The blame game

Photo: Barb Colligon

Even during their most promising week of the season, the Union find a way to lose.

After a buoyant victory over NYCFC and a late point snatched in the midweek return trip up the turnpike, Philadelphia returned home on Sunday in a solid position. A result against New England would go a long way towards restoring the team’s place in the standings — and the confidence of its beleaguered fan base.

At halftime, such a result seemed possible, after a glorious Cristian Maidana free kick which I’d place as the second best goal in franchise history. (Yes, the immortal Kleberson still holds the top spot.)

Two gut punch goals later, and a week that held so much promise again crumbled into ruins.

In the aftermath of two nearly identical goals for the Revolution, the inquest began among the fans: Who was to blame?

  • Was it Sheanon Williams, who failed to track runners into the box?
  • Andrew Wenger, whose approach to defending could best be characterized as “nonexistent”?
  • Ray Gaddis, uncharacteristically destroyed in several 1-on-1 defensive opportunities?
  • How about Maurice Edu and Steven Vitoria, for not organizing the back line?
  • John McCarthy, for not aggressively attacking the balls entering the box?
  • Or maybe Brian Carroll, for the crime of just generally existing on a soccer pitch, nowhere near the ball but somehow probably at fault?

The answer, in reality, is that all of these things are varying degrees of true. (Except for BC, who gets a lot of deserved guff but should be off the hook here.) But if everyone on the team is at fault, then where should we turn?

A different kind of bastards

Before the season, Jim Curtin revealed what he wanted the team’s identity to be in a conversation with

We want to be bastards in the last 15 minutes of games and do what it takes and close [teams] out. […] Whether that is delaying things, taking a smart foul to slow the game down, whatever it might be, we have to do what it takes. It’s something we struggled with as a club for five years, it wasn’t just last season and it’s time for it to stop.

After eight games, this problem has only gotten worse. Before this week, Curtin’s team had already dropped points from winning positions in the final 15 minutes against RSL and Kansas City. In their last two games at PPL Park, the Union held 1-0 leads entering the second half. It would take less than 20 minutes in each half for that lead to evaporate. (It took a fantastic goal from Vincent Nogueira to reclaim the win they coughed up to NYCFC last weekend.)

In case you’re counting, in 50 percent of the team’s games so far, the Union have been in a situation where they could have been bastards. They failed to do so every time.

The Union are literally the exact opposite of the “bastards” that Jim Curtin envisaged. They see their opponent lying on the ground, help them up, give them a crisp $100 bill, and send them merrily on their way.

This trend is a failure of management — more than just making the right substitution at the right time, or getting your players lined up in a specific formation. The preparation must be much, much deeper than that, starting on the training field and in the video room. Every player needs to know what they’re going to do in a specific situation, needs to have repeated that situation millions of times in practice, needs to occasionally get reminders from their leaders during the game.

That’s not what we’ve seen so far this year. We’ve seen a team whose stated objective is to snare a lead and protect it with their lives, but who are completely incapable of doing that.

A well-coached team is rarely something you can quantify. You can either see it, or you don’t.

On the evidence so far, the Union are not a well-coached team.

Who is the problem here?

It seems obvious to me, on this fact alone, that Jim Curtin isn’t qualified for the job he has. With a full offseason to train up his squad, he has thus far failed to impress his brand of soccer upon them.

Admittedly, it is still early in this season. There are many games left to be played, many months of summer afternoons and chilly evenings of soccer in the shadow of the Commodore Barry.

I fervently hope that this team figures out how to be bastards, and fast. Or that they find some other identity, as long as it helps them win soccer matches.

I am not alone in wanting little more than a team that wins, that brings occasional joy rather than constant heartbreak to its fans. I do not think that is too much to ask.

But this trend, this inability of Jim Curtin’s team to execute his plans, is worth scrutinizing. Because, if it continues, there will come a day when a head will roll for the Union’s failures.

So I ask you, my fellow fans. And Union ownership, if you’re listening.

One person put Jim Curtin in this position. One person gave a rookie manager a rookie technical director, a minuscule war chest, and the albatross of Rais Mbolhi, and told him to go win games. One person set him up to fail.

If the Union’s dismal season continues, that’s the person who needs to go.

What’s his name?

It might be time we hear that name around PPL Park.


  1. Should have stayed with the Academy and never taken the job……….not if he’s going to be set up to fail…….we would all do the same in our careers if we saw the writing on the wall like it was. I am also done with the blame game….yesterday was crazy….and I’m still right:)!

    • yes, yes you are, now please do your best Elsa impersonation and let it go

      • Sense of humor?????? Touchy Osager, relax……I’m not going anywhere near that today….

      • The Black Hand says:

        Fuck “Frozen” and everything associated with it!!!! My house is a shrine to “Frozen”. Fuck Elsa, Anna, Olaf, Sven, other guy…fuck them all!!!!!!! Sorry…I needed to say that.

      • I was thinking the same thing dude, but trying to be civil. I actually had a siezure when I saw Elsa and let it go….but I got back onto my desk before my boss walked by….I’m cool now. I’m in the same boat…….I thought at work I could escape it for 9 hours!

      • Andy Muenz says:

        OK. I’m officially too old. When I saw the name Elsa, I thought of the old 1960’s movie Born Free and was wondering what people have against a lion.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Hahaha…That Elsa is ok, with me.

    • To me, the first comparison that comes to mind here is when a player – oh, say, Ryan Howard – is offered an utterly ridiculous contract. Just about everybody – probably including the player and his reps – knows it’s a terrible deal. But the player should, every time, accept the contract and laugh all the way to the bank.
      Some fans will then gnash their teeth and flail their arms and blame the player. But the fact that Ryan Howard… er, I mean the hypothetical player… sucks and is a drain on resources and is actively blocking younger players isn’t the player’s fault. The blame squarely rests with whomever in management *cough* Ruben *cough* offered up the ridiculous contract.
      So back to the Union and Jim Curtin. It’s really the same situation. He knows what he’s getting into, but it’s just too good of an offer to turn down. When he accepted he knew the limitations – he knew he had a lack of experience, he knew his technical director was learning on the job, he knew he had a mentally weak gajillion dollar goalkeeper who he needed to at least nominally back as his starter coming into the season, and he knew his boss’s boss was restrained financially. Jim knew all of that when he accepted. But much like Ryan Howard, he would’ve been foolish to not accept the offer. Accepting the job was, really, the only sensible option for Curtin. Staying with the academy wasn’t really an option; he can always go back, either here or elsewhere afterall.
      Peter is exactly right. This mess isn’t on Curtin. It isn’t on Albright, either. It’s on Nicky Sak.

      • John, I hear what your saying…..and I agree to an extent. But, at the same time a huge part of me says he was the technical director of one of the best academies in the country and which was one of the first residencies. I think that looks better on a CV than what’s going on now and I think he would have been better off. Not permanently, but at least for the time being. He has made tactical and personnel mistakes in matches…..but I also don’t fault him in any way for the overall state of the club. He walked into a very tough situation……no doubt.

  2. I commend the courage to write this article.

    • I was thinking the same thing. It was almost like PSP saw what was going on in the threads yesterday……..and wanted to stoke the fire? I’m not biting today…..I said my piece.

    • Jim Presti says:

      +1. Until the entire fanbase is consistently calling out Sak, we are stuck. Kudos to PSP for stoking the fire.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        he has an ownership stake, remember. Only his ownership partners can remove him. We can howl for blood, scream bloody murder and otherwise carry on, but we mean nothing. Only collective fan boycotting would have an effect and that only indirectly by reducing profitability and shrinking the market value of the franchise below the value invested in it. That’s private ownership in a capitalist system.

      • Jim Presti says:

        The other option is for Sak to take on a “silent partner” role. More of an investor and less responsibility with operations. That doesn’t necessarily require a fan base to reduce the profitibiity through boycotting. It does, however, require the remaining shareowners ask that he turn his position over to someone else. I would bet that only a majority of the shareholders could organize that. Without really understanding the ownership structure, its almost impossible to determine if this is a viable route to free the Union from terrible top-down on-field decision making.

      • Sugarman has to decide and the minority owners not disagree. He can keep his stake – unless his contract says he has to sell it back if he gets terminated, which means Sak (and/or the minority owners) need to come up with his payoff. #sugarmanspendorsell

    • Great article and very accurate …..something I’ve seen from Curtin all year is the late defensive substitutions near the end of games to preserve a lead. It has not worked out all year and some of our best defensive showings have come early on in games when it does show. When will Curtin realize that going at teams is how to approach the end of games defensively. This is should not be every teams approach, but this team for sure knows the meaning of choking when they are told to sit back and hold a lead ….Curtin, bring on subs who will go at the opposing team instead of letting them gain possession at midfield with their heads up… Attack, attack, attack, attack for the full 90 as best you can!!!!

  3. I want to hear Taylor Twellman say on TV “Chivas East”.

  4. Can’t argue with a word of this.

    As a friend of mine just said, I can’t believe the Union are coached by a guy who was coaching my kid at YSC just a few years ago.

  5. I gotta say, I think Ruiz still has the greatest union goal of all time.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Who’s to blame?! Sak, Sug, and anyone else who has an ownership stake in this team. They don’t care about being a good football club, they care about making money. As soon as the money dries up, they’ll sell. Until then, we are stuck with this. It’s on ownership… everything else (technical director, lack of a GM, manager, players) is a direct result of them.

    • Phil in Wilmington says:

      Then dry up the money. Standing by your team no matter what is what every ownership group in this city banks on. It’s naive and it enables more of the same old bullshit. Five years of boycotting every team in the city would do the trick.

  7. The Black Hand says:

    Ship of Fools, on a cruel sea…

    • It was later than I thought…..when I first believed you………

    • Funny when I think Ship of Fools, I hear Robert Plant…
      “I built this ship, it is my making, and furthermore my self control I can’t rely on anymore – I know why I know why – crazy on a ship of fools.”

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Don’t forget about Ship of Fools by the Doors…”The human race was dying out. No one left to scream and shout.”
        It’s a popular song title.

  8. Atomic Spartan says:

    When I saw the reserves walk onto the field before the game, frankly, I abandoned hope. Carroll, check. Wenger, check. Fabinho, check. White, check. Not much to strike fear in the hearts of any mediocre MLS opponent. If Curtin had any say in retaining any of these players in the off season, shame on him. If so, he has handcuffed himself. But those cuffs were likely forged by the paygrades above him, so shame on them.
    It is hard to believe at this point that our Sak of Sugar has either the whim or the wherewithal to field a seriously competitive team. Since Sugar is known as a speculator, my guess is that he is doing his damnedest right now to sell this team and make a profit. If not, shame on him. But if he is, so, I wish him Godspeed.


    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      There is a salary cap doing the handcuffing, not Curtin.
      Look at the salary structure of the team, leaving the DPs out of it. Almost all the depth is provided by young guys making the minimum. That approach does not allow for injuries to starters, or for starters to age beyond their peak productivity.
      Hire away a successful MLS GM. The FO seems to have build a good business organization, is developing the physical infrastructure. The goal keeping fiasco might lead to a change, unless Curtin pulls off an unlikely miracle.

      • OSC – I believe this club is building a good infrastructure, to a degree, then firing that infrastructure in varying ways and reasons – but for the life of me wish they would invest in a proven General Manager who would institute a club wide V.P.P.
        I don’t expect David Villa or Lampard or Gerrard – not even sure I want them – but a Jozy Altidore- that’s different – and to be honest – I think not expecting these things is just one of the ‘played out shitty aspects of being a jaded Philadelphia fan’ – the “we are not good enough psycho-scarring.”
        The Union were going to be different. Right? …. Right? They had a chance to set a new course man. This is my aching heart. This same old, Philadelphia Story.
        If I felt that…….If I saw that…..If I believed that…. I think I could be happy. I think.

      • Meh . . . they keep talking about how great and important the Academy is, but they haven’t signed a Homegrown player in 3 years 1 month and 20 days. Not that I’m counting. And they’ve signed a total of three in six plus years of existence
        One of the ones they did signed was considered not good enough and is gone.
        Meanwhile Orlando . . . which hadn’t played a game yet mind you . . . signed two Homegrowns this off-season.
        Bully for Steffen and Pulisic for signing over seas, but how exactly has that helped us?
        When they sign Taylor-Parkes I’ll believe in their Academy plan, until then I’m convinced it’s a shell organization that Sak hopes to generate profits from both long and short term

  9. Silly question – but does Sak have a contract? If so – how much longer does it run? With the penny pinching tactics this organization has exhibited (ie firing perfectly capable PR people and combining jobs for overworked former interns) it wouldn’t be surprising if they don’t want to fire Sak because they’d have to pay him and his replacement.

  10. The Chopper says:

    The blame falls squarely on the desk of Jay Sugarman. For all of Nick Sakiewicz’s faults (well documented), the problems this franchise remains plagued by come back to operating on a shoe string.

    Jim Curtin is coach because he was considered the best inexpensive candidate for the job. More experienced, higher priced alternatives need not apply. He was already under contract. Chris Albright is running the front office because higher priced experienced candidates have not been examined. BTW, Albright is doing far better than we have a right to expect and likely will be a top flight executive some day, but should not be learning on the job.

    Your technical staff and front office are not bound by the salary cap. This is where you can invest over the line if you must. I do not think this is the staff Sakiewicz wants (his ego wants to win and he likes to spend other people’s money), but it is the situation he has to work with given the dictates of Sugarman and his investors.

    Fernando can’t get a call. Well this team gets no favors from the league. Why, because while other owners use their funds and exceptiions to help raise the profile of he league by signing Kaka, Dempsey, Lampard, Villa etc. the Union contribute nothing. They get nothing in return.

    In the end,it all comes back to Jay. Sell or give up majority control or nothing changes whether Sak is there or not.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Yes. Ultimately, you are right. Jay Sugarman’s pockets contain nothing for the Philadelphia Union. It’s a prime example of an asshole business owner. You must continue to reinvest in your product, if you want it to grow. Sugarman made his initial investment and has left that money to do what it will. That is unmotivated business, at its best. (Practice facility, I suspect, came from money that the CLUB has produced…over it’s 5 years.). There are a lot of owners like this, in sports.
      Sak is the main reason, though. Sak is the one who has decided where the money was to be spread…and there WAS some money. Sak was the one who made the call on Hackworth and Curtin. Sak brought Rais M’Bohli and Maurice Edu to Philadelphia…along with their salaries. Those two salaries could have brought 3-4 QUALITY players to our starting XI…instead, we got a CB (we could have picked up a comparable CB for a fraction of Edu’s cost). Sak is the one who left us so thin that we cannot field a legitimate XI, on our best day. Sak must go!!!

      • Without question. The funds that were available were and continue to be misallocated which all comes back to the lack of Vision. Philosophy. Plan.
        THIS is the FAILURE of MR. Sakiewiecz. He has the experience. He is the captain of this ship and the responsibility falls on his shoulders- whether he weasels out of blame and accepts praise. I am a Philadelphia sports fan – I KNOW bullshit when I see it and I call : BULLSHIT.

      • There is no money. Not a whole lot but he club has made it clear they are willing to invest in a level of player quality- it is just misguided which comes back to V.P.P.
        I blame Mr. Sakiewicz for the lack of FO leadership. I blame Mr. Sakiewicz for hiring inexpensive leadership instead of quality proven leadership in the name of JC and CA.
        This is his ship. It is his albatross. It is Jack’s aching futbol heart.

      • ‘scuse. there is money.

      • The Chopper says:

        Sak’s errors are well documented. There is no disputing them.

        However, correcting those errors and overcoming them requires a level of investment that current ownership is not willing to make regardless of who runs the club. That was and remains the point of my original post.

        And by the way, the only one who can remove Sak from the picture is Sugarman, so again, that is where the blame goes. Removing Nick probably would involve some kind of buyout/payout and Jay ain’t paying.

        So call Bullshit, but you sir are wrong.

    • #sugarmanspendorsell

  11. J in Section 125 says:

    I am curious as to what, if anything, Rene Meulensteen is now doing with this club as a consultant. Is he out trying to lure more talent; sell some of the mistakes (M’Bohli); find investors, a coach and/or technical director? Or is he the next guy on the sideline or in the front office?

    • I asked this question a few weeks back and got no responses. It really seems like if Rene was more involved, we’d see some of these issues resolved like tactics, mentality, etc. His name hasn’t been associated with the team in any news for a long time, yet I still would believe he’s getting a fat check.

      The positive side of me likes to think he’s turning wheels for the long run… but I doubt it.

    • The Black Hand says:

      He’s the European rep for BIMBO bread. He’s going from countryside to countryside; preaching that processed bread, that will kill you, is better than wholesome old-style loaves…”cuz it’s easier to chew”.

  12. You honestly can’t write the Union is terrible article without mentioning LeToux. At some point he has to actually play on the wing. Him constantly pushing in and making Nando go wide drives me insane.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Remember the “fictions” surrounding getting public money for building PPL Park, that it would be the centerpiece of an urban redevelopment project on the Chester waterfront. Such a project needed a real estate man, and Sugarman’s company, near as I have ever figured out is a Real Estate Investment Trust, a device that finance whizzes have invented to gather investment for real estate. The plans occurred before the real estate bubble burst.
    My point is that Sugarman is not a soccer person, as far as I know. I know nothing of his time at Swarthmore, but his behavior so far has been that of a chairman who is learning the business. He is sufficiently unknown that a few games ago when I was standing in the halftime line for a Men’s room, he walked by unrecognized by most if not all.
    yes he is responsible; we must be responsible also in our analyses, aside from immediate post game venting, ranting, or occasionally euphoric celebrating. Were Sugarman to separate Sakiewicz from on field and technical staff personnel decisions, he would be stating that he is ready to be directly responsible for that decision, much as Jim Curtin did when he, correctly, benched Mbohli. Sugarman may not be there yet. Of greater strategic concern might be – reiterate might – Harrisburg’s future and therefore it’s affiliation with the Union.
    USL has announced its intent to seek classification a a second division league from US Soccer at some point in the foreseeable future. U.S. Soccer has stadium capacity requirements for such classification that the City Islanders’s field on City Island does not meet. There seem three logical outcomes, expand seating capacity improve field quality and improve locker rooms at the City Island field, find a more suitable venue in the immediate Harrisburg area, or move the club elsewhere. The last would throw the affiliation with the Union into question more than likely. Part of Harrisburg for the Union is that it is conveniently close by comparison with other affiliations. Were Harrisburg out of the Union’s picture, whether to seek a different affiliation or to start a new wholly owned USL team would be a major decision more important than aging a GM for the first team.

    • Loss of Harrisburg as an affiliate would require a capital investment that the current ownership group is unlikely to want to make. The trend in MLS seems to be the creation of ‘Insert Team Name 2’ as their USL affiliate, but again, this would take $$, something the current ownership does not want to spend.

      Someday, someday, someone is going to write the detailed history of what has gone on behind the scenes with the Union, and I believe the most interesting parts will not be the player decisions, but rather the off the field issues – the politics behind the stadium location, the failed development around the stadium area, the Nowak lawsuit, etc. As a fan, I can ALMOST accept when my team is poor because the GM is clueless (cough) Ruben Amaro (cough), but when the plan of the front office is to invest as little as possible to ensure max profit on resale, yeah, I get angry.

    • it was always a real estate deal for many if not all of the investors. the real estate economy tanked in 2008, killing the deal – or at least delaying it out a long, long time. the failure to develop at least the waterfront commercially for game day stuff – something modest – speaks to the reluctance to commit capital, as well as the unavailability of financing (a problem for the broader real estate development sector only just now started to lessen). its like the Brooklyn Nets, Atlantic Yards and Prokhorov buying the team from Ratner – he didn’t care about the team, he wanted in on the real estate deal –

    • The easy fix would be to create a 2nd division side out of the PA Classics Academy. They have a nice complex and are one of the better organizations outside of the MLS. They obviously would have to expand…….but you have soccer people there who really know their stuff. If HCI can’t meet the requirements… already have the PA Classics to step in. Many clubs in the DA have U-23 sides……..whats the difference in creating a PDL or USL side? The PA Classics already send many players to the Union….there is a relationship there…….I think Wenger was a PA Classic. Use whats already available……….cost effective too.

  14. Again what we’ve known and suffered through all along was played out in front of a national TV audience. I have commented on the problems with this organization over and over again. Finally commentators are putting a spotlight on it. The media covering the Union are starting to challenge the fecklessness of this organization in public during interviews and in print. As fans we don’t have to luxury of just critiquing and analyzing our teams performance because it goes beyond the games. The problems with the Union are in ownership,front office and management. We are saddled with a cheap bottom of the barrel 3rd rate organization in a top market and for any of us to just sit on our hands and accept it makes us all the more foolish for it! We can’t rely on the SoB’s to lead the way because in my opinion they’ve sold out and are now part of the problem. All the talk about the lack of skill and how so and so is not performing up to snuff is all beside the point now. The problem with the Union start with Sugarman and Sakiewicz. Jim Curtin should be coaching only because he hasn’t mastered coaching or anything remotely close to it! Albright should be assisting an in place GM period end of story. As long as we have this flea circus owning and running this organization we will be stuck in this ever continuing self perpetuating cycle of BS from top to bottom!

    Sell this franchise to a competent and financially competitive owner!


    • The fact that we aren’t even in conversations along with our closest rivals NY,DC,NE etc when it comes to some top tier talent and we have to penny pinch and rob Peter to pay Paul should be unacceptable to this fan base. No one is saying to throw good money after bad and you don’t have to have endless resources to make bad signings. We’ve seen how that plays out with a cheap ownership. That’s why I harp on hoping that this franchise will be sold to a competent yet financially competitive ownership. Money talks and bullshit walks? We’ve seen it played out backwards and we’ve had enough of the walking bullshit to last a lifetime.


        I’m not beholden to them. I’m not a sycophant. I’m not grateful, ohhh so grateful- they brought us a franchise. Nope.
        They have my heart cause I am Philly born and raised -but not my dollars… in the meantime, I will enjoy Leo Fernandez scoring in NY on a regular basis and Pedro scoring in Orlando on a regular basis and #14 leading the Smiling Lion in Florida. I will enjoy the Timber Army from my time living there.

  15. Friends. This is my last post on this blog. Be well. Out.

  16. The Little Fish says:

    Sorry to see you go Joel. Hopefully you’ll reconsider.

  17. el pachyderm says:

    Vision. Philosophy. Plan.

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