A View from Afar

Andre Blake must start the U.S. Open Cup final

Photo: Daniel Studio

Andre Blake must start in the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday night.

Whether John McCarthy’s clutch penalty saves during Philadelphia Union’s cup run make it a difficult decision or not doesn’t matter.

Blake just produced arguably the best goalkeeping performance in Union history, and he is clearly the team’s best goalkeeper right now. He is in top form, and opponents haven’t seen enough film of his tendencies and mistakes to adequately scout the ways to beat him. If he plays like he did Saturday behind an actual first string starting 11, he could be the difference between winning and losing.

Blake saved 10 shots on goal Saturday against New England, and the only one that beat him was a perfectly placed penalty that he read correctly. He came off his line very well, his distribution was decent enough (but better than McCarthy’s generally is), and he preserved the Union a road point against a team that was absolutely marauding down the left flank at will against second half substitute left back Warren Creavalle.

After just four professional starts, Blake looks like the best goalkeeper the Union have ever had. (Are we getting ahead of ourselves a bit on that last statement? Probably — although it doesn’t mean it’s not true — but let’s leave it there and move on with the argument regarding this one game on Wednesday.) In three starts this season, Blake has saved 19 of 21 shots and, when he plays, practically pitches a tent to camp out on the league highlight reel.

It may feel like a tough decision if one is factoring in a coach’s management of player personalities, but if Amobi Okugo wasn’t owed a start in last year’s final, then McCarthy certainly isn’t now. In terms of winning and losing, this is as straightforward as big, important decisions can get.

Union head coach Jim Curtin seems to get it too, although he isn’t revealing his plans just yet. He used his experience playing in the 2006 U.S. Open Cup to illustrate that.

“I’d also comment that I started and played in the games that got us there and in then in the final I came off the bench,” Curtin said. “Coaches make decisions to win games, and you have one opportunity to win a final. We’ll field our top team. We’ll field our best XI guys and the guys we believe can go out there and do a job. Everything during the buildup happens for a reason. Everybody plays a role in terms of getting you to the final, and from there you have to select the best team that will give you a chance to win.”

Yes, McCarthy stepped up with some clutch penalty saves during this year’s cup run. Yes, everyone likes his attitude and local-kid-succeeds story, including me. But his distribution has been weak, and while he has recently cut down on the rookie mistake of recklessly coming off his line, that very dangerous tendency is not completely gone.

If you had one game with everything on the line, who would pass over Blake right now?

Nobody.

It may feel like a tough break for McCarthy, but he’s a pro. He’ll accept it, use it for motivation, and perhaps come back a better player later. Don’t close the book on him just because Blake is in great form. McCarthy has his faults but is a legitimate pro who will only get better.

Blake looks like a game-changer right now. He has to start.

If Blake starts and the Union lose, Curtin might get second-guessed a little, but it’s a call most would make in going with the hot hand who is also regarded as the better long-term prospect. Plus, it’s not a league game, so it should not impact Blake’s Generation adidas eligibility for next season. (Too much playing time could theoretically cost that eligibility and require the Union to count him against their salary cap next year.)

If Blake sits and the Union lose with anything less than a perfect performance by McCarthy, then people will ask — fairly or not — why Curtin sat Blake, and they’ll walk away shaking their heads and mumbling something like, “Typical Union and their goalkeeper fiascos.” You’ll start hearing less argument when people bang the drum for Curtin’s firing, and you’ll hear more and more about how Curtin got two major lineup decisions wrong in two straight cup finals.

Curtin has shown a strength and a weakness that are basically flip sides of the same coin. His loyalty to certain players has been admirable, on one hand. However, he has also been late to realize he had better players on the bench who deserved to play. For example, Richie Marquez only got a chance to play after a cavalcade of injuries opened a spot. If Blake sits on Wednesday behind McCarthy, Curtin would be repeating the same mistake.

How ambitious is Curtin?

This decision could make or break his career. And it’s one that Blake has made much easier than it might seem.

Union notes
  • Andrew Wenger plays well at right back: Andrew Wenger put in a very good shift at right back, the first time he has played the position in a league game. Does it mean he should be the new starting right back? No. But it definitely confirms (for those who had doubt) that it’s not time to give up on him. He is too good an athlete, too good a soccer player. One day, a coach may figure out where Wenger fits best, and Wenger will be a star rather than a utility player. Recall the words of one observer who, when asked what Wenger’s ceiling was at center back, replied, “Real Madrid.”
  • Ethan White played one of his best games in a Union uniform: White played a very good game at left center back, consistently cleaning up messes for the left backs and never making that one fatal mistake that usually overshadows an otherwise decent performance. He was strong on set piece defense, and, more surprisingly, he looked comfortable with the ball at his feet. White never went for the default long ball passes that have been part of his game since he joined the Union. Maybe it helped that New England didn’t press him hard — do they need better opposition scouting? — but maybe his apparent comfort cut down the likely success of that pressing.
  • Fernando Aristeguieta has a place on this team in 2016. He’ll have to bring his salary down, but if the Union can close a full transfer or secure a loan extension on him, he would be a solid part of this team going forward. For his part, he may not like playing behind C.J. Sapong, but the Union are a team into which he fits very well. Whether it happens or not is another story.
  • Smart squad rotation by Curtin: Ok, so Warren Creavalle was a near-disaster at left back, but overall, Curtin made good lineup decisions against New England. The choice to run Cristian Maidana out for 45 minutes was a good one, because it gave Curtin the chance to see if he could steal some points with Maidana on the counter. Wenger and White put in very good shifts, Blake was spectacular, and Curtin got to give a few of his core guys enough minutes to keep them in form but not so many as to tire them out or get them hurt for the cup final Wednesday.
  • This is the best marketing piece I’ve ever seen the Union produce. They probably should have cut it in half, but they did a fantastic job capturing the feeling of last year’s loss and the resilience that this club has shown over time. Yes, Union fans are afraid to get their hopes up. But come on. You can’t NOT watch the game after seeing this video.

44 Comments

  1. “but if Amobi Okugo wasn’t owed a start in last year’s final, then McCarthy certainly isn’t now”

    So true. He had better start Blake. While McCarthy won’t win you the game (which Blake just showed he can), he certainly could lose you the game…

    • I’ve been 100% in favor of Blake starting since they drafted him, but I disagree that McCarthy will lose you a game. I think his story is great, but earlier in the year I was not a huge fan. He has steadily improved over the summer, however, and I would actually argue that he won the Union at least one game during this cup run, maybe two or more going back to the Rochester PKs. So Blake should start because he WILL win you a game, but McCarthy has at least earned my respect as reliable keeper.

  2. And there it is. I was curious what position you were going to take and I absolutely appreciate the Amobi comment as it still has me soured regarding the interim manager.
    .
    I tend to disagree about The Striker. I have seen enough and less than ten goals with at least 4 balls booted out of the stadium and countless poor first touches which do not deliver him the opportunity to finish is enough. I can easily move on. Take the money from Open win and invest in a quality get behind the defense striker.
    .
    Yes I said from the win. Cause they are winning. Period. It is the ONLY acceptable outcome.
    .
    Regarding Andrew Wenger at RB…I am the Gramaphone skipping on an old warped 45 B side…like No Help From Me from the ’67 Lemon Pipers break out bubble gum hit…Green Tambourine. Yes…. play him at OB going forward, preferable RB… this is a brainer.
    .
    Edu and Marquez and Wenger and Fabinho and you will have a dynamic defense in 2016 with..yes… Ray coming off the bench. He is a bench player anyway. Use draft to get LB and groom him in USL for a season.

    • Oh yeah. Blake is a no-brainer for me.

      Disagree with you on Gaddis. He’s had some down games since Williams got traded, but I still think Gaddis is quality. I also (still) think the Union need to upgrade on Fabinho, despite his improvements.

      As for Wenger, it will take more than one game to convince me where he belongs on the field, but I know it’s somewhere. Training camp next year should be about figuring that out. If they could send him on loan somewhere during the winter break to get games at a particular position they want to try him at, that would be an interesting idea too.

      • He should be a good candidate to go to Bournemouth. You know, use that affiliation.
        I don’t mean their first team, but he can train with their junior squads and get good reps at a higher level.

      • Do you really think that we should send Wenger who makes $240k per year to train with Bournemouth’s U-21’s? That’s not a higher level than training with the Union’s first team.

      • The Union’s first team will be on break during the winter. I’m talking about him not getting the winter off – he goes and learns the position by getting more minutes, instead of just working out at YSC.

      • This winter or next season?

      • Agreed…I am already building towards next season though and with what 5 or so games left… he would have a pretty good opportunity to become acclimated so we weren’t spending the first part of next season waiting for it to ‘come together’ for him.
        .
        He is strong. He is fast. He is quick. He is technical. Defense is an analyzer/engineer’s game. Andrew isn’t an artist but I imagine he is remarkably cerebral.

      • Great points on Wenger. Defense is probably a better fit for his personality.

    • I always thought that defenses were supposed to be “solid and steady”, not dynamic.

      Agree with you on Aristigueta. He seems a little bit like a tweener for me. He doesn’t hold the ball up well enough to be a true target man and really struggles with the physical play in MLS. Plus, he has no pace. From what I’ve seen, I’m kinda surprised he was at Nantes. At the right transfer value and salary, he would be good, but I really don’t see him as a starter in MLS.

      I hope that you’re right about tomorrow night. I have no feel on the match at all, but hope that Curtin starts Blake. It’s the right move and would also give me faith that this organization is (finally) heading in the right direction.

      • Steady yes at the CB position. But the OB can and should bring a dynamic quality to the attack- – the defense I build for sure needs to be steady and dynamic.

  3. I’m encouraged greatly by Jim’s comments:
    “Coaches make decisions to win games…”
    “We’ll field our best XI guys…”
    .
    All that points to Blake. And while we all appreciate McCarthy and what he’s done, even he knows that Blake is a better keeper.
    .
    Field our best XI. It’s that simple.

  4. Yes. If Blake gets the start, and we win, then John McCarthy also has every right to hold that trophy high over his head.

  5. Very little is said about Sapong. For me he has not scored enough but tomorrow he better does! He could become a legend here if a performs when it matters most.

    • Sapong has 9 goals and 4 assists in around 1700 minutes. His goals/90 minutes ranks up there with some of the top [i.e. DP] players who have seen significant time this season. He is invaluable to this squad in terms of ability and physicality. I don’t think Curtin or any other manager ask for much more from him.

      • R u kidding? They can ask a lot more. He should become as prolific as Kamara! Sapong barely makes the list: http://www.mlssoccer.com/stats/season

      • Kamara is having an outstanding year. I don’t think he’ll replicate that production without the help of Finlay. Plus the Columbus is designed to pump crosses from the wide areas to a target like Kamara.
        .
        Sapong on the other hand is working with way less in terms of a consistent line up and has about half as many goals in less than 1,000 minutes. Look at the G/90 and filter out players under 1000 minutes

      • Of course, by GPM, Casey is .02 goals per 90 better than Kamara. 😀
        .
        But I like CJ. And I think he can be even better. I’m really pulling for him to score a big goal for us tomorrow.

      • Hahahah such a small sample size. I typically look above 1000 minutes played because its roughly 11 full matches or about 1/3 of the season

  6. If Blake doesn’t start and the Union lose is it because of the former decision or the latter outcome? Personally, I’d fire him for the wrong GK selection, not the final result.
    .
    But we won’t lose.

  7. Dan, since you liked the comment on the earlier post, I will add it here for discussion among us.
    .
    Start Blake.
    .
    If McCarthy is a better Penalty stopper, pull a Van Gaal and sub him in.

  8. Great piece Dan. I had t seen that video, just made my day, let’s go boys!

  9. Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease win. We NEED this.

  10. Dan, speaking of videos, have you seen this one yet? Nice to finally put a face to the voice! 🙂 http://www.philadelphiaunion.com/post/2015/09/25/art-starting-eleven?autoplay=true

  11. Hype. I’m getting hyped up. HYPE. When I think of Andre Blake I hear Eazy – E. And I want Eazy. “Eazy Andre.”
    .
    Come on clap your hands. come on clap your hands. come on come on put your hands together. a little louder. come on make some noise. We want Eazy. Hey you Red let’s do this. People from everywhere gather around…..
    .
    ….The answer in goal is easy. Eazy. Eazy. A miracle of modern creation Eazy Andre’s on the set.
    .
    Eazy Andre Blake. Compton. What? Compton.
    .
    Yo its obvious….tell em who you came to see.
    .
    Eazy. Eazy. Eazy. Eazy. Eazy. Take me to the bridge. I can’t hear you! Here’s EEEEAAAAZZZZYYYY.
    .
    And “one ping” from The Striker please… Vasilly.”
    .

  12. It has to be Blake. The Amazing Spiderman has the talent to be the best goalie in the history of MLS.

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think he will be in MLS long enough for that. He’s bound for Europe in a couple years … which could be a financial windfall for the Union.

      • To early on both these comments. Don’t seem him in Europe except maybe lower tier leagues he has a long way to go. His reactions are great, but that is where he differs from goalies we have seen at the Union before. Still has a ways to go.

      • He will end up in Europe, someday. If he guides the Reggae Boys to Russia he’ll get massive exposure and tons of offers. If you disagree, how come Rais M’Bohli came to Philadelphia? That “little tournament in Brazil” as our wonderful CEO put it.

      • That’s IF he guides the Reggae Boys to Russia and IF he is healthy enough to play. IF he continues to improve. I’m saying currently he is far off from upper level Europe. I can understand him on a team in say Norway/Switzerland/possible League 1 teams in England, but its another 3 years and lots of development I would say to put him at say the Championship. I give him 5-7 years if he continues to progress to get to a top league putting him at an age of 28-30. This is all if he stays healthy and continues to improve.

      • Yeah, just like Amobi and Jack…

  13. Yes yes yes on (almost) everything in this piece. After Blake’s performance a New England, I don’t even think this should be a difficult decision. We all were pretty clear on the fact that Blake’s ceiling is much, much higher than McCarthy’s; but after that last match, we know how quickly he might get to that ceiling (or close to it). This is truly a no-brainer, and I actually have confidence that Curtin will realize that. Also, I am not even certain that McCarthy is the second-best keeper on our roster; Sylvestre makes fewer spectacular plays, but was almost mistake-free in all his games with us, and that’s very valuable.

    On long-term issues:
    1) I would be totally happy with Blake as our start GK next season, and McCarthy and Sylvestre as backups. That’s plenty good and requires no more investment.
    2) Other than a couple of (literal) slips, Wenger really did look pretty good as a fullback. Really, his problem is psychological; maybe playing defense takes the (offensive production) pressure off him? And, paradoxically, makes his offensive contributions more valuable??
    3) I’m still undecided about Fernando. Works his butt off, good fitness, fights hard, but gets pushed around (despite his size) and often fails to finish the way he (so beautifully) did at New England. On balance I would be inclined to keep him if his salary were lower, as Sapong’s backup and late-game replacement, especially since Casey will not make it much longer.
    4) Like you, I thought Curtin did a really savvy job of roster management, and I give him a lot of credit. He may be getting the hang of this job.

    • I’ll admit that I don’t have a great argument for Aristeguieta. 😉 He just feels like a Philly guy. The way he plays. Needs to not have another scoreless streak like that though.

      Sapong though is just pure class. Great year. Long time coming for him.

  14. Also, the fact that we got a draw against the best team in the East, using almost entirely a back-up squad, was really something. Of course, they totally outplayed us, but that is to be expected when we’re playing a back-up squad. Yet our bench did enough to grab a point. Maybe our roster isn’t as thin as we thought. (Well, besides at fullback, I mean.)

    • The roster is as thin as you think and will only be thinner after this year is out. As the Union do not look forward for years to come. They have many problems at many positions and an identity crisis since they still don’t know how they want to setup and their style of play. Yes this year it has been mainly counterattacking, but even that isn’t always clear at times.

  15. I hope Curtin had a good look at Arsenal just now. That’s what happens if you do not start your no. 1 goal keeper.

  16. Now that’s a hype video. Just win boys… just win.

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