Commentary / Union

Skill, preparation, and chance

Photo by Earl Gardner

Sports are a heart-breaking business predicated on skill, preparation, and (more often than fans, coaches, or players would like to admit) chance. The margin between good teams and great teams, between playoff qualification and “there’s always next year”-consolation is thin. Gatorade produced an excellent commercial several years ago that showed how indelible winning narratives, formed in our lexicon because of the outcome of singular, iconic sporting moments, were each only inches away from being completely different.

Sports fans remember the winners, of course: 28-3. Messi. Jordan. Joe CarterBeckham. Unequivocally, the winners were skilled and prepared. In many cases, they were also lucky.

The losers in these scenarios were skilled and prepared, too, and ultimately less fortunate. They’re special, though, and are remembered just as vividly in a shared familial misery: Buckner and BartmanThe Fumble. Wide Right or Wide Left. Beckham again.

Philadelphia fans have plenty of this shared, miserable history, and it goes back many decades. Even if the reader isn’t old enough to remember “The Phold,” it’s worth a trip down memory lane.

Shared (recent) history

2004: The Philadelphia Eagles were a few bum ankles (Terrell Owens and Chad Lewis), a poorly timed bout of nervous dehydration (Donovan McNabb, immortally), and a field goal (Adam Vinatieri, even more immortally) away from winning their first Super Bowl. The 24-21 loss is the closest the team has gotten to silverware since 1980, when they also lost a Super Bowl.

2009: Solid pitching ruined by solo home runs in Game 2 and three runs in the 9th inning by the mighty Yankees in Game 3 set the stage, but Game 6 heroics by the first ever Designated Hitter Most Valuable Player in World Series history, Hideki Matsui, ended the defending champion Phillies’s chances of repeating as winners. The team has yet to recover.

2010: The Flyers, qualifying for the playoffs on the final day of the season in a shoot out (the first time ever in NHL history where the margins were that thin), continued their run with a 3-0 series AND Game 7 comeback win in the second round against the Boston Bruins. They lost in the finals, with three of the six games being decided by a single goal. The 1974 and 1975 back to back Broad Street Bullies are still the orange and black’s most recent championship sides.

2013 – Present: The Sixers. The Process.

That’s NOT so Union?

The 2017 Philadelphia Union aren’t close to being a good team. They’re disjointed and inconsistent, prone to mental lapses, and look to be a “MLS 2.0” team in what has clearly become a “3.0” league. They’re at least one great player away, and probably more than that. Theirs is a gulf between what they are and what they want or claim to be, at least this is the narrative of fans and commentators.

In reality, how close were the Boys in Blue to having an entirely different story written about them this season? How thin are the narrative margins for this iteration of the Union?

Perhaps not that far at all.

March 11: Alejandro Bedoya’s first half penalty snuggles itself into the top corner of the River End net, sending the upstart Union to a 3-2 win over defending Eastern Conference champions, Toronto FC.

April 1: Andre Blake doesn’t leave Fabinho out to dry with a mishit pass out of the back. The Brazilian then doesn’t save the errant ball directly to an on-rushing D.C. United attacker, leading to a goal. Shortly thereafter, Oguchi Onyewu’s arm isn’t so unlucky, slightly extended in the box, and the plucky Union overcome an injury to Richie Marquez and walk out of the nation’s capital with a big road win.

April 22: A home team leading a conference opponent (Montreal) holds on to a 3-0 lead. At home.

July 19: Opportunistic Man-of-the-World, Fafa Picault, gets himself a hat trick, or at least two goals and an assist, in a 3-2 win in Montreal. In the multiverse where the latter of these possibilities is true, Roland Alberg doesn’t have a conniption about not being passed to and gets another goal, adding to his impossibly productive goals-per-minute numbers.

Alberg is so pleased, in fact, that he isn’t worried at all when C.J. Sapong takes the penalty he earned against Columbus the next week. The subsequent 4-0 win against the Crew bumps up the team’s goal differential numbers.

August 19: Josh Yaro holds his ground and calmly sees a wild but driving Shea Salinas to the end line and out (instead of hacking at his legs). The Union take all three points from the bewildered hosts in San Jose.

August 26: A home team holds on to a 2-0 lead against an expansion team (Atlanta United). At home.

Fourteen points

Do any of those scenarios sound impossible? Certainly the odds on a team captain finishing a penalty are good, as are the odds that big leads at home will stick. Road wins against floundering franchises can be had, as can big road wins where offenses are opportunistic and defenses work smartly and safely.

If those things happen, the Union increase their current total of points by fourteen. An additional fourteen points puts the Union, currently on thirty-two, into third place in the Eastern Conference and into first in the West.

The Union aren’t close to being a good team, and the eye test fans give them match after match confirms that. They are, however, close to being relevant, if not for a few bounces of the ball.



  1. I love the article, and it’s interesting to think back on all those moments. Man though are we stretching. Anyone watching the games can see how bad the team looks, outside of the one run. You create your own luck.

  2. You can make similar arguments the other way too, and say that we are actually a much worse team than our record reflects (and just got lucky on a few key plays).
    Discipline, mental toughness, and team-first attitudes are the difference here. We did not have them when the chips were down in most of the situations above, and we came out on the losing end as a result.

  3. The biggest of all those was the early match against Toronto. Even with Bedoya’s miss, we still would’ve had 3 points — after a superb performance — if not for a crappy penalty call.

    The Union are indeed not close to being a good team, but there has still been a substantial amount of luck that has made their performance this year even worse. They are 18th in the league on points, but 14th on goal differential. They should be a little better than they are, even with the current personnel.

  4. Bedoya missing that PK was such an omen. The other moments we’ve tried to forget, those listed and unlisted, compounded was started to unravel in week 2. Who’s the leader on the field? The leader off the field is inexperienced and incapable of innovating.

  5. I disagree with the premise that the Union are not close to being a good team ONLY because of the exceptions you noted in the article. I think they are really close in terms of talent, with the clear missing piece being a true #10 (you could add striker in, but CJ does have 13 goals and I’m assuming the #10 can add in an additional 10+). The real issue with the team is a combination of mental and tactical stability. They have always had issues closing games out or rallying late, and over the past 2 seasons with Curtin in charge they routinely come out after halftime flat and confused. So I really think the issue is what you mentioned earlier on – preparedness. Clearly they are not as prepared as they should be, or unable to make adjustments or not getting the right adjustments. I will not sit here and demand Curtin be fired as the players still need to perform on the field, but he has to raise his hand and say “I have to do a better job of getting the players we have prepared and playing at a high level.”

    • -you mean similar to this, “I have to do a better job of getting the players in position…time’s yours.”
      not again please.

      “throw me a line throw me a line cause there’s a fat man in the bathtub with the blues, I hear you moan I hear you moan I hear you moan.”

    • That was Andy Reid taking the blame off of the players, showing them he had his back, but there’s often some truth to coach speak. The fact is that if Curtin’s formations and tactics, or even lineups and subs, do not literally the players in the best positions (i.e. Ilsinho as CAM vs RM, etc) then he has to do better. For 90 minutes the players affect the game, but before after and at occasional times during the game it’s on the coach.

  6. Section 114 (Former) says:

    Name the top five players in MLS at a striker. At left wing. At right wing. Etcetera. That’s 55 guys, and with debates, probably 60-70.
    How many play for the Union?
    By my count the only one who does is the amazing goalkeeper we are going to try to sell this winter.
    That’s the symptom.
    The problem: Ownership.

  7. This season needs to die already. Yet there are 6 more games. Games that are, no doubt going, to be excruciating. Games that will bring us no new information about the team. Games that will reveal no promises of the future. Six games of sub-mediocre soccer purgatory. Our winter is here.

  8. This is facetious,right?
    What separates good teams from bad teams isn’t luck, it is consistency. It is executing crisp passing, set pieces, corner kicks, what we will do situationally against different formations, how we will respond going down a goal or a man, knowing where your teammates are on the field. Getting into dangerous positions, making timely runs, understanding tactically when to adjust and substituting appropriately.
    Does that sound like the Union you have watched? I see a team who continues to play as if they met for the first time in the parking lot prematch. I hear about starting players still in “preseason form” in September. Players brought in to perform in this formation who haven’t played a 4231.
    No, mon frer, that 14 point gulf ain’t luck or bad officiating or weather or field conditions. It’s a systemic failure to source talent, prepare and train, to make in game adjustments, to recover and do it all again no matter the schedule or opponent.
    I’m reminded of the shower rant in Bull Durham,”what’s our record? 8-16. 8-16, how did we ever win 8 games?”. Which funny enough, is how many the U have….

    • I couldn’t agree with this more. It’s not the failure of one person or even one thing…it’s the amalgamation of several deficiencies throughout the club.

    • I agree with you. My point was more that even THIS version of the Union are still a few bounces away from being truly a part of the MLS conversation.

      • I get how hard it is to write compelling content about this club that doesn’t end with “f*** it I quit”, so kudos for trying. They’ve been a case study in mismanagement for nigh on a decade.

  9. Commendable. Much of this sounds like bad coaching.

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