A View from Afar

The goalposts have moved for Philadelphia Union

Photo: Daniel Studio

The goalposts have moved for Philadelphia Union.

Entering the season, most predicted they would not make the playoffs.

Now, they sit in first place at the Copa America break, with nearly half a season behind them. They have lost just three games this season. In two, they saw players ejected. The third was opening day.

Some have smartly raised the question of whether more should be expected of the Union now. The answer is yes. But not cynically.

The Union have repeatedly shown they are a good but flawed club, with clear strengths and even clearer weaknesses. They have an excellent, tough-minded mix of veteran savvy and youthful athleticism. However, most of their key veterans have proved injury-prone, meaning the Union need some luck and good body management to maintain their health and therefore their form through a 34-game season.

Certainly, the Union are a playoff-quality team. It’s fair for fans to expect this team to reach that goal in a messy Eastern Conference, where the anticipated favorites  — Columbus, Toronto, New England, and the (now recovering) New York Red Bulls — stumbled in the season’s first half. Whether Philadelphia can run the table and win a conference title or more remains to be seen.

Union management would be shrewd to treat this team like an MLS Cup contender and address its flaws when the summer transfer window opens. For example, if a top class left back becomes available at a bit higher price than the Union might like, they may have to pull the trigger to collect that final key piece. Similarly, they need to add depth at striker and, if Maurice Edu is not healthy by mid-July, the No. 8 center midfield role behind the oft-injured but ever-crucial Vincent Nogueira.

The Union may be ahead of schedule in their rebuild, but Jay Sugarman and the rest of the Union investment group should recognize that the time to seize the moment may be at hand. After seemingly bottoming out last year, 2016 could be the year the Union transcend Philadelphia’s soccer ghetto and launch into a popularity stratosphere that legitimately renews talk about expanding the club’s stadium in Chester. Championships change everything.

In all these ways, the goalposts have moved. Expectations have changed. And reactions and accordant steps should similarly be different.

That doesn’t mean you go overboard though.

Don’t crucify this club if they don’t win a conference title or reach the conference final in the playoffs.

Don’t demand that they drop millions on a big name striker they probably don’t need. The Union must continue to be smart and prudent and do business like they have the last eight months.

Also, expect Curtin to be cautious in how he reincorporates a healthy Edu into the team, and remain mindful that the Ewing Theory could be in play and have a significant impact on team chemistry. Edu and Brian Carroll are very different players, and they won’t fit into the lineup the same way.

All that said, a window of opportunity has opened. The Union are a good team, at times maybe even the best in MLS, and could be even better in the season’s second half. Keegan Rosenberry has been a revelation who will only get better, and the same goes for his fellow first-year defenders deployed next to him, Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro. We have yet to see what Philadelphia can do with a consistently healthy Ilsinho (which, granted, may never happen with him carrying the excess poundage). The chemistry among Tranquillo Barnetta, Chris Pontius, C.J. Sapong and Sebastien Le Toux (or Ilsinho) should continue to improve if they stay healthy.

So yes, throw away all the preseason expectations. The Union can in fact win a championship in 2016. Just don’t go crazy and lose sight of where they started the year. They’ve come a long way, but they have even farther still to go.


  1. scottymac says:

    I don’t have a single thing to disagree with in this article.

    I’d love to see the U trade a healthy Edu to shore up one or both of those needs at striker and LB.

    • John Ling says:

      I’m totally down with that. (But then, I’m in the camp that thinks Edu is overrated, so…)

      • agree with both of you. what might have been a blessing in disguise is his extended absence. i’m ambivalent, at best.

  2. Zizouisgod says:

    “The goalposts have moved for Philadelphia Union.”

    My first thought was “is Talen hosting another rugby or lacrosse event?”

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Well played. (Curses!)

      • Just Rob f/k/a Rob127 says:

        My first thought was that balls were now going into the net that previously would have hit the posts. I’m looking at you Wenger. That shot that hit both posts still shows up in my nightmares from time to time.

      • The one the revs hit off both posts this year shows up in my dreams. Last year that thing goes in.

  3. Lucky Striker says:

    Thank you for addressing LB as a severe need if this team wants to move forward. Suspect Edu will be given another run at DM should he recover-and if he fails switching him with Yaro and giving Joshua the look there as being the likely plan.

    An experienced striker would be a plus, but I’d be surprised given how much they seem to like Herbers.

    The only way they’d have money to splurge on both would be in the event Blake never returns to them from the Copa…….but then given what’s behind him the year would end early anyway……..

    • Don’t hold you breath on seeing Yaro anywhere but CB. Yaro said that is the position where he sees himself and Curtin said that is where he sees him as well.

      • Yeah, Yaro isn’t moving. I think one of the things this team has worked toward as a whole is defining a player’s role in a more concrete fashion. This should help our homegrowns as they come up as well, as the expectations are going to be almost the same at each level and they’ll be well aware of them. The fact that Yaro has had some success at CB means he stays. If he were to be exposed in some way, then yes, maybe we re-purpose him. Or if BC, Edu, Nogs, Creavalle, and say Alberg all get injured. Then maybe.

  4. Great window now to look at weaknesses and strengths and improve those weaknesses!

  5. I’m very intrigued now to see what they do in the summer window. We have roster slots (2), we probably have MLS money (in the form of allocation money and cap space) after the Lahoud transfer, we have 2 open DP slots (although I can’t see us using both), and most importantly we have management that seems to know what they’re doing.
    3 positions that have been routinely highlighted throughout the first half of the season as a need: LB, CM, ST. Really, we can probably only fix one and maybe get a player from steel to back up another. Where should we put these resources?
    I’m personally going with a striker. I just dont see how were going to go all year with only 2 strikers. They will get tired (you can see it with CJ already), and I think we have the depth to cover the other 2 positions. When Edu comes back, we’ll really find out how covered we are at Center Mid.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Michael Lahoud does not clear salary cap space because he was not counted against it in the first place.
      MLS players association salary data came out in Mid May. Union salaries, adjusting Edu and Barnetta to the maximum allowed under the salary cap, total about $400,000 more that this year’s cap. So the issue becomes enteral allocation money and targeted allocation money, and we enter the Forest of MLS secrecy.
      We know that Edu’s salary difference above the cap ceiling is covered under the designated player rule does not affect GAM/TAM. We know the similar buy down of Barnetta’s used TAM, and that the buy down is roughly $200 K. We know the Union got some kind of allocation money for finishing out of the playoffs, but we have no idea how much. We know that various trades have involved the two allocation money types, but we have no ideas how much was involved. This year we know that TAM was involved in acquiring the foreign new faces, but we don’t know how much and we don’t know whether it was spent on salary or transfer fees and agents’ commissions.
      In short, I have been unable to see my way clear to any plausible guesses worth more than John Nance Garner’s bucket of warm spit (his valuation of being Vice President of the United States during the 1930s) about whether the Union have any allocation money left to enable adding any salary of any size to the existing roster.
      With full recognition that El Pachyderm is the resident Bull Elephant in the Room at PSP about Philosophy, Plan and Vision, I need his approval to be a new-born baby one about remembering the salary cap when seriously thinking about squad augmentation.

  6. Our early successes made me think “this is a playoff team.” I’ve yet to move passed that. That’s all.

    • I agree with you, to an extent. If we were in the west, I’d call us a 4-6 seed, make the playoffs and probably make little to no noise once there. But we’re in the east. This conference is there to be won. The team 2nd to us right now in PPG is Montreal, a team we went on the road against and drew as our 3rd game in 8 days a month ago, after a midweek against the freaking Galaxy. We can compete with anyone in the east.

      • We can compete with any one in the West. We should be expecting to beat anyone in the East.

  7. We have any homegrowns coming up at either of those positions in the next 2 years? I know that wont help for this year. Just curious.

    • None that I know of. We have a few guys getting time with Steel right now but nobody has stood out to me. I’m also far from an expert. Watch a few of their games and see what you think. They’re worth it.

    • DErrick Jones is the only one from BSFC who has stood out to me. 18 years old and a big body in the middle who looks capable of playing that simple defensive game we need once carrol is gone.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      From what I hear, Mark McKenzie has been looking good. Union Academy player, 17 years old.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Only got his first start last Sunday, and got hurt, subbed off after 20 minutes. Hadn’t gotten major minutes as a substitute that I remember.
        You are absolutely correct that the Twenty minute glimpse was quite intriguing..
        The player I’ve seen with the Steel who is most prominent in the pipeline is Auston Trusty, who has started consistently at left center back. He is the only Academy senior to practice regularly with the Steel instead of the oldest Academy side, if inferences I draw from the teachers’congratulatory comments to each graduating seniors published on the Union website happen to be right.
        Trusty is headed for UNC Chapel Hill. I have heard no comment about him coming back to the Union, but he would be my leading home grown possibility in this year’s class. If the brass have him practicing with Steel, they see something of interest. No one else is in that category.

    • Guys on the Homegrown radar

      Conor Maloney ST PSU- Probably would be more of a 3rd Striker and would mainly see time with BSFC
      Sebastian Elney ST Maryland – Number 9 for National Champs as a Freshman. If he has another good season the Union could look to sign him.
      Raheem Taylor-Parkes FW Academy- Heads to UVA next year. Talented kid. Probably a few years away from being consideredfor a homegrown deal.
      Derrick Jones- He’ll be on the mother club next year. CM and can play all 3 spots but not sure where he projects in the short term
      Auston Trusty- Probably the best academy prospect. LCB. Going to college. I think the team will let him develop there for a few years with our plethora of options
      Matthew Real- Left Back. He’s only a high school junior and the other guy who would be in the argument for best academy player. Already seeing time with BSFC. The TDS guys love him. I think team probably views him as the future at LB. But he’s only 17 so it’s going to be a few years .

  8. pragmatist says:

    I hope you didn’t think I was giving you a homework assignment! You addressed the topic in a way that we fully expect – measured and well thought out. Thank you very much.
    If I can extrapolate a bit, I think you are saying that we can now look at this year and say, “The playoffs are not good enough, but we understand that we still may fall short of a banner, and that’s ok, too.” That seems reasonable. We can aim higher, but recognize this team is still a work in progress.
    My great hope for the summer window is that they only make a move that will make a difference. Earnie has proven very intelligent so far, but I fear a move for the sake of making a move, which could be toxic.
    Speaking of toxic, love the Ewing Theory reference. Well done! Hopefully it’s completely irrelevant, but it’s always fun to pull that one from the vault!

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Huge Bill Simmons fan here. Sadly, also a Knicks fan.

      And no, definitely not a homework assignment. It was a great point. It was worth writing about. I enjoy the back and forth with smart commenters. It’s one of my favorite parts of PSP. (If I still lived in Philly, I’d get to do it in person! Alas …)

  9. philpillas says:

    Striker is far and away the biggest need. He’s your leading scorer. Curtin ran him into the ground and – completely spent – he finally got hurt against CLB (15 mins before Curtin subbed him and only after LeToux waved for it). Herbers has huge upside but is he ready for the unrelenting punishment of a single forward? And if Fabian goes down, then what? Curtin has gotten away with overusing his preferred XI, but the second half will require far shrewder roster management than he has displayed or we will be fighting for a playoff spot and early exit. We’ve exceeded expectations, but it’s no time to sit pat.

  10. Atlanta apparently talking to dane Nicklas Bendtner. Thoughts on him as a potential 6’4″ striker addition?

    • I asked my cousin, an arsenal fan, for an opinion on Mr. Bendtner. His exact words, “NO. EFF NO! NEVER AGAIN!” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But you would imagine that he’d be more effective in MLS than the EPL. If Atlanta signs him, you’d think they’d like to loan him somewhere for minutes and I might take that gamble for half a season.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      I’m told that Atlanta pizzerias have been alerted.

    • One man I’d love to see pull on a Union shirt would be Dimitar Berbatov. I’ve always admired that man’s technical ability in front of goal.

  11. “The Copa looms like the Ides of March.”
    Still a classic line…..

  12. Nice article Dan. The speed at which we have risen has been equal parts, fun, necessary and strange.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Particularly if a summer acquisition’s salary of any kind, not just DP and young DP, were pro rated to reflect on half the season, and the original year long figure is reasonable [neither point being known to the general public] it might be worth the Union taking a look at Corey Burke, the Jamaican on loan this year at the Steel.
    Burke has been recovering from injury suffered in Jamaican national team camp during the Steel’s preseason. He has had about two substitute appearances, neither more than half an hour in which he provided noticeable offensive spark, and he started for the first time last Sunday against Red Bulls 2 playing well but being subbed off at the 78th minute having left it all on the field. Once he plays himself back into shape, depending on the size of his contract, if somehow the union could scrape together enough allocation money to cover his cap hit for the rest of the season, it might work.

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