The deep end: Will the Union maximize their bench and maintain momentum?

Photo by Earl Gardner

After his team’s victory over Seattle on May 6, Toronto coach Greg Vanney proudly proclaimed that his side was the deepest team in the history of MLS. It’s pretty universally agreed that they are at least the deepest squad this season. A still-alive six-game win streak that included the deft navigation of two double game weeks in a row (including Seattle and Columbus back-to-back on the road), doesn’t hurt Vanney’s case.

One thing is for certain: Toronto’s ability to use depth – either through rotation to rest players or to minimize the impact of injuries to crucial players – has vaulted them to the top of just about every pundit’s power rankings in this young MLS season. From back to front, Vanney has been able to plug in new talents to fill in and maintain a high level of play, and the results have followed.

It’s no secret that Union boss Jim Curtin likes to stick with the same XI week after week. Last season, he rode C.J. Sapong into the ground and, though letting him set a ridiculous record, burned Keegan Rosenberry out.

This year, however, the Union have rolled out seven different starting lineups in eleven games. Some of that is due to injury and some, it must be said, can be credited to Jim Curtin still searching for his best starting XI.

Against Houston on Wednesday, Curtin threw out the same lineup that steamrolled D.C. United at RFK Stadium. The result was a strong first half effort that led to an early two-goal lead and yet another shut out victory – albeit thanks to some very tired legs in the midfield through the last half hour. It was another impressive effort, no doubt, but if the Union are to maintain this very new, very welcome streak, it’s going to take some agile personnel shuffling from Curtin.


One of the Earnie Stewart’s principles is that the Union should be two-deep at every position. Despite all the square peg in a round hole talk, this year’s Union roster is arguably the deepest in the history of the team.

There are bottlenecks of depth at wing, central midfield, and, impressively, center back, where the Union have four starting-quality players and capable young talent in Bethlehem to boot. But depth is pointless is if it goes unused. Saturday versus Colorado is going to be a real test of Curtin’s ability to manage a team over a grueling MLS season.

With bench talent like Fabian Herbers, Jay Simpson, and a healed Roland Alberg, there’s no reason that Chris Pontius, Ilsinho, and even C.J. Sapong shouldn’t earn some respite – or simply a substitute appearance – this weekend. Wily veteran Oguchi Onyewu has played terrifically the last two matches, but that doesn’t mean Richie Marquez shouldn’t step in to face speedy Colorado attackers Shkelzan Gashi and Dominic Badji.


If there is one absolutely positive aspect of the team’s adherence to the 4-2-3-1, it’s that every player knows their positional responsibilities no matter the opponent. The dynamics and momentum of play surely shift within a game, but if the tactics are there and there’s not a huge drop off in quality from first to second string (see above), managers should feel comfortable putting new players into a familiar system.

Just comparing the lineup versus Houston to that which faced Vancouver on opening weekend shows the Union’s ability to plug new and even untested players into the system with confidence.


Anyone who has watched the Union this year knows the sort of shift Alejandro Bedoya puts in hawking the ball and putting setup-man Haris Medunjanin into space. But Ale looked gassed (and banged up) the second half versus Houston and a rest would do him well. The timing of a rather stagnant Colorado team’s visit is especially welcome. The Rapids lack the sort of roving playmaker (ie. de Santos, Kljestan, Acosta, Alex) who Bedoya has needed to keep ineffectual the last four games that have resulted in shutouts. Derrick Jones, ideally, would be the perfect understudy to step in and man the No. 8 on Saturday. But with Jones’ call-up to the U-20 national team, Curtin may have to rely on Warren Creavalle. Last year Creavalle showed he is the ultimate utility midfielder, but can the Union keep up the offensive fire power with a central trio of him, Medunjanin, and Ilsinho? If it’s going to work against anyone, it’s Colorado.

Hello, Colorado

The Union’s early season troubles (and late season stumbles) mean they can’t underestimate any opponent. Yet, Colorado presents a welcome opportunity to tinker with the many talented players Jim Curtin finally has at his disposal. The Rapids have been crazily inconsistent and suffered a midweek whooping of their own 3-0 at Chicago. A road trip to Salt Lake City awaits the Union next week, where three points are certainly attainable with a well-rested squad. Philadelphia’s newfound defensive consistency and two-way defensive midfield work can only be maintained if fresh legs are called upon to keep the momentum rolling.

The Union may not have the depth of Toronto, but they have plenty of capable, talented players waiting for the opportunity to step in and preserve Union’s newfound form. A very winnable game versus Colorado on Saturday is the perfect opportunity to tap the deepest talent well Philadelphia has ever possessed.


  1. It’s pretty clear from the press conference last night that Curtin is going to follow recommendations from his sports science team and that’s about it. He clearly intends to run his preferred XI out there every game until someone on the medical staff — or a player — tells him different.

    • pragmatist says:

      Agreed. He said something to the effect that he trusts his players and they speak openly. My fear is that we have to rely on them to tell the coach they need a rest. But athletes never want to sit, even if they get a leg cut off. So…we rely on the medical staff to tell us someone might be getting tired? I don’t like those odds.
      This is where Jim needs to stop being stubborn and realize that this is important for the long-haul.

      • Sports science staff correct?

        They should know when it is time to rest someone. Its no different then a professional cyclist / runner. Monitor their stress load and determine when you need a more then typical recovery.

        They should know better then the coach. Fatigue and fitness can be easily modeled.

      • pragmatist says:

        Modern sports have made me cynical towards Sports Med/Sport Science staff of pro sports teams. I hope they recognize who needs a break and are willing to be frank with the coaching staff.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        As much as people think that sport science is exact, it’s still dealing with the human body. And anyone who has ever had health problems knows that modern medicine and science still doesn’t know everything about how the body functions. There are so many unknowns about the human body that even trained professionals still do not fully understand all of the aspects to it.

        If you believe in your team and the players on your bench, you should be able to trust at least 2-3 of them to give your core XI a little break. If you don’t, you (as manager) are also sending a message to those bench players that you don’t rate them. Given that it’s a long season and you will likely need many of them, it would be wise to do a little rotating with the starting XI for Sat night.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I’m inclined to think the sports science staff is more informed than the scouting department… this seems to be where some extra cash has gone.
      The manager then needs to defer to them IMO. The Gold Cup will prove an adequate midseason rest for many of the players.

    • Soccerson says:

      If you look at the post-game videos, Curtin said something to the effect of: “..Trust me, these guys are fit, they’re not tired…we have data… mid-week games have little effect..” Then if you see the Pontius interview, he said something to the effect of: “…you saw some tired legs out there in the second half because of our game last weekend…”
      Pontuis is not wrong, we all saw it, Bedoya, Pontius himself and others were dead tired..
      So here’s hoping we see some rotation this weekend. I’m convinced last year’s slump was due, in a big part, to the players being burned.

  2. Matt Thornton says:

    The only legitimate change I can see Jim making is giving Onyewu a rest and sliding Marquez back into the lineup, and even that flys in the face of the conventional wisdom that he NEVER changes his back line when they get clean sheets.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I can also see giving Fabhino a day off and sliding Gaddis across the field.

      • i would have said that a couple weeks ago, but JC came out a few times and stated clearly that Gaddis “is not a left back”

  3. I find it interesting that Rosenberry played every minute of every game last year, then he’s benched and can’t find the field again this year. That’s been a curious trend over the Union’s 8 year-existence – players who stay on the field regardless of individual or team performance, then somehow are magically replaced and never heard from again. Gaddis is a decent player, but one has to wonder why he didn’t see the field at all last year to give Keegan a rest. Very confusing management approaches the Union have.

    • It’s this that makes me wonder what Curtin’s priorities are. Rosenberry should be nurtured, not unlike Gostisbehere for the Flyers: a young, offensive-defensmen, in a sophomore slump, benched similarly. Critisism followed for benching by coach Hakstoll as well. I feel for Ray and happy he can see the field but it’s weeks like this one where we should be swapping them out, not as a lesson, but allowing the hungry bench see the field.

      • I wish they’d just use the two logically. If you are playing a bunkering team, start Keegan. A more attacking team, play Ray.

  4. We were having this exact conversation in the stands during the game. Really hoping they do rest some guys. It’s on the staff and coach to get it right!

  5. SilverRey says:

    This is a point where I discount Curtin’s coaching. I think he’s scared – he’s finally “found” a line-up that is getting results (a line-up forced on him due to injuries) and he doesn’t want to change anything for fear of losing the magic. It took Jim asking Bedoya who he wanted at #10 to get Ilsinho there – not Curtin’s coaching prowess.
    This is why you pay a coach, to be able to put another player in and trust that he is going to be told the right things to be able to succeed in the system that I keep on hearing Ernie and Jim talk about all the time.
    Ugh.. we need a new coach. We should NOT see the same XI we saw on Wednesday for any reason. If it takes a nutrition guy to make Jim see that then we are screwed.

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