Analysis / Preseason

PSP talks tactics with Jim Curtin: A cohesive plan starting from the back

Photo: Earl Gardner

Last season, Philadelphia Union struggled to find an identity. Two major holes were filled with loanees that arrived weeks before the season began. The goalkeeping situation was touchy, with the incumbent starter seemingly malcontent and the young goalie-in-waiting fighting an uphill battle against an unfortunate string of injury setbacks.

Then, once the season began, CJ Sapong immediately went down with injury. Additionally, it quickly became apparent that Jim Curtin would not be able to work the same magic that had turned Ethan White and Andrew Wenger into consistent starters in 2014. The slim hopes that grew as the Union stormed through the preseason were too quickly wiped out.

Jay Sugarman determined the 2015-16 offseason would be different. The major theme running through every action since Earnie Stewart became the club’s first Sporting Director has been “The Plan.” This can sound hokey and naive, but it is a needed change for a club that has operated in a frustratingly reactive manner ever since the Peter Nowak era unraveled in startling fashion.

The Plan appears to be built with three central elements: 1) Cultivate players as individuals, 2) Play a certain system and master it, 3) Bring in the players that fit that system. The first has been evident since Earnie Stewart arrived. He spoke recently to PSP about being able to look players in the eye and understand what their individual goals are on and off the soccer field. The latter two elements have been difficult to discern because the Union have been reticent to talk about how they will try to change the way they play in 2016. But as the preseason gets underway, and the roster is deliberately filled out, the team’s on-field direction is coming into focus.

PSP recently spoke with Union head coach Jim Curtin about the team’s strategy, tactics, and three things he definitely does not want to see again this season. The discussion with Curtin sheds light on how the Union will play in 2016.

Two notes to start this off though: First, Curtin made it clear that the club, from Stewart down, has a very clear idea of how they would like to play. But he also acknowledged that there could be some growing pains as the new style takes hold. Echoing comments he made last week on the KYW Philly Soccer Show, Curtin cautioned , “There’s no switch I can flip. I don’t want to come off as naive and think this is just going to be perfect off the bat. We’re just going to go through the preseason and try and get this right.”

Second, Curtin was generous with his time and forthright in his responses. But be aware that beyond his quotes, inferences and analysis are the author’s opinions, not those of the Union’s head man.

Each day this week, we will try to get a better sense of the Union’s 2016 tactical goals, so fans can understand how the team will try to play, and how that fits into the club’s longer-term vision.

Today: The goalie position

Rais Mbolhi sparkled in the 2015 preseason. The underwhelming opening to his Union career — including a crushing giveaway that gifted Chicago a late goal — seemed a distant memory as he batted away shots en route to a preseason tournament championship. But the expensive signing soon lost the starting job after it became clear that his command of his box was on par with a sleepy kitten’s command of a race car.

Mbolhi’s signing had been strange and borderline unnecessary, and his inability to embrace a leadership role created a level of uncertainty in goal that never waned until Andre Blake’s double digit save extravaganza earned Philly a point against New England in late September.

This year, Blake is healthy and firmly installed as the starter.

“For the first time, it’s clear that it’s his job,” Curtin told PSP. “That’s been told to him. He has that confidence, that belief, that will instill belief in the rest of the guys too.”

This is an important change in the Union’s preseason situation. There is no ambiguity now: Blake is the guy. And for a defense that often treated shaky as a starting point, this is a massive change.

Blake is extremely talented. He was nominated for CONCACAF’s Male Goalkeeper of the Year, and there was a broad consensus that he was the best goalie to come through the SuperDraft since Brad Guzan. But until now, Blake has not had the vocal support of the club as the team’s number one. That support means he is now entrenched as the leader and organizer of a rebuilt defense that will have to develop as a unit. To embrace that leadership role, Blake needs to be the most prominent voice on the pitch.

“I’ve talked with him, he does need to be more vocal, and be at the point where the defenders tell him to be quiet because he’s talking so much,” Curtin said. “That’s the point I want to get to, and I hope it happens right off the bat.”

The 6’4” Blake’s shot stopping ability stood out last year, but his communication and box control will be under increased scrutiny this season as the Union look to cut down on the painfully high 16 goals given up on crosses, corners, and indirect free kicks in 2015.

Of equal importance will be Blake’s organizing, which could involve more personal decision-making than last season when the Union got pinned deep for extended periods of time. Philly has moved to improve the athleticism and technical ability of the defense. Anderson Conceicao has been praised for his cultured left foot, and both Josh Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry were drafted because they offer a combination of speed and comfort on the ball that will allow the Union to play a higher defensive line.

Blake, then, may end up with more space in front of him and a responsibility to maintain awareness of backside runners when his defense is far up the pitch. The Union may also ask Blake to be aggressive on through-balls in a way that has not been the norm in the past. Philly won’t be looking to recreate the 2014 USOC semifinals against Dallas when Zac MacMath was constantly off his line to race Fabian Castillo, but compressing the field with a high line turns defense into an eleven man effort. Blake will be asked to monitor an ocean of space if Philly is successfully able to press the opposition in their own half.

In the end, Blake’s directive is straightforward: Control the box and organize a defense that will take time to mesh. In a broader sense, though, Blake needs to symbolize the Union’s break from a roster that rarely added up to more than the sum of its parts to a club that takes a measured, long-term approach to team development.

The Union started 2015 with two right backs, questions about Maurice Edu’s role, and an expensive loanee arriving late to camp. The frailty of the defense was, for better or worse, overshadowed by tension and uncertainty at the goalie position.

There is no uncertainty in goal now.

As Jim Curtin told PSP: “Andre’s a young goalkeeper who made great strides last year. Battled back from a lot of injuries and kept a good attitude the whole time, and earned the right to be our number one. And hopefully he takes that from day one, communicates well, and keeps a lot of zeroes.”

Tomorrow we will examine exactly how the defense in front of Blake is likely to change in 2016 and how this will affect individual roles in the back four.

29 Comments

  1. When I heard Curtin say that the central defenders would be heading out to the wings more often my first thought was “Sweeper Keeper!” Assuming Blakes knees are healed he is so athletic and explosive that the temptation to use him as a sweeper keeper must be overpowering.

  2. James Lockerbie says:

    great piece, excited to read tomorrows.

  3. This is one area of the team where I don’t see too much concern. Blake’s clearly got ability, and with national team experience, is a little bit more seasoned than his age and MLS time suggest. A reasonably priced veteran backup seems like the only missing piece here, so that McCarthy could potentially get some starts in at BSFC. Keeper strangely may be the positional group with the fewest questions right now…

    • Yeah, they probably need 2 more keepers between the 2 teams for a total of 5, just in case. Probably a older vet for the union and a young guy for Steel.

    • I am less optimistic. Blake has never played an entire season. He is young and while his shot stopping ability is good, his distribution is weak, his command of the area is weak, and his command of the backline was weak as Edu was the one in charge last year. All this worries me and McCarthy as the only backup worries me even more as I don’t even believe McCarthy should be on this roster. They need a strong backup and soon.

  4. The Union have never had a player who could steal points — the guy who can grab a win when all you did was barely play even with the other side, the guy who could get you a point when you got outplayed and deserved to lose. Throughout their history the Union have been the victims of such teams, slightly underplaying their talent level. But now, for the first time, we have the guy who might be able to steal us points, and Andre Blake is that guy. He’s the best reason to believe that the Union could outperform this year.

    • Mondragon stole plenty of points for this team and knew how to be a leader. Blake has a long way to go not that he can’t be that person just don’t see it in his first full season (if he makes it through the season).

  5. Great piece and great idea for the week, and something that most of us are anxious to discuss, especially as new news is scarce at the moment.
    .
    Today’s topic is the easiest to discuss and to look forward to. We have a clear cut, possible stud keeper who is both young and drafted by the club. The backup situation is also solid. This should be our smallest concern this year.

    • Backup situation is solid? I disagree who is your solid backup? McCarthy who gave himself a concussion and doesn’t know when to stay on his line or come. McCarthy who made so many glaring positional mistakes and never once could get his backline to play narrow and stay organized. Or is your solid backup some unknown signing?

      • I would prefer a veteran backup for sure, but they also cost more money. McCarthy is perfectly capable to play a game here or there,
        While costing the team almost nothing.

      • you need 3 keepers on a roster if Blake goes down for the season with another knee injury do you really want to play McCarthy every game. A veteran keeper can easily get paid $150,000 and I think we have the money for that.

      • I’m not going to go as far as your opinion, but I’m in the Sylvestre camp. I still say he was the most solid, if unspectacular keeper we had last year. A perfect backup and USOC keeper.
        Send JM down to BSFC, keep Brian with the big club.

  6. “… 2) Play a certain system and master it, 3) Bring in the players that fit that system.”
    .
    It seems so simple, so basic, and yet, it’s taken 6 years to figure this out.

  7. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    Am I correct that our current plan is to play McCarthy as our #1 GK when Blake is called up for International Duty? In a year with Copa America, World Cup qualifiers, and no respect for international windows. SERIOUSLY????

  8. This probably falls under the category of “hopelessly optimistic,” but when I look at Blake, Marquez, Yaro, Rosenberry, and possibly Washington out left as well, all together, all around the same age, I can’t help but think of this group possibly becoming the MLS defense equivalent of the 1970s Los Angeles Dodgers’ infield.

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A question for Dr. Union that is one of organization building philosophy. If you have two squads working together with one of the goals being the development of current potential into future actuality, where do you place the number two and number three keepers?
    .
    Number one starts for the first team and number four backs up for the second team, clearly.
    .
    Do you want your second best available to finish the game in case of injury, or do you want him gathering playing time experience rather than splinters in his butt? There are good valid answers each way.
    .
    I tend to agree with your assessment of John McCarthy, although not as extremely and a little more gently. To me he is number three on the chart. But that could easily mean he is the first team backup for any given game. Were Brian Sylvestre here, he would be number two and starting for BSFC to gain playing time experience, but he’s not (and he would have to have the right kind of personality to see USL minutes as better for him than MLS pine, especially since he did a credible job with MLS minutes last season.)
    .
    So, I think there is one more keeper yet to come, but that it is quite possible that he will start for BSFC as McCarthy Is adequate to finish out an injury situation (touch wood).

    • So Sylvestre is back with the Railhawks is that correct? And I’d much have the better backup starting at BSFC with McCarthy as emergency backup to Blake. If Blake is out for extended time I’d switch McCarthy and the starter for BSFC.

    • Hi OSC, Ultimately this would be my organizational building philosophy on GK. Much depends on the age of the keepers as they outlast many field players. Plus I think keepers often hit their stride at 25 – 29 for the best keepers and 27 – 32 for those not developed well. Ultimately with the GK core this team has, we’re talking about 2 GK so yes Blake starts McCarthy is backup. Ideally I would want a veteran keeper age 28 – 32 backing up Blake for both injuries and National team call ups (This is your number 2). McCarthy who to me is maybe your 3rd keeper at best on an ideal roster plays in BSFC to learn being as young as he is. With possible call ups for the beginning of the US Open cup. I’m talking rounds 1 maybe 2 of the USOC. Ultimately then Blake is always battling the veteran to win his spot. McCarthy has to battle the top keeper at BSFC to win his. This also gives you the 2 at ever position scenario they talk about. As I think USOC games are not as important and better for development McCarthy and Blake if both are healthy battle for those games winner in training gets to start other is backup. This is in theory what I would do. I don’t see the point of dropping a veteran to BSFC just if that is your number 2 keeper thus this is how I would want to structure the lineup. Ultimately having 3 keepers on your roster all in the 20 – 28 range I think is a bad choice. As their talent could all be raw and undeveloped. McCarthy 23 and Blake 25 a veteran presence is needed.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Well reasoned…. and this does not even take into account drafting or having a young keeper matriculate through academy.

      • True drafting versus academy development is another structure. Since it was mentioned. My thoughts on drafting keepers typically around the 20 – 23 age makes sense if they have the talent, but they should understudy in say USL (One of the reason I see McCarthy no more than a USL player at this point) or below a veteran keeper. This is how they started out with MacMath and Mondragon. However, Mondragon leaving and MacMath taking over was too soon. Given another year or two to develop MacMath would likely be a very good starting caliber MLS keeper had he had stability and development for 3 years after drafting. Academy keepers should be coming up through the developmental system thus I think their experience should mostly come through winning positions and inching their way from where they start on up. As in they don’t get a first team shot until they win the USL job and accomplish their trade there. Similar to how Zak Steffan was developing. Had he not left for Germany and had their been a USL team last year he would have had his shot there to impress and I would have said bring him in this year under contract with the first team. Both have their merit and I think both say your signing a young keeper no sooner then 19 or 20 and even at that your not anointing them the starter of your first team then.

  10. Among many things… the continued development of a young goalkeeper is of the essence…. he is going to make mistakes… he is going to be astounding… he just HAS to continue getting better… Andre Blake can by no means be a finished product.
    .
    The club has a bevy of young keepers… a sage veteran would maybe be wise.

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