A View from Afar / Union

Two Union problems, or why real soccer is not a video game

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Apparently, building a successful MLS team in real life isn’t the same as a video game.

We are sorry to inform you that playing all your teenagers so that their numerical skill ratings rise and you have future stars will not work out well for you in the short term.

Likewise, it is, alas, a regretful truism that signing semi-big names does not work if the players do not actually move.

Yes, we’re here today with groundbreaking news.

You may have guessed that we’re talking about Philadelphia Union, for whom two things stand out beyond their awful record, their equally awful performance Saturday, and the league’s worst attack. (Los Angeles FC’s four road wins through six matches equals the Union’s total since September 2015.)

One is obvious and the other maybe not so much, so let’s talk a bit about both of them.

Movement off the ball: The Union attackers have none

There’s a classic story from the 2012 MLS All-Star Game involving Chelsea captain John Terry and San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski. Early in that game, Wondolowski had lost Terry on his way to a first half goal. On the walk into the locker room at halftime, Terry, then widely considered one of the world’s best center backs, fell in step with Wondolowski and told him, “Your movement is incredible.”

It doesn’t take great athletic ability, size, or quickness to have good movement off the ball. Rather, it requires creativity, vision, perseverance, and most importantly, the understanding that you as an attacker must judiciously and persistently seek out space when you do not have the ball.

The Union lack this in the attacking third. Their attackers’ movement off the ball is far too limited.

  • How many times have you watched them standing around waiting for a cross?
  • How many diagonal runs have you seen?
  • How many runs do they make into and through the box, even if they’re fruitless?
  • How much movement do you see once the game slows down?

The Union have scored three goals this year, the fewest of any MLS club. Two have come off late arrivals from center midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Anthony Fontana.

Otherwise, the Union attackers have spent a lot of time standing around, waiting around for the ball to come to them.

Some of it is probably due to the sorts of attackers they have:

  • A classic No. 9 target forward in Sapong who comes deep to find the ball, plays great hold-up, takes a beating, and is on a cold streak to start the year. (Keep in mind he scored 16 goals last year, tied for eighth in MLS. Deep breaths here.)
  • Two burners on the flanks in David Accam and Fafa Picault, who are primarily straight line players who like to go one-on-one but haven’t shown much in possession or combination play.
  • I still can’t tell you what Borek Dockal brings to the table, but maybe we’ll eventually find out.

On Sunday, I watched Napoli knock off Juventus 1-0. I picked up one key, relevant takeaway.

Forget athletic ability, touch, everything like that.

Watch how they move off the ball.

Napoli attackers Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens constantly look for space to make runs through the box. They don’t just do it in open field play. They do it when their team is in possession and their opponents’ defensive lines are set. And they don’t stop making runs just because their teammates don’t find them the first time. They try and try again. Napoli is a team in constant motion, whether they have the ball or not, and it creates chances and makes them fun to watch.

Yes, we all know Serie A is a higher level of play than MLS.

But keep in mind the principle and extrapolate it: If you don’t look for and explore space on a soccer field, you’ll never find it.

Teenage teams lose: This is not a video game

It turns out that you can’t send out a bunch of teenagers in MLS like it’s a video game.

Whoa. Who knew?

The Union’s defense was a thruway on Saturday.

Mark McKenzie’s first MLS start went about as well as you’d expect for a player who had previously played just eight games for Bethlehem Steel before spending a season at Wake Forest University. McKenzie, 19, showed some good signs, but he spent entirely too much of the game chasing Dallas breakaways that got past the Union’s dangerously high line.

Meanwhile, at left back, Ray Gaddis played in place of another teenager, Matt Real, likely due to his defensive abilities, after Real had provided a mixed bag full of good crossing and key defensive mental errors in his first Union starts.

Among the differences between Auston Trusty and the Union’s other teenagers is this:

  • Trusty played 44 games in USL — about 4,000 minutes — over two seasons. He got blooded with extended playing time against quality competition.
  • None of the Union’s three other teenagers has topped 1,500 minutes in USL and/or college.

Sure, Anthony Fontana scored a nice goal in his debut. Yes, Real and McKenzie have demonstrated real potential.

But these guys need regular minutes in USL to demonstrate they’re ready to be reliable MLS contributors. Otherwise, they’re red meat for hungry wolves.

No, you can’t do much about injuries. While it’s pretty much expected at this point that Josh Yaro will be injured, Jack Elliott and Richie Marquez don’t have extensive injury histories. There’s nothing wrong with a teenage No. 5 center back. McKenzie started because someone had to. That’s life.

But for all the fans who treat soccer like a game of Football Manager or FIFA, where you plug in your teenage projected starlet, play him for 15 games and watch his ratings skyrocket, and not constantly lose, this is the actual reality.

And for all the clubs that didn’t sign a quality veteran defender or two this off-season when they needed to, this is accountability.

“Play your kids” is nice, and certainly many are wondering when Derrick Jones is going to see an MLS field again.

But a supposed journeyman could become one of the best players on your team. Look at Ben Sweat with New York City FC, Diego Chara in Portland, or Wondolowski for San Jose. Or try Didier Drogba at age 24, when he scored a then-career high 8 goals in 32 games and played for a Ligue 1 team that barely escaped relegation.

If you want to win, you play the best players that best fit together to make the best team, regardless of age, salary, or any other number you like.


  1. Spot on, Dan! Many are down on Dockal, but were are you supposed to go with the ball when Accam, Pico, and Sapong are just standing stationary next to defenders on the offside line?

    • I agree with this somewhat. It’s hard to tell how Dockal will do. CJ stands still or comes back (that’s who he is at this point, Curtin should play to his strengths instead of hoping he finds rebounds), Accam and Picault sprint ahead. Dockal is someone I feel who will find good passes with movement.
      One thing that is abundantly clear, there are not many Tranquillo Barnettas out there.

    • all I can see is Nogueira looking up and doing a 2-handed shrug because no one was trying to get open.

  2. This gets to the heart of the conversation we’ve had on this page for two years at least. One of the chief complaints with Curtin has been his insistence on players and a formation that seem more committed to a philosophy than to results. You can play your principles and get results when you’re Pep Guardiola but not when you have a teen-aged back line and are in a supposedly professional league. People don’t buy tickets to see Soccer School.

    How is the Starting XI determined? It can’t be just practice. If you’re getting completely shut down week in and week out, you have to adjust. I’m sure McKenzie has a great future, but are you seriously telling me Ritchie Marquez wasn’t the better choice if the goal is to get a result? And how is it that Derrick Jones, so useful in his starts last season, is behind an aging veteran midfielder who can ping a pass but not defend? When defending with a rookie CB pairing should be the emphasis?

    A team should strive for identity and philosophy, but it has to also strive for results, even if those results require some concessions. There’s no way all this losing will help develop our home grown players. It will do nothing but lay waste to any confidence and belief they might have.

    • “Ritchie Marquez wasn’t the better choice if the goal is to get a result”

      Do you seriously think Marquez was going to do a damn thing against a Dallas midfield that was running free all game and Dallas attackers that had acres of space behind our ill-advised high line and high press?

      • the issue was how high our line was. They attacked the gap inbetween our CB’s and over the top of Keegan when he pushed forward. The goals were largely a result of being slow to step and just constantly being attacked. Marquez is hurt too so the best option was Mckennzie. Although, I am of the mind that a CDM can play CB (Jones).

    • Marquez is out injured, but yes, he probably would have started if healthy. Yaro was in the 18, but I think he just got back from injury too.

      • I didn’t realize Ritchie was injured. And to James, I’m not saying Marquez was going to put the team on h is back, but he’s a better option than a teenager.

  3. The dig at the kids is totally off base as it does not mention that it is 100% on Curtin to either change the formation or protect them better.

    The issue with this team is not with the defense, not by a long shot.

    We have young players in defense, yet:

    – Curtin does not play with a real 6. The backline gets 0 protection. Haris might as well be a traffice cone and Bedoya has to do everything everywhere.
    – Curtin continues to trot out his “high press no matter what” mantra, against one of the best teams in the league at playing pretty soccer, ON THE ROAD, and you expect any backline to hold up against that, especially since:
    – The offense fucking sucks. We did not hold possession, let alone in the opponents third. The invisible midfield meant Dallas had all day to wait for runners and send balls behind the backline. We were not producing offense, we were not keeping the ball away form the other team, we were basically putting the kids under duress at will.
    – (as always under Curtin) We rely on our FBs to be complete two way players and provide value to both offense and defense, and I don’t think theres many FBs in the world who can play like that, let alone in the MLS, let alone young HGs. But Curtin keeps doing it. Why he doesn’t want his Wingers to contribute more, I don’t know.

    This team has scored 1 goal in the last, what, 5 games? I don’t know how you can even write an article calling out the defense when the offense is non-existent like that.

    You make it sound like if we had Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf back there, we would be a good team. Well guess what, Dallas would still have sent balls in behind them constantly because the offense SUCKS.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      absolutely accurate regarding the ‘dig at the kids.’

    • There is no dig at the kids in this piece.

      Good points about the No. 6. I’ve mentioned that in past pieces — heck, we all have, ad nauseum — but did not repeat it here.

    • Spot on with almost all of this.

    • In a true 4-2-3-1, you are suppose to have two sixes….. parallel to each other ………shielding the CBs, I have never seen the Union play a true 4-2-3-1……..so this whole commentary on a shape they are dogmatically wedded too…….doesn’t make any sense, because they have never played a true 4-2-3-1. Secondly, Trusty was awful as well in Dallas. The first goal he was late to the show, the second he could have stopped if he got horizontal and had a sense of urgency….instead of jogging and watching Blake get beat. No one has mentioned this I believe, I can’t be the only one who saw that!

      • UnitedPenn13 says:

        Alicat215 – I saw it too! I had to replay it a few times because I couldn’t believe I saw him jog to the post.

      • Mentioned it in my post following match review. Even showed my son replay of it as example of poor team player completely leaving his keeper out to dry. Actually defense really left Blake out to dry the entire first half—unlike Elliott in Orlando game at least getting goal-line clearance before going out injured.
        Also pointed out, as did tv commentator–why the hell were they still playing high defense after the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th breakaways? Come on–adjust people!
        Disgusted UnionGoal

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    …..there are two reasons to make a run… to find space and more importantly, to create space.
    funny how people think Jay Simpson is a bust– guess what—-his off ball movement tends to be exactly what a striker’s is supposed to be. the goal he scored in the first game of last year was brilliant. NOT because he’s a star, but because he’s a STRIKER capable of creating and finding and using space (and when you match this with a team capable and willing to build play THROUGH the middle third in to the attacking third with PATIENCE you have something that resembles the Beautiful Game)…. course, his style of play has NOTHING to do with how the team plays…. and now he gets thrown into untenable situations and doesn’t do anything and uninformed dumbass opinions here think the guy sucks.
    the worst thing that can happen to you playing for Jim Curtin, is getting injured—-you essentially lose your place in the team…. challenge anyone to argue otherwise.
    Banished to Band-Aid-Ville.
    In other news, the defense is not the problem. who cares if they make mistakes.
    I echo the Bourne Assassin’s most astute comment yesterday…. to start a back line so young and not empty a HOLDING DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER is ‘criminal neglect’.

    • I agree 100%. I hate a lot about Sapong. But what I hate more is how static he is. And if thats how Curtin wants him to play, well that’s another reason to fire Curtin.

      But it drives me CRAZY to see how teams have strikers that make runs, run diagonally, and just overall ARE DANGEROUS ON OFFENSE and we are stuck here playing a MLS 1.0 Striker.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        the same thing happens with Ilsinho with argers here half the time are looking at symptoms but not underlying issues…. “oh he over dribbles oh he loses possession.”
        NOBODY MOVES when he’s attacking- damn I’ve been arguing this for two years. People actually think Ilsinho wants to dribbling all over the place. Its insanity.
        Creativity on the ball IS ONLY AS GOOD as the movement off the ball.

      • Agreed El P. The Dallas game was a great example, though not to great effect. After Ilsinho came on, Rosenberry and Dockal both looked better and more dangerous. Imagine if there was a striker moving diagonally and a wing on the other side reacting to all the movement.

  5. I think Dan’s points are spot-on. “Play the kids” always sounds lovely in theory… until you actually play the kids and watch them flounder. In truth, you need an appropriate balance of youth and experience. Right now we have all the experience up front — producing nothing — and all the youth in the back — which started off the season surprisingly well, and actually might still be OK once Jack Elliott gets back on his feet.

    The real problem is that we should have enough talent to do better on offense, and at this point it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that another coach could utilize the pieces better. I mean, how could it possibly be any worse?!?

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    Playing the kids on defense is not the problem. Even if they had a perfect game Saturday night it would only have been good enough for a draw, just like it would have been the three other times the offense has been shut out.
    Given that they are playing the kids, I think most of us would be fine if they were losing 4-3. It’s losing X-0 that is the problem.

  7. Maybe if our vet midfielders and attackers could actually control the ball and score some goals I would be more worried about the D. Our attack was more pathetic than our d last game. If Sapong could actually score a sitter for once we could have escaped with a point or maybe even 3. Even the first goal we gave up was a pretty weak penalty call.
    3 goals this year from our attack and 1 came from a teenager is absolutely pathetic. That’s the real problem with this team.

  8. I don’t get where all this impatience is coming from. When Earnie came in he made his plan clear and no one complained about it. Playing the kids is the right move for a club who don’t want to spend, and when they do always get it wrong. Playing in the USL does not guarentee success in MLS, no matter how many minutes they get. The best way for them to develop is to let them cut their teeth in MLS. No one is asking Matt Real to come out and be Marcelo (and if you are kindly leave). No one should have expected McKenzie and Trusty to keep a clean sheet on Saturday either. Their goal was to mitigate, and with the help of Blake they did. Two goals is not insurmountable. But when your offense is inept it can be.

    WE ARE OWED NOTHING! Do I want to win MLS every year and challenge in the Open Cup, beat the snot out of the I-95 rivals? Yes! But when did we come to this conclusion that the Union deserve to be good. We don’t fill our already small stadium, the media in town gives little to no attention to the team; what is it?

    Ownership is complacent, coach is hellbent on doing things one way, and we spend our money like drunk college kids at taco bell at 2 am. I just can’t get over this idea that we deserve to be good. Fill the stadium up, just once, then we will talk.

    • Agreed on most of the points on the kids. Totally disagree on the rest. There is a lot of soccer passion here, and the stadium has been filled on many occasions. But guess what, we’re 8 years in and doing significantly worse (comparatively) than ever before. That breeds apathy. Sure the radio station hosts don’t push soccer, but there are plenty that love the game and want to support a good team. Basketball has a great tradition here, and even the most loyal process trusters didn’t show up for 3-4 years, even though that had very clear indications that it could turn around.

    • Tom, if the club wants our loyalty it owes us a competitive team. No one is going to go to the stadium while this club has no shot. It’s a lot to ask people to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets, parking and food when there’s no discernible effort from this club to put out a competitive team, from the players to the coach to the tactics employed.

      I think, too, that most fans here are in favor of playing the kids, but the current form of this team and the results are torching them. They have been completely exposed, the reasons for which are many and have attracted most of our ire.

    • Tom, with all due respect… are you nuts?!? Fill the stadium to see THIS?!? After 8+ years of pathos?!?

      This team has had a devoted and passionate fanbase for many many years now. They were coming very close to filling the stadium even when the team sucked for a while there. And what happened?? People just got sick and tired of paying for this substandard, half-assed product they call a soccer team. It’s up to THEM to make it good, and when they do, people will show up. Not the other way around. ESPECIALLY after so many years of this nonsense. In fact, the only means we have to put pressure on the ownership is to stay home. The last thing we should be doing is failing to use that tool.

  9. There’s a lot of argument here both ways from playing the kids to the offense stinks to bad movement etc. pretty clear that in most of these situations the main problem is no change. The coach trots out the same junk every time and expects better results. It won’t fix everything clearly, but until Curtin is gone this team will not do much better.

  10. -8
    Union expected goals minus goals is -8. Only Toronto is worse.
    If the Union have scored 8 more goals then they likely have more points on the board and we are not discussing lack of movement, etc.
    Chicken or egg?

  11. One thing that keeps coming back to me is how the team’s rigidity is a huge part of its downfall.

    One has to assume, given the large sample size, that there is no way for Jay Simpson to play himself back into a starting role. No practice he could have where he outshone, outworked, out-whatever-ed Sapong enough to merit a start.
    The same goes for Derrick Jones (v. Medujnanin), Ilsinho (v. Fafa), and any other player that isn’t in the team’s preferred XI.

    This breeds contempt among that group of marginalized players, knowing they’re not a part of the plan and have no ability to change their status. It also makes them unprepared to contribute should the time come, because they rarely need to be “ready,” and thus are rarely ready. Finally, it makes that starting XI complacent, not worried about the guy chasing them for a spot.

    They’re not hungry, which is a problem because, as we know in Philadelphia, “hungry dogs run faster.”

    • The biggest component of this is Sapongs constant 90 minutes.

      Even when he would go on runs of several games without a shot on goal – even when he simply could do with a rest, Curtin will NEVER rest him.

      It’s baffling.

      Even late in games, instead of simply taking him out for a striker, he puts Sapong at winger. WHY!?

    • Good points, Chris.

      And think about it: Simpson was the chosen starting #9 on this team to begin last season. Had he not broken his rib, what might have been?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        He was the opening day game day starter.
        Has had ONE start against I believe a USL team since in Open Cup- please correct if you are certain.
        But “he sucks.”

      • Show me a play, any play since that start where Simpson has made a positive move. Maybe he makes nice runs, good for him. But if his feet are stone when he gets the ball, what does it matter. One of two things happens when the ball gets played to Simpson. Either he drops the ball negative, or it takes him so long to sort out where he wants to attack, he gets surrounded by 2-3 defenders and loses the ball. Go back and watch. Every single time. Look maybe if the rest of the team could hold possession in the final 1/3 and actually not stand around like dead trees, maybe Simpson then becomes effective with his runs. Maybe. When he comes on the field nothing positive happens. Nothing changes. Things generally get worse.

      • I have not seen anything out of Simpson that says we need to see more Simpson. He has had his chances out there and either looks lost, or is busy bouncing the ball off his foot.
        If we want to shake things up a bit, put Burke up top. He has some creativity at least.
        I’m still not sure CJ is the problem though. He’s put a couple right at the keeper, but that’s everyone that’s taken a shot this year. His agonizingly close calls on crosses also have some culpability on the guy putting in the service.

  12. I have been saying this for years: Curtin is the problem since he does not teach the players how to move off the ball to make things happen.

    • Should a coach have to teach players to move off the ball at the first team, professional level?

      • If its been 4 years and you still suck and aren’t getting better, fuck yeah you should remind them!

      • Dallas worked so well against us because the players knew where to be. That comes directly from coaching. In modern day MLS tactics matter. Any top team has a coach with a tactical vision. Union don’t.

      • Depends CPfeif, at most of the first team professional level……no, those mechanics should be in place. But there are a few clubs out there and coaches who attract top pros to teach still Pep and Klopp come to mind. Top flight pros have said they have to relearn the game when they move to Barca, particularly off the ball movements and sequences. It’s why when Mascherano went there, he had to move from CDM to CB…..who couldn’t get the movements they wanted…..and he was pretty darn good pre Barca. So I guess most instances no, but there are some out there.

  13. Curtin got the dreaded vote of confidence today from Earnie Stewart (too bad it’s behind a pay wall):


    Check out Stewart’s pablum: “My job is to look at it in a broader perspective, and take out single games. What we’re asking of players, the data that we get back and the numbers that we have, are for a lot of parts, pretty darn good.”

    “It’s really simple: you have to put the ball in the back of the net. That’s something that we need to work on.”

    “Obviously after a game, you have to take everything [said] with a grain of salt. When you get into these positions constantly and you don’t capitalize on that, it kind of wears on you and you’ve got to watch out – then confidence starts [to drop], and that’s not where you want to go to.”

    Asked whether he still has confidence in Curtin, Stewart said: “Yes.”

    “You’ve got to get into positions to create your own luck. We didn’t create chances [against Dallas], and in the end, you don’t deserve to win, [but] for the most part we’ve been doing that really well.”

    About Bockal: “You have this ‘DP’ branding and then you’re supposed to come in and do everything at one time. It doesn’t work that way. It’s simple as that, We try to bring somebody in for the qualities that he has and everybody can see those qualities. But in the end, that’s just the way soccer is –it needs to translate to scoring goals and winning games.”

    “An individual in a system will determine the outcome of a game. We make so much of changes and all that kind of stuff. I don’t believe in that.I’ve never believed in that. So I’m not going to start believing in it because somebody wants change because you’ve lost a game. Teams that do not too well, they change all kinds of things, and in the end what happens in Europe is they get relegated. Changing coaches, changing systems, changing players, it usually leads to absolutely nothing.”

    “If you play with Ilsinho on the outside instead of Fafa Picault, it’s different. That’s where the nuances are, and that’s something for the coaching staff to make decisions on.”

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