Commentary / Featured / Union

The Union, the process, and the No. 10

Photo: Daniel Studio

Don’t trust the process.

Because whatever you think the process is, you’re wrong. You don’t know the process.

When you “trust the process,” you trust something other than results. Usually, by default, fans place their trust in results. If a team wins more than they used to and keeps it that way, it’s clear the front office can, to some extent, be trusted. If the team loses, trust is low. At the very least, you can look for improvements, small but sure steps forward.

By invoking a process, a front office can redefine on-field failure as meaningless. This may be true over a short period of time, while old contracts play out and new signings adjust. But the process can stretch across seasons, until some indeterminate future time when success arrives.

“Trust the process” makes sense as a business term. Trust that a company, after operating in the red at first, will eventually tap into its potential revenue streams and turn a significant profit. It’s a long game.

Fans, though, are both long-term investors and a key market segment for the current product. Trusting the process asks them to tolerate an inferior product until some unspecified later date when the process has produced desired results.

But the truth is that, particularly in MLS, there is no logical reason a period of failure must precede success. The rewards for failure (draft picks, notably) are less influential in Major League Soccer than in the NBA or NFL. Instead, MLS teams have multiple routes through which to build that are unaffected by the previous year’s record. To wit, in MLS you can rebound with one or two key Designated Player signings, a sly trade, nabbing top college talents as homegrown players, or any number of Hari Seldon-approved strategies that speed passage through otherwise extended period of lowered expectations.

Yet the Philadelphia Union franchise has never won a playoff series.

In fact, since Philly joined MLS (and excluding Chivas and third-year clubs Orlando City and NYCFC), only the Union and Chicago Fire have failed to win a playoff series. Chicago certainly looks set to make noise this postseason.

That was 2016

Last year, the club expected to have Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira. Those losses were unexpected and huge. Although the Union had wanted him for some time, the Alejandro Bedoya signing neatly fit a peg into the hole Nogueira left behind. It was a midseason signing that made sense from both an immediate and mid-range viewpoint.

The story of this season is different. It is the story of a lineup hole that has — despite the best efforts of those who have tried to fill it — severely limited Philadelphia Union’s ability to create chances from good positions and, thus, compete for the playoffs.

It began in the offseason, when Alejandro Bedoya was tabbed to replace Tranquillo Barnetta. Bedoya never settled in the role, his effectiveness waxing and waning with each opponent. Next, Roland Alberg earned his way back into the first eleven by being, if nothing else, the only other option when it became clear Derrick Jones booked a ride on the rookie confidence curve and Bedoya would have to slide deeper. The myth of Alberg — bags of potential finally paired with consistent focus and effort — crashed headlong into the reality. Enter Ilsinho. The Brazilian has been squeezed into a central role after proving frustratingly unconvincing on the wing. And while the switch has improved his output, the argument that Ilsinho can be a consistent gamechanger has very little support.

And yet, no player was brought in before the transfer window closed.

Despite ample time to identify, recruit, trade for, or otherwise acquire some sort of help at the No. 10. The Union dipped their toes into the water of a few players, but they came up dry.

This should not be spun as a necessary decision for the club’s long-term strategy. Unlike the NBA, the rewards MLS grants for failure are rarely game-changing talents; failure is not, in a transfer-dominated system, a necessary step before success. And the current Union squad has, without anything approximating a No. 10, lingered on the fringes of the playoffs all season. 

In spite of its flaws, there is real postseason potential in this team that will now almost certainly go unrealized.

Not 2016 anymore

This was not a Nogueira situation; there was no late notice or need to scramble. Since 2017 began, not a single player has looked capable of turning in consistent performances in the No. 10 role.

Two transfer windows have overlapped the 2017 season. Yet the Union did nothing. 

So when the players look lethargic and disheartened after going behind at home against a Montreal side that has systematically addressed its weaknesses during the year (and when they yet again struggle to produce shots (zero after the 66th minute, despite trailing at home) it is hard to blame them. By forgoing an in-season addition, the Union are clearly looking past 2017 to the future, and in doing so they are leaving both the current roster and fans with something everybody knows is inadequate (though, potentially, not far from playoff-worthy).

And that sucks.

It is likely right that bringing in a player at the deadline would have been a questionable move. The season is quite far along, and a new player would need to bed in almost immediately to lift Philly to the postseason. (But then again, there were few arguments against midseason moves for key players the last two years when they acquired Tranquillo Barnetta and Bedoya). But the options never were deadline-day-acquisition vs nobody.

There was plenty of time.

Looking ahead

And there still is time.

Just because the front office’s transfer window inactivity appears to signal the 2017 season has been abandoned does not necessarily mean heads should roll. It’s worth giving time to build a roster and in giving a coach time to implement a plan that doesn’t require a major strategic rethink each season. If the club hits all its moves in the offseason, this will likely feel, in retrospect, like hand-wringing.

But Stewart’s player moves since arriving do not breed confidence, even if his past success remains recent. Alberg, Davies, Anderson, Simpson. Ilsinho, Pontius, Picault, Onyewu. A mix of hits and misses, but very little to build around. Even a successful player like Medunjanin is an odd story because he only partially filled the clear need for a ball-moving defensive midfielder.

And let me clarify: This is not a call for Earnie Stewart or anyone else to lose their job.

It is simply a reminder: There is very little tying prior failure to later success in MLS; a club does not need to lose before it wins. 

Instead, the point is merely this: Don’t blindly trust the process.

Inquire, critique, and debate the process. Demand to know how, if not through results, you can hold a front office accountable.

That seems fair for a fanbase that has endured the third lowest average points per game since 2010, just above a club that no longer exists and the one with the best record in MLS this year.

And it certainly seems fair for a fanbase that just watched their club turn a blind eye to a glaring, season-long roster issue and essentially pivot to 2018 with a third of the 2017 season left to play.

42 Comments

  1. There’s a magic eight ball somewhere saying outlook not that good.

  2. It’s a shame when the next two years of a franchise just look dismal. Like it’s going to be a chore to root for this franchise.

    • Eh. I mean you only have to look at Chicago this year to know that isn’t set in stone. But this year is without a doubt done and we really need to nail at least 3 signings this offseason or else next year is done too.

      • Chicago spent money… Thanks Union seem unwilling to do that.

      • For Schweinsteiger they spend a ton sure. Nothing else is out of the realm of Union spending though. And honestly while I would love a player of that quality here it’s not necessary to win, although it would make things a lot easier.

  3. This is a good post! The process can not be trusted in its current iteniration. You can’t get younger if you only trot out 30 year olds week after week. This isn’t the NBA and revenue sharing can’t save your hide. The draft is not adequate at current US soccer levels. Youth academies are a mix of good and bad but not the final answer. The gm can’t say we’re building for the future then the coach trots out the same older players week after week. Meanwhile a younger club (NYCFC & Orlando) have left us in the dust. Seriously there is no process. WSSM. At least I’ll be able to get my beer easier at halftime.

  4. Another point to make, the kid with Schalke. Younger players should be rewarded with starts with the big club. Particularly when the games mean nothing. Not saying put the entire steel team on the field, but one or two players for the rest of this year which means nothing. Anyone who is out of contract next year shouldn’t play at all. Except that I can almost guarantee Curtin will throw out the same 11 until the season is done and then say “we tried”.

    • You cannot “put the entire Steel team on the field” because some who play for them on game day are not on the MLS roster.
      .
      There is not 40 man roster with option system in MLS.

      • How does the steel turn around this season reflect on:
        – Jim
        – Earnie

        I would think they have to have some credit for it.

      • Mcb, why should it reflect on them? It’s all about Burke. He’s the one making decisions and dealing with weekly changing rosters and availability.

  5. What stinks about this self-induced malaise for the Union is that the last three years could have been a great time to build their reputation in a city starving for some sporting success. And I’m not just talking about converting the fabled casual fan but of convincing the many, many football fans who attend PL breakfast matches at center city bars. I know a lot of these people who just can’t get into MLS, let alone the local team. Winning will go a long way to get their attention.

    Stewart says fans shouldn’t expect to win every time, but there’s no harm in expecting the team to compete. Too many times, this team just fails to match the effort of its opponent. And all it would take is a couple of key player investments. You’re right, Adam. It doesn’t require a process. Just some $$. It’s nice to have a plan about the academy, etc, but you need to fill those DP slots with talented attacking players to make a mark in this league. It’s not rocket science.

    • I said this same type of thing in another post a few days ago (maybe weeks, I don’t know) but anyway – the Union absolutely squandered their chance to become legitimate. I think I said something like: wait until the Flyers rookies start coming together and they are making playoff runs into May… or when the Phillies sign Mike Trout… or the Sixers “process” Bears fruit and they start becoming dominant. The Union will be even more of an after thought to the average fan, than they already are. Sad.

  6. Adam Schorr says:

    Let *me* clarify: *This* is a call for Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin to lose their job.
    .
    Curtin has been given over 3 full seasons. In over 3 full seasons, I don’t think I can name a single thing he does at even an average level as a coach. I get that maybe he hasn’t the best personnel, but good coaches display good traits. They show some ability to make the best of bad situations. Curtin has consistently done nothing. You could program a computer to do what Curtin does (it’s always fun following the reddit game threads to see people predicting the exact subs and minutes correctly game after game).
    .
    Stewart has been given two full seasons. He has shown a complete inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Has everything gone perfectly for him? No. But shit, this is a professional sports league. Nothing ever goes perfectly for any franchise. Stewart’s plan of “two deep at every position” has only proved the adage “if you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have one”. His moves themselves evidence no plan whatsoever, bringing in guys who don’t fit the system and paying an unnecessary premium for European experience, and that’s before we get to ridiculous moves like trading our first round pick this year for Charlie Davies.
    .
    The process is a bad process with no hope of success. The results are bad. It’s time for these two stooges to go.

    • As much as I admire your heart and for the most part agree with you, you do realize that things won’t change right? This will be at least a five year process. Jay Sugarman is not going to give up on this plan till at least then and maybe not after. He may agree to a coaching change but as I’ve stated before, I believe Curtin has at least a year and a half more of rope to hang himself. Stewart won’t be going till his five year contract is up. Unless of course the fan base bands together and stop going to games and starts demonstrating with Curtin/Stewart OUT signs, and that ain’t going to happen.
      .
      Adam I agree mostly with you buddy, I just don’t wanna see you have an aneurysm in 10 months when nothing has changed. Pace yourself, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

      • Good one! I can see 50% of Adam’s wishes come true in next few months. Curtin will be replaced.

      • Guido you’re too hopeful. As far as Stewart and the Union are concerned things are going within the parameters of “the plan”. There is a growth process expected, not just from the players and coaches, but Stewart himself as he adjusts to the league. Curtin, so far has done all that has been asked of him according to Stewart. The results are not what was desired, but that is also partly on Stewart. Going into this next season everyone from Stewart on down has a better idea of what needed is to make this run they way they want it too, and Curtin will get every chance to do that. The question then becomes did Stewart acquire enough talent to overcome Curtin’s coaching deficiencies.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      Interesting point here: a coach who is almost incapable of making impactful in-game adjustments, and a gm who won’t make in-season adjustments.
      .
      The former is learning the game at our expense and has no clue about putting together attacking strategy or tactics. The latter is manacled to an unrealistic MLS 1.0 budget by an owner who won’t spend a dime above what the MLS sends to him.
      .
      My hope: that the lack of in-season player movement was actually a smart business decision – an early judgement call that hiring a good #10 would just be putting lipstick on a pig. The crime: not telling us earlier that the U had no intention of doing anything more than playing out the string. Oink.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        God, I f***ing hate this “the Union don’t spend enough” BS. Everybody needs to STFU with it.
        .
        (Numbers as of April when they were released) Three of the top four teams in the West spent less than the Union. Houston’s payroll was over 2M less than the Union’s. They had one player making over 500K, and that’s a massive 665K. Dallas had three players over 425K. SKC had 6 players over 300K, and none of them were million dollar players.
        .
        The Union aren’t not good enough because they don’t spend enough. They’re not good enough because they spend poorly and are coached poorly. Pure and simple. Anybody saying they’re not spending enough needs to take off the blindfold and take out the earplugs and face the f***ing truth. The problem isn’t how much we spend. The problem is that Earnie and Jim just really really suck at their jobs.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Jeez, Adam – Calm down. There’s no need to put forth a post with language like that.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        Zizou – I try to refrain from language like that on this site (unlike Reddit, where my comments are…much more colorful and much less censored), but it’s a sore point for me. When people repeat straight up lies over and over and over like they’re facts, sometimes my filter comes off.
        .
        I also probably have a different idea of when “language like that” should be used.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Adam – Understood, I just prefer to do all of my cursing orally rather than in written form (aside from a random FFS, of course).

      • Adam, TRANSFER FEES! I’ll just name two players on clubs you mentioned. (KC) Gerso-1.5mil. (Dallas)- Gurezo 1.5mil.I definitely agree that the Union spend cap money very poorly, and are coached poorly. You need to see the whole picture. Do you think all the quality players come to this league for free without their previous club being compensated? Maybe you should inform yourself before you flip out on people.

      • Adam- you’re comparing the wrong thing. It isnt salary, it’s transfer fees and infrastructure. Quick, name the ,Union scouts? Quick, other than ,Ale and Edu, how much have the U paid to acquire talent? Give up? It’s freaking $0.00 so they are god awfully cheap.

    • I’m sorry, but you lose credibility when you call people “stooges” and use foul language.

      Curtin got us to 2 Open Cup Finals in a row and to the playoffs last year. The 7 biggest salaries this year for the Union are:

      -Bedoya $1.2M
      -Edu $750K
      -Ilsihno $470K
      -Simpson $460K
      -Haris $460K
      -Pontius $400K
      -Alberg $375K

      2 players are worth their pay (Bedoya, Haris). 1 (Pontius) tries very hard, but has had a down year and has not produced. 1 (Ilsihno) is not worth his pay, but at least delivers something, albeit very inconsistently. 1 (Alberg) delivers very little to nothing and is a malcontent. 1 (Simpson) delivers nothing. 1 (Edu) has not played this year.

      So when 5 of your top 7 guys are beyond underperforming on a team that’s already in the bottom 5 of the league when you combine salary and transfer fees, what exactly would you like the head coach to do? You want to know why you can predict Curtin’s subs? Because there are only 3 capable players on the bench that he can actually put in the game. And capable is stretching it for Simpson, Epps (at this point), and Alberg. NO ONE ELSE DUDE. Herbers is hurt, Jones can only play where Bedoya or Haris plays, Davies has done nothing. Creavalle can also only play the 6 or 8. NO ONE ELSE.

      So just stop with your constant whining about Stewart and Curtin. You want to hammer someone, hammer the owner who doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to spend. Stop hammering Stewart (who is clearly constrained by finances) and stop hammering Curtin (who cannot compete over a 34 game season with the talent he has).

      Take the emotion out of it and look at it objectively.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        Curtin did not get us to 2 Open Cup Finals. Going through teams who largely did not take it seriously did. And Curtin made maybe the worst coaching decision I’ve seen in any professional sport ever in the 2015 Open Cup final, basically single-handedly losing it for the Union (subbing in a shattered-confidence Wenger late in extra time and then taking out Blake for McCarthy, essentially going 110+ minutes without making two of his subs for no apparent reason and then putting the game on Wenger’s foot which went exactly as expected).
        .
        What do you do when 5 of your 7 guys are underperforming? How about change formation? Change roles? Play backups? Run set plays? There’s a ton of things you can do. Curtin does literally none of them. The team goes out there game after game with no plan. You ever think that when *that many* guys are underperforming, there may be a unifying factor, such as a coach who is giving them absolutely no chance to succeed?
        .
        And if the players just aren’t that good and the bench doesn’t have options, then it comes back to Stewart, who has wasted literally millions of dollars and a bunch of roster spots on nothing. And Curtin was bad before Stewart and is bad with Stewart.
        .
        Objectively, without emotion, the ownership sucks, the GM sucks, and the coach sucks. You could give Curtin a much better roster and he would drag it down. He has shown exactly 0 qualities of a good coach in 3.5 years and is a first time head coach. He’s completely overmatched and underqualified and has proved it time and again. You could give Earnie more money, and if he insists on “2 deep at every position” and “only overpriced players from Europe”, he’s going to put together an uncompetitive roster.
        .
        Don’t make excuses for their miserable failures. If Curtin coached well but didn’t get results (like the Sixers’ Brett Brown), then there wouldn’t be a problem. But he is a bad coach and has proved it for 3.5 years. If Stewart had a good plan and just got unlucky, then I would be up for giving him more of a chance. But given what he was given, which he knew going in, he made the absolute least of it by going in with a piss-poor plan and executing it poorly.
        .
        Would it help if ownership laid out more money? Absolutely. Does that change the fact that Earnie and Jim both absolutely suck at their jobs? Absolutely not.

    • Read Soccernomics. It’s a book. In the top leagues around the world, there’s something like an 88% correlation between team salary and finishing place in the table. You don’t have the players, you don’t win. Period.

      As for Brett Brown, what again makes him a good coach? I’m sorry, you’re drinking that Hinkie Kool-Aid? He’s 75-253, a mere 178 games below .500 in 4 seasons. Why is he a good coach but Curtin sucks? I’d argue that Brett Brown was given 5 top draft choices. Simmons, Embid, MCW, Nerlens Noel, Jahil Okafor…and all of them have been either hurt or are BUSTS so far (and to be clear, Embid and Simmons he could do nothing about). Who was their coach? Who developed them? His teams on average have finished 20th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. Old adage…if you’re short on talent, good coaches will inspire their teams and players to compete defensively. Sieve. And Brett Brown is a rookie NBA coach too. So don’t give me your “Brett Brown is a good coach cause you can see it” theory. BS, to put it kindly.

      • You do realize Brett Brown has been saddled with a D-league team around those players you mention, for 3 of those years right? And it’s hard to develop players when they have barely played together because they’ve all been hurt. They finally just got a point guard THIS off-season. I mean Brett Brown doesn’t shoot rainbows out of his ass, he ain’t Jesus.
        .
        Soccer is totally different. You can bunker for 89 mins and in the last steal a win even if you have an inferior team. You can’t do that in basketball. Plenty of teams in all leagues turn that strategy into finishing mid table or above, good enough for the playoffs in MLS.

      • Brown had MCW, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor, each for multiple years and developed none of them.

        And soccer is not totally different. In hoops, just as in soccer, there are anomalies…like when a team shoots 50%+ from 3. Just like bunkering, countering, and winning 1-0 when you get outshot 22-5 (happened w/ Colorado this year). End of the day, talent matters. Again, 85%+ correlation between team salary ranking and table standing for the major professional leagues.

        And not for nothing, but the Union are +1 in goal differential this year. Generally in sports, that’s a key indicator of how good you are. All sports. They’ve been a bit unlucky this year, not that they’ve been all that good.

        Point being, when Curtin has to start a back 4 of two journeyman wingbacks, a 4th rd pick from West Virginia, and a center back who no one wanted and hadn’t played for 3 years, how is that different than Brown’s D-League roster? Oh, and do you think Jack Elliott has gotten good just on his own…or do you think our coach (a former MLS All-Star at CB) had anything to do with his development?

      • MCW was there for a season and a half before he was traded and has done what since? Nerlens is a nice piece, but not a star. Okafor can’t play defense to save his life. Please don’t act like these players are supposed to be superstars.
        .
        I have yet to see a basketball game won at 1-0 so when you find it let me know. So no, not like soccer at all. But keep trying I’ll be waiting.
        .
        And No I don’t think Curtin had ANYTHING, ANYTHING AT ALL to do with Elliot. You want to know why? Because after three years in the job Curtin STILL can’t teach his team to hold shape. Curtin still can’t teach his back line to hold a high-line. For being such a great defensive coach he’s really shitty at it. Look at that nice goal differential you point out.

  7. this article goes to show why i’ve been feeling so fatigued with this team recently. even during our five other shit seasons where we didn’t make the playoffs i was usually able to keep my enthusiasm high enough to look forward to the games. when they didn’t sign anyone during this transfer window my enthusiasm has dropped precipitously. it has been known that this roster is insufficient to consistently compete. everyone knows it. the fact that they either couldn’t or chose not to find a 10 means that they are planning to not compete for the rest of this season. with a third of the season left to play

  8. It’s been clear, especially since nothing was done in this last transfer windows that the Union are fine with no playoffs. What bothers me is that they keep pounding “build through the academy” mantra. Ok fine…then PLAY THE KIDS. Your own coach for the Steel has made the claim that he wants MLS owned USL side to stay in the upper USL tier because better competition makes better players. Well the MLS is the best competition you can give them. So play them. So what if they make mistakes, we have nothing to play for anyway. And maybe, just maybe they will grow…not in leaps and bounds…but maybe just a tiny bit so perhaps a small sliver of hope that next year won’t be a complete crap show like this year. And maybe they won’t. But even still, if I can’t root for this team this year, perhaps I can root for a young player to seize the opportunity and show us hope for the future.

  9. I partially disagree with your initial premise, in only that the process can ultimately lead to success on the field if “the process” is well thought and intended to do so. Obviously the Sixers is the most obvious example, and Sam Hinkie and friends had a clear objective – acquire assets, either in draft picks or young talent, and use those picks and develop that talent into superstars. In that case, trust the process meant give us some time to acquire the talent and it will be worth the wait.
    —-
    Meanwhile, in regards to the Union – & Phillies & to a less extent the Flyers – they are piggy-backing on that and using that as an excuse – or worse, a false front – for their futility and constant failures to improve and develop talent. So I agree with your premise in regards to the Union, but in its natural state “Trust the Process” should be a plead for faith and patience with the expectation that sustained, long-term success is the ONLY acceptable outcome & multiple championships will follow.
    —-
    The Union are failing us in that sense, so don’t trust their process, as I don’t believe they even have one.

    • @Brian – I think that’s initially what “the process” always means: It means I don’t want to divulge secrets, but we have a plan and we’re going to follow it through. I guess what I’m protesting in this post is what the process can very easily become if it isn’t interrogated every step of the way. Once people caught on to what Hinkie was trying to do, it became harder for him to do it. And it still took a few pretty swell turns of luck – repeatedly having your top pick miss a year injured – to continually end up in a position to nab another superb pick.

      So by calling something “the process” and being vague about when and how it will come to fruition, a front office is granted cover during the lean years. How long will they go on? Just until the process is done, right? So it can load the dice.

      It can also produce this false, strong causal relationship between losing and winning, as if losing must happen in order for winning to occur. There’s probably a stronger relationship in basketball or football or hockey between losing and winning, so invoking “the process” to explain away losing makes more sense in one of those sports.

      So I guess in the end, if “the process” means “give us some time,” I just think it should at least have to give the outlines of why things haven’t produced results so far and how far into the future fans should give.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        In the context of the Sixers, “the process” means “what it takes to win a championship”. Hinkie was actually completely open with his plan and the process. The problem is that what constitutes “the process” in the NBA (tanking for superstars) makes no sense in the MLS (where tanking doesn’t really get you anything). It just shows that Earnie and whoever else in the Union organization says it is absolutely clueless. Which we know.

  10. I just wanted to say that I LOVED the Hari Seldon reference. Moneyball vs PSYCHOHISTORY.

  11. All I can say is that as a union season ticket holder for the past 6 years, I’m done! I have absolutely loss patient’s with this team, the coach and the owner. The whole process sucks. I have been to one home game this year and I don’t intend to going anymore just to keep my seats empty in protest. I am still a fan and watch every game on TV. I don’t need them to go to the playoffs every year but Goddammit we deserve a team that is cohesive and an owner that cares.

  12. Section 114 (former) says:

    Ownership.

  13. As I said before in different words, the MLS must look more closely at the financial resources the potential new owner has before giving him a franchise. Sugarman did not have the resources or partners to significantly improve the team after he was given players to cherry pick from other teams in year one.
    I bet if the MLS allowed Philly to scrap the entire team and start over with 11 picks from other teams they could put together a better team.

    Blake is the only player worth a DP of quality if they trade or sell him. He actually deserves to play for a better franchise.

    Ernies moneyball has not worked well. This team will never compete with the red bulls or la but with new owners with more resources we should be able to compete with kc Portland and that caliber of team. We need a rich uncle to rescue this team! Fans deserve better. So Sad

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