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PSP panel: Why Union fans should either hope or despair

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union has recorded one winning season in its eight years. Two playoff appearances, zero playoff wins. No trophies.

The fans have noticed. There are more empty seats in their stadium in Chester. More people talking about not renewing their season tickets and just not watching the games.

On the other hand, their minor league affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC, made the USL playoffs this year featuring a lineup full of young players either contracted to the Union or who have come up through the Union Academy. Union goalkeeper Andre Blake may be the best in the league. Jack Elliott may win Rookie of the Year. C.J. Sapong broke the team record for most goals in a season.

We asked PSP’s writers to share their views on why Union fans should either find hope or despair for the future.

Please share your own views in the Comments section below.

Adam Cann

There is always hope. The structure of MLS provides hope by making it relatively easy to succeed even if you have made mistakes in the recent past. Some teams (e.g., Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago) can find immediate success through spending. Others (Red Bulls, Portland, RSL) rebuild repeatedly around a strong core. No matter the strategy, success can always be just around the corner if you make a few slick moves.

But you do need a core, or you need to buy a core. And the uncomfortable reality is that a Bedoya-Medunjanin-Sapong core is probably not as effective as the cores in either New York color, in Toronto, in Columbus, in Atlanta, in Chicago, perhaps in New England, and perhaps in DC. Additionally, it’s not a core that is at the right age to step into the breach as some of those older groups lose a step.

So yes, there is hope. But hope needs to be invested in something. Right now, it is difficult for fans to invest hope in a club that wouldn’t have made the 2017 playoffs even the points they earned going back through September 2016 were added to their 2017 total. Toronto and Chicago both loudly announced their intentions to get better over the course of an off-season. Red Bulls announced theirs by bringing in Jesse Marsch and his pressing system. Atlanta… well, they took it up to 11.

So far, Earnie Stewart has almost intentionally tamped down hopes, always pointing toward some future based on academy success, U.S. internationals, and smart shopping. For better or for worse, none of those laudable goals comes with a clear timeline. And, unfortunately but appropriately, that means they offer more uncertainty than hope.

Dan Walsh

You’ll know whether to hope come February. By then, the winter transfer window will have closed in most of Europe and Latin America, preseason camp will have opened, and you’ll see the pieces the Union have to play with.

It will be clear by then whether Jay Sugarman and Earnie Stewart have opened the Union’s purse strings to spend as much as necessary to allow the club to compete for a title.

If they haven’t, feel free to give them through the summer transfer window, if you want to offer the benefit of the doubt. (I generally do.)

If by August, this team still doesn’t have two or preferably three designated players and hasn’t drastically changed its paradigm, then the course for you is clear:

Despair. Because if that’s all you get, then it’s what you’ll always get until Sugarman sells the team.

Nick Fishman

Let’s skate over the reason for despair. Ownership isn’t changing.

What the Union do have is a ton of young talent at the center back position. Jack Elliott burst onto the scene from nowhere. The 4th round draft pick should be a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year. Richie Marquez was lost in the woods for most of the 2017 season but returned to show exactly what he is: a legitimate starting-caliber defender in this league.

Then there is Joshua Yaro, the 2016 first round draft pick. There is no denying the 23-year-old has the talent to excel at the position. His head is the only thing holding him back. Beneath these three is the promising youth international Auston Trusty, who has yet to see real time with the Union. Also, don’t discount Mark McKenzie’s future with the club.

Now Philadelphia doesn’t need all of them, and this isn’t to say a veteran center back wouldn’t be a good off-season acquisition. As teams spend more and more on attack, however, cheap young talent at the back will become a premium. Signing players from overseas isn’t the only way to improve a team. Sometimes a good, old-fashioned MLS trade gets the job done. The Union’s young center backs will shine on the field in 2018— some just might shine on other teams, and Philadelphia will be better for it.

Matt McClain

Hope :

  1. Adam Najem, Auston Trusty, Anthony Fontana, and Derrick Jones are players that Union fans should count on for the future. If the front office decides to spend money this off-season, having affordable yet reliable backup players like these four will be crucial and I am excited to see them breakthrough to the next level finally.
  2. It seems as if both head coach Jim Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart finally understand that the players on the roster this season simply were not good enough compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference. Multiple times over the past two months, both have been rather honest with the lack of star power in the lineup. Hopefully they can bend Sugarman’s ear and wallet this off-season to produce a stronger core for youngsters to develop around.

Despair :

Jay Sugarman has yet to be convinced to spend. Curtin has expressed that the team’s lack of strong core players has resulted in an absence of opportunity for young players to secure first team minutes. When and if Sugarman spends still weighs heavily on my mind as well as the rest of the fan base’s.

Chris Gibbons

The primary reason for hope is that the Union will have a lot of money to spend for 2018 and a relatively small margin to make up in becoming a playoff team again.

The reason for despair is that there isn’t a particularly strong track record to show that the team is equipped in maximizing either opportunity.

Steve Whisler

The team’s youth set-up has a lot of talent, which I hope can finally start contributing in 2018. And I hope that whoever is in charge next season will have the guts to give them a run on the field. Just look at Real Salt Lake under Mike Petke this year. The team was in shambles until he gave the Academy kids a run out, sat the vets who weren’t contributing, changed their playing style, and nearly earned a playoff spot.

I despair that the Union, despite seeing the incredible young talent coming to this league from South America and elsewhere, will continue to remain behind the eight-ball and fail to make necessary and successful offseason moves. Should he remain in charge, I fear that Jim Curtin, as much as I like him as a human being, will again fail to learn from his mistakes, and the Union will sit in the very same position on the table this time next year.

Scott Ellis, Fans’ View

I don’t see anything that suggests this team will make the kind of roster moves to compete with Toronto, NYC FC, Chicago, or Atlanta. If that’s the benchmark, I’d vote for despair.

However, I do have hope that we’ll field an improved team capable of securing a playoff spot in 2018.

Why? Because I think this organization bottomed out this year and knows it is at a major inflection point. Attendance slid, trying to sell season tickets on Stub Hub was depressing, and I don’t think I’m alone among season ticket holders in cutting back a bit next year.

I believe Union leadership knows this is the most critical offseason in their history, and that will lead to an aggressive remodeling of this team to stop the bleeding before widespread fan apathy really turns to (negative) action. A few key additions (a  No. 10, winger, and veteran CB or LB), maintaining 2017’s home field advantage, and a couple of “lost season” players from this year having bounce-back years should be enough for the Union to compete with NYRB and Columbus for the 5th spot in the East.

So, modest hope.

Tim Jones

Hope and despair exist relative to expectations.

Expectations for the Philadelphia Union were raised considerably in the first half of 2016 when Nogueira and Barnetta were playing together. It was a cruel tease.

I expect 2018 and 2019 to be years of foundation-building, laying the stone in the arch’s piers. I expect the last year of Earnie Stewarts contract, 2020, to be the attempt to transform the club into a perennial contender with the signing of Designated Player difference-makers. He will lay his keystone in place then to make his arch self-supporting.

Earnie Stewart is not playing a short-term game.

Jim O’Leary

There’s no real reason to despair, this team cannot possibly disappoint us any more in 2018 than it has in 2017.

And 2016.

And 2015 …

So we’ve seen the worst already, from soul-crushing US Open Cup finals to excruciating winless streaks. Whatever happens, you’ll be fine. You might lament the Union turning in another lackluster season, and watch attendance continue to decline, and people may openly wonder how much longer MLS corporate will continue to let such a major media market squander opportunity for growth year after year. But that’s the worst that can possibly happen in 2018, so we’re already living in the Union’s worst-case scenario.

On the other hand there is reason for hope. Possibly misguided hope, or delusional hope, but hope nonetheless. Maurice Edu’s contract will finally be off the books, and it’s not hard to imagine a few other big-budget players not returning next year as well. Pair that with the rumored TAM infusion coming down the pipeline, and that’s a sizable budget for Earnie Stewart to spend. It could be this is the off-season where the signings finally go right, the season where we finally see a game-changing DP suiting up for the home team in Chester.

Of course, it could be another off-season disappointment and misguided signings. That’s always a possibility when the Union are involved.

But if you’re not holding onto at least a shred of hope, why are you even reading this column?

35 Comments

  1. Just curious for anyone who attended the final match vs. Orlando, how many seats had yellow cards on them?

    • You mean those weren’t #SaveTheCrew cards?
      .
      They were scattered around but not overwhelming.

    • I didn’t see any near me, but everyone I asked whether they’ll be there next year said yes, they had renewed (one pointing to the fact that he had Phillies’ season tickets through 2007).

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I believe they said it was a sellout, which I know is just tickets sold. But honestly, the place was pretty full. Remember though, no Eagles game that day, and the weather was absolutely spot on. I commented to my dad the crowd was bigger than I thought, but then remembered the no Eagles game probably helped that out.

  2. Adam has it exactly right regarding Union’s core players, and it echoes something Twellman said on one of the matches on ESPN – the Union roster as made up now is a perfect complementary roster to add 3 high dollar DPs to and be very competitive. The problem the Union are relying on those players to lead their team.

    Also, everyone does realize all the other teams in MLS, who have better rosters currently, are going to get the same amount of GAM and TAM, and those clubs have owners willing to spend their own dollars above the MLS $$? Sorry, for me it is despair until I see otherwise.

  3. One more year….then i’m out if no improvement.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Yup. Same for me. This coming year is my last as a STH if the FO doesn’t show me they give a shit and are willing to back it up with the appropriate signings.

  4. This is all on Ernie at this point. He will make or break the team in this offseason.
    ::
    Certainly there is going to be an amount of dispair when we all realize that Curtin is still the coach at the end of the month. This has been Stewarts biggest fault so far – he should have brought in ‘his guy’ to coach this team when he came in. One can only hope that he realizes his mistake and finally corrects it this offseason.
    ::
    There is still plenty of hope though. We are going to have a good chunk of room under the salary cap to make moves, and we should have a good amount of roster spots to bring in who we need. Ernie has shown that he can pick out decent talent, he just needs to rachet that up a notch this year. Obviously a #10 is at the top of this list.
    ::
    Stewart has been able to squeeze enough money out of Sugarman to bring in Bedoya (and there was Edu), and I believe Ernie when he says that he will have the backing to bring in at least one more DP. Just remember, the Crew got to MLS Cup with the lowest paid DP’s in MLS. I would love to be spending Toronto money on the team, but we can also do well with less.
    ::
    This is Ernie’s year. It is up to him to make it happen. There is no excuse not to do well in the playoffs next year.

    • While Curtin hasn’t been great, Earnie’s talent acquisition has overall been horrible. He’s got a few nice pieces here and there but he’s totally wiffed on a ton and is honestly doing worse than what we had before.

      • Alberg and Simpson were whiffs. Bedoya & Medunjanin were relative hits. Gooch was worth the $60k we payed him (though I think he came to us, not the other way around). Davies was a Bedoya stipulation. Elliot is a hit. Did ES bring in Fafa? Wynnaldum was another $60k guy who was injured a lot. Who else am I missing?

      • Make no mistake though, Ernie has everything at his disposal except the ability to bring in a $3-6mil player, so we will see what he is made of in the next 4 mos.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    I give them 1-3 more seasons. Why? because IMO the Pipeline needed to be built and functioning. There is simply no real way to tell yet if the academy model, which is anchored by a Scotsman mind you, is capable of playing at the highest level.
    .
    IMO in three years we will know exactly what Union are and what they are capable of churning out—- take a team of HG players and spend cash on 3 stars and all of a sudden Union are the talk of MLS. It is alarming to me not one academy player made Hackworths roster for U17 and to be fair that could just as easily be ego driven as player pool driven.
    .
    There are 1,000 Red Flags at every level from the 7 year olds methodology to the 16 year olds to the 20 year olds…
    .
    …to the almost OLDEST roster in MLS.
    .
    I am on record for being crestfallen and totally bereft of belief this is right… at this point, but the intellectual honesty I do have also realizes this is a work in progress. In the meantime…
    .
    …I have to stomach the goal keeper punting the damn ball the whole game, and if you don’t think that’s a significant problem because of his acrobatics….well I can’t help you because I’d take good feet over vertical leap EVERYDAY.

    • When McCarthy played there was much less punting. Just a point of knowledge to be added when deciding whose fault all the punting is. But yeah, our self hyped academy does deserve a few more years to produce players, but honestly it does not seem to be living up to the billing yet.

    • 3 more years will be the 5 years that Stewart likes to bring up that he signed up for (assuming he doesn’t jump ship to the USMNT).

  6. Philip Narozanick says:

    There is more despair right around the corner. Keegan Rosenberry will be traded this offseason, mark my words, for a first round pick or money that will allow us to add a subpar player that furthers our regression and distances the team from leadership’s “build through youth” supposed vision. The only hope I have left is that Jay Sugarman sells this team and we have to take a hiatus like Chivas with the hope that a real ownership group steps in and takes control. Jay’s lack of visibility, Earnie’s lack of transparency and the lack of accountability for Jim is a pathetic slap in the face to the great city of fans Philadelphia has.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I am perfectly okay with Keegan Rosenberry carrying on (pun intended)…. somewhere else.
      .
      No edge. No ‘Fuck You’ in his game or apparent demeanor.
      .
      Likely still thinks his suspension is the administrators’ fault.

      • Philip Narozanick says:

        His suspension IS the administrators fault. The coaching staff horribly mishandled his sophomoric slump benching him in every meaningful game we had in place of someone who has proven he IS NOT an MLS caliber RB and has no future with the Union. Curtin has mishandled Pfeffer, Rosenberry, Yaro, Jones and Trusty, yet somehow there is a fan or fans that want to see Rosenberry traded because he reacted the same way everyone else is to Curtin’s poor decision making by speaking out in frustration. Anyone who wants the 2016 Rookie of the Year runner up to go because he publicly voiced his frustration (his last resort before requesting a trade which is imminent) is insane.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I am Citizen Insane.

      • I have to agree with EP here. I want Rosenberry here, but anyone who thinks he is a “victim” wasn’t paying attention to his play in the pre-season and first few games this year.
        .
        Rosenberry appeared to play dumber soccer every time he took the field. It was actually getting hard to watch.
        .
        Now, I don’t know what his attitude was in the locker room or how he was “handled” (and neither does anyone else posting here), but I do know this: The ONE person responsible for pulling Rosenberry out of his tailspin was Rosenberry himself. I didn’t see ONE game (full or partial) from his this season that told me he should be “the man”. I didn’t see one game where he looked even remotely like the guy who earned every minute he played the season before.
        .
        I don’t know if he came back this year feeling “entitled” or not, but it sure did look like it.
        .
        And what the heck was with the incessant, distracting, running arguments with referees? I didn’t see any of that in his rookie year either.
        .
        Wise words from my father many years ago: “You want me to tell you you’re great? Then go DO something great.”
        .
        Keegan needs to shut up and play up.

      • Then play him at Bethlehem. Isn’t that what it’s for? To help young players improve? Why did he only get 1 (I think) game down there? Easier to work out your issues on the field in a lower-stress environment than on the bench.

      • Giving up on Rosenberry after one bad season would be ludicrous. We don’t know exactly what transpired in practice and in the locker room, though it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Curtin mismanaged him to some extent with his dogged focus on lineup stability. All of us were shocked that Gaddis stayed in the starting lineup as long as he did, and while he was certainly passable, there was nothing about his play that appeared to justify that.

        And in response to DaveR, there was one game in the late part of the season — forgive me that I can’t remember which one it was, I believe it may have been a midweek game — when he absolutely looked like the guy from last year, and it was wonderful to see. Then Gaddis was right back in the XI thereafter.

  7. Despair. Definitely. Been there for awhile now. The Union had a DP d-mid in Edu. They added another in Bedoya. Great spending. They traded a #1 pick for someone to be Bedoya’s buddy and rarely see the field. Their young CB’s continually take steps backwards and can’t see the field for months at a time, when their development needs game time. Their defensive minded coach, can’t coach defense. He can’t make subs or see when he’s run players into the ground either. The owner doesn’t care. I can go on and on and on. Despair.

  8. S.K. Bartholomew says:

    If they don’t get 3 DP’S before March, I’m done.

  9. Also a personal pet peeve, about that yellow card sign…4 exclamation points in the first 3 sentences? Why is a fourth grader writing those signs, and why are they yelling so much? Exclamation points are the most overused unnecessary piece of punctuation. Please stop using them. Tim McDermott I’m talking to you. Do better.

    • WELL SAID!!

      (See how stupid that looks, Union copywriters?)

    • I did mention to my ticket rep Sunday that, while I wasn’t personally insulted or anything, whoever thought calling a “penalty” on a fan (let alone one who hasn’t renewed) for anything other than bad behavior, should not be within 1000 cubicles of a marketing department.
      .
      In all my years of consulting, that might be a “Top 3 Tone Deaf Business Decision” candidate.
      .
      It’s definitely going to be one of my lecture examples for the forseeable future.

  10. It’s very difficult to be optimistic when I know Curtin will be back. He’s failed to get this club an identity other than a failing club that’s useless on the road and enjoys shipping goals in the final 15 minutes of a match. I’m not optimistic about a youth pipeline, either. For every story of breakthrough young talent, there’s two of that same talent regressing — buried on a bench or shipped off to some USL oblivion. It’s honestly hard to imagine how a couple of DP signings would change our fortunes, given how superior the clubs us have become at sustaining success. I’m likely never going to stop paying attention and going to games, but Philly looks a lot like football purgatory to me right now.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      and there is talent just….leaving too…
      .
      …a few earmarked players we have read about and one that as of yet no reporter has noticed as missing I guess…. a columbian kid- played the game differently that anyone else up their but was likely too much of a maverick and just flipping disappeared.
      .
      Loved watching him play… Soto. That’s his name.
      .
      …the hell was his first name…. can’t recall. Soto was his last name though. Dynamic as SHIT.

  11. OneManWolfpack says:

    Overall, I am cautiously hopeful. I really want to believe this team can be good and can play good soccer. I want to believe that the team that was brought here by a group of fanatical supporters that forced MLS to pay attention – can thrive and be a force. But for (basically) 8 years they have shown me the exact opposite. I renewed one last time, unless this off-season (including signing DPs, firing Curtin, etc.) shows me they are ready to join the rest of the league.

  12. Imagine this team with two more legit DP’s. If Blake stays, that makes the team an immediate contender.
    ..
    Legit DP’s are absolute difference makers in MLS. They make the team better both through their own play and by making things easier for all of the complementary pieces around them.
    .
    Imagine, for example, a player like Gago in the midfield (playing the diminutive Frenchman role) and how much better he would make Harris and Ale.
    .
    How about another legit attacker paired with CJ – I’ll throw out a couple of names:
    – Nicolas Castillo (Chile, playing for Pumas)(could be worth it just have have a reason to do the chi-chi-chi le-le-le cheer)
    – Milan Duric (Bosnia – Bristol City)(maybe leverage Harris’ national team connection, returning from hernia surgery could see MLS as a chance to reestablish his credentials; sell-on ability should interest MLS)
    .
    Fact is that this team is not as far off as it may seem. Look at what Chicago did before crapping the bed last night.
    .
    Also, a coaching change could open some doors. How about a well-regarded coach from Eastern Europe – Hungary, Bulgaria, former Yugoslav countries. Uncover a hidden gem maybe not on everyone’s radar
    .
    So, the ultimate question is — will ownership spend this off season

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Well my hope for Wynalda is out so…. I’m in.
      .
      argued in the beginning for some young multilingual aspiring and upcoming second division low first division Dutch coach.
      .
      that didn’t happen.

  13. Need another Jay Simpson to make this squad great.
    What happens when Blake leaves and the Goals Against Average rises up a goal a game?
    We need an Idu, Odu or Udu to replace Edu who replaced Adu.
    It’s October 26th and Curtin is still the coach…
    And Earnie is working on his next Jay Simpson
    No “For Sale” sign up in Chester so the whole mess continues

  14. Quaker Shiker says:

    A new coach is the first priority! Jim Curtin is a nice guy with MLS experience as a Back and yet can’t coach how to defend a set piece.
    Jim is a nice guy who makes his first substitution in the eightieth minute. In one game he made a sub in stoppage time when we were down a goal.
    Jim is a nice guy who sticks with his game plan, no matter how the game is going. Other teams adjust but not the Union. You can count on it.
    Jim is a nice guy: Leo Durocher, a baseball manager who knew a thing or two about sports said: “Nice guys finish last” Well… here we are again, LAST.

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