
      And, in that regard, I think the choice for keeper right now has to be anybody other than MBohli. Blake is choice #1, and McCarthy is choice #2.
      The worst thing Jim Curtin – or worse, Chris Albright and/or Nicky Sak – can do right now is make a game-day decision based on money. That money is spent; they can’t get it back. Ignore it, and make a decision independent of the money.

      • The one caveat to this is if they think Mbohli is salvageable. By handing the keys to someone else other than him is admit 1) signing him was a mistake and 2) – well there is no 2.

        You also risk losing him mentally (if there’s anything there to lose.) Recall that when they signed him he was coming in as this amazing player “from this little tournament in South America”. That would be quite a fall and good ol Nicky would have to eat A LOT of crow. Seems to me he doesn’t like the taste of it.

        All of this drama can be delayed a bit by saying he “picked up a little knock” in the game or training this week. But unless they have 0 common sense (and bringing him on to this team last year in the middle of the season sort of proves that) there is NO WAY he can start this week. No way. Cause anything short of clean sheet and he will be booed mercilessly. And booing will be the tame response/

      • Well just heard they are benching him….so there is some common sense there I guess.

      • John Ling says:

        Thanks for the link. troubling to see Fernando wasn’t practicing. Losing him right now might be the last thing this team needs…

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        This is good… the benching of M’Bolhi that is… to be clear nothing else is really good right now.

      • John Ling says:

        I dunno, OMW. This apple I’m eating right now is pretty damn good…

      • John, I heard that most of the first team had only light training that day. Considering how hard Nando worked he might have just been given the day off.

  6. Did anyone notice that @Rais_Dz has disappeared from Twitter…?

    • old soccer coach says:

      given the uncivil potential of being on twitter – see Curt Schilling and his softball-playing daughter – do you blame him?

    • has anyone really seen Rais in Philly anyway?
      9 goals conceded on 20 shots
      Hologram Michael Jackson only allowed 3 goals on 40 shots in the dead superstar league for crying out loud.

  7. The substitution thing is always tricky. Making the assumption that you’ve got you’re best eleven on the field on any given week, any substitution is a “downgrade” to a certain degree. (Let’s face it, we’re talkin’ “depth” in terms of wading pools here, not oceans.)
    If Curtin pulls his starters (read “best players”) earlier and nothing happens, he’ll get skewered for not having his best chances on the field for as long as possible. If he keeps them on the field longer because he’s trying to give them every chance to squeeze out a result, and nothing happens, he gets skewered for not giving a “lesser” player the chance.
    I know it’s not THAT simple on his side, but it sure is on the critics’ side.
    All that having been said, this critic believes bringing in a guys with as little as 5-10 minutes left is a fruitless approach. Little good ever comes from a player coming in that late unless the team is hard into a heated attack. (And we certainly haven’t seen that kind of late effort yet.)

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