Offseason Issues

A chat about the 2017 Union: Part 4

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: PSP writers Peter Andrews and Dan Walsh get along. They both like soccer. They also disagree a lot. We figured some of those email conversations might make for interesting reading. If not, at least Peter is witty enough to make us laugh. Over the last few days, we’ve been sharing their latest ongoing conversation about Philadelphia Union’s off-season. Read yesterday’s piece here.

Peter Andrews:

I’m sorry, Dan: if Fabian Herbers plays 2,500 minutes this year for the Philadelphia Union, then I have a very bad feeling about this. Herbers is a nice player, and I’m certainly glad he’s on the Union. But to suggest that he should play, essentially, 75 minutes every single game is way overvaluing his role. Assuming Bedoya plays every game, that leaves a grand total of 560 minutes left over for Alberg and Ilsinho combined.

Now, if you get rid of one of those two, then maybe there’s room. But is Fabian Herbers the starting right wing, with basically no backup, on a team challenging for MLS Cup?

This leads into the Curtin questions, because squad management is not one of his strong suits. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think Curtin is the manager to lead this team to the next level. In his two-and-a-half seasons at the helm, we’ve established that he plays favorites (John McCarthy), doesn’t rotate his squad (C.J. Sapong), trust his bench (the first substitute of every game in the 75th minute), or make useful tactical adjustments (the diminishing returns from each game as 2016 went on).

Of all his flaws, I think that one is the biggest. Each game in the last two months of the season saw the Union flail more wildly, falling from a secure position to making the playoffs on goal differential and barely lasting 48 hours before elimination at BMO Field. Nothing Curtin did during that stretch made the team better, largely because Curtin did nothing during that stretch. The low point was the loss to Orlando City, when the listless Union squandered a chance to clinch a playoff berth and were instead booed off the pitch.

His handling of the two non-Marquez center backs was also very curious. (I’m pretending Anderson never existed.) The Tribbett/Yaro platoon lasted about three months more than it should have. Curiously, the decision of who played on any given night didn’t seem to correlate to match-ups, which is how you saw the speedy Giovinco dissect the not-speedy Tribbett in that horrific game in mid-August.

To me, the way forward with the center backs is straightforward. Tribbett should start every game for Bethlehem Steel. I don’t think he’s MLS quality, though he might be one day. Yaro should start every game for Philadelphia alongside Richie Marquez. The Union should find a cheapish, competent veteran center back (a Danny Califf-type) to be the primary backup and a mentor to the young core. This seems like the easiest decision for 2017 other than “play Keegan Rosenberry at right back.”

Now, all of my criticism about Curtin being said… I think it was right to retain him in the offseason. The 2016 Union, at worst, met preseason expectations. Expectations will be higher this year, and it seems right to give a young coach time to develop. The core of the team seems to like playing for him, too. While the Union are still trying to establish a program, it doesn’t make sense to switch coaching staffs without overwhelming evidence that he’s not the guy.

What would overwhelming evidence be? The goal for this season has to be a home game in the MLS playoffs. Anything less, and it’s time for a new direction on the bench.

Sound fair to you, Dan?

Dan Walsh

This is why I like our conversations, Peter. You keep me honest and engage in mathematics when I pull a number out of the air (or my rear). Herbers at 2,500 minutes – yeah, let’s cut that to 2,000 and then move on from there. Bottom line: I think he should be a regular starter, unless his performance bottoms out. And yes, it seems clear I value him more highly than you do, and I’m cool with us disagreeing on that.

On to Curtin –

I agree. This team needs to make substantial progress, and, to begin with, that means at least a top four finish in the Eastern Conference.

But it also needs to be clear that this isn’t a team held back by its coaching staff. The fact that people like you question whether the problem with the players (Roland Alberg, etc.) might be the coaches illustrates the lack of confidence in Jim Curtin. It’s not enough for players to like the coach. Everyone likes Curtin, just like everyone liked John Hackworth. You need more than that.

The coach needs to bring something to the table and clearly make the team better than the sum of its parts, and the effect needs to be evident. For example:

  • Oscar Pareja has earned a reputation for developing young players and building entertaining, dynamic attacks.
  • Greg Vanney saw his Toronto roster had all the pieces necessary to switch to a 3-5-2, which no MLS team (other than Chicago flirting with it early last season) has regularly played in years, and the tactical shift propelled them to the MLS Cup final.
  • Peter Vermes’ teams have an intense focus on fitness and high pressure.
  • Bruce Arena took the Los Angeles Galaxy from missing the playoffs in three straight years to second place in one year and then won three MLS Cups in four years by basically understanding his players, understanding what made each one tick, and making pragmatic choices to win games.

What do Curtin’s fingerprints on the Union look like? What tangible positive impact can you observe? Is there a playing style?

There are two Curtin fingerprints that I can see:

  1. Curtin likes tough, physical, old school players.
  2. Curtin doesn’t like to use his bench. He often uses less than the three allotted substitutions per game, and he is slow to sit players who need a break, as Keegan Rosenberry and C.J. Sapong so clearly did late last year.

As it turns out, the tough, physical former player with a “Philly tough” mentality likes tough, physical players with a “Philly tough” mentality. (Yes, I said it. “Philly tough!”) That might be enough for the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line, but there needs to be more than that for this variety of football.

If we don’t know what more he brings to the team by season’s end, then yes, Curtin is in trouble.

Here’s one key thing to remember: The Union have had three head coaches in their history. They all come from the same coaching trees: Peter Nowak and Bob Bradley. The last two coaches were hired from within. You can rest assured that the next one won’t be, unless the Union start winning titles.

On that note … where do we go from here, Peter? Does any of this matter if the Union don’t spend more money on another DP or two?


  1. Gotta be in Peter’s corner for this one:

    “Now, if you get rid of one of those two, then maybe there’s room. But is Fabian Herbers the starting right wing, with basically no backup, on a team challenging for MLS Cup?”

    Answer: No way.

    Damn, this too:

    “Nothing Curtin did during that stretch made the team better, largely because Curtin did nothing during that stretch.”

    I agree 100000000000000%.

  2. It’s very difficult, I think, to really rate Curtin as a coach because he’s never had a really good roster to work with. It’s always suffered from key injuries and multiple compromises at multiple positions. Of the coaches Dan mentions above, Only Pareja has worked with less in terms of resources. Arena and Vaney have had multi-million $$ stars.

    In the positives column, he seems to get a lot from young players and rookies. He’s well liked by players of all experience level and he deserves some credit for making two open cup finals in a row with less than stellar rosters.

    In the negative column, I think, that which frustrates the most is his stubbornness. This is something I think he and some others likely consider a strength. We’re going to play this way and we will win or lose doing what we do. I think that stubbornness also manifests itself in a reluctance to make changes.

    Overall, I think keeping Curtin on for this season was the right call. He’s still a young coach who is learning. That’s worth something. He may turn out to be one of the better coaches in this league. He absolutely has to keep the Union with a winning record and playing in the top half of the conference table or I think his time is up.

    • Those points are all great. Not only has he been dealt a bargain roster, but the drama has been off the charts.
      Year 1 – M’Bohli, and all that entailed.
      Year 2 – Losing Nogs mid-season, and a rash of injuries at key positions (Barnetta, Yaro, Ilsinho, Edu)
      The stubbornness is accurate. But I wonder how much of that was dictated by Earnie, and Jim didn’t feel confident enough as a rookie/2nd year coach to push back. I’m thinking mainly of the formation and unwillingness to change. Earnie has talked about that repeatedly: This is who we are and what we will play.
      I think Jim mainly needs to work on his substitutions. Before a game starts and you review the starting XI and the subs, you know exactly who the subs will be and when they will enter. That predictability needs to be replaced with more flexibility.
      This is a critical year. Hopefully everyone stays healthy, no one abandons the team, and we will be able to evaluate his performance in a relatively controlled environment.

      • I’ve heard Curtin, too, speak admiringly of rigidity in style and form — to play a certain way and to stick to those methods through thick and thin.

        Yes. Substitutes. I think that’s where Jim’s inexperience is most exposed. It’s those minor adjustments to hold on late in a game or grab an equalizer. Let’s hope he learned a few new things in that Pro licensing class.

    • I mentioned this in another response, I can afford Jim the roster excuse for the season before last. As for last season there was a lot of turnover and bringing in of players that should be assumed were “his” guys. Injuries sure played a part in his ability to select players, but he’s still got to realize when CJ, Rosenberry, and I’d say to a good extent Bedoya, need a breather. I stand on the fact he couldn’t have done worse for the last two months of the season. Which goes to your point about Curtin’s stubbornness.
      All these things lead me to ask…So what does Curtin do to make the team better? or How does Curtin make the team better?
      I just don’t see him becoming worth giving him time to grow.

      • I get that viewpoint, but at the beginning of the season, everyone picked Union to be mid table and they performed to expectations. So he gets a C for an average performance. It’s like that stat — wins above replacement. Right now he’s a 0 wins above replacement coach. I think it’s OK to give him this year to prove he’s worth more wins. If not, time to replace him.

      • vdstrading says:

        I completely disagree. He had Nogs for 8 games and Edu for 0. To compare it to other sports, it’s basically the same thing as the Flyers not having Giroux and Voracek for the entire season. Or take a top 4 team in the Eastern Conference NBA (Raptors) and ask where they would be without Lowry and DeRozan.
        And breathers for CJ, Rosenberry, and Beodya? Who would you have liked him to have brought in off that incredibly thin bench? Charlie Davies fresh off a courageous battle with cancer? Derrick Jones? Ray Gaddis?
        How does Curtin make the organization or team better? See the new training building down at Talen…the drafting of Rosenberry, Yaro, and Herbers…the trade for Pontius. Curtin was the lead dog in every one of those instances.
        He’s a 37 or 38 year old coach, who was barely an assistant before he got the head job here. He knows the league inside and out, and every year the 1st team has gotten better. Let him continue to grow and let the team continue to improve.

      • I recognize Nogs was glue that held this team together. I hope we all do. Curtin did all he could with the C&C music factory till Bedoya came along. But he played Bedoya 3 games in 8 nights at one point when it was obvious he was not fit to go 90 once a week. It’s called rotation and match-ups. Herbers could have spelled C.J. for a game or two with C.J. off the bench. And why couldn’t Ray play a game or two? I watch coaches around the world every week find ways to rotate players. It’s not some part of the game known only to international coaches. Zero wins the last two months of the season. Zero.
        Ok so Curtin built the training center, and had a hand in drafting and scouting Rosenberry, Yaro, and Herbers while identifying Pontius as a target and acquiring him. So…he’s a front office guy? They have two of those in Stewart and Albright. And by all reports and the way the players seem to enjoy their time here Curtin is a good man manager.
        But what he isn’t, is a game-day coach. And that’s what I want. Tactical adjustments please. Please can’t we have nice things? Why can’t we watch nice things?
        P.S. If you wanna point to the Flyers, contrast how different Hakstol and Curtin are. Hak rotates players. He tinkers and makes in game adjustments. He can make changes while still staying the course.

      • While I partially agree. You are missing points about the roster rotation. Herbers was the starter at right mid because everyone else was hurt. We just don’t have depth to rotate this squad a lot. I do think we should have done it more than we did, but it’s not like we had the options to do it as much as people say.

    • Also, do not discount the importance of Curtin’s willingness to buy into the system that Earnie is putting in place. For the first time ever, the organization top-to-bottom seems completely in tune. With that said, it may still take a little time for a song to top the charts.

  3. “What would overwhelming evidence be? The goal for this season has to be a home game in the MLS playoffs. Anything less, and it’s time for a new direction on the bench.”
    While I support your general argument almost completely Peter- for me I cannot support this ultimatum as this is still a ‘young’ team—- for me Playing Well is the single most important indicator of success and improvement. Strange — there was minimal coincidence IMO to how aesthetically pleasing this team played for 8 weeks before Copa last year and the table position.
    Play well. Show me a team committed to possession when in possession. Show me a team that refuses to be bossed off the ball at home… Show me a team with an ability to unlock a defense not just counter or work the channels for a cross. Show me a team capable of scoring goals from the run of play which historically Union has been woeful at IMO.
    If that leads to a home playoff game- terrific. If that leads to still losing some gut busters that keeps them mid table- fine.
    Prime Mover: Aesthetic and Development
    Secondary Movers: Table finish and Playoffs.
    Dan….”But it also needs to be clear that this isn’t a team held back by its coaching staff.”~~~ Spot on sir.

    • Playoffs: 1st
      Everything else: 2nd
      If they correlate to each other? Fantastic!

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        You are a quintessential American sports fan, Chief. Vince Lombardi and Al Davis. 😉
        The Union’s stated overt philosophy does not agree with you, either the business plan to develop undervalued players bought low in order to sell them for a higher price and realize profit, or the technical plan to develop young eastern Pennsylvania players.

      • To a point. They are trying to build the system. Once it’s in place (I’d say 2-3 more years?), then they should be challenging for the cup every year.

  4. Results matter. The time for excuses has to stop. The new club smell has dissipated. You want to build a club culture, then just win baby. You want to whine about how the richer clubs get all the shiny toys, then cling to your excuses but don’t be surprised if the die hards die off.
    Fourth Or Bust

    2018 – CCL or Bust

    • pragmatist says:

      That’s what was put forth: 4th or higher. Host a playoff game. That is the goal.
      And if they are “die hards,” they won’t die off because the team isn’t winning. That’s pretty much the definition of “bandwagon.”

      • Yeah, I was agreeing with Peter, that should be the minimum goal.
        As for fans, one only needs take a look at the seats showing in TRE to see the die hards or if you prefer, bandwaggoners, not returning. The team will still get the other end of the stadium because its a fun day out, but if you think the emotional commitment is the same, well may be time to reconsider your posting name.

      • pragmatist says:

        I’m not arguing those points. But “die hards” are the people that show up even when you suck. They are the people who buy season tickets to the Cleveland Browns year after year.
        The people that abandon TRE aren’t die-hards. They are people who thought this was a cool thing to do, and now they are just looking for the next cool thing.
        I’m simply arguing terminology, that’s all.

      • I’ll concede your semantic point and just add mine was that they died hard. They were the Dawg Pound for 5-6 years and have been let out. By whom no one knows.

    • a….stickler for stickling but one thing I’ve learned the last few years is no professional sport in America is a club – this is an important part of the conversation regarding the model here and in other parts of the world- particularly as it relates to policy and infrastructure.
      So while I know this is oft putting and there are many who rolls their eyes and there are many who are thinking in agreement and as we certainly know there are many apathetic to the issue- and I respect those multiple points of view- I have to bring it to the fore occasionally because it is the truth.
      If a manager desires to refer to his ‘club’– one cannot argue the connotation and denotation as it refers to the members of his or her team- but for the outsiders looking in and ‘punditing’ – It is a matter of proper terminology which then sheds light on similarities and differences.
      ~ climbs off soap box now.

      • John O'Donnell Jr says:

        Steals soap box…marvels that these things still exist. Sells it on Craig’s list. “\_)`~`)_/”

      • I Am Citizen Insane says:

        nicely done….who bought it?

      • John O'Donnell Jr says:

        Some guy named Ted.

      • A box of soap has to be the most unwieldy economic unit of measure ever thunk

      • I applaud your tilt at the windmill of pro/rel semantics of club v franchise. I liken it to my own fruitless mission vis-a-vis building a proper FO with a proper manager. Go forth Sancho and semantically dissect every comment and tweet mislabeling clubs for single entity McDonalds soccer franchises. Who am I to dissuade you from folly?

      • I Am Citizen Insane says:

        Love it. Smooth.

    • For better or worse, Kevin Kinkead has said on twitter (a while ago) that the front office really looked at this year as year one of the new organization. So while Curtin has been here for a few years, the team really did look at this as starting over and the real first year. Not saying this is how they should be looking at it, but just to give some perspective.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Peter, if I am remembering correctly, the Tribbett Yaro example you cite was influenced by Yaro being injured.

    • Yes, at times. But at other times, Yaro was better, and it could’ve gone either way, and Curtin went with Tribbett.

      • vdstrading says:

        Yaro was hurt a lot last year. In the beginning, Jim chose Tribbett over Yaro a few times when Ken was ahead of him. But as the year progressed, the only time he went with Tribbett was when Yaro was hurt.

      • Or dealing with personal tragedy. There was a ton of bad stuff that happened off the field for these guys last year.

  6. I agree with pretty much everything you both said in this piece. Replacing Curtin for this season would likely have been counterproductive, mainly because coaching churn itself comes with a cost. Curtin has significant things to work on, and I am not yet convinced that he’s the long-term solution, but I certainly believe that giving him another year to see what he can do is better than the alternative.

  7. The key is growth: can Jimbo evolve into a coach who maximizes talent to play a style as much as possible while winning enough to move the needle? Let’s see how he does this year. As a young manager, he should be malleable.

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