A View from Afar / Analysis

The Union are a good team. Can they improve?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

A year ago, if Philadelphia Union had given up a goal in the third minute of a road game, most Union fans would have cashed in their chips and correctly banked on a loss, likely a blowout.

What a difference a year makes.

The new-look Union are not only a resilient club, but they are a pretty good team with a good mix of youth, veteran savvy and poise that simply wasn’t there in past years. They took a kidney punch from Didier Drogba and a solid Montreal team and responded not just by tying the game, but they evened up Montreal both in the possession and shots departments. This was a fairly matched game in which Philadelphia controlled large stretches. To produce that on the road in miserable rainy conditions is the mark of a good team, but also one that doesn’t collapse under pressure.

Today, the Union sit in third place with a game in hand. On a points per game game basis, they are the best in the Eastern Conference. Granted, if they were in the Western Conference, that would leave them in 7th place, but they’re not in the Western Conference. Also, if you look at their three losses, one came on opening day, well before this club had begun to mesh, and the other two came in games where they saw players ejected. There is a definite sunny side view to those losses, when looked at within the big picture.

This club could prove to be a whole lot better come season’s end. Jokes aside, this is a team that has likely not yet fielded its best starting lineup this season. Here is a look at where this team may just get better.

Improvement at center back: Likely

At center back, it’s still not clear whether Josh Yaro or Ken Tribbett is better at center back. (I lean toward Tribbett, but it’s early in both their MLS careers, with plenty of time for both to progress.) Yaro appears to be the better passer and perhaps a bit quicker than Tribbett, but both are good in possession for center backs. Considering Tribbett is a converted midfielder, perhaps that doesn’t surprise.

However, Yaro has not demonstrated he can compete aerially in MLS. Through five games, Yaro has contested just 13 aerial duels — 2.6 per game — winning only six, according to WhoScored.com. In comparison, Tribbett has won 14 of 21 aerial duels in 5 games, while Richie Marquez has also contested just over 4 aerial duels per game, winning 24 of 37 duels in 9 games. Yaro’s ineffectiveness in the air has been such that Keegan Rosenberry, who has been very good in the air, is now replacing him upfield on corner kicks.

Either way, Tribbett and Yaro both demonstrated improvement the more they played. Expect that to continue, given more playing time, but also keep in mind that opponents will likely figure out their weaknesses, given more game film to review.

Improvement at fullback: Likely

Keegan Rosenberry appears to have proved that a lot of outsiders underrated him. Right now, he looks like one of the league’s two best rookies, and his defense improves almost by the game. This guy is good, and he’s only getting better.

At left back, the incorporation of an in-form Ray Gaddis into rotation with Fabinho improves things simply by virtue of giving another tool to work with and demonstrating how that tool will mesh on a team that looks very different from last year.

Improvement in center midfield: Possible

We have yet to see Maurice Edu play this year. Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll have performed admirably in Edu’s absence at the No. 6 defensive midfield spot. Considering past chemistry problems with Vincent Nogueira, the question Edu has to answer is whether he will be a net addition for the club’s performance or a subtraction. He certainly has the talent to give a major boost to the club, and if he plays as well as most believe he can, a healthy Edu could be the difference between “fairly good team” and “legitimate MLS Cup contender.”

Improvement in attacking midfield: Probable

In the attacking midfield, Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta and Sebastien Le Toux have looked good, but Pontius and Barnetta each hit the wall by around the 65-minute mark, as the Union’s high pressing system wears them out. In most games, you figure two of them are going to come out of the game at that point, while stretches of multiple games will likely require squad rotation to give each a rest and keep them healthy.

The depth on paper looks very good, but it hasn’t always been very good. That may be just a matter of time, fitness, and chemistry, however.

Ilsinho still looks about 20 pounds from optimal condition. His fitness is what has kept him out of the starting lineup, with Le Toux the beneficiary. If Ilsinho can stay healthy and in shape, he can be a dangerous offensive weapon on a consistent basis, as opposed to just fits and starts where he hits the highlight film and then hits the bench. Meanwhile, Roland Alberg has yet to round into any kind of form while playing centrally and appears to be still trying to fit in with the club. If he can hit a decent run, it’s a big step up.

When Pontius left Saturday’s game in the 67th minute, Union head coach Jim Curtin sent in Fabian Herbers at striker and slid C.J. Sapong out to the wing. It didn’t improve matters. Sapong can play the wing, but he has shown over the years he is a center forward through and through. Le Toux can also play the left flank, opening a slot for Ilsinho on the right, but the Frenchman never been particularly good as an inverted winger. Herbers or someone else — Alberg, Leo Fernandes, Walter Restrepo — has to demonstrate the ability to spell Pontius on the left.

Improvement for striker: Possible

Finally, there is the striker position, where Herbers has shown some intriguing signs — but that’s it. When Sapong wears out, there is nobody who can replace him with a like-for-like style. The Union are likely looking for a depth option here. Improvement here may have to come from the outside.

Overall: Probable improvement

There are so many unforeseen things that can happen in a season. Injuries are the big variable, but dips in form and improved oppositional game-planning against your team can change matters too. But right now, signs are good for Philadelphia.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Dan, I think you are overestimating last year’s Union. It wasn’t just a problem when they gave up the first goal early. Don’t forget the game at DC United where the Union scored TWO goals in the first 5 minutes and managed to lose.

  2. I think the two major positions the Union should look to upgrade are:

    1) The Brian Carrol position. We need someone who can do all the things BC does defensively while also adding to offense. I for one still think this player can be Edu.

    2) Striker. CJ has played great in our system and his hold up play and pressing is important to our success. However, he simply isn’t that dangerous on his own. He can be in the right place at the right time, but to really take the team to the next level we need a striker who can make space for himself, create half chances for himself, and score from half chances.

    To fix this though, we would need to find a really high tier Striker and that will be hard. Alternatively, we can find another dangerous, goal scorer winger who can be dangerous attacking the goal and smart enough to get into goal scoring positions consistently.

    • Yes on #1, and I agree that Edu can (and should) be that player. He and Nogueira had chemistry problems before, but they didn’t have much chance to correct them, and that was when the whole team had poor chemistry, which is very different now.

      I don’t agree on #2, though. CJ has been a beast. His hold-up play has been stupendous, enabling 4 other guys (now we can count Nogueira among them!) to get into the offensive action. We need depth for him, though (see my post below).

    • I’m with you on CJ. He is awesome holding up the ball and even in getting it to others in the attack, but he is not going to move with he ball at his feet, create his own space and put a shot on frame. Maybe that will come, but every game there are situations when he dribbles the ball in or around the box and just gets dispossessed. Maybe I’m asking too much. It’s possible.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I hear the Union have a player from Sweden on their discovery list who is supposed to be a decent finisher.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:


      • John P O'Donnell says:

        There is always a chance of that happening. After all, nobody thought we could ever get rid of Sak & look how that turned out. Now I have to go and finish my Zlatan statue. But I’m gone to need help taking down the William Penn one….volunteers ?

      • How refreshing is that? Something that never would have happened last year. He won’t play for us, but LA will have to pay up something to us for his rights.

      • Or not, according to MLS insider Taylor Twellman

      • Apparently they would… sort of. He recently stated that any team who buys Zlatan would still have to compensate us, just not as much money unless we could ‘offer a legitimate counter offer’. Also, Chicago just purchased Michael de Leeuw who was on our discovery list, and they gave us 50k. So there’s that

      • I actually got chills from that.

  3. The real downside risk for the Union is injuries. Overall the team is rather healthy, other than Edu’s long-term absence. And we now have legitimate depth at the centerback and fullback slots for the first time in the history of the franchise. But there are several people who, if they go down, we just can’t adequately replace:

    1. Blake – Obviously, part of this is just because he’s so damn good. But from Blake to McCarthy is a big step down.

    2. Barnetta – The difference with him in the XI is remarkable. Ilisinho (or Alberg) MIGHT be able to spell him effectively at CAM should he get injured, but I think that remains uncertain at this point. Fernandes just isn’t up to the job at present.

    3. Sapong – This is my biggest worry, as there is no one on the roster right now who is really appropriate to be a sole striker. Certainly Herbers has some promise, and LeToux has been a striker for much of his career, and Alberg can play there (and perhaps Ilsinho too), but none of these guys would work real well solo. If CJ gets hurt — and he takes a hell of a beating every game — we might have to change the whole formation, which could be problematic.

    In the past I would’ve listed Nogueira, but incredibly, we seem to do OK with Carroll & Creavalle as holders. Plus Edu will be back in a month or so.

    • Don’t forget about Matt Jones as a possible replacement for Blake. I have not really seen any indication of who is the #2 keeper at the moment. Both he and McCarthy have been in the 18 and both have also seen time with the Steel.

      • Well I don’t think we can say much of anything about Jones yet, since we haven’t seen him play. FWIW, it seems that McCarthy has been on the 18 most of the time.

      • Exactly.
        Obviously Blake is better otherwise you would think Jones would be starting but he could be closer to that level then McCarthy is right now for all we know. He is certainly more experienced at 30yrs old.

      • der Fussballzuschauer says:

        The Philadelphia Union have played 10 MLS matches to date … Jones has been the backup in uniform on five occasions and McCarthy has been the backup on five occasions

      • By my count McCarthy has been the keeper for BSFC 7/8 games this season so far and Jones was the keeper in their most recent game.
        Since we cannot be sure of the approach the coaches are using, it really doesn’t tell us much either. McCarthy is younger, and contracted by the team so it could be for development and Jones could be the #2. It could also be that they consider McCarthy the #2 they want to keep him sharp for when Blake is away and feel that Jones is close enough talent-wise to McCarthy to cover Blake in the meantime which is why they picked him up on a loan in the first place.

    • John Ling says:

      And we now have legitimate depth at the centerback
      Where have you gone, Juan Diego Gonzales?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Agreed. I think Matt Jones could be an adequate replacement for Blake, but the big caveat there is that right now, Blake may be the best shot-stopper in MLS, so even if Jones is good, he’s not Blake.

    • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

      +100. Still not happy at LB, but the one place we know we need improvement is depth at striker behind Sapong.

  4. I really appreciate the new look Union. With the roster moves and front office changes, I was not expecting much. Mostly just the big 3…V. P.P…. And improved play on the pitch. The light at the end of the tunnel is not a train!

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    LB/LCDM/Wing with pace/Striker who can finish.

  6. Assuming Maurice Edu is the future holding defensive midfielder on a team with a Plan and Philosophy of play he meshes well with….I am perfectly okay with the #6 role being solved …
    – which then brings me back to Robot Pete’s POV above regarding CJ Sapong and my POV regarding our wingers…
    – – – three (3) of the four (4) players up top for this team are unable to attack the defense on the dribble is an area for upgrade… and more specifically, two of the players on the team able to do so, Ilsinho- who is certainly not fit for 60 minutes let alone 90 and Alberg, who for some reason can’t get a whiff of meaningful playing time are the two players who can attack on the ball.
    Pontius. Le Toux. CJ Sapong…. zero imagination on the ball or ability to put pressure on the defense or bring that elusive and hugely important aspect of CHAOS… is a big problem…

    • John Ling says:

      I see Ayuk filling this sort of need in the future. This season, though, you’re right that we have no chutzpah on the wing to take somebody on with the dribble, and do it effectively.

      • Been watching Ayuk at BSFC, and that’s a reason to be hopeful. He’s played at the 10 as well as out wide, and some of the best movement they’ve had has been with him in the middle. I hope he gets a game or two by year’s end.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      But if Ilsinho is healthy, he has imagination to spare.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Dan, while you may be correct in the conclusion you draw from Rosenberry moving forward to replace Tribett on corner kicks, there is another possible interpretation.
    The last man back in your team’s offensive corner kick formation is, generally speaking, your fastest player. Yaro comes to us touted as quite fast. I had been assuming he was the man all the way back for that reason.
    Were Gaddis and Yaro the two deepest on corners v. Montreal? They would be my choices for those roles.

  8. scottymac says:

    The depth is good, as compared to every previous Union team. But really tough to say it is when the names we’re counting on can’t get on the pitch and stay there. There’s a lot of hope and prayer. Herbers isn’t MLS depth quality yet. CJ is athletic and strong and doing a great job holding up play and banging in loose balls from the 6 yard line, but we need a threat. CJ is also one of the lowest SOG% forwards in MLS. If you can’t put it on frame, tough to be dangerous.

    We need another striker. More than we need Edu, so maybe a July deal to send a recovering Edu off in exchange for a goal scorer?

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