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Questions to answer: Philadelphia Union and the season ahead

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Editor’s note: This piece introduces a week-long series, part of our Philadelphia Union season preview, that will focus on key questions that Philadelphia Union must answer if they are to be a successful club this season. To read each post in the Questions to Answer series, click here.

Benjamin Disraeli once said, “I am prepared for the worst but hope for the best.”

Ol’ Benjamin would have fit right in at the River End. Probably would have led a few chants. But eventually, he most likely would have amended his quote to something resembling “I am prepared for hope but expecting the worst.”

Such is life as a Philadelphia fan. You have the memory of an elephant, but one only need go back to last season for the most recent and pointed example of this. A sterling run of early-season form — one that saw the Union at the top the table for a time, albeit somewhat dubiously — bred hope, which died quickly. Injuries, a sterile run in front of goal, Vincent Nogueira’s untimely June departure, and a few curious managerial decisions all culminated in an insipid autumn, which saw the Union back awkwardly into a playoff berth. By the time they arrived in Toronto, things had regressed to the “we’re just happy to be here” stage. No need to rehash how it ended.

Fast-forward to 2017. Another seemingly solid draft. A slew (yes, for the Union, this qualifies as a slew) of new signings — which actually seem to address areas of need!?! — and hope, as clichéd as it is, springs eternal.

In the sports world, a sea change such as this does two things:

  1. It provides a fan base with hope.
  2. In doing so, it exponentially decreases the allotted time said fan base will allow for your window of success to remain open.

So, if the Union fail to make the playoffs this season (or fail to win a game there), the howls for heads will be long and loud. Even now, a quick scan of the message boards — and for your mental well-being, take only a very quick scan — shows a camp divided between the skeptics and the hopeful. Philadelphia fans are many things. Patient is not one of them.

Case in point is Jim Curtin. Having been at the helm for only two and a half seasons, his laissez faire approach to managing has engendered a small-but-vocal “Curtin Out” minority. More and more, we live in a culture of instant gratification, and soccer is not exempt from this. When is the last time you heard a head coach — in any sport — trot out the old “five-year plan” trope? That type of grace period has been weaned out of us. Old dogs will have to learn new tricks. The new signings will have to slot in, adjust to the pace of the MLS, and produce.  The back line will have to gel. And so forth.

These are, perhaps, unfair expectations. With so many new faces in new places, winning — indeed, cultivating a culture of winning — will be a process, a process fans are told to “trust.” Processes, by their very nature, take time. But is time a luxury this current regime has?

It’s just one of many questions the Union have to answer if they’re to fashion a winning team in 2017, and that’s what prompted this week’s series, Questions to Answer.

Questions to answer for Philadelphia Union

Each day this week this week, starting tomorrow, PSP will take on the big questions facing Philadelphia Union this year as part of our season preview, with pieces focusing on the following questions:

  1. Is this a playoff team?
  2. Who will score the goals?
  3. How will the center midfield trio mesh and function?
  4. Can the coaching staff get the most out of this team?

Our writers will explore those issues and even take a stab at answering the questions. We’ll want to hear what you think as well.


  1. Hey thanks Rob for contributing!
    1)Not as it currently stands
    2)Who WILL score the goals?
    3)Not to well as currently constructed.

  2. Is this a playoff team?
    – Yes, but a low seed/last second wild card spot

    Who will score the goals?
    – Same as last year – we will get a lot of goals from non-strikers + Simpson will put in a decent amount

    How will the center midfield trio mesh and function?
    – I think Haris will do well and make us better. I think the 8 in front of him will be defensively focused and solid – so a Jones or Edu and sometimes Bedoya. The 10 will not be creative or original like Barnetta, but will put in solid defensive shifts and help our press – this is most likely Bedoya.

    So I predict it will be “fine”. Not as great as if we had Barnetta and Nogs but it won’t be our weakness this year.

    Can the coaching staff get the most out of this team?
    – To be determined, but I am still trending towards no.

  3. 1) Is this a playoff team?

    Not a simple yes or no question here. I say the team has 90% of the pieces it needs to be a playoff team. ( A mix of young and veterans) I’m a big Curtin fan but I feel he needs to do a bit more. His actions will decide if they make the playoffs and what they will do there.

    Will they make the playoffs?- I sure hope so!
    Will they make noise in the playoffs? -TBD

    2)Who will score the goals?
    I agree with the comment from James. I believe Simpson and non-strikers will score for the first half of the season.

    For the second half- Simpson, Alberg (If he gets time) and Herbers.

    3) How will the center midfield trio mesh and function?
    It won’t be the most creative, but I think it will do. I worry how it will affect the backline.

    4) Can the coaching staff get the most out of this team?

    As with the first question, if Jim can push himself to the next level. Yes, 100% yes. He needs to look inside, realize that this team is much better than last years and keep us at the top of the table.

  4. This year feels different that last year, and not necessarily in a good way.
    Last year, we had a new GM with worldly experience and he was coming to save us from an organizational abomination. We had new signings that were dramatic improvements over the previous guys who are now having trouble getting minor league minutes. Hope was on the rise (with the typical dissenters, of course).
    But this year sees a team that should be better. Our expectations have carried over from last year, but we left our hope in Toronto. A flaccid preseason alleviated none of Philly-inbred sports fears.
    What’s worse is that Game 1 looks to be a nightmare scenario for us. So the chances are we’ll come back from Vancouver licking our wounds.
    With all that said, I’m taking my typical approach: let’s check back after 6 games. By that time, we will have a good idea how we stack up against some of the better teams, will have had a 3/3 Home/Road split, and we’ll be closer to having Yaro back (God willing).
    But I don’t think anyone’s starting to save for Cup Final tickets right now. And half of us are already trying to determine which managers will be available in November.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      They haven’t played a game and we are determining this team should be better. Now THAT is Philadelphian logic.

      • No. Philadelphian logic is “Trust the process”

      • I was speaking more towards the fact that we are tired of waiting. The Hope of the New Season has a shorter shelf-life every season. And we have reached a point in this franchise’s history where we need to deliver, instead of wallow.
        I don’t want them to be the soccer version of our other teams where we make the playoffs occasionally, but no other team is ever really worried about us.
        At some point, I want us to be the club that other teams fear. I just feel like this year’s version is nowhere near that.
        I hope I’m wrong.

      • I feel your pain.

      • Wait for some visual evidence.

    • you raise a good question. Has Earnie Stewart let his managers finish out seasons?

  5. Last time I heard a “five year plan” was from this ownership. It was hogwash of course. Fast forward seven years and Union is on its third coach, who happens to be performing at the same level as the previously canned coach. MLS has evolved… Union not so much. Curtin seems like a nice man and is well liked by his players. Maybe in a few years he’ll be ready for a bigger role, but not now. I’m not sure what Curtin has done to secure the faith of many in this fanbase. I see a coach with no tactical flexibility, playing a formation he doesn’t have the players for. His subs are often late (or sometimes not at all) and predictable. The team falls apart for large portions of the season and shows the same head-scratching mistakes: goals on set-pieces come to mind… I’m tired of being told youth is the answer, whether it’s the academy or coach. Youth is important, but often seems like another gimmick this cheap organization hides behind.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      MLS has evolved Union not so much. Six years ago this team played on a playground in Swarthmore. This statement is absurd too.
      This franchise has done nothing but evolve. Is anyone paying attention to the infrastructure being put in place. Holy hell is anybody really paying attention….. at all…. this is not only about attacking midfielders and youth as a cheap gimmick the organization hides being… which by the way I find to be an insulting comment. You clearly have no understanding of what a part of the Philosophy of this organization is which has been explained at many points along the way- develop young players capable of contributing on a National team level. Union are trying to grow as an MLS organization all the while lifting the tide of our National Teams.
      Playoffs Playoffs Playoffs.

      • Don’t forget Chief Tattoo Officer.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        See! This is what i’m talking about.
        Now for the indoor free play futsal courts in an old warehouse in the city and we are quite literally…. ALL GOOD.

      • That’s why Walmart never opens its doors before paving a parking lot

      • Damn, here I thought a team should win trophies rather than act as a feeder for the national team.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Lopezzzz… come on.
        Not saying they don’t want to win. The perspective needs to be broader though by the fanbase.

      • It’s what I expect from my STH $, the nat team can go jump.

      • +1

        I think that people don’t realize how badly the Union were run by Sak. Sure, he did some good things, but in many areas, the organization was sorely lacking.

        Just like looking at an iceberg, there’s so much more below the surface that we cannot see.

  6. I think we’ll know a lot more after April Fools Day. The Union will be coming off their 3rd road game with a tough home game against a team they have did not fare well against last season thrown into the mix. The optimist in me says 10 points out of these four games (since they include two non playoff teams from last year and a home game). The pessimist says 0 points (since the Union have been pretty poor on the road and against Toronto). The realist says 4 or 5, depending in part on what kind of a lineup Vancouver uses Thursday against NYRB.

  7. I’ve consistently criticized this team’s inability to score goals since I started following them. But I’m starting to think the key for this team do do well enough right now lies with the back line. It has the players in place to attack, possess and score goals — but can it keep clean sheets? I’m not going to put a lot into what I saw against DC. Preseason form (and lack thereof) is rarely indicative of what will happen when the results count. I seem to recall the team looking great before the 2015 season with Mbolhi between the sticks, only for the season to begin and disaster to follow. But the defending on Saturday was the most alarming aspect of the entire performance. I swear Onyewu just gave up on the first goal after he was beat. Maybe he and the team will try harder. They get a break by getting Vancouver just two days after a CCL match against Red Bulls. We’ll have a chance to start positively.

    There are reasons to be fearful, but I’m also just thrilled that real matches are right around the corner.

  8. I am prepared for the worst but hope for the best. I predict that Curtin will be gone by the All-Star game unless he miraculously can get more than the best out of each player.

  9. el Pachyderm says:

    Welcome and thanks for the write up…
    #1…to get right into it….I’d argue there is nary a city in America with a more patient fan base then Philadelphia. We are long suffering in a way that too few other places share. We are the parent of of illogical often poorly insightful children… we are neurotic to a fault. We are amazingly patient though.
    #2…I’m already at a spot of wanting to vomit discussing playoffs. FFS.
    The Elephant is back!

    • What does patience matter? Are you saying if we were impatient and were able to force GMs our after 1 years and coaches out after a bad half season we would be better off?

  10. el Pachyderm says:

    People Wake Up.
    How can we evaluate this organization properly and with an eye to where US Soccer most needs to go….when the number one question is… are Union a playoff team.

    • I respectfully disagree. IMO, the purpose of the Philadelphia Union is to win MLS games (and hopefully, championships). To the extent that this is synergistic with developing USMNT players, great. Otherwise, that’s irrelevant.
      Would anyone really excuse losing season after losing season, even if it meant that the team eventually stocked the entire national team for the Federation?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        What matters is the opinion of the Union and ‘they’ are on the record with a multilateral approach to this franchise…develop players to raise standard of play stateside to play internationally and win games.
        US Soccer needs this mentality. Sorry for those who disagree.

      • We, the paying customers, do get some say. Regardless of whatever their intention, it would be difficult for then to subside US Soccer without our purchase of game tickets etc., right?

      • John O'Donnell Jr says:

        They never said they didn’t want to win MLS championships in order to do that though. You can shoot for both.

      • Sure, and it’s awesome if they can do both. However, they should be judged based upon how well they do in achieving the first, not the later.

      • el Pachyderm says:


    • What metric would you even begin to evaluate this FO vis-a-vis the USMNT?!
      Players capped as a Union player?
      U## academy players?
      Who cares? I can’t hold this club accountable to Jurgen/Arena’s/Next guy’s formations or talent preferences. They’ve barely showed the competence to field a competitive team and you ask about US Soccer? Stop.
      Here’s another thing, our most technical players, ain’t Murican and I’m super ok with that. I want Earnie to find the best players we can afford and I want Curtin to get the most out of them. Hard stop. Anything else is just BS and beyond the scope of their meager capabilities.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        BS for you. Part of Plan and Initiative for them. Proper for USA in order to become a legitimate soccer nation which believe it or not matters to some people.
        To be honest how a fan of soccer here with a growing league and hope to compare this viable league against a world standard doesn’t also then hope and expect growth of World Class level players here is beyond my ability to understand.
        NBA great. Build world class players here.
        MLB great. Build world class players here.
        NHL great. Building world class players here.
        NFL great. Built by world class players here.
        MLS. Just win. Let’s use world class players from everywhere else.
        Ridiculoso. Did my spell on you and all they other STH who just want victories work?
        Truly truly truly myopic.

      • So do you post on the Japanese baseball league forums about their need to retain talent?
        I bought in to a club. I bought in to being a fan. Somehow Curtin’s overreach about the USMNT equates to what, we’re all bought in that their raison d’etre is the national team. Where are the arguments for the global nature of the game?
        I get that I must be the soccer unwashed because I want my team to do well and yet do not link the fortunes of an entirely separate club and guiding federation to them.
        Yeah, yeah, I know. Vision. Philosophy. Plan. Repeat.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        As always. Enjoyed.

  11. Paging Roland Alberg.

  12. I say without a doubt The Elephant makes the playoffs of commenters.
    Glad to see you back!!

    • John O'Donnell Jr says:

      I believe he be happier just avoiding relegation. “\_(`~`)_/”

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Mid table Top Flight in a pyramid with thousands of clubs. Footy of highest standard by that metric? Someday maybe?
        You’re Goddamn right I’d be happier some years avoiding relegation. Course I don’t need wins and playoffs to be a loyalist. That is culture if I understand properly… bleeding up and down the chain of hope and love and passion. Where do I sign.

      • John O'Donnell Jr says:

        Thousands is close your eyes and dream the dream. The truth is since 1992 only 47 teams have competed in the EPL, an open league. MLS, a closed league will have 25 teams that competed in the league since 1996. Wouldn’t say it’s as great as you make it out to be but hey tomatoes twomatoes.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    the jungle murmers as the mice scurry among its bushes.
    Sunddenly the air jumps and splits from a huge trumpet blast.
    Welcome home, Mighty Elephant.

  14. Nah, nice try but the Union should not consider for one second anything but how their players relate to the team performance at that moment. these more broad concepts are just too silly. Win the game for christ sakes.

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