Commentary / Union

Where the Union stand

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Some may think this is premature. Others may ask if I am delusional.

After the first three weeks of the MLS season, however, it is time to narrow the list of contenders.

Here are the teams that have no shot of hoisting the MLS Cup at the end of the season: Portland Timbers, FC Dallas, Atlanta United FC, Orlando City SC, New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City, and Toronto FC.

Wait, what?

“Surely,” you must be thinking, “this writer copied the wrong list of teams. This is a list of contenders. These are the teams who’ve played the most inspired soccer to start the season.”

Exactly.

Since the Philadelphia Union have entered the league, no MLS Cup champion has taken more than four points from its first three matches. In fact, the previous two winners, Portland and Seattle, were winless in that time period.

Are you impressed by my shameless manipulation of statistics to validate a thesis I have yet to make?

Thanks, I needed that affirmation.

Well, here it goes. After the season, the Philadelphia Union could be celebrating their first championship in franchise history, or they could be trying to figure out which elite prospect to take with their 3rd overall pick. Also, they could be somewhere in between those two extremes.

Basically, this is a long winded way of saying something simple.

Be patient.

The nature of MLS

However hyperbolic it may be to dismiss early season success with a cherry-picked statistic, it does highlight a truth.

The MLS season is a grueling campaign. There really is little correlation between how a team starts and finishes the year.

Remember how dreadful Seattle, New York Red Bulls, and DC United looked last Spring. Philadelphia looked pretty good, huh?

Is it tempting to be envious of Atlanta? Of course. They attack with conviction, have a world class coach in Tata Martino, and their owner has invested a ton. Philadelphia has never had any of those. Before we anoint Atlanta champions, let’s see where they stand after a few months.

Curtin’s cushion

While preaching patience, it is impossible to ignore Jim Curtin’s seat may be a little warmer than it was to start the season. A winless streak dating back to August 27 will do that to a coach.

After replacing Sigi Schmid, Brian Schmetzer led Seattle to their first championship. Curtin never accomplished what Schmid had. Sometimes a coaching change is required to get the most out of the players.

Once again, be patient.

New York Red Bulls stuck with Jesse Marsch and DC United stood by Ben Olsen. New York finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and DC stormed into the postseason.

Curtin will get his chance to show he is a winning coach. It may be his last.

Know your role

After the first three games, there is plenty to be said about the Union. Let’s focus on two.

  1. Alejandro Bedoya has not been good enough.
  2. Haris Medunjanin has not been good enough.

Before suggesting lineup changes, it’s vital to consider the three central midfielders have played a total of three games together.

Medunjanin is learning his teammates’ tendencies. His strength is his passing. Naturally, as he plays more with the team there will be better harmony. The Bosnian, however, will continue to be a liability if he plays defense like he did in central Florida. There is an imbalance if a team’s wingers are more defensively responsible than the holding midfielder.

Bedoya has not provided the production required of a No. 10. At the moment, that’s fine. He is still learning how to play the position. Last season, he featured in the role one time. It is even less of an occurrence with the United States National Team or his former team, Nantes.

Perhaps those coaches know better than to force a player into a role he is ill suited.

The Union, however, should give Bedoya as much time as possible to figure out the position. Let him develop a relationship with Jay Simpson and C.J. Sapong. Let him link those strikers with Derrick Jones and Medunjanin.

If the production is still missing in a few months, move on. Until then…

Be patient.

48 Comments

  1. While it is certainly true that teams in MLS often finish in very different form than what they start in, I do not take this as a reason to remain hopeful about the Union this year.
    .
    As a fan who has attended almost every home game in the team’s history, one thing I know is that the Union almost never (maybe actually never–I just didn’t look it up) improve as the season goes on. On the contrary, they tend to wilt late summer and limp into the fall. That effect was especially pronounced in both of the playoff seasons. It always gets harder and more depressing to bother showing up as the season drags on.
    .
    A slight exception to that idea would be the brief performance bumps they’ve experienced when changing coaches, but those have always faded away after a short series of success.
    .
    So while it’s true that sometimes other teams put together late season runs after a poor start, seven years of history tells me the Union most likely won’t. I’d love to be surprised though!

    • Fair reason to not be hopeful. Fair, but not very insightful or meaningful that is. In pro sports, and more validly in MLS than other U.S. sports, one season has very little to do with the next, or any future one.

      All you are really saying Hobo is that you are a pessimist because 7 completely different teams failed to get better as the season progressed.

      I could give you reasons why that may not have happened (lack of training facilities, lack of depth, etc.) but you get my point.

      • I don’t see this idea that one season doesn’t have anything to do with the next. The organization putting those seasons together persists.
        .
        Likewise, I don’t think those 7 teams have necessarily been all that different. Many of the same patterns persist–a lack of ambition, a tendency to wilt under pressure, a failure to develop younger players into consistent MLS starters (or, potentially a failure to identify young talent worth developing), a tendency to sign foreign talent that does not produce. More alarming, these are the qualities shared by almost all the lower end MLS franchises.
        .
        To me, the scary part is that there HAS been a major organizational change in the dismissal of Sakiewicz and hiring of Stewart. But while I was as excited about Earnie as the next guy, I’m not sure I see the familiar Union patterns actually changing. I hear a lot about how that’s happening, but outside of a new training center, I see a lot of the same.

      • Hobo, you’ve invested a lot more than I have–and I’m envoius. I don’t live anywhere near Philly amymore (and I wouldn’t just to see the Union in person more often), but I’ve maybe missed a handful of games since their imception and i try to avoid news if I can’t watch live.

        I understand your pessimism. My brother and I used to have a code that we’d warn each other not to bother if the other couldn’t watch live and if the game was just more aggravation. I’ve moved away from that in the Curtin era, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

        That said, Brad is right. While some aspects may carry over to the next, one season has nothing to do with the next–and it’s more true in mls than any other american sport.

        The author’s points lend right into that.

        It’s comfortable to say “same old” (although comfortable is an ironic term), but the reality is that the league is extremely dynamic.
        You may believe that Curtin isn’t a good enough coach to handle that dynamism, but that’s a different argument altogether.

        The reality is that the player personnel is drastically different than in years past-even last year. How many starters are the same? Very few. Really only 3 (fabinho, Rosenberry, and Pontius).

        There is a natural growth curve to that. Are they better? Without question.

        The only real continuing trend is Curtin. Does he have tue stuff? Maybe, maybe not. But we arr his first real gig and I’ve seen some adaptation and growth in him.

        Ultimately, my point is that the real difference in this organization is Earnie, and it’s nothing to shake a stick at. I think he’s proven that he’s legit.

        If Curtin isn’t there yet, Earnie will know and adjust accordingly. I have no doubt that he’ll find a gem in that event.

        As an aside to this comment string and pointing to the article, i will say that atlanta may have found the formula for mls 3.0 in Martino. Aside from Bruce Arena (whose magic may only be in his simplicity), the us is way behind in true coaching talent.

        Spend big money on a proven coach and that could be what truly turns the organization around.

        However, I’m with the author. Give it time. Earnie has found some gems on tue pitch. Time will tell if Curtin is up to it.

        That said, I like him. Apart from the major disagreement I have (Herbers’ ability and potential), I think that he’s already demonstrated growth as a coach…much more than I saw in his predecessors.

        We shall see. But this is not 2016.

  2. I would like to see some talk focusing on the wingers and how Curtin wants to play offense.

    We have wingers who simply do not contribute to the possession game and are easily pressured off the ball (Herbers more than Pontius though).

    So as far as I am concerned we keep looking at other positions to fill in the gaps, when we are automatically gimping ourselves from the get go playing this kind of offense.

    This guy on the reddit put it better than I could have:

    “The problem is he (Herbers) is not a midfielder. He has poor ball control. Opponents are teeing off on this and pressuring him, which makes Rosenberry have to play more conservatively. Rosen can’t overlap if the midfielder in front of him can’t hold on to the ball for a few seconds to dish it off.
    What is again comes down to is that the Union don’t have the personnel across the board to play a consistent offensive philosophy.”

    I felt the same way for a while. Perhaps we wouldn’t need 3 perfect two way midfielders if our wide midfielders could help contribute to our offense.

    • Wait, what? You can make the case, although I don’t agree with it, that the wide midfielders don’t help enough in possession, but how can you claim they are not offensively productive? Pontius led the team in goals last year and Herbers led in assists (off the bench at that). Herbers has had a hand in setting up almost every goal the Union has scored this year. And he IS a midfielder. He played midfield as much as forward in college, to the point that the pre-draft commentary on him largely talked about how picking him was dangerous because he wasn’t really a forward.
      .
      With Herbers in particular I agree that he has lots of room to grow, but saying the team’s wide midfielders overall don’t contribute to the offense just isn’t true. They are consistently where the best chances come from.

      • It’s a weird case. Clearly they do contribute, the stats show it. But do they contribute in the best way? I think they should be more active in the build up, that’s all.

        I think the way Curtin structures this offense puts way too much on the midfield and FBs to create all the offense, in an attempt to get Pontius and Herbers in open space. And we see that idea fail as much as it succeeds.

        It’s no secret Rosenberry contributes much better when Ilson is in front of him. It’s no secret that for all their stats, Pontius and Herbers consistently disappear from games.

        We can try to find the perfect 3 central Mids and Striker to play this system, or perhaps we can tweak it a bit. I’d perfer the latter.

      • Oh I am very open to critique of the system. I just think that if there is a problem with the wings, that it’s down to that system and not necessarily the individual failures of the two players discussed.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      This is so accurate and many will dig in and argue, James. Have no fear.
      .
      Pontius score(d)s( hasn’t yet BTW)… Herbers made a nice assist but coughs up possession over and over. Neither of them can win a 1v1 battle. Herbers touch fails him 2 out of 3 times he is played the ball… this is not even addressing the outside back play which has been so deplorable to be un-commentable.
      .
      The spine of this team is fine… at least when Jay Simpson is on the field. The skill players simply aren’t. NO different than the Philadelphia Eagles for what seemed years.

      • Thank you. It’s always hard to point this out because Herbers and Pontius produce stats … and they do. But I just think it’s not the best way to go about things. As I mentioned above, our outside mids disappear far too often from games, and that puts so much pressure on either the FBs to do everything wide or the midfielders to be perfect incarnations of what we need.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I’ve also overhead paged Alejandro Bedoya to the field.
        .
        Part of his play problem is directly related to the other more pressing issue as you have stated.
        .
        Been saying it for a year… Herbers is just not very good. this is typical where the eurosnob and Barccelona comments start coming in from The Chorus.

      • I think Herbers is fine and still growing. The problem is that he and Pontius are too similar and it kills us. We need either the skill of Ilsinho or the speed of Fafa on one side just to have a change. I do think that was the plan all along but injuries to both those guys basically made the choice. This next game we should see Ilsinho at RM and Simpson should be back. Will get a better idea after that.

      • I also agree. Your last statement in your original comment betrayed your point, but i got it. It’s almost like they produce statistics because the other team gets complacent after dominating, that because of actual contribution.

        I would say that Herbers is much more egregious than pontius in this respect. One low talent level workhorse is ok. Two on the wings is disastrous. It causes the central midfielders to have to do more and leaves them susceptible to major mistakes.

        Actually, the author’s criticism of bedoya and medunjanin is a case in point. Bedoya has to cover so much ground because our top 3 have little to no touch, that he looks like a chicken with his head cut off.

        This is why i so desperately prefer alberg and ilsinho. I don’t care that alberg has a low defensive workrate. That’s not his job and not what he should be doing.

        Personally, I’d prefer to see Bedoya in front of keegan and either Alberg or Ilsinho as the 10.

        That’s where they all belong.

      • for what it’s worth, el P, both Epps and Moar down on the farm have looked well taking on the opponents 1 v 1 in the preseason matches I’ve gotten to see.
        .
        of course, as you will point out quite rightly, NCAA sides are not the better sides in the USL, let alone MLS.
        .
        I would suggest that Earnie may be looking for what you want out there on the flank.

  3. The fallacy of your thesis, be patient. In 7 full seasons, the Union do not own a trophy. They do not own a league postseason win. They have scored, what, 2 postseason goals? What, pray tell, should we be waiting for? James T. Curtin to figure it out? Jay Sugarman to cash out? Godot?
    .
    And this – “They attack with conviction, have a world class coach in Tata Martino, and their owner has invested a ton. Philadelphia has never had any of those. Before we anoint Atlanta champions, let’s see where they stand after a few months.” Dude, who cares where Atlanta will be in a few months? Where will the Union be? It’s not even the lack of silverware (btw, ya’ll should chill on the more and more ironic X years, no cups chants), it is the complete lack of ambition. Does ATL have holes? Sure. They also get Guzan this summer. Seem like a team sitting pat Month 1? No one is saying they’re going to win the league, but do you honestly think the Union are more ambitious than they are?

    • 1 bad game and the sky is falling. Last week after Toronto we thought we were building on something solid. Lets see a few more games before we totally freak out.

      • Amen! Like EVERY other Philly fan base – there is no middle ground in this city. We are on the right path (and a short one at that) or Rome is burning.

        And we are all better coaches and GMs than any currently employed by any team.

        No one is saying be patient this is only year 8. We are saying, be patient this was the third game (and the first bad one) of a LONG season.

      • I did not think the Union were building something solid.

      • No. You’re wrong. I didn’t say the sky is falling. And it isn’t one bad game, they haven’t won since AUGUST. It’s 212 days since the last victory, but yeah, let’s wait.
        .
        See how this plays out. The tension is killing me, I hope it lasts.

      • Why do we keep combining last year and this year? I get we have been in a rut, but it’s a new team with a lot of new players. I was commenting because literally last week after Toronto everyone was feeling pretty good. We have had a little bad luck to start this year (which was the opposite last year) and we haven’t done enough to make our own luck yet. But lets see how they look after a few more games before burying the whole year because it’s not like a coaching change or anything is happening until at least mid-season.

      • I admire your unbridled optimism in the face of overwhelming reality.

  4. It’s definitely too soon to panic, though the overall sense of “I’ve seen this movie before” dread and resignation after week 3 is more than understandable. I can root for this team. And follow it religiously. But I find it difficult to sustain any sort of excitement. I think most thinking Union fans are in the same boat.

    Unfortunately, we have to stew over these questions for two whole weeks before another game is played. It’s going to be an eternity.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      When your most exciting players don’t play … I’m with ya.

      .
      Defense is a team effort…yup get it. Maybe if Fabinho was a better defender or Keegan Rosenberry defended better less would be needed and expected from the midfielders defensively… Maybe if Fabinho and Keegan didn’t turn the ball over INCESSANTLY the outside midfielders wouldn’t have to be constantly tracking back to defend.
      .
      SKILL ISSUE.
      .
      .
      If Fabian Herbers is the starting outside midfielder in two weeks EVERYTHING we’ll have all the information we need.

  5. pragmatist says:

    I asked before the season if people would have a different view of last season if it played out in reverse. Well, so far it is. Let’s see if finishes the pattern to finish the regular season with success.
    .
    That said, a narrative can take hold that is not necessarily attached to reality. (Maybe it is, but they are not dependent on each other). And negative narratives are always more likely to be persistent than positive ones. And that negative POV can take down managers and teams.
    .
    Always give it 4-6 weeks to figure out what you really have, especially with the short MLS preseason. These guys simply don’t have chemistry yet. Give it a chance to develop.
    .
    If we’re having this conversation in May, feel free to go get your torches. But try holding off on being stereotypical Philadelphia sports fans until we have a reasonable sample size for this version of the club.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Sound argument and absolutely correct… course there would be nothing to really discuss otherwise.
      .
      ..the arguments talking points are generally pretty preceptive though.

  6. Sometimes (OK… most the time), I feel frustrated with the lack of ambition from this team/ownership. It feels like the basic things are framed as a sign of impending greatness – practice fields, a training facility, a larger FO staff – rather than just basic MLS necessities in 2017. Union’s opponent is not their 2013 selves. They need to beat the present-day’s Seattles, LAs, and NYs.

    .
    This fan-base’s overabundance of “patience” is being used against them. Union haven’t won a trophy or even a playoff game in 7 years. Christ, the team hasn’t won a game since last August.

    • +1. Perpetual patience is what ownership wants. It’s also why attendance has seemed to slowly, gradually lower. The team is not a trainwreck to be sure, there are some big positives. However the goal of the organization tends to smaller than other teams.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      The last public soccer comment by Mr. Sugarman that I noticed was something to the effect that Earnie needed to build his scouting network.

  7. The reason I’m having trouble being patient is that, in the three games so far, the Union have looked successively LESS organized, LESS familiar with each other,
    and MORE bereft of ideas with each game. I get that the new players need to gel, but they seem to be, uh, de-gelling.

    • The looked ok the first game, much better the second game, and much worse the third game. I don’t see that as getting worse every game. They also looked like an unprepared team after getting snowed out for a few days. That’s not an excuse but that’s what they looked like. Lets see how they come out against DC before we say they are consistently getting worse.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Do remember, Vancouver had no benefit of tape to study, save preseason.
      .
      Toronto had one sample.
      .
      Jason Kreis had two, and did very well discovering the weaknesses.
      .
      And at a minimum three projected starters have been unavailable to some degree, four if you include Edu.

  8. Panicking simply doesn’t make sense after 3 games, that’s just a gut reaction to things.
    .
    Questioning over-arching tactics, player choices and player skillsets from 1+ years of games, though, is not panicking.
    .
    I’m not an expert, but either the system the coach has chosen simply doesn’t work, the players in the system don’t fit, or the players are not good enough. The argument can be made to wait until the right personnel is in place to make the system work, and wait until the players adjust to each other, etc. However, we say that almost every year. Almost every year there’s 25-50% of the roster changes. Using that logic, we will perpetually be waiting.
    .
    I think the roster is moving in the right direction. We generally have more skill and depth than before. I feel like ES is doing what he can with the money and rules provided. The players seem to have good attitudes and give their all and don’t have arguing and fighting. There is something to be said for that. Curtin, I just don’t see changing. Starting Simpson gave me a little hope, but any injury or tight spot and he goes back to what he knows, which doesn’t work.
    .
    The article comparing us to Atlanta was obviously a little too quick to pass judgement on. It did strike a chord, though, as our team/owner/mindset as currently formed will always just be waiting for that flash in the pan year to win it all, and will never be able to dominate. For being such a big market, I’m just not sure that is enough.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I’d argue everything is being built to dominate from year to year. Where the trouble lies is that may not pay dividends for multiple more years.
      .
      A guy like Keegan Rosenberry needs to know there is an Academy 18 playing at Steel and is hot on his trail…which will then force players to raise their game… this franchise is being built in such a way to have an excellent pipeline to build, vet and produce players and TBH hopefully sell them… I hope Derrick Jones is playing and starting in Tijuana or Hoffenheim or or or in 3 years TBH.
      .
      then you compliment that infrastructure with free agents and internationals etc. We just aren’t there yet and in the interim… its almost unwatchable for large stretches.
      .
      I’m capable of the big picture patience.
      What I’m not capable of being patient over is the unclean sloppy panicked play that has been mountain more often than mole hill game in game out.
      .
      PLAY WELL.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Against whom has Atlanta played? Two of the three being poor quality opponents is no surprise.
      .
      The Union’s starting schedule is more challenging.

  9. Hopefully the benefit of this 2 weeks break will be getting Simpson and Ilsinho back as starters.
    Would love to see the new kid at left back too. Jones has been a revelation. Would be nice to see what Wijnaldum can do. The sun rocket is a known quantity with a limited upside.
    .
    PS- PSP love this page, but can you get it to stop auto-correcting Ilsinho to Ilson?

    • I want to see him too, but lets not assume just because he’s new or for Europe or whatever he’s going to be good. Fabinho has always been up or down. Last year he still had his clunker games but they were reduced, lets hope that continues this year.

  10. Phil in Wilmington says:

    best lineup based on our players (4-1-4-1) and depth chart as I see it:

    2. ————–god help us——-
    1. —————-Blake——————

    2. *Gaddis—–Yaro—-Tribbet—*Wijnaldum
    1. Rosenberry—-Oneywu–Marquez—-Fabinho

    2. ——–Carroll/Creaville cointoss——
    1. ——–Jones/Edu (if he ever gets fit)-

    2.Fafa———Alberg—*Ilsinho——*Bedoya
    1.Herbers——-Haris——-Bedoya—Pontius

    2.——————Davies——————
    1.————–Sapong/Simpson————–

    I agree the team need more time, but I also agree this a 4-2-3-1 is not putting Bedoya or Haris in the best positions on the field (Haris in particular needs to be further up the pitch). I know it’s a subtle change, but the 4-1-4-1 I think would clarify a lot.
    I also think it’s time to give Gaddis and Windjammer some minutes.

    • Haris is similar with regards to Nogueria that he doesn’t play up the field so your formation would play out the same way our current one does I think. Also, Gaddis is terrible in possession and is honestly not even great on D. Your back up goalie made me laugh though, and then I got sad.

  11. Okay, that made me laugh. Thanks, Nick.

  12. OneManWolfpack says:

    Excellent article… I like the premise of having some patience. I am very concerned, however, that Curtin sticks around for too long, and continues to trot out an ineffective 4-2-3-1 until he’s finally canned. And knowing the Union, it will be JUST too late, and they’ll finish in 6th or 7th… and we’ll all look at next year as THE YEAR we establish ourselves as a real squad. Very negative, I know, and I did just say I liked the article and the idea of patience… but I am just a bit cynical.
    .
    Plenty of coaches in MLS have been fired for less.
    .
    This team needs a manager to manage, and find what works. Not fill out one lineup card and Xerox it 34 times.

    • I have been very supportive of Curtin in the past and I think he has had legit reasons to do just as you described above based on injuries and bad depth players (how many are now in lower leagues), but he has a options this year a better use them or he will lose me.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Striking opening statistic, Nick. Well used.

  14. Damn! I’m running out of popcorn and it’s only TUESDAY!
    .
    I do love these week long, binge reads of “The Walking Dread”, but I MUST have popcorn 😉
    .
    48 points

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