A View from Afar

The Union go from futility to juggernaut

Photo: 215pix

Philadelphia Union have apparently figured out how to hold a three-goal lead.

Score late, and keep scoring.

The Union have netted three goals in a half in three of their last four games, held their opponents scoreless for three straight matches, and suddenly turned their record-breaking winless streak into a four-game unbeaten streak capped by outscoring their opponents 7-0 over their last two games.

What happened?

Well, a few things.

The schedule got easier

D.C. United, Montreal, the L.A. Galaxy, and even the New York Red Bulls are not good teams right now. United played their best central defender at right back. Philadelphia should be coming away with results — and outright wins — against them.

Of course, nobody expected the Union to pound their opponents the last three halves like they have, and that counts extra. They haven’t just won two straight. They’ve done it impressively.

Haris Medunjanin stepped up his game

In the first half against United, Medunjanin made one of the most important plays of his Union career.

Luciano Acosta was in the open field on the counterattack, with Medunjanin to beat, and lined up to blow past the Union man toward goal.

Medunjanin picked his pocket, made it look effortless, and took the ball back the other way. It set the tone for Acosta’s night of frustration.

Forget Medunjanin’s goal for a moment. (Yes, it’s hard, because that rocket was a thing of beauty that made Bill Hamid’s impression of a turnstile almost understandable.)

The major question about Medunjanin has been whether he’s a defensive liability, and the question is valid.

It appears Medunjanin heard the question and answered it by stepping up his defensive game.

Add the fact that, over his last two games, he looks more comfortable advancing into more dangerous positions and more willing to shoot from distance. Meanwhile, Alejandro Bedoya has been cleaning house next to him these last few weeks, doing the dirty work, and seriously upping his own game. A chemistry may be developing.

There’s still a missing piece in Philadelphia’s central midfield trio, but Medunjanin is making a statement that he’s not the one to go.

They’re finishing their chances

On Saturday, Philadelphia produced the greatest display of finishing ever put forth by a Union team.

All four goals were worthy of highlight reels. Two went upper 90, one on a ridiculous one-touch effort from Fabian Herbers, who seemed to try it because the whole two-touch thing was just getting defenders on him and, well, he might as well just Clint Dempsey it.

Ilsinho may not have done much to directly create actual danger most of the game, but he helped put United on their back foot in the first half, even before Acosta was sent off.

Now imagine that with a No. 10 who can do that and legitimately create for his teammates. It makes you realize the Union might just be one player away from being a really good team.

One ball-playing center back, one beast mode

Philadelphia opened the season starting Oguchi Onyewu and Richie Marquez at center back. Once teams determined that neither offered much passing out of the back, the Union began to struggle.

Jack Elliott’s emergence, combined with Medunjanin’s recently improved defense in front of the left central defender, has allowed a soccer universality to be illustrated here.

For every center back pairing, you generally want at least one hard man and one who can play the ball.

Elliott’s passing opens a new dimension to the team, much as Josh Yaro’s does when he’s healthy. And with Ray Gaddis not offering much in possession on the right and Andre Blake’s shaky distribution from the back, it’s even more necessary than usual.

Going forward, you would suspect the Union would treat their center back depth chart as two separate lists.

  1. Marquez or Onyewu feature at the “hard man” spot.
  2. Elliott or Yaro feature at the “ball-playing” spot.

That could lead to some tough choices.

Elliott should not see the bench anytime soon, regardless of Yaro’s health. The Brit has earned his playing time and provides an aerial presence that Yaro cannot match.

On the other side, Onyewu is finding his form. His goal looked like vintage Gooch from 2009. Defensively, he has gotten away with a few no-calls, but it may also be that referees recognize a man of his size and strength knocks guys off the ball even without fouling.

Either way, this is a good problem to have. Word has it that Marquez has lost a significant weight due to catching the Black Plague or some derivative thereof recently, and that’s not something you come back from right away. The Union can ease him and Yaro back into the lineup when squad rotation is necessary.

And speaking of which —

Will Jim Curtin employ any squad rotation this year?

Union head coach Jim Curtin has replaced players in the starting lineup more quickly than he has in the past this season.

Does that mean he’ll diverge from precedent and engage in squad rotation this year to prevent burnout?

We should find out this week, with the Union in the midst of a three-games-in-eight-days stretch.

It offers a perfect opportunity to work Keegan Rosenberry back into the starting lineup to see if he can win back his starting spot with a good extended performance. (Most thought he won it back against the Red Bulls, but many coaches believe injuries should not result in a player losing a job.) There’s something to be said for momentum, but Rosenberry contributed to those two wins as much as Gaddis did.

Likewise, Jay Simpson may see more minutes, as could Warren Creavalle. Maybe even Adam Najem can find his way into the lineup so we can finally see if he can be the No. 10 the Union need.

Regardless of who starts, the Union are suddenly fun to watch again, because fans don’t enter games already knowing the result, and that’s what matters most.


  1. Very interested to see the squad rotation this week. We have the players to make it work without losing much of a beat. Sapong and Pontius should definitely get a game off.

    • God yes PLEASE give the two of them a rest. I was actually quite annoyed that Curtin didn’t sub out Sapong in the last match. I’ll forgive him if the plan, all long, was to give Simpson a start in one of these next two matches. But beating CJ into the ground again like he did last year is not acceptable.

      • SilverRey says:

        At least he didn’t move him back to half-back so that he could do wind-sprints for the last 25 min of the game! Maybe Curtin does read the comment sections…

  2. Adam Schorr says:

    It’s probably obvious from the fact that I wrote that article in the first place, but I would attribute the vast majority of the turnaround to Medunjanin going from man of pointing to man of action. Not only does it stomp out opposing attacks, but it’s also the easiest way to get the ball at his feet. The difference in his defensive effort since I wrote that has been night and day, and the team’s performance has matched.
    Guess I should have included “Medunjanin starts playing defense” as a potential solution, though.

    • Maybe he kicked it up a notch because he read your article. ;o)

      • Not sure if it was related, but didn’t he recently say that if you just say compact MLS teams can’t beat you with their soccer.

        He may be trusting his positioning more and his teammates are as well. Leading to better defense.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    From what I have seen….assuming Josh Yaro is a starting CB— in my mind Elliot over Marquez every time.
    Regarding squad rotation…. if we are to believe the manager is learning as a long manager learning on the job, rotating his players is huge to display. My hopes are this becomes a worry of the past, because if he hasn’t learned than serious arguments can be made he ain’t the guy.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      As you contemplate the future of Centerback, el P., keep a corner of your mind for the combo Trusty-McKenzie. It is way too soon to have any idea, and they currently both need to develop better offensive distribution. But it was fun to watch them a few games ago for the Steel before the national team call-ups began.

    • So, Yaro and Elliott as your two CB’s? That certainly would be more fun and dynamic, but what happens when a team comes in with a big bruiser of a striker, like an Altidore?

  4. The Truth says:

    Squad rotation? Jim Curtin? Was that subsection a joke?

  5. SK Bartholomew says:

    “United played their best central defender at right back.” Who’s that?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Debatable, I suppose, so I edited the above post to simply say, “a central defender” at right back.

      Birnbaum. (I reverted the post to the original. The edit was unnecessary.)

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        On the other hand the individual is a consistent senior national team candidate, so someone else agrees.

      • Jim Presti says:

        He absolutely is their best central defender. Opare is meh at best, and Boswell hasn’t adapted to the rapid changes in the league’s quality over the last several years.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Birnbaum. Not entirely sure why D.C. started him at right back, but probably to match the Pontius’ aerial presence. Pontius is really strong in the air, especially at the back post – especially against typically smaller fullbacks.

  6. A little off topic, but I am curious…anyone know the reason Jack Elliot lasted until the 4th round of the draft (77th overall) last winter? I realize scouting college players is an inexact science, but based on how he has performed so far, I am amazed there were 76 other players that teams rated higher than him, most of whom are probably toiling in the USL right now.

    • Don’t know the answer to that, but it’s worth recognizing that since Stewart arrived, the Union have really nailed the draft. Might not all be Stewart’s doing. Might be Albright, Curtin…. whatever. They’ve done a really good job with college players over the last two drafts.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I do not know, Union42.
      Tangentially I remember, I think, someone inside the organization making a public comment earlier that Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu had a productive rlelationship.
      If true, Gooch is worth every bit of his veteran minimum salary and more.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Not 100% positive, but he may require an International roster spot. So I’m sure some teams who even had CB marked as a positional need, did not want to risk expending an international roster slot on a kid coming out of the American college system. High risk decision.

      • that sounds like it…teams may recruit international players, and they may draft college players, but they understandably may not want to draft an international player

    • i feel like the mls draft is not as well scouted as every other american draft.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Another name to file under potential future #10s may be Santi Moar.
    Chris Nanco has more pace, and Moar has better vision.
    Right now Moar is coming on at the “ten” after Cory Burke runs out of gas and moves out to a wing.
    His Steel game opportunities will depend on how well Adam Najem shows at the “ten” for the first team, should the former Zip get a chance there.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    Lineup choices and substitutions this week will show whether Curtin has learned anything. I will wait and see.

  9. If Jim wants to play the A squad tomorrow against a strong team, and then give them a rest this weekend against a last place team, that would be reasonable. More reasonable, I think, would be to rest 1-2 guys in each game. But he better rest them at some point: Sapong, Pontius, Picault (we got depth; use it), Gaddis, maybe even Grandpa Onyewu, if Marquez is healthy enough. I think Fabinho could really use a rest too, but unfortunately we don’t really have great options to spell him. (Wijnaldum? Gaddis? Creavalle? All problematic.)

  10. As of right now, Ilson jr should be the starting #10. I’ve stated this for some months now. He can take players on with more freedom and at the same time putting himself in critical spots in front of net. He also doesn’t have to truck up back and forth up and down the field. He can stay put and turn and go forward. I think we’ll start seeing that he can create dangerous offensive movement against opponents.

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