Fans' View

Fans’ View: Reality check

Photo: Daniel Studio

A hot start this spring elevated Philadelphia Union to the top of the table, while also the elevating expectations of a fan base who started the season mostly content to just see clear evidence of progress and a coherent plan to build a winner. If you recall, most pundits projected the Union to be the 9th best team in a 10 team Eastern Conference, just ahead of a punchless Chicago Fire squad. By mid-season, we were looking at two all-star game starters in Rosenberry and Blake, an in-form striker suddenly be talked about for the USMNT, a manager in the consideration set for manager of the year, and a team on pace to challenge for the Supporter’s Shield.

Then came the dog days of summer, a very uneven stretch of results that saw the Union slide back towards the middle of the pack in the conference, and the scent of fresh baked CUD cookies filled the air. Sentiment shifted to a place where our once pleasantly surprising defense now seems leaky and raw, C.J. Sapong can’t finish well enough to be a top striker, Curtin’s tactical acumen is starting to be questioned again, and a once “washed up” Brian Carroll can’t get back on the field quickly enough to help right the ship.

So what’s the reality of the Union’s situation now that we’re nearing the end of summer and heading into the final stretch of the MLS season? Are you surprised by team’s performance? Frustrated? Pleased?

What’s gone right (in no particular order)

  • Chris Pontius – fan reaction was mixed at the time due to a relatively high salary and injury troubles in recent years, but could the Pontius trade have played out any better for the Union? Pontius fits the system, plays defense, has displayed above average aerial ability, and has contributed 10 goals and 5 assists.
  • Andre Blake making the leap – we’ve grown accustomed to spectacular, MLS save of the week quality shot stopping from Blake week in and week out.
  • Midfield play – this season has featured perhaps the most talented group of midfield talent in the team’s seven-year history, even with Vincent Nogueira heading back to France earlier this summer (the Bedoya addition makes that a bit easier to swallow now). Barnetta and Bedoya bring a high level of skill, professionalism, and some bite in the middle of our lineup.
  • Young players making an impact – In addition to Blake, the Union have benefited from three draft picks playing meaningful to substantial minutes for a playoff caliber team. In Rosenberry, we even have a rookie of the year candidate. Add in Ken Tribbett, who despite his recent troubles, still appears to be a great find as an undrafted rookie capable of being in an MLS team’s center back rotation.
  • A preferred, defined style of play – no matter what formation and/or style of play you prefer, it’s comforting to see the Union commit to a style of play (higher pressure, defensive pressure starting with the front line, increased importance on possession, etc.).
  • Veterans exceeding expectations – Fabinho has sunset sun rocket talk and proven to be a fairly effective starting LB in MLS. And Brian Carroll continues to defy age and logic, performing at a very high doing BC things as a starting No. 6. His current absence only helps draw attention to how valuable an asset he is to this team.
  • Front office – It’s been said a bunch, but there’s a new found level of professionalism permeating throughout the organization since bringing Earnie Stewart on board. Two homegrown players have been brought on board, and the aggressive summer deals to add Bedoya and Charlie Davies to the mix signal a clear intent to compete with the top teams in MLS.

A few things that haven’t gone quite as well

  • Anderson acquisition – what appeared to be a significant offseason signing just hasn’t materialized as planned. From starting CB early in the season to consistently not making the game day 18, Anderson’s poor fit forced the Union to rely on very young , inexperienced CB pairings much of this season.
  • Youthful mistakes – youthful Union defenders have performed admirably, and the future looks bright here, but with all of that valuable game experience, there have been inexperienced mistakes that have cost.
  • Roster depth – Striker depth proved to be very thin earlier this year while Sapong was out (Remember Alberg as a false 9?). Midfield depth was sorely tested after the Nogueira departure, and more recently with Carroll’s injury. Then there’s Bethlehem Steel FC, scraping by many weeks with incredibly thin rosters.
  • LeToux departure – I completely understand the business end. The team likely needed to free up some salary cap space and recoup allocation money, and in this case, they got something for a player who would be out of contract at season’s end. I also get that he may well return again one day (even if just for a day to retire as a Union player). In the near term, the team has lost one of the few (only?) bench options they had who could be introduced to help chase a game or to help kill off a game. And wing options look a bit thin these days.

I’m completely confident that I’ve overlooked things on both lists, but do feel confident in stating that the positive organizational developments, roster improvements, and current standings (4th in the East) have me feeling pretty good. Early season success had most of us wanting and expecting more, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The last month or two was all the more disappointing because of how much the bar was raised by this group in the Spring months. It’s entirely possible to simultaneously be disappointed by the dip in form and results, but also encouraged by a team that is in year one of a major organizational rebuild and managing to compete much sooner than expected.

The reality is this team’s recent struggles feel different. Progress is evident. If you take a moment to reset and remember where your head was back in March, I hope you’ll agree it’s a pretty good time to be a Union fan.


  1. Nice analysis. I would say the youthful mistakes and roster depth issues were to be expected as part of the growth process. I believe Earnie will continue to turnover the roster. I don’t believe any positions except Bedoya’s, Rosenberry’s, and Blake’s are locked in.

  2. Early in the season, we were skyhigh due to still having Nogs and more importantly being really the only competent team in the East outside of maybe Montreal. Since then, NYCFC, NYRB, and especially Toronto have really pulled themselves together and started to play to their potential.
    We, on the other hand, are just starting to pull ourselves back together. If we can get a healthy lineup by the end of the year (which is a pretty big if), we may not be favorites to get out of the East but we’ll certainly have a decent shot out of it. Which is really all we’ve been begging for all these years.

  3. This is exactly the voice of reason that everyone needs to keep in mind. I asked earlier in the season if the goalposts had moved, and I argued that while perception said yes, the reality was no.
    This is a solid foundation of a team. But there is a lot of youth in important positions, and CJ doesn’t have a strong enough replacement yet. Maybe Davies or Herbers, albeit as a different type of player, can play for him when needed, but as has been stated ad nauseum, there is no like-for-like for CJ.
    There is no reason to doubt more improvement in the offseason. 2 or 3 signings, plus greater development of the current roster has the arrow pointing up.
    But please, everyone, keep expectations for this season in check. Enjoy our run and realize we have a playoff team – not a championship team (barring a fantastic run). But that all changes next season…

  4. I think the roster depth issue is somewhat of an illusion given that in several instances the Union were playing their 3rd choice. For example, Creavalle is playing the 6 because both Edu and Carroll are injured. I’m thinking that for most teams, the 3rd option would be significantly worse. Likewise, Alberg played the false 9 when Sapong and Herberg were both out. And that was before they got Davies as another option.

    • I agree that injuries created issues, but they did come into the season with Sapong backed up by a rookie forward. The third choice forward also doubled as our starting RM, so the depth wasn’t really there if anything happened to Sapong (even though Herbers has proven to be a decent backup now). With the #6 spot, it was known that Edu would miss a decent chunk of time coming into the season. When Carroll signed a new contract, it appeared to be somewhat of a player/coach role. They’ve been incredibly fortunate that he’s been so productive.

      There may not have been good options at reasonable prices for either spot, but I do think we were thin at both coming into the season. I’d argue we’re a little thin on the wings now too, with Letoux gone and Fernandes and restrepo not seeming to earned the manager’s trust for meaningful minutes.

      • pragmatist says:

        You hit on something when you mentioned Fernandes and Restrepo. I think there were expecting more out of these players. The staff thought they would at least be serviceable backups, and they have proven to not be useful at all. Mix in the bad Anderson signing (that happens with all teams), and you had a ridiculously thin roster that wasn’t padded as much as we thought initially.
        This is part of why I want to see one more offseason, and a chance to correct those mistakes.

      • I think it’s a bit much to say that Fernandes has “proven to not be useful at all” in his return to the Union this year.
        Inconsistent would probably be a better description of his play this season, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given the number of different positions he’s been asked to fill in limited minutes.
        Restrepo, too, has had his ups and downs with the Union this summer, though he obviously didn’t look good in his last appearance.
        Bottom line, however, is that the Union’s recent troubles have resulted from the play of individuals who have spent far more time on the pitch than these two (or three, if you include Anderson).

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    I really need to see what Stewart could do with a full off-season to evaluate and seal the cracks before I’d list the FO under what’s gone well.

    It’s Incomplete for me.

    • Fair point. It’s early to truly measure results of the changes put in place over the last 12-18 months, though directionally, I like what they’ve been doing.

  6. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    The Andersen signing has nothing to do with Tribbett and Yaro. Ernie has been specific about having 2 players at every position. Andersen was not brought in to play CB he was brought in to play Left CB. He was brought in as completion for Marquez. The Andersen signing wasn’t bad, he was brought in on a one year contract and the competition that he provided Marquez in camp worked out well.

  7. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    Generally agree with this, but I think there are three missing “gone wrong”:
    A) not being ready for the timing of the Nogueira departure. I agree that the Nogs/Bedoya trade is at worst a wash (and if Nogs needed to go home, we owed him that) but the timing was a mistake. Should have timed them so we minimized the gap. And if we couldn’t control Vincent’s departure, we should have accelerated the timeline to bring in Bedoya.
    B) CDM timing. This is either bad luck (if they thought Edu would be back sooner) or bad judgment. If they had reason to think that there was a probability that Edu’s return was going to be as late as it is, they should have held on to Mike Lahoud. And if not, it’s bad luck, and a different kind of “gone wrong”.
    C) Front office fail on halftime entertainment. They have yet to schedule the Mark Geiger-Jesse Marsch Halftime Nut Punch Competition. A true missed opportunity.

  8. When I paid my money for this year’s 4 season tix, I said I’d be happy with 45 points.
    Now, I WOULD have been sincerely unhappy if the seat I plopped my butt into felt like a season long ride on Septa’s R2 line. Roller coasters are a LOT more fun.

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