For Pete's Sake

Union a class below their fun-to-watch opponents

Photo: Earl Gardner

As I’m writing a piece on the internet, the laws of nature dictate that I begin with a reference to the television program “Game of Thrones.”

If the Union’s playoff hopes weren’t already dead entering this past week, the team’s defeat by Toronto FC and late draw against Atlanta United have finished them off completely — like an undead ice zombie, stabbed once and for all with dragonglass.

Watching the Union play those two games was, broadly speaking, less pleasant than watching incest.

Okay, that’s enough. I’ll stop.

But a writer can be forgiven for looking elsewhere for excitement from the Union right now.

The season is all over but the shouting, with two more months of games yet to come. The Union will run out the same 13 players for those two months in the hope of “playing spoiler.” Jim Curtin will talk about how important it is to go out there and win for the fans — what few fans still trek down to Chester.

And the games will remain relentlessly boring.

Boring is the word I keep coming back to when I think about the Union as a team. Their mentality is relentlessly defensive, barely even trying to score goals on the road. They can’t create a passing sequence to save their lives. Their team shape most often resembles either a large letter O or two completely separate lines 30 yards apart. They have exactly one player with any flair whatsoever and two players with the willingness to take defenders on 1v1. Even their creative free kicks of 2016 have been scrapped after a few early-season examples that should have stayed on the training ground.

Save for Andre Blake’s heroics, this team doesn’t produce many moments where you “ooh” and “aah” at the athletic exploits on the field in front of you. Unfortunately, those moments are why most people watch soccer.

It says a lot, frankly, when the most exciting thing about the Union is that you never know exactly how they’re going to mess with your head next. In the past five matches alone, we’ve had an inexplicable flattening of a Western Conference leader, an emotionless blowout at home, and two spectacular collapses just moments away from all three points. Along the way, I can’t point to many exciting moments of excellent soccer by the Union, save the beautiful team move that opened the scoring against FC Dallas.

This week, though, Union fans were treated to the example of two teams who are the opposite of boring. Toronto FC and Atlanta United are, in many ways, about as unlike the Union as you can get.

Both have invested, first and foremost, in attacking talent, while the Union insist that defensive midfield is the only position worth DP money.

Both have managers who are experienced, tactically flexible, and are capable of getting their players in a position to succeed. Jim Curtin doesn’t measure up in any of those categories.

And both teams have been rewarded for these decisions with fun-to-watch, attack-minded sides that win a bunch of their games and have a reasonable shot at winning the MLS Cup. The Union will be golfing long before November.

Watching Toronto tear through the Union, with Giovinco blasting world-class free kicks and generally terrorizing the beleaguered white shirts in his way, reminded me that a soccer team in MLS can be exciting.

Watching Atlanta ping the ball around the pitch for 90 minutes, with Martinez and Almiron showing no fear as they plunged into the heart of the pitch, reminded me that a soccer team in MLS can be ambitious.

The Union are neither exciting nor ambitious. Of course, that’s mostly because they don’t have the cash reserves of Toronto and Atlanta.

But with what cash they do have, they’ve chosen defense and industriousness — “Philly Tough” — over goals and assists every time. They’ve chosen a manager and a formation geared around playing for the 0-0 draw. They’ve chosen not to buy anyone at the most creative position on the pitch, even when the current options aren’t getting it done. And they rely, to the point of absurdity, on players chosen for their work rate over players chosen for their talent.

The whole thing is unpleasant to watch. Facing off against Toronto and Atlanta only emphasized how much Union fans are missing.

It’s enough to make you wish for the arrival of a couple of fire-breathing dragons.

Just to liven things up, of course.


  1. I think this is the first season I’ve watched more neutral MLS games on tv than Union games. The difference in quality is getting stark.

    • I used to watch every Union game religiously. Now, I DVR the games, check the final score, and then decide whether or not to torture myself for 90 minutes…

  2. Well written. Have more fun seeing my boy’s D3 College team play: they are much more exciting than the Union! Will also go to more Penn and Temple games this year since those games are also more exciting than the Union’s.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Saw my first college game in a few years on Friday and it was very exciting, considerably more so than the Union right now.

  3. The Union play “corporate” soccer. Everyone stays in their cubicles staring at spreadsheets, (the opposing player closest to them) and they only pop out every now and then, like for free cake at an office birthday (someone scored). Staying unnoticed and waiting for something external to create something of interest…like maybe the remote and uninterested CEO landing a helicopter on the practice field.
    Seriously though, literally all of the organization seems to want to be traded…including the owner and fans.

    • Exactly. What players would want to come to that type of organization? Not an Almiron or Altidore, even if the owner paid it. Those players want to compete on a winning team. It’s no fun being a star on a muddling team (just ask Nogueira or Barnetta…)

    • have you seen my stapler.

  4. Great piece, Peter, and exactly how I feel. Frustrated that we have an average team with average players and that the team owner/ sporting director/ coach seem content with being average.
    Look at Columbus. They’ve lost as many games as the Union, but they are 12 points ahead because they have an experienced coach who is willing to change tactics and make subs to win a game. They lose many games. But they win many also. You get 0 points for a loss, whether you lose 1-0 by playing for a scoreless draw or lose 3-2 by opening things up and playing for the win

  5. The Chopper says:

    “Fat, Drunk and Stupid is no way to go through life son”. Losing, Boring and Uninspiring is no way to survive in Philly.

  6. The Dallas game was a lot of fun.
    Since then they have been like the proverbial winter’s day.
    But Dallas was fun to watch and Atlanta wasn’t awful until the red card. Then it was a matter of time, and we left to beat traffic before the failed punch was sent back over his head.

  7. Like many articles lately on this site, this is bullshit (for lack of a better term).

    “Play the kids.” But when we play the kids and they make inexplicable mistakes (1 at the death basically) costing the team 4 points in the process, we blame the coaching staff. Should have been 9 points in last 5 games vs Dallas, Montreal, Toronto, SJ, and Atlanta. 4 out of 5 playoff teams.

    They spend their $$ on “defense and industriousness every time.” This couldn’t be a more wrong statement. Of the 13 GKs and defenders on the roster, not one is making over $170K. The players making over $300K:
    -Bedoya ($1.13M) – 2 way player
    -Edu ($750K) – 2 way player
    -Ilsihno ($470K) – Attacking player
    -Haris ($465K) – Playmaker sitting in the #6…how is that defensive-minded?
    -Simpson ($460K) – Attacking player
    -Pontius ($400K) – Winger
    -Alberg ($345K) – Attacking Player
    -Sapong ($300K) – Attacking player

    This site has gotten unreadable lately. I stopped reading Caan’s tactical analysis because he had literally 9 tactical points in the San Jose game and every one was negative. I’m sorry, were we not winning 2-1 on the road with a minute left in injury time?

    What about Atlanta? Held the fort down for 40 minutes down a man only to get tied again in injury time. Even though Atlanta was down until the 91st minute, we were the “unwatchable” team.

    The Union’s biggest problem is that they don’t have cash. Not that the coaching staff doesn’t “measure up” or that there’s no creativity in the attacking 1/3rd. It’s the pros, it comes down to players and the $$ you spend as an organization. You want to bitch? Blast ownership for not spending $$. Because virtually every time the Union step on the field, they are at a disadvantage personnel-wise. Period, end of story.

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