A View from Afar / Union

Five thoughts on the Union: Fixing the fatal flaw, 3rd place, Curtin’s future

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Five thoughts on Philadelphia Union.



Some perspective on the Union’s cup loss

If we had told you in March that Philadelphia Union would make the playoffs and the U.S. Open Cup final and deploy one of the league’s most entertaining teams, would you have taken it?

Consider that question as you evaluate the Union’s recent performances, including their failure in the U.S. Open Cup.

The Union’s fatal vulnerability: Bunker and counter teams

The Union have lost just three times since July 22. All three losses came against teams – Portland, Montreal and Houston – whose primary strategy is to sit deep, bunker, and counterattack. Two of those saw the Union’s center midfield affected by key absences (Portland: Bedoya, Medunjanin) or key players playing hurt (Houston: Dockal).

A pattern has clearly emerged: The Union have trouble breaking those teams down, and they can get killed in transition on the counterattack.

New England head coach Brad Friedel highlighted the double-sided blade at halftime of the Union’s 3-2 win over New England in August, when he said, “The midfield three are amongst the best in the league at passing but among the worst at recovering the ball.”

For all their strengths in possession, this is a defensive vulnerability in transition that teams have learned to exploit, particularly given that the Union like to play a high back line with Haris Medunjanin in the No. 6 role. How many times have we seen these teams one on one in the open field against Union defenders without a No. 6 there to help?

A potential solution against countering teams

One solution is obviously to sit Medunjanin against such teams, replacing him with Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones, but a drawback is the Union would lose a lot in terms of distribution and ball control.

There’s another option that takes less away from midfield:

Start Mark McKenzie against those teams.

McKenzie and Jack Elliott have different strengths and weaknesses. Elliott is a better long ball passer, stronger in the air, and a threat on set pieces, but speed is not his forte. McKenzie covers much more ground and is a better open field defender. Both have played well most of the year.

Union head coach Jim Curtin has demonstrated he doesn’t like to rotate his center backs, and there’s a lot to be said for chemistry among the duo. But the Union’s central defense has shown few problems related to that. Whether it’s been McKenzie or Elliott pairing with Auston Trusty, the pair is usually on the same page.

And Curtin isn’t as stubborn as he used to be.

All that said, let’s note: The Union may not play another team whose primary go-to strategy, even on their best days, is to bunker and counter. Montreal may miss the playoffs, Houston is out, and Portland is on the other side of the bracket. Is there another club in MLS who prefers that, beside these three? You may see someone try it, but nobody else out there really prefers it.

Third place in reach

The Union still have a puncher’s shot at third place. Look at the remaining schedule for the contenders. (Their number of points in the standings are in parentheses.)

NYC FC (53)Columbus (48)Philadelphia (47)Montreal (40)D.C. (38)
at D.C.at Montrealvs. Minnesotavs. Columbusvs. Chicago
vs. Philadelphiaat Orlandovs. NY Red Bullsvs. Torontovs. Dallas
vs. Minnesotaat NYC FCat New Englandvs. Toronto
vs. NYC FC
at Chicago

Some factors to consider:

  • NYC FC has been largely in freefall since Patrick Vieira left the club, and they have just two games left, one at smoking hot D.C. United, the second a classic six-pointer against the Union on the last day of the regular season.
  • Two of the Union’s last three are at home, the outlier being a visit to Yankee Stadium to play NYC. They also have to play the Red Bulls though.
  • Columbus has two of their final three on the road, but all three games are against teams likely to miss the playoffs.

The Union could also still miss the playoffs. They have yet to clinch. A Union win or a Montreal loss this week would secure their playoff spot.

A note on Jim Curtin’s job security

As expected, because this is Philadelphia, some Union fans called for Curtin’s head after the Union’s U.S. Open Cup loss.

That call should wait until season’s end. Should the Union collapse and miss the playoffs, maybe that’s a fair discussion to have.

A year ago, it was a fair discussion. Five months ago, it was a fair discussion.

Right now, however, it’s ludicrous. Consider the following.

  • The Union have been one of the league’s better clubs since mid-May.
  • They are playing exactly the sort of stylish soccer every fan loves to see, and they’re winning far more often than they lose.
  • Young players have cracked the lineup and earned their places.
  • He’s winning games with a starting striker on the league minimum salary.
  • And with a legitimate playmaker in the lineup, we’ve seen that the Union can play with anyone. Imagine if Borek Dockal had arrived in January instead of March.

After last season, I was among those who said that no, Curtin’s performance had not justified a return to the club. He got the nod just the same.

Should the Union finish the season as they’ve played the last five months, then Curtin absolutely deserves his job. Reports say his contract expires at year’s end. The Union should extend his contract by a year. (Not three years. One year.) Whatever faults Curtin has, the hometown guy is making good and has even forced his way into the Coach of the Year discussion.

Barring a collapse, another year under Curtin should be a no-brainer.


  1. One point to note in the 3rd/4th/5th place battle is that the Union do hold the tiebreaker against both Columbus and NYCFC with more wins than either of those teams (at least in any scenario where they are tied).

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    Stop making sense.

    • Buccistick says:

      Ha ha ha!
      Um, yes, I’m replying in order to nominate Chris’ comment for “most trenchant three-word post” of the year award?

      • I second.
        Well done, Chris Gibbons, well done.
        The pith of a Haiku, but needs one more syllable for 5-7-5.

      • Buccistick says:

        Chris’ three little words really do whisper “haiku,” right?
        I mean, the surprise value … the pith … the ephemerality: it works on so many levels! with so few syllables!
        Obvious neighboring haiku line:
        “Take me to the River End”
        C’mon, team, we can do this.
        Also, this is what this crazy-making team has reduced us to.

      • Buccistick says:

        Chris’ three little words really do whisper “haiku,” right?
        I mean, the pith … the surprise value … the ephemerality: it works on so many levels! with so few syllables!
        Obvious neighboring haiku line:
        “Take me to the River End”
        C’mon, team, we can do this.
        Also, this is what this crazy-making team has reduced us to.

  3. 1. If they finish out the regular season well — and actually win a playoff game! — I can forgive the Buffalo Bills imitation. (Sigh.)

    2. Very interesting point. The problem is that Union just don’t have shooters skillful enough to break down teams like that. You’re best getting free kicks and corner kicks to score on such teams, but the Union have been just horrendous on corners of late (what’s with the Haris-Borek two-step every time?!?), and corners leave you very vulnerable to the counter.

    3. McKenzie has been really solid this year and I am looking forward to seeing his development. But I also love me some Jack Elliott for all the reasons you mentioned. And I think the better option against bunker and counter teams is to sit Medunjanin in favor of Jones. You could sub him on in the second half if you need more playmaking, but his “finger defense” is really a serious problem on a frequent basis.

    4. I had not even considered the possibility of 3rd place, because honestly, given the remaining schedules, I will be extremely suprised if we earn more points than Columbus. (Also, jsut FYI, we are almost certain to face them again in the playoffs, and in 3 matches between them this season, a grand total of a single goal has been scored.)

    5. What’s so frustrating about Curtin is that you can’t help feeling that the team could possibly be EVEN BETTER with a manager who had more tactical and personnel flexibility. He was showing some a month or two ago, and lately seems to have reverted to his old, predictable, conservative, out-of-ideas, sub-too-late self. But, having said all that, I agree that it would be ludicrous to get a new manager, barring an October collapse.

  4. Also, just wanted to mention how much I enjoy the “Five Things” format. Sometimes there are interesting points to be made that don’t merit an entire post (“column”). This is a great way to deliver it. I always find these posts interesting and enjoyable to read.

  5. As long as the players are so enthusiastically buying in, I keep Curtin. Things are very definitely going in the right direction.

  6. I’ve calmed a bit since the Open Cup loss, but I still find it hard to just let go 3 finals losses by one coach. Granted it’s not MLS cup, but what it means in funny money and a CCl appearance, especially for this team, is huge. Somehow a coach has to find a way to win one out of three. He just has to. It’s inexcusable to me not to win one. Nothing but an MLS Cup run would justify bringing him back next year.

  7. With Sapong underwhelming recently on the wing and Ilson injured, with bunker and counter teams, why not start bedoya on the wing, move harris up to #8 and put crevalle or Jones in as a true #6?

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