Commentary

Bad luck, or something more?

How do you separate a team’s mental toughness from pure luck — good and bad?

In the wake of a wild, wacky home opener that saw the Philadelphia Union split the points with Toronto FC, it’s worth asking the question.

The Union played some of the best soccer we’ve seen from them in the recent past — maybe ever, if you ask Jim Curtin. A week after we wondered where the goals would come from, they got skillful goals from both of their strikers.

Throughout the bitterly cold afternoon, they were clearly the better team. And yet.

Consider the things that went wrong for the Union to drop two points at home:

  • Their striker, who opened his account with a nervy, physical finish and looked sprightly in the first 28 minutes, suffered an unspecified injury that sent him to the hospital.
  • After earning a penalty kick through another intelligent pass by Haris Medunjanin, their captain and highest-paid player rattled the crossbar, forfeiting a chance to take a 2-0 lead into halftime.
  • Then, the penalty. Blame PRO for having holding in the box as a point of emphasis, blame Derrick Jones for putting his arms up, or blame Jozy Altidore for executing a gold-medal dive at the first touch of contact — wherever you place the blame, a lot needs to go wrong for Toronto to even pull the match level.
  • Their most consistent defender almost literally fell asleep on the field, allowing his man to get behind him with ease and slot past Blake to take a 2-1 lead.

There’s a reasonable argument that the Union should have pitched a shutout, given how dominant the centerback pairing of Richie Marquez and Oguchi Onyewu were throughout and how omnipresent human vacuum Andre Blake was any time the ball made it anywhere near him.

And yet. At the end of the evening, instead of celebrating a victory, captain Alejandro Bedoya was issuing apology after apology on Twitter — the first for missing the penalty, the second for missing the mark on an attempted joke at Altidore’s expense.

As the Union prepare to seek their first victory of the season in Barney’s palace — excuse me, Orlando City Stadium — the question that Curtin and his staff will confront is simple.

Was this match all just bad luck, a few uncharacteristic mistakes poorly timed for maximum damage?

Or is there a mentality issue with the Union?

Because it all seems a little bit too familiar. Last season’s Union had a knack for inexplicably conceding points from superior positions too. Ken Tribbett wasn’t even in the 18 on Saturday, yet there were echoes of his mishit clearance in the playoff match in Rosenberry’s uncharacteristic lapse on the second Toronto goal. There is a sense of fragility any time the Union hold a lead — one of the reasons why last week’s drama-free draw in Vancouver stood out as a pleasant surprise.

On the other hand, if it’s a mentality issue, then how do you explain the second goal?

Rather than rolling over and playing dead, the Union went on the offensive. A silky ball from Fabian Herbers and a perfect run from C.J. Sapong — not usually known for his clever movement — parted the Toronto defense like the Red Sea, and Sapong’s easy touch drowned the stranded Clint Irwin like Pharaoh.

Even Sapong’s reaction signaled a certain maturity. The guy hasn’t scored in a hundred years and had competition brought in during the offseason to supplant him. And yet, after one long roar, he’s simply high-fiving his teammates and heading back to restart the match. After the game, Sapong talked about how strong his relationship is with Jay Simpson and how he’s looking to learn from the new man.

When you look at the squad as a whole, there shouldn’t be any questions about mentality. The team’s spine — Simpson, Bedoya, Medunjanin, Onyewu, and Blake — are all veterans, national team starters, or both. The young players, on the whole, seem composed beyond their years. Talk to anyone around the team, and they’ll tell you that this locker room is about as focused and professional as they come.

(The exception seems to be Bedoya, who I rate highly as a player and was all over the park on Saturday. But, after missing the crucial penalty, he put his foot in his mouth after the game when speaking about Altidore. He’s a great quote, and while it’s undoubtedly churlish to complain about someone who’ll say what was on his mind, it speaks to a certain thoughtlessness on his part to assume that the sarcasm would carry across Twitter to his USMNT teammate.)

Looking at all the evidence, the verdict here is that Saturday’s result was mostly a case of bad luck. Maybe one too many butterflies in Brazil flapped their wings three years ago, or maybe the cold air caused some clouds of bad luck to settle over the Talen pitch.

Whatever it was, the Union will hope it doesn’t follow them to Florida — or questions about the team’s mentality will linger.

35 Comments

  1. lol damn.

    After another game where we looked good, and got points out of a match where most of us expected none, we already have posts like this asking us if we really do suck a lot and that we’re in for a losing season.

    We are two games into our grueling opening part of the schedule and we have 2 more points than probably most of use guessed we would have at this point.

    Can we please have a happy post? How about dwelling on Jones being a legit starter in the face of all of the ES hate and doubt? Or how HM is actually looking like a great replacement for Nogs? Or how all the hate and doubt about Simpson was slowly melting away during the course of his 28 minutes?

    • +1. Enough Negadelphianism.

      • Matt Custer says:

        Negadelphs all the way from the Left Coast? All that rain gettin’ to ya P.A.?
        .
        It’s never too early to posit hypotheses. Makes for good copy, if not food for thought.
        .
        You can’t coach speed or luck. But superior coaching can minimize the bad luck. Maybe that’s the takeaway.

    • Here here 1+

  2. pragmatist says:

    I always like to wait until 4-6 games have been played to get a good feel for the team. But for those who are impatient, this weekend will be a good bellwether. It will be in the 70’s and gorgeous all around, they are not playing on crappy turf, and Orlando is a good team with one of the best strikers in the league.
    .
    Week 1 – played on plastic and both teams showed it was Week 1.
    Week 2 – Polar bears were going into hiding. Geiger.
    .
    Week 3 should be more of a “control group” scenario.

    • Not to mention 4 players that were not with the team last year (Simpson, Onyewu, Medunjanin, and Picault) are playing important roles and Jones was pretty much with the Steel. It takes time for things to gel.

    • I’m looking forward to taking a shot at an Orlando team without Kaka.

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, this could be some nice timing on our part.
        .
        Of course, that sets up for the proverbial “trap game.” And TFC didn’t miss a beat when Gio went out.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I’d much rather have Ricardo play than not play…frankly I’m bummed he will not be on the field.
        .
        In all of world footy, no one moves as gracefully…that alone is a joy to behold. It is our loss.

  3. Maybe it’s the Negadelphian in me, but I’m still at the “show me” stage. For the most part, I think the team has played well. Though I’m still worried about consistent scoring and if/how the defense will hold up.
    .
    Even if things do go downhill, I will be content with watching Derick Jones grow. The young man is amazing. He fills my eyes with delight. Watching him I can get my head around el P’s obsession with his dearly departed.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      soft head nod.
      .
      sigh.
      .
      maybe he had to move on for one thousand other gears to click that we get 4 or 5 years of watching this kid’s game grow.

    • I’m always in a show me stage at the beginning of any team’s season. However, this team is showing thusfar (in small sample data) to be better than or equal to last year’s squad prior to Nogs departure. And that was a tough team.

      • I don’t know if I’ll get out of the “show me” stage this season. Curtin is still the coach and has a lot to prove for me.
        .
        So far Nogs/Barnetta is still better than Ale/Haris. With the Jones vs. C&C being a push. Granted Jones’ potential outweighs C&C combined, he still makes mistakes and has plenty of room to grow.
        .
        In the back and up top are also a push. Nothing yet has given me any reason to believe this year’s iteration of both is considerably better.

      • I am without a doubt strongly in the show me stage, but if you compare our games vs Toronto last year to this year I don’t see how you can say they don’t look better. I think Bedoya/Medunjanin look better than Barnetta/Nogs so far and should only get better. Bedoya totally took Bradley out of that game when we were on D and got away from hm when we were on O. That’s not an easy feat.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    I love this city.
    .
    Truly one of a kind.
    .
    Even this statement, highlighting and hinting in some way as being different, puns on the fragile ego it seems to exhibit at every turn… “Listen to this I’ll tell you about heartache.”

  5. i love all the optimism for a team that has not won a game since August 2016

    • We played at a very high level Saturday. If we keep that up, we’ll win our share of games. Be miserable if you want, but it’s currently not warranted.

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    The Union did have some “good luck” as well in not having to face Giovinco in the 2nd half.

  7. Bedoya backtracked on his comments because of the outcry and potential awkwardness on the national team. But he meant it and it was nonsense. Altidore flopped once he saw the ball wasn’t going to him. It’s honestly pathetic, but blame Gieger for once again being terrible again and letting the names blind him.

    • Seeing the video when he made the comments, there was a grin as he said it that alludes to him making the statement more in jest that was not echoed in print.

      • Statements made in jest are usually how we say things we really mean but don’t want to come off as a jerk. Plus based on Altidore’s reaction it’s clear they are friends that would joke about stuff.

  8. Something to be said for making your own luck.

  9. The team put in a really excellent performance Saturday against (probably) the class of MLS. If they play like this for the season, we’ll be near the top of the Eastern Conference table. Now that’s a big IF. It remains to be seen whether or not they have the consistency, the depth, and the coaching prowess to do so. But I think this match was very encouraging.

  10. Phil in Wilmington says:

    wah.
    meh.
    pfffffft.

  11. Our team lost a striker to injury. So did theirs. Their striker scores rather often in this league. The luck meter tilts in favor of Philadelphia on that one.
    .
    Banging a PK against the crossbar is poor execution, not bad luck. Sure, we’ve all shouted “Unlucky!” when a teammate misplays a ball. It’s not meant literally; it’s supposed to make the teammate feel better. Luck has nothing to do with it. Dude missed a PK.
    .
    Poor officiating is not bad luck. It’s poor officiating. The officials need to get better. This is said by people watching literally every league on planet earth. The only thing we as supporters might possibly do to help the team is maybe not call the official nasty names.
    .
    Poor defending is not the same as bad luck.

  12. OneManWolfpack says:

    I look for another solid performance and points in Orlando. Enough with luck. If this teams plays like they did vs Toronto – more often then they don’t – they will be in the playoffs without a doubt.
    .
    Ever think, maybe… JUST MAYBE… we are a little better than last year?

  13. Ah “Luck”, the last refuge of the truly desperate.

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