A View from Afar / Commentary

Six thoughts on Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

Some observations on Philadelphia Union, in light of their draw with Montreal on Saturday:

Poor officiating dominates game

Armando Villarreal produced the worst MLS officiating performance I’ve seen in quite some time. C.J. Sapong could have been punched in the face in the first half, and he might not have gotten a foul.

Montreal’s willingness to brutalize Sapong and Villarreal’s willingness to let it go produced an ugly, chippy game that only got worse as it progressed. It’s a textbook case of poor refereeing hurting the quality of the MLS product.

To top it all off, Villarreal failed to whistle a clear penalty on a foul against Fabian Herbers inside the penalty box. Granted, that sort of thing is sadly typical in soccer. To wreck the quality of an entire game, however, takes something special, and Villarreal pulled that off.

Sapong is tough but not scoring

Sapong has done so many little things right all season to improve his team as a whole. The beating he took on Saturday from Laurent Ciman and company cements that further.

But strikers have to score, and Sapong hasn’t been doing that regularly for months. In fact, he’s not even taking shots: Only 9 in his last nine games.

It may be time for a break, if only to give Sapong the time to watch the game from the sidelines with fresh eyes. His presence has made the Union a better team on the whole, and it should not be forgotten that they are one of the league’s highest scoring teams. But they need a Sapong taking shots on goal, not merely taking shots in the back from center backs.

Is Charlie Davies just the sidekick?

Unfortunately, the Union may not have anyone who can adequately replace Sapong right now.

They reportedly paid through the nose to acquire Charlie Davies, but there is no indication that Davies has recovered sufficient fitness to start a game. In his defense, however, he hasn’t been given the chance to show otherwise.

The more Davies sits, the more it looks like the primary reason for acquiring him was to make his old college buddy, Alejandro Bedoya, feel at home after signing with the Union. Or, at least, that’s the cynic’s view. I’m not a cynic, which means I’m inclined to think that wasn’t the sole reasoning, but some evidence to the contrary would be nice, particularly considering the Davies deal indirectly cost the team Sebastien Le Toux.

Davies scored 10 goals last year. It’s not like he can’t play this game.

Jim Curtin still doesn’t trust his bench

After more than two years as Philadelphia Union head coach, Jim Curtin still doesn’t trust his bench.

Once again, he had veterans huffing and puffing down the stretch and chose not to use a third substitute.

Brian Carroll could have come in for Alejandro Bedoya or Tranquillo Barnetta, or Davies could have come in to set off a different domino effect of position changes.

Would they have made a difference on the set piece that led to Montreal’s late goal? Perhaps not. But then again, perhaps that set piece never happens because Carroll plugs a defensive hole higher up the field that Bedoya or Barnetta was too tired to close down.

Ilsinho, super sub

Professional soccer has rarely treated substitutes quite like other American sports do. In basketball, you have the sixth man concept. Baseball clubs prize top relief pitchers. The NFL has its third down backs, slot receivers and more.

But seeing how effective Ilsinho has been as a substitute since returning from injury, perhaps that’s a way to go for the Union moving forward. He basically did whatever he wanted to against Montreal, dribbling through tired defenders and helping maintain possession and create chances.

Meanwhile, Fabian Herbers has been very good as an attacking right midfielder and has netted a goal or assist every 131.2 minutes this season, the second best rate on the Union.

What would you rather have? A dominant Ilsinho for 40 minutes a game, or an average one for 80 minutes?

Tranquillo Barnetta should return

In recent weeks, I’ve seen scattered speculation about whether Barnetta would return next season. This should, however, be a no-brainer.

Barnetta has proved to be one of the Union’s best signings ever. In just one year, he has developed into a team leader and fulcrum of the attack.

There were legitimate questions earlier this year about his knees that will probably pop up again at some point, but he has missed just one regular season game since that early season spell on the sidelines. Some have worried about his age, but he is still just 31 years old and probably extended his career a few years by moving inside.

If the Union can bring a healthy Barnetta back at or near his current salary, there is no question that they should. He has been worth every penny they have paid him.


  1. Agreed on Barnetta.
    Even though Alberg, Bedoya, Herbers, and even Ilsinho can all play the #10, he is unique and too valuable to the team at that position because of his willingness to press defensively and to get on the ball and attack opponents’ backline on the dribble offensively.

    • Absolutely yes. Barnetta should be back as long as he wants to come back. He’s the reason our team functions. Any potential replacement in the future needs to have the creativity and workrate to operate in our system.

      • That’s the key…does he want to come back for a reasonable price. If not, I think we’re looking at Alberg as the new #10.

  2. Make. A. Substitution.

    Before that game even started it was clearly gonna be Drogba, Oduro and Shipp off the bench.. When the Union went up 1-0, that meant Drogba coming in earlier, which meant more time for him to get to work. So when they failed – and failed – and failed – to go up 2-0, Curtin sat idly as his team slowed down (with a striker and a defensive midfielder on the bench) and watched in inevitable horror as the Impact equalized – then STILL didn’t respond to the goal. If he can’t trust proven MLS guys like Davies or Carroll off the bench in this game, what happens in the playoffs when a late away goal like that will spell doom? 0-2-3 against Canadian teams this year.

  3. Agreed on Barnetta. Agree the bench needs to be trusted this game was screaming for Carroll to be on the field, as was I. Agreed on Ilsinho I like him better off the bench then starting. Agreed on Sapong a striker needs to score, its unfortunate Le Toux is not here as the time Sapong scoring has dropped off is about the time Le Toux usually picked up his scoring.

  4. All thoughts I can get behind. How about:

    Seventh: Yo, Mo!

    If Edu can return and start before season’s end, how meaningful will it be and how well can the spine of Edu-Bedoya-Barnetta-Sapong(Davies?) jell in the heat of a playoff run?

    • Soccer Chemist says:

      Edu’s return meaningfulness < 0

      It will be done at the detriment of the team's chemistry.

      I guess an argument could be made that our chemistry is already a bit off due to lack of Carrollbonite, a little too much Creavallium, a seemingly unstable Bedoyan element, and far too much Krypton (Kr) has bonded with Sapongium (Ap) to create (KrAp).

      But still, the Eduvian addition to our delicate equation could leave our loose defensive covalent bonds exposed to hazardous amounts of offensive radiation resulting in a catastrophic reaction from our most valuable resource, Andrenium, seeking to pair with Europium.

      • Oh I like this so much…. Well done.

      • Excellent! outstanding! Wonderful.
        Verbal Golazzo by Soccer Chemist.
        Mendeleev is nodding in approval.

      • Love this as well and agree on all points.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Soccer Chemist… where have you been all season? Excellent stuff!

      • Soccer Chemist says:

        I also moonlight as a “theologian”…I’ll let you connect the dots from there…

      • Hmmmmm I wouldn’t Andre is our most valuable piece. Goalkeepers, by necessity of position are not able to make a huge impact. In terms of how much money we might receive in return for him…id say be prepared to keep your expectations LOW. He’s not as highly rated in Europe for whatever reason or there would’ve been some speculation so far

      • Personally I think the reason Andre is not a big deal in Europe is his communication and distribution still need work. Yes he makes amazing saves, but I feel bigger than the distribution European teams often look for the communication. They want the goalkeeper to organize the defense almost be an on field coach from the defensive side of the ball. Many of the goalkeepers in Europe can be seen constantly talking nonstop to their defense, at least from what I’ve seen.

      • Cute, Clever, Wrong.
        If Mo Edu is healthy, he plays as the #6. Anyone who makes the argument that they’d rather have Brian Carroll or Warren Creavalle at the #6 vs a healthy Mo Edu lacks credibility.
        It is questionable whether Andre Blake will go to a top European league anytime soon. His distribution is way below average for that level of play, and his communication / organizational skills (two cornerstones of goalkeeping) are clearly not there yet.

  5. If Davies isn’t fit why isn’t he playing with BSFC trying to get match fit. If its relative to his remised cancer – then why did he get signed in the first place… makes no sense…. I’ve argued and will do so again- assuming this team makes the postseason- they are going to need one gol. Sapong is the super sub solution. Pontius can’t dribble or get his own shot, Sapong certainly can’t dribble or get his own shot….
    The Calm… pretty much all cynicism regarding his game has rightly become carrion. Still too bad about Okugo and Noguiera. That is a central midfield I’d love to have seen… ah well.

  6. To reiterate a comment I made on Adam’s column yesterday, while Villareal was horrible (and I did question several times during the game as to whether he was French Canadian and how much he had bet on Montreal), the push in the back PK call he didn’t make was one he was letting Montreal get away with all game. The exception was the Barnetta foul that the linesman called. Villareal seemed to think it was fine for Montreal to push the Union in the back (but not always the other way around).

  7. Even if Curtin has no trust in the bench. He waited too long to make subs. And left one on the bench. Illsinho is better off the bench. Agree on that. Alberg added very little threat. And the third guy should be Carroll. Or anyone with fresh legs to run at the defenders.

    • Yeah, Barnetta was beat at the end of the game. I wouldn’t have minded Gaddis replacing Barnetta, with Fabinho sliding up to the LAM to close out the game.

    • Curtin always waits too long. In answer to the Ilsinho question above, I would rather have Ilsinho, or any sub, for 40 minutes, but when does Curtin ever sub before the 65th or 70th minute? We were up 1 nothing at half time, why not bring in Ilsinho to strat the 2nd half?

  8. I dunno about Sapong. I wouldn’t say he’s diving consistently, but he does seem fall too easily. I think that is working against him in getting fouls called his way.

    • +1 I wouldn’t say he is flat out diving, but it seems like is first thought is always to initiate contact with defenders in the hope of getting tangled up and drawing a foul.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    There were many options for Curtin to sub properly in that game, and he didn’t do it. I’d almost rather the wrong sub, instead of no sub. I want to like Curtin, but I am getting real tired of him “not trusting his bench” or “still learning on the job”. Enough. If the lack of subs hurts us one more time before the season is over, Curtin must really be evaluated in the off season.

  10. I think as with the subs Curtin is just unwilling to change things. We saw it with Wenger in the past Sapong this year. Granted their not the same players, but when some players ability drops sometimes the right move is send them to the bench to light a fire under them. It worked with Alberg. I say CJ to the bench till he steps it up. Also if we want to make the playoffs Carroll really needs to get back on the field. Sure maybe they are trying to rest him for the playoffs, but this is assuming you get in which is no given at this point.

  11. Is there any update on Blake? I am concerned about his back will he play this week? Has he been in training? Is there residual pain?

    • I have had an eye out regarding this all day and have got nothing.
      No tweet from any reporters. Blake was not in any of the four pictures on the U’s Facebook from training today or mentioned in the “Training Notes” article on the team’s website.
      On the bright side, the MLS website’s injury report was updated today and only has Edu, Carroll, and Tribbet all listed as “questionable” for the Union.
      So…no clue on his status, hopefully someone asks about it during Curtin’s weekly presser (which I assume is tomorrow?).

      • The way he landed and where it seemed like he hit the bar was a pretty bad spot. I saw that and thought there goes the Unions season. I’ve injured my back in that spot before it doesn’t heal so quickly either and pain often persists.

  12. For all the talk about him being done, LeToux would look great as a sub to spell Sapong, Pontius or Herbers. If Davies still isn’t ready, why isn’t he playing with Bethlehem? And we need to get over the weekly Edu update. If they really thought he was coming back soon, they’d set a target date to simply have the media stop asking. But they haven’t and we haven’t heard a single “Mo feels great or is doing great”. It’s all “He is getting a good run in tonight” etc. etc. It’s almost October people. He isn’t going to contribute anytime soon.

    • I share the Edu watch frustration, but I think we will see him back in the Union lineup sooner rather than later. Would not be surprised to see him in the 18 for Portland.

      • I’d be fine with that. As long as he isn’t shooting.

      • Looks from BSFC box score like Edu played full 90 on Saturday.
        Maybe slide him in with Carroll holding and move Bedoya to right mid?

      • Full 94 minutes actually.
        Defensive recovery runs by the end of the game were very slow. Quite understandable given that the Steel simply had to win that game.
        Only reason Steel not eliminated is the brutal nature of the Orlando City B final schedule. their points drought is not as long as the Steel’s, but is epic.
        Full marks to der Fussballzuschauer (sp?) for highlighting that schedule.

  13. Lucky Striker says:

    2 things…….

    If Davies was 100 % fit, he still wouldn’t be a proper replacement for Sap in a single-high concept. They don’t play the game remotely the same way. In that fantasy ideal, he and Herbers both function best in what I call “XF mode”- meaning the extra forward whose appearance helps most by changing the formation. Philly has rode their one horse into the ground. Guy’s looking fit for the glue factory at the moment……. He doesn’t have an adequate replacement. Thinking about the Old Quakes with Wondo pillaging off the body blows of a younger Gordon & Lenhart……. the assumed direction I thought Philly might go. They prefer to strand themselves between ideas it seems……

    Barnetta going isn’t a referendum on him. He made statements when he arrived that he was looking at MLS as a “one and done ” gambit. Time’s about up……and we’ve heard nothing to the contrary from either side. Here, there is a steadfast belief that Bedoya’s sojourn at the 8 must end when the season does. That, if true, means somebody we like is leaving……..

    • Agreed, re: Davies. However, he did play as a lone center forward in New England and can fill the role as an occasional replacement. Certainly, he is not an answer as an overall, full-time replacement, and I’m not of the opinion the Union should be replacing Sapong as the regular starter.

      • Should be CJ for the first 70, and depending on how his run is going and how the game is progressing, Davies for the last 20.

  14. Before the season started Jim Curtin gave some happy-talk about how the Union have depth at every position and he didn’t want the club to win the award for least fouls again.

    Saturday’s game revealed the falsity of those claims. If the referee isn’t calling fouls (and I agree he was terrible) then foul someone. And clearly Curtin does not think he has any depth on the bench.

  15. ONE time, all year I turned to my son as Curtin made 2 proper and timely subs, then a third to close the game out. ONE TIME!!! Curtin continues to prove he does NOT know how to close a game (win) out?!?!? A guesstimate would say no less than 5/6 points have been squandered by not closing out with 3 points. How can a defensive player his entire career NOT know how to close out???? Obviously playing and coaching is never the same… Curtin continues to show ES he is a work in progress. Will he have the patience to see if he can learn?!? Patience of a saint I say… Any game winding down is very difficult to close out, why keep putting the team in the same position?!? Quality, timely subs get u 2 goals ahead… so you don’t need to worry about that late tying, or go ahead goal. I see too much ‘Andy Reid-ism’ in Curtin… STOP repeating your same mistakes expecting a different result, he’s now so predictable, opposing coaches have no concern he will have an effect in the out come… Wake up Coach I am a fan but my patience is worn VERY thin, I wonder about your boss, MAYBE YOU SHOULD TOO… UNION UNION UNION

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