For Pete's Sake

A collective, devastating failure in Houston

Photo: 215pix

Moments before the 2018 U.S. Open Cup final, everyone in Houston associated with Philadelphia Union felt the strangest sensation that could possibly be associated with this unfathomably frustrating franchise — optimism.

The fans felt it, hundreds of them, first enjoying some outstanding barbecue at a team-sponsored event not far from BBVA Compass Stadium, then as they filed into their designated section and made a ruckus during the pregame warm-ups. Most spent hundreds of dollars on flights, hotels, and tickets, all so they could be a part of history.

The team felt it, clad in special blue warm-ups honoring the legacy of Bethlehem Steel and armored with the confidence that comes from taking six points off two of the best teams in the West. The club’s owner chartered a plane and invited the entire front office aboard. Only the small number of employees working at the Philadelphia watch party were absent.

Even the media, so often playing the role of snarky Twitter heroes, could feel it. On the KYW Philly Soccer Show, all three hosts (including PSP’s Mike Servedio, who has covered the team as long as anyone) thought that the Union would lift their first trophy. So did two-thirds of the Union Soccer Podcast pregame show. (Only I thought otherwise, and I’ve never been more unhappy to be ultimately proven right.)

And then it all went wrong, catastrophically wrong.

Not even five minutes in, the Union imploded, conceding a goal to the Dynamo as many players were still arguing a goal correctly disallowed due to an offside call. They never recovered. The spell of dominance that the team enjoyed over the next 20 minutes amounted to nothing but sound and fury, and Houston’s counterattack goal broke the visitors completely.

The rest turned out to be a formality.

No one played a good game

The game is won or lost, fundamentally, by the players on the field. And not a single Union player will look at the tape and be proud of their performance, except maybe the strangely in-form Jay Simpson, who was at least trying things in his substitute appearance.

Most glaringly, this was a poor performance for the Union’s young back line, who collapsed at the worst possible time.

Ray Gaddis, coming off an injury, did an excellent impression of a practice cone, deployed specifically so Alberth Elis could zoom around it time and time again. Jack Elliott’s one-on-one defending was a mess, and he lost Mauro Manotas on both of the Colombian’s goals. And Auston Trusty had his worst game as a professional, stepping up at all the wrong times before capping his performance by smashing in the own goal that sealed the match.

But some of the blame falls on the midfield too. The Union have been most successful this season when the veteran midfield controls the game, protects the back line, and forces the opponents deep into their own end. That didn’t happen on Wednesday. Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin were invisible, and Borek Dockal — still shaking off injury rust — accomplished little in his time on the ball.

Most disheartening was the team’s general mentality. Much has been said about the way this team’s leadership has been different this season. Yet it was clear that the pressure of the cup final caused the squad to crack. The way the first goal came about — because players were so amped up arguing a correct call that they got caught in transition by a counterattacking team — is the sort of mental error that should not happen to a team with strong leadership.

Failing to learn from the past

In assessing the performance of Union head coach Jim Curtin over the years, the debate has often circled around what parts of a match you assign responsibility for to the manager.

After all, Curtin isn’t actually on the field, and he doesn’t sign the players. Sometimes, this means that we handwave away Curtin’s responsibility for lineup choices and the performances of individual players.

In this final, though, it should be clear that Curtin failed both in the “hard” aspects of his job — tactics, substitutions, and bench selection — and in the “soft” aspects — getting his team ready to play.

Tactically, the Dynamo beat the Union exactly the same way Montreal Impact did just two weeks ago. They sat back, let the Union have the ball, and then launched ruthless counterattacks on the flanks that evaded the Union’s midfield entirely. Curtin did nothing to counteract this strategy.

His substitution pattern didn’t help. When the Union found themselves down two goals at halftime, Curtin made no changes to his listless side. He justified that post-game by suggesting that he wanted to give the first team 15 minutes to turn it around. Down two goals in a must-win game, though, it does you no good to keep doing what isn’t working. The half was already half over by the time the Dynamo scored their third goal and Simpson was pointlessly introduced.

Reasonable minds can differ on whether Curtin erred by not including Ilsinho, who was “20 to 25 minutes fit,” on the bench. Curtin indicated after the game that it was a binary choice between Ilsinho and Simpson, and if that’s the case then you have to pick the fit player.

But his explanation demonstrates how Curtin failed to adapt to the situation. When you’re in a cup final, you have to take some calculated risks, because the game is a must-win. That means building your bench differently than you would for a regular season game. The situation where you’re going to need Ilsinho is much more likely than one where you’re going to need both Derrick Jones and Warren Creavalle. Putting Creavalle on the bench was a waste of a roster spot, and it cost the Union — because this was the sort of game where 25 minutes of Ilsinho might have made a difference.

Most damningly, Curtin’s players simply weren’t up for the match. After the game, he admitted that the team’s mentality “maybe wasn’t there on the night.” He was right. They looked off from the very first minute.

It’s the coach’s responsibility to have his team ready to play, and he failed to do that.

This is Jim Curtin’s third U.S. Open Cup final. He’s lost all three. Few managers have managed that feat, in part because managers either learn from their mistakes or lose their job.

Wednesday night showed that Curtin hasn’t learned, and it’s fair to ask whether he ever will be the man who can take the Union where their fans want them to go.

Ill omens for a playoff run 

If you haven’t, you should read Ryan Rose’s piece from yesterday assessing where the Union stand right now, which lands on a more optimistic conclusion. I agree with a lot of what he’s written: If this cup final turns out to be a blip on the path to a long postseason run, then I think it will be easily forgotten.

The opportunity to make the playoff run that everyone in Unionland has dreamed of is not gone. There are still games to play, and there’s no question that this team has played very well over the past several months.

But, having been in Houston and having watched that match, it’s tough for me to conclude that a deep postseason run is more likely than another collapse.

The Union faced the most playoff-like atmosphere they possibly could on Wednesday night, and they failed miserably. Under pressure, against an inferior team, they wilted.

They are led by a manager who has overseen several end-of-season collapses, is winless in playoff games and cup finals, and was outcoached by his counterpart and far too conservative Wednesday night.

They are relying on a young back line that cracked under pressure, an aging midfield, a forward line featuring at least one player out of position, and a bench that is either shorthanded or mismanaged.

What optimism that the Union have earned this season was left behind in the stands at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Now, they must find it again.

28 Comments

  1. Perfect in every way, Peter. Agree 100%.

  2. This is how I felt on Wednesday night. I’m not sure how I feel today. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow… we’ll see what happens in Columbus.

  3. Beautiful Peter, truly.
    .
    I think Curtin has a lot of good qualities. I don’t think those qualities add up to being a good manager. He doesn’t have a feel for the game or the season yet, and this is displayed in his subs and squad rotation. I think this ends up compounding problems for him and the team. I’d like to know what Ernst Tanner is thinking.

  4. A lot of people are pointing to switching Picault and Sapong in the first half as Curtin trying to change the game. With Gaddis pinned back covering Elis, Fafa wasn’t getting the support he needed to be effective.

    But if Gaddis was told his only job was defense, it should have been obvious before kickoff that he wouldn’t be able to help on offense. So that change was more about addressing a mistake Curtin made rather than actually adapting to the game. And it did absolutely nothing to address the fact that the Union couldn’t control the game out wide, which is how the Dynamo (and Impact) beat them.

    • Or maybe Gaddis is a bad defender when going against fast players?

      • Or maybe Gaddis was still feeling the injury he suffered in the last game he started, which required him to leave that game.

      • Maybe, but Gaddis has been consistently bad against players who are just as fast as him throughout his entire career.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Or maybe Houston assumed Gaddis was not 100% (correctly as it seems) and they ran at him with a skilled, fast player, knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep up as he normall can… and maybe Houston also allowed Gaddis to possess the ball in the offensive half, knowing he isn’t creative and doesn’t like to be on the ball as much as his counter-part (Keegan) does. That is coaching. That is how you prepare a team for a Final.

      • if gaddis was still feeling the injury then fabinho should have started. still a coaching proble.

  5. well written!

  6. Why is losing 3 open cup finals always looked at as a bad thing. We got to the finals 3 times which is more than the other teams. Other teams haven’t been able to fail that many times because they failed before then.

    • I think because winning trophies is the point…

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      It’s the way we lost, the team we lost to, and the form we were in at the time of the game… that makes the outrage from us fans so valid. The other two losses we were the underdog and just kind of “happy to be there” (I think Curtin actually said that about the first Final in 2014).
      .
      Nine years in, I am done just being happy getting to Finals

    • You said why in your question. LOSING. I.E. not wining. I have never heard anyone go out and say I want to be #2. Have you? There’s no medals, no trophies, no extra money or birth in the CCL.
      .
      What do I care what other teams did. They aren’t the team I root for. If other teams fans want to hand out participation trophies and the the feel goods from it, go right ahead. Don’t bring that shit here though.

      • Participation trophies are for kids. Participation trophy complaints are lame. I’m just saying we had another good showing in the tournament and shouldn’t be bashed when we lose the final when most other teams are losing early or to USL sides.

  7. I’ve thought having both Jones and Creavalle on the bench has been a mistake all along – it just really bit them in the ass this game. Their bench is regularly too “defensive” with a centerback, fullback, and two defensive (ish) mids. I’d rather see one of Creavalle/Jones selected so another attacker can make the bench. The very fair counterpoint here would be: who? The options would seem to be Herbers, Epps, or Fontana. Neither Herbers nor Epps are anything different other than fresh legs, and I’d rather see Fontana playing for Steel than riding the bench for the Union. This game, as Peter points out, Ilsinho was the perfect answer, though.
    .
    Or alternately, since Creavalle can – in a pinch – play fullback, you could remove Fabinho from the bench. That said, having Fabinho on the bench would allow Curtin to put him on the wing as a late sub in a game that they’re leading – not that he’s ever actually done this, of course. But in theory he could.

  8. in hindsight and armchair managing… that game was a Warren Crevalle game. Haris needed to sit…then be brought in if necessary.
    .
    The manager benched Amobi for Edu. Didn’t learn the lesson. Needed to sit Haris on Wednesday and the counter attacking team would likely have been nullified.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      This requires a tactical move. Something our current manager only does when he absolutely has to (see: injury) or when the game tells him to (see: after the 70th min)

  9. I’m going to disagree with a lot of this. Yes, the Union lost two prior open cups, but those games came down to coin flips (which way did the ball bounce off the post and PK’s…which technically isn’t even considered a loss). This time the shoe was on the other foot with the Union probably considered the better team based on their record and recent run of form. But does anyone really think this Union team is as good as 2014 Seattle? Yes, the current Union are probably better than 2015 SKC but that team didn’t face the cross country travel that the Union faced last week.
    .
    You suggest that Curtin should have played Ilshino. How did that work out when Mo Edu came back for the open cup final in 2015? If anything, he probably should have started Fabhino rather than risk Gaddis.
    .
    You say the team wasn’t ready to play and that is the coach’s fault. I say the team came out ready to play and then lost their minds when the goal got called back and they started to argue rather than play. The coach shouldn’t be needed to tell them that they need to pay attention to what is happening on the field. These are professionals and the blame for doing that falls on them. The coach can do a lot, but there’s only so much he can do to anticipate a situation like that.
    .
    Unlike the other seasons they were in the finals, the upcoming games mean something as well so while you call this game “must win” Curtin needed to weigh how to play this game realizing that there is another crucial match on Saturday. Unfortunately, this is not the FA Cup taking place after the season is over.
    .
    You claim this was a “playoff-like atmosphere”. Seeing the stands half full with the fans only making noise when the mascot told them to disproves that thought. I was at a full Giants Stadium for the Soccer Bowl in 1978. That was a playoff atmosphere. Seattle the previous week was more of a playoff atmosphere.
    .
    You say that coaches shouldn’t lose 3 finals because either they learn or are fired. Didn’t Bud Grant and Marv Levy lose 4 Super Bowls each? Has someone told Canton that fact since both of them have busts there? I’m not saying that Curtin is as good as these coaches, but I am saying that great coaches aren’t always able to win the big game.
    .
    This team from the coach down to all of the players has done better than any of us expected for the last 5 months. Had they gelled a little quicker, we might even be looking at them fight for the Supporters Shield. While I wasn’t happy with the result Wednesday night, I’m not planning on kicking them when they are down. Instead, I’m going to see what happens in the next 4 games and then hopefully cheer them deep into the playoffs – WHETHER OR NOT THEY WIN OR LOSE THOSE GAMES.

    • Peter Andrews says:

      These are fair disagreements. I do want to say that, based on my experience, it definitely was a playoff atmosphere. I gather it didn’t seem that way on TV, but from sitting in the stadium it was intense and loud — helped in large part by the Sons of Ben and the Houston fans responding.

      • I can also object to the fact that it wasn’t just Sons of Ben in the Union supporters section…I am not a member of the SOB’s but was there standing and singing with everyone else. But aside from our section and the one across with the Houston supporters, most of the rest of the sections were less than 2/3 full…with some being completely empty. And overall, I would say it wasn’t nearly as loud as Talen was when the Galaxy were in town in July (and there I was sitting at midfield, not near the supporters).

      • The atmosphere at the Piazza was also great and had a playoff atmosphere! If we have a playoff game away, I hope that we have another event there.

    • Would everyone in Buffalo and Levy himself, trade his induction into the hall of fame for ONE Super Bowl? Abso-F-ing-lutely.
      .
      I’ll make it as simple as I can. I don’t want the second place coach. I don’t care about moral victories or feeling good about losses or finishing second place. I don’t care if Jim Curtin leaves the Union to become the greatest coach wining multiple MLS and US Open Cups. Don’t care. What did he do here?

  10. Couldn’t agree more. There was no adjustment to the on field play. I was hopeful there would be a sub early. Maybe even at the half to get the offense going. But no such luck ! Sorry Jimmy…it may be time to go. I realize the players play the game. But the coach needs to have them ready! And he clearly didn’t.

  11. This loss, like tge other two Open Cup losses, are the result of players and coaches who are unable to adjust their level of play befitting the signifigance of tge game. I also noticed tgat the Union players gave a lot of space to the opposing ball handler. I saw that Houston sent two defenders to the Union player with the ball. I saw no sense of urgency on the part of Union players. I saw little pursuit by union players. While Houston slammed the Union ball carrier at every opportunity, the Union were as polite as a sunnyvday.

  12. Many things are murky — such as why the team wasn’t mentally up for the game. How much can a coach control that? I don’t know.

    But what’s undeniable is that the coach is responsible for mid-game adjustments and substitutions. And Curtin just failed miserably in this match on that score. For that he deserves plenty of blame.

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