A View from Afar / Commentary

Union fight to stay above red line

Photo: Earl Gardner

If Philadelphia Union can’t take four points from two home games, they don’t deserve to make the playoffs anyway.

That’s the task ahead, a straightforward situation any quality team should relish. The Union get a non-playoff team in Orlando, followed by a rival in the New York Red Bulls. Talen Energy Stadium should be sold out, with the playoffs on the line. Philadelphia sits in sixth place. The right collection of results could push them up to fourth, while the wrong one would drop them below the red line and out of the playoffs.

Except right now, the Union are reeling, winless in their last five games, four of which were away from home. They have received the ill-timed news that playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta will leave after the season. And they have gone from conference title to the brink of missing the playoffs as two teams beneath them in the standings, D.C. United and New England Revolution, have caught fire due to key personnel additions and major tactical adjustments.

Combined with Saturday’s injuries to Alejandro Bedoya and Josh Yaro, there was perhaps no better time for the Union to get a two-week break than now.

The question will be what they do with those two weeks and what kind of team comes out of the break.

The Union’s problems are myriad:

  • Striker C.J. Sapong is in an epic goal-scoring slump.
  • The Union have gotten burned both in transition and by overstretching their press.
  • Alejandro Bedoya is still adjusting to his new team, and vice versa. Effectively, the replacement of Vincent Nogueira remains an ongoing process.
  • Set piece defense has been weak.

And yet, aside from the absolute stinker they dropped in Chicago a month ago, the Union have kept it close in every game.

Some have said this is a case of the Union regressing to the mean, and perhaps that’s so.

But it’s also a matter of reading the schedule. Winning games at Portland, Toronto, and New York is a tough ask for any visiting team.

More damning was the Chicago dumpster fire and the failure to close out the home match against Montreal, when they surrendered an 88th minute goal off a set piece. Those were points the Union couldn’t afford to drop.

Seventh place New England now sits three points behind the Union but has gone 4-2-0 over the last month thanks to a formation shift and the regular insertion of an on-fire Juan Agudelo into the lineup.

Now ahead of the Union in the standings, D.C. has lost just one game since newly acquired striker Patrick Mullins became a starter on July 31. Montreal has been inconsistent for weeks.

Here’s the remaining schedule for this red line foursome:

  • New England, 7th place: Chicago away and Montreal at home. There’s a good chance they’ll take all six points available.
  • Montreal, 5th place: Toronto at home, away to New England. Both tough matches.
  • D.C. United, 4th place: NYCFC at home, Orlando away.

In the end, you can scoreboard watch all you want, but the Union need results. Four points will mathematically clinch a playoff spot no matter what New England does. Even a win and a loss will probably do the trick, because the Union are well ahead on goal differential, the key relevant tiebreaker here.

But the Union can do better. Both Orlando and the Red Bulls are 2-7-7 on the road this year. These are the games that good teams win.

Miscellaneous notes
  • Tranquillo Barnetta’s departure: The Union playmaker has been a model citizen for the Union. He will be missed. That said, the timing of his announcement was unfortunate for Philadelphia. You can’t control what foreign press will do, admittedly, but you have to imagine the Union would have preferred this news wait till after the season. The Union already have Barnetta’s replacement in Bedoya, but that means Philadelphia still needs a starting No. 8 center midfielder next season. One wonders if we’ll still be talking about replacing Vincent Nogueira this time next year.
  • C.J. Sapong’s confidence: A PSP reader said recently of Sapong, “Sapong is so LOST and out of form that you must pull him in order not to destroy him. A coach must have mercy on out of form players.” We’ve seen this with Union players before, notably Andrew Wenger. Like Wenger, Sapong is a thoughtful guy. Has his confidence suffered the same way? Hard to say. Sapong had been doing the small things well despite his lack of goal-scoring, but the New York game showed otherwise. It might do him some good to come in fresh at the 60-minute mark to run against tired defenders.
  • And Chris Pontius … : Coming into the season, few thought Pontius would stay healthy and replicate the form that made him an MLS all-star. Today, he is the most crucial attacker on the Union.
  • Jim Curtin’s future: Does Curtin’s future hinge on a playoff appearance? Possibly, particularly if the Union crash out of contention with a seven-game winless streak. Regardless of what anyone says publicly, these last two games are big for Curtin and could determine whether he is with the Union next year.


  1. Jim Curtin’s job performance might be the most contentious issue among Union fans. Few argue about what the Union’s strengths and weaknesses are as a team, but the manager’s job performance seems to divide fans here pretty equally.

    I can’t intellectually convince myself to take any extreme on the issue. I think there are things he does very well and others that are lacking. I think he has terrific composure as a manager and has gotten a lot from a team that’s not full of individual talents, but he also seems irrepressibly stubborn, as if rolling CJ Sapong out for another 90 and positive thoughts will turn things around. It smacks of over cautiousness, which may be a byproduct of trying to defend a playoff position rather than playing one game at a time.

    I don’t know. I do think he’ll be back for another year regardless of this season’s outcome — One thing I am certain of is that Curtin’s performance is not the most important part of this team’s form. A striker who can score would have made a big difference. A real #8 and staring #6 would have been nice all year, too. Here’s hoping…..

    • +1. “Overcautiousness” pretty much sums up every criticism of Curtin. I want him to, in the words of Bruce Arena, “try shit”.

  2. We went from four points free in first to sixth place. How depressing.

  3. I agree 100% Mr. Walsh.
    If you can’t take 4 points you don’t deserve to dance- then we can all sing…
    Your everlasting summer
    you can see it fading fast
    so you grab a piece of something
    that you think is gonna last
    you wouldn’t know a diamond
    if you held it in your hands
    the things you think are precious
    I can’t help you understand…
    are you reeling’ in the years….

  4. This team was overperforming in the early part of the season. I said, before the first kick, that a backline comprised of 2 rookies, a second-year guy, and Fabinho was likely to leak goals, and that the Union’s hopes of making the playoffs depended on whether Andre Blake lived up to his potential. In the beginning the defense was far better than I imagined, with Rosenberry being better than anyone thought he would be, Fabinho finding consistency, and Ken Tribbett coming out of nowhere to play quite well.

    Unfortunately my pre-season prediction has now come to pass, as our backline has hit on rough times. But you have to put all this in context: the Union lost one of their best players, out of nowhere, mid-season. They even got a nice replacement for him, but it takes guys like that half a season to adjust to the league. Now they will need someone to replace Barnetta for next year, but they will have an off-season to do that, and I certainly trust Earnie to find some European to do that. Look at it this way: if I told you in March that the Union would be sitting in 6th place come October, 4 points above the red line, you’d’ve said, “OK, that’s pretty good for what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.”

    • el Pachyderm says:

      That is until we saw the way the team was playing which was……well.
      Once again my metric was not playoffs or seeding or table or anything… it was simply playing well and the last two months has been a dumpster fire save one or two performances and an occasional glimpse.
      Play well first and consistently.

  5. I kinda hope we go into the last week 3 ahead of New England, just for the spectacle on them trying to put 14 goals past Montreal on the last day to make up Goal Differential.

    • I had that same thought this morning. Assuming that Montreal has clinched a spot by then, and rests many of its regulars, it could be interesting (although 12 goals is just a ton…)

  6. In spending the half season I have spent formally tasked with trying to understand what Brendan Burke often calls the Bethlehem Steel “Project”, and earlier informal time spent on the subject, the head coach’s influence permeates the organization, not just first team.
    I have no sense how to unravel the influence of the first team head coach from that of the sporting director and vice versa. The only way to do so accurately is with an invisible drone taking video and audio of daily internal meetings.
    But it can be said that the U-12s follow the same practice template as the Union, along with every team at each level in between. That’s the depth of the importance of the first team head coach – whoever he is – in the organization.
    The other major point is that 2016 is and has been the inaugural year of this system, or process, or whatever the better label is that currently escapes my mind.
    To illustratively hint towards the importance of “inaugural”, so far as we know, Coach Burke began to hold formal practices for the Steel last February. He had been appointed sometime the previous fall, and work assembling candidates for roster spots had begun immediately without doubt, together with assembling a technical staff. There had to have been some types of evaluative activities prior to the signing of Derrick Jones, and nothing has been made public about those activities in that period, so we know nothing.
    By comparison for 2017, there is a working hypothesis in place about the technical staff – the announced shift in who was coaching the U-18s and the U-16s indirectly indicates that – and by the end of September we already know at least five and possibly seven of the Steel’s 2017 USL roster. [Corey Burke in 2016 was on loan, and a remark from James Chambers hinted that next season was not yet a settled matter.]
    And perhaps most significantly for 2017, several Academy boys have already been fostered with the USL.
    They are ahead of the curve from last season, even given that we have no idea when that curve began and what it did, and they are not feeling their way with no base of prior experience.
    Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, more basic and fundamental than poor results on the pitch – a locker room mutiny, for one example, or one in the board room for another – the costs of changing coaches and starting over seem too high to me.
    And denial of the opportunity to learn from “first experiences” seems fundamentally unfair. And if Command-level management wants to even seen as good employers, overcoming perceptions leftover from immediate past history, being perceived as fair may be no small thing.
    There is no publicly obvious catastrophic emergency demanding change. Allowing a learning opportunity and reaping the fruits thereof seems sensible.
    This has been a learning year for the Sporting Director, too, after all.

    There is no better teaching device to learn how to do something than actually having to carry it out. Be it American football or teaching a new academic course, the period of greatest improvement is the second time you carry it out.

    • “Rostered” not fostered, sorry.
      And “be” not “even”.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Thoughtful stuff Tim, thank you.
      It is my opinion this franchise wide system of training you speak of is a direct result of the sporting director and not the coach.
      I could be wrong.

      • Before I began talking to Coach Burke, I would have agreed with the assumption.
        After talking with him over the weeks, in imprecise undefinable ways around the edges I have gotten the impression that Jim Curtin has had more of a role than I originally thought.
        And logic says Chris Albright may have had a fingerprint or two here and there as well.
        Curtin has told the story of being in a class when his phone rang during the MLS draft that took him leaving the classroom to make a decision. The telling detail is that it was a class in finance. A senior taking a finance course suggests above average smart to me.
        In terms of Albright, not everybody can earn a diploma from Penn Charter. Their AD was known for caring primarily about the football team, so I doubt Chris got extra consideration in the classroom.
        At the very least Earnie Stewart adds reputation and gravitas to their ideas. But remember how he has responded to question’s probing his role. He has been careful and clear that what we are seeing is not “his system.” What we are seeing is the organization’s system.
        Guessing on the basis of no evidence, Earnie came in and gave everybody who mattered an assignment to draft a detailed plan how they would like to see the organization do things. Ideas were collected and hammered into a plan. The plan went to the Board with Earnie’s support, prestige, experience and know-how, but significant elements came from the visions of those who would be tasked with executing those elements of it. Just a guess.

    • Well said.

  7. Agreed they can make it in on 4 points, but that seems to be limping into the playoffs. With 5 games left at 41 points I said this team needed 8 points. Well that would’ve given them momentum. That is all, but gone now. If something doesn’t change I see this team missing out on playoffs. I think to have any hope of getting and winning a playoff game you need to just win the last two to build team confidence. Also not saying this will definitely help, but for the last two games I bench CJ for anyone who has an eye and foot for putting the ball in the net. I’m looking at Alberg saying who cares if we don’t win were not in an CJ certainly isn’t doing anything of value anymore.

  8. My view when it comes to the team and the Sporting Director is that little weight will be placed on Curtin’s future based on these final two games, with the exception of getting 4 points, getting into the playoffs, and then winning the Cup. Outside of that …
    Mr. Stewart appears to be a far to reasoned man to make his decision based on the outcome of these two games. His evaluation takes place 24/7, match day itself is only a small piece of his overall evaluation of Curtin and his staff.
    Saying all that, I think the question may actually come down to, does Stewart also want to develop a coach along with the players/system/vision/plan/philosophy? Or it is time for someone with some pedigree to take the reins?
    If I had to make the call, it looks to me that they are putting the money into the players and will be keeping/developing Jim.
    Switching topics … a coaching mistake he’s made is not resting Sapong in one of the last five matches. A more experienced coach definitely does that. Now with two matches remaining (and the break), Curtin is definitely keeping CJ in the lineup. It’s too late to sit him now. Possibly if Ilsinho wasn’t hurt he would have done it, that would have allowed Herbers up top and Ilsinho out wide, but unfortunately for Jim, that wasn’t the case.

  9. I guess my struggle with all of this, no one states a very convincing case of what Jim a Curtin does well, besides hailing from the area and is apparently a nice guy.
    As a former defender who promised a solid defense, he’s woefully underwhelmed. Without Blake this team would’ve been scorched a number of times.
    Yeah, the team has been near the top in goals, but so many were loose scrambles in the box. Pontius playing for a contract and Barnetta free kicks. It almost looks random more than a distinct offensive style of play.
    Everyone keeps saying this is the best season, but if it weren’t for a sixth welfare playoff spot it looks like last year’s failure. So…contract extension probably.
    If they backdoor into sixth and lose on the road, you will struggle to sound convincing that this is what “success” looks like. He’s the architect.

    • Lucky Striker says:


    • OneManWolfpack says:

      “As a former defender who promised a solid defense, he’s woefully underwhelmed. Without Blake this team would’ve been scorched a number of times.”
      THIS. Well said. This is my biggest beef with Curtin. I think, even more than his subs.

      • Though, rookies make mistakes, and we have journeyman Carroll and Crevalle in front of them. Sometimes it comes down to talent AND experience to execute the tactical strategy, no?

    • First of all even if they miss the playoffs this year has been a lot better than last. It’s not even close. They were terrible last year. This year they are average. Also, Jim has done a great job of keeping the locker room together which is always overlooked (think Andy Reid vs Chip Kelly).
      And while not every match, there have been plenty of games where we have made adjustments either at half or during the game to turn the tide. We have also had adjustments by other teams beat us. I think too much credit goes to coach’s tactics/adjustments when usually it’s just a talent problem.
      Do I think Curtin is great. No. But people on here act like he’s the worst coach ever. In all honesty I think blaming the coach in any sport is usually overrated.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I think a soccer manager can influence a game by his decision making, or tactical approach. How Curtin or anyone on his staff, has the inabililty to coach vets and/or rookies on how to set piece mark is just not acceptable – especially when being a former defender. I don’t think Curtin is the worst, and yes this team is growing and getting better – so for that he gets credit. My real overall fear is that Curtin comes back (regardless of what happens with the playoffs this year)… and the same mistakes happen next season. Then we have to “pull a Union” and fire the coach mid-season.

      • Actually, it’s a lot closer than you think. In 2015, they had 37 points and 10 wins. They’re 5 whole points and one win better. So,yeah, kinda close.
        Your whole argument is talent is everything and coaching doesn’t matter. How did Portland win last year? They weren’t the best team. Maybe coaching?
        Is the locker room really that together? Are you there?

      • Portland just started playing well at the right time. Kind of like DC this season. If the Union started clicking now like they did at the beginning of the year, they’d be a dark horse for the cup.

        It’s hard to guess how much the manager is responsible. I feel like managers are most useful in keeping their team positive, keeping them on task and making minor adjustments. In the end, though, the players either win or they don’t.

        The only thing I really hold Curtin accountable for this year is sticking with CJ and running him into the ground. The approach reminds me of a baseball manager sending a slumping slugger out there to the plate. Difference is, you play baseball almost every day. A slumping striker can sink your team’s chances for two months. It’s no accident that the teams sitting atop this division also have strikers in the hunt for a golden boot. If the U had a 15+ goal #9, it would be a top 3 team.

      • I guess this tells you my perspective…. the manager makes all the difference…. particularly in a league designed for parity and middle… it is the manager that brings the added edge.
        Adjusting to adjustments.

      • The Chopper says:

        I still have many questions about Curtin and I’m pretty sure the answers I come up with aren’t satisfactory after watching his game management over the past two and a half seasons.

        That being said, if you told me when this season started that this team would lose Noguiera, not get a single minute from Edu, play without an effective striker on the roster, play an inexperienced defense and still qualify for the playoffs (we hope), then the coach just might be doing something right.

  10. No wonder he took a course in finance. Probably because the numbers make sense to him. Sorry to say he has NO FEEL for the game, he cant seem to feel what is going on and react accordingly. I see no Outside the Box thinking at all here. No sense of flexibility or managerial creativity. No fun. That does not mean he is a bad coach, that is just his makeup and that NEVER changes.

  11. I’d like to see a more ruthless manager who isn’t afraid to bench players who underperform . A smart coaching change could be warrented if we miss the playoffs. Lastly, if we do manage to stay above the red line, I’m predicting a quarter-final finish.

  12. In a long season in a physical league, many players will wear down if overused.
    Remember the comment Curtin made about coaches losing games?
    The Edu situation is unclear – especially after Ale came out, I wondered why Mo didn’t make the lineup.
    Curious about how Alberg reflects on Ji. & Earnie. He was ES’s big offseason find, but Curtin has used him mostly as a sub – despite Sapong’s lack of scoring.
    Curtin liky is safe, unless there’s a big upgrade available.

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