A View from Afar / Union

Why the Union fell short

Photo credit: Ryan Griffith

The Philadelphia Union fell short at season’s end because they:

  1. Lacked an adequate alternative to their generally excellent possession game,
  2. Played on a tiny pinball pitch with awful sod that neutralized their style of play,
  3. Ran up against a good team whose best and most important player finally returned from injury,
  4. Got called for a fluke penalty against the Red Bulls that cost them playoff home field advantage and forced them to play in Yankee Stadium,
  5. Finally saw their deficiencies at striker and right winger catch up with them,
  6. Saw key players run out of steam due to injury or simply the passage of a long season.

Those aren’t excuses. Those are reasons.

Not one of them is the fact that Jim Curtin is the Union’s coach. He deserves his share of accountability, but it is less than the credit he earned this year. He’s been in the conversation for MLS Coach of the Year for weeks, and it’s for a good reason: He earned it. His team was very good for most of the year. 

Let’s break down all those points, including the last.

Background: A good team until …

First, some background.

For much of the season, the Union were one of the league’s best teams, according to their record. After an awful 2-5-2 start, during which cornerstone playmaker Borek Dockal clearly wasn’t fit or in sync with his teammates, the Union went 17-11-3 in all competitions after May 10, good enough for a 1.74 points per game rate that, if it were taken over a full MLS season, would have put them among the league’s top four clubs.

They were still winning right until the last eight days of the regular season, sitting a stone’s throw from third place and taking a four-game unbeaten streak into their penultimate regular season match against the New York Red Bulls. They controlled the run of play in that match but lost due to an unfortunate fluke penalty call against them and, importantly, an inability to finish.

Now, let’s get to why the Union fell off in the end.

Reason 1: No good, usable alternative to their possession game

The Union have developed one of the league’s best possession games, thanks to their veteran central midfield trio and right back Keegan Rosenberry, who passes like a center midfielder.

They have also shown they have an alternative game plan that sometimes works when they are outmanned: Sit deep, defend, and hold on for dear life until someone (Jay Simpson!) helps produce a miracle. You saw it in their stunning September wins over Seattle and Kansas City, the top two teams in the Western Conference.

They do not, however, have an adequate plan for playing on a tiny, barely regulation pitch with newly planted sod that changes the flow of ground passes.

Neither do most clubs: New York City FC are 13-2-4 at home this year. No MLS side had a better regular season win/loss ratio at home. The only home game they lost in the regular season came during an awful six-game winless stretch in August and September, against a New England team that does nothing but defend, tackle hard, and play cynical. Atlanta United followed a similar strategy in their 1-0 win over NYC at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, with the lone goal as ugly as the rest of the match. 

Should the Union have done that?

Maybe.

Would it have worked?

Probably not. They would likely have had to bench Medunjanin, the player with whom their possession game begins, one so integral that he’s the one Union player opponents seek most to neutralize defensively. They probably would have had to make more personnel changes than either Atlanta or New England did. 

The Union couldn’t afford to spend time this season getting good at multiple, very different game plans because they were busy digging out of a hole sunk when the club took too long to acquire Dockal. They spent all that time getting good at one thing, and they got very good at it.

Had Dockal arrived and acclimated earlier, maybe the Union wouldn’t have dropped those very winnable early games, such as against Colorado. Maybe there could have been experiments with alternative lineups, like Derrick Jones at the No. 8 beside Medunjanin to spell Alejandro Bedoya.

Those are a lot of maybes.

Reason 2: Yankee Stadium’s tiny pitch and awful sod

Everyone knows Yankee Stadium’s pitch is too small for soccer. Everyone knows it changes the game. Everyone has complained. It’s an embarrassment to MLS.

The pitch is barely regulation size, supposedly at 70 x 110 yards — and maybe it’s not.

The pitch changes the game. It creates the league’s strongest home field advantage.

The Union knew that coming into the match, just like we all did. They failed to solve the issue, just like most teams.

Reason 3: Yangel Herrera got healthy

Yangel Herrera’s defensive actions in playoffs vs. Philadelphia Union. Image courtesy of MLSsoccer.com.

NYC are 9-1-3 this year when center midfielder Yangel Herrera plays 20 minutes or more. Last year, they went 8-2-3 under those circumstances. The Manchester City loanee is NYC’s most valuable player, a guy who captained Venezuela to an improbable U20 World Cup final and won the Bronze Ball in the process, and he returned from an ankle injury exactly when NYC needed him.

Herrera had a remarkable 21 defensive actions Wednesday against Philadelphia, mostly on the Union’s favored right side.

His defensive coverage allowed NYC’s fullbacks to more freely fly upfield and create problems in combination with their wide midfielders. For the first time in a while, NYC FC looked like NYC FC again.

Reason 4: A fluke penalty against the Red Bulls

Had Alejandro Bedoya not been called for a penalty against the Red Bulls, the Union would have played their opening playoff game at home against D.C. United.

That Red Bulls match, otherwise dominated by the Union, likely would have ended in a scoreless draw. That one point would have nudged the Union into fourth place. Yes, it’s as simple as that.

The penalty itself was a controversial call. To quote what I wrote in the postgame analysis:

Nobody questions whether he committed a handball. But was it an unnatural position that gave him an advantage? He was protecting himself from getting creamed mid-air by Cory Burke. That ball would have hit his chest if it didn’t hit his hand, and it would have bounced off him in generally the same way. It’s a tough call that could have been a justifiable no-call.

One play makes a big difference.

Maybe they would have lost to D.C. United in a home playoff game. We’ll never know. But at least the game would have been played on a normal pitch.

Reason 5: Deficiencies at striker and right winger

The Union’s big off-season acquisition, David Accam, proved a massive bust. Coming off an injury-plagued second half of 2017, Accam never looked like the dominant inverted left winger he had been for Chicago. He eventually lost his starting role and ended his season early due to a sports hernia, the type of injury that makes you wonder if he had been dealing with it much of the year.

Fafa Picault entered as the right-sided starter. In the end, he won back his old job on the left.

No one locked down the right side. Ilsinho proved fantastic — when coming on as a second half substitute. As a starter, he was just pretty good, injury-prone and lacking 90-minute fitness. Meanwhile, Fabian Herbers and Marcus Epps each started for short stretches off the season and left Curtin convinced, rightly or wrongly, that they were more fit for USL play. (I look forward to Herbers getting a shot at striker for some other team.) That left C.J. Sapong, whose epic cold streak at striker, following last year’s 16-goal haul there, ended with a fade on the right wing.

At striker, Sapong’s fall opened the door for Cory Burke, but who showed he can score, can’t pass, and doesn’t play defense without recklessly fouling. Burke’s lack of defensive effort cost the Union against NYC, because it gave the Pigeons’ center backs time and comfort on the ball.

That said, keep in mind: Burke collected the league minimum salary this season. Given what they paid him, he was a steal.

Reason 6: Some players ran out of steam

It’s a long season, and the Union felt it.

  • After their September injuries, Ray Gaddis got beat defensively in ways that had not happened most of the year, and Borek Dockal was still productive offensively but not as consistently active on both sides of the ball.
  • Haris Medunjanin got exposed defensively more and more as the season went on. The Union surrendered five counterattack goals this year, tied for most in the league.
  • Auston Trusty’s significant mental errors increased late in the season, particularly in big games. You can’t start young center backs forever without eventually getting burned. 
  • Andre Blake became very human after a September illness.

Players run out of steam every season.

The question is always which teams rotate their squad enough to keep key players fresh.

If anything is clear from Curtin’s tenure, it’s that he does not. That may be in part due to a lack of quality, but it’s also due to his tendencies. 

For example: Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie looked consistently good all year. They each got breaks due to good play by the other.

In contrast, Trusty looked spent down the stretch. He played every minute of the season. Yes, it’s nice having a left-footed center back, but considering that Trusty is still an inferior passer to both Elliott and McKenzie, one wonders how he might have fared with an occasional break.

The coaching question

How much of that is on Jim Curtin?

You could blame Curtin for not trusting his bench players more, the same as always. The number of Union roster spots basically wasted each year because of this remains far too high.

You could blame him for sticking with Sapong too long when he could have been experimenting with alternatives, whether Bedoya on the right wing, Epps or Herbers getting starts, Ilsinho returning to the starting lineup, or remembering Eric Ayuk before offloading him. 

You could even blame him for not giving Jay Simpson an extended run in the lineup.

All these are up for debate, however. Ask five people what the Union should have done at right winger, for example, and you might get five different answers.

Other things are crystal clear. Like the six points listed at the top. If you want to explain why a good team went down in the end, there you go.

Further, this was a good team most of the year. You can debate that if you like, but the numbers will show you’re wrong.

And lest you cast me as a Curtin apologist, let me note that last year I wrote he should be replaced, and four years ago I wrote that the Union should have hired someone else. Curtin wasn’t ready four years ago. He should have apprenticed to a good head coach for a few years first. He didn’t, and he wasn’t ready.

This year he proved that he’s ready now.

The Union outperformed their spending, with the 14th (or more likely, 15th) highest salary in the league and the 11th best record. They were a good team most of the year. 

They came up short in the biggest games. 

It doesn’t mean they aren’t a good team or Curtin isn’t a good coach. It just means they weren’t good enough. 

32 Comments

  1. I’m sure I’ll get cynical responses, just like Dan is sure to get cynical comments…but I agree that this isn’t entirely on Curtin. And I don’t think it’s time for him to go. There are a few reasons:
    .
    – The bench has been uninspiring for the entire age of the franchise. We have rarely had 11 players truly worthy of playing at a high level, let alone subs to choose from.
    – This changed a bit this year, however. The center backs should have been rotated more intentionally through the season. And Derrick Jones should have been more involved, especially as the year wore on. Protect the spine of your team by rotating when possible.
    .
    – The club’s budget tells you that they are not going to hire a difference-making manager. So if you move on from Curtin, it is simply change for the sake of change, and that is a horrible reason to roll the dice. Especially with a team that performed so well for such a large portion of the season.
    .
    Figure out if Accam will be healthy, and if his health was the cause of this past year’s poor performances.
    .
    Decide QUICKLY about Dockal. Do what you can to keep him, but if you cannot, cut bait early and find a replacement as soon as humanly possible. (We all assume they want him, it’s just a matter of what the Chinese club will demand.)
    .
    Find a starting high-qulaity right-winger to match Fafa on the left. Let Burke continue up top. Bring CJ off the bench.
    .
    It all sounds good. But I’m losing faith in off-season moves from the club.

    • For me it’s no so much about it being “on Jim Curtin” but instead I ask myself “did he do enough to alter the season in a positive way?” For example, not giving Trusty a back all season long and NOT giving Jones, Simpson, others a chance when usual starters are struggling is ENTIRELY on him since he sets the lineups. The handball call, the own goals, the inability to string passes together and defend in big games is not his fault – he’s not on the field playing. So the question moving forward is simple: Did he do enough to justify one more season, or did his decisions either not make a difference or harm the team? I think, in the end, his decisions did not make a positive difference but I also don’t think his decisions were detrimental. He doesn’t rotate enough, but who can he actually rotate in? Is the personnel good enough to punish Curtin for NOT rotating? Whatever decision Tanner makes, I just hope he does his research.
      ——–
      That being said, Caleb Porter is available.

  2. Thank you for this, Dan. I would like to see Curtin come back, but I think the real key is getting Dockal back. Had he been here for preseason, there is no doubt the Union would have finished 3rd.

    • Agreed, re: Dockal.

      By the way, let me note something I meant to comment on with Pete Andrews’s post from the other day: Pete and I may disagree on the Curtin point, but Pete’s as smart an observer of the Union as there is out there.

      • I’ll agree with your comment about Pete’s observations and writing skills. (He’s my second favorite Pete Andrews out there and the first was best man at my wedding :-). My only issue was when I looked back at the preseason staff predictions and saw that the one who had the most negative view of Curtin before the season was the one calling for his head before the dust settled on the season.

      • I used to be in a facebook group called “There’s Only One Peter Andrews.” I think there were about 50 of us in there. Maybe your best man was among them!

  3. Earlier this year, the idea of Curtin coaching the Union for a 6th season would have depressed me. However, now I find myself struggling to care. Bring him back, extended him forever, it doesn’t matter. Curtin’s ability is a perfect match for this organization’s ambition.

    .

    It’s difficult to watch SKC, Columbus, SLC slug their way through the playoffs without feeling jealous. Small market teams, with similar budgets that happen to have above-average coaches. I don’t expect the Union to ever be relevant in MLS, let alone the Philadelphia sports scene, until Sugarman is gone. Until then, we’ll continue to watch below-average teams each season.

    .

    The best season in club history is a 11th place finish. God help us.

  4. ” It just means they weren’t good enough. ”
    i applaud the players and Jim for a return to legitimacy but most are incapable of growing beyond what we had this season’s ceiling.
    i want change and it starts with Jim. i want someone held accountable for their poor decision-making, inflexibility and frankly, lack of preparation. for the first season ever we had depth and Jim didn’t use it enough to rotate out the squad. sept to the backed-in, inevitable end could’ve used it.
    it’s Ernst’s job now to build a winning team. i’m looking for real change (before February 16).

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    Ruidiaz.
    Valeri.
    Msxi Morales.
    Herrera.
    Rooney.
    Ebouisse.
    as mich as it pains me to say… Zardes.
    .
    I could go on, but I think we see where I’m going.
    .
    I watched every playoff game…. to see if what I think I know is true. It is.
    .
    First. It’s a players game… and technical skill rules.

    Next. The quality of those difference makers allow for a rhythm and grace of play as evidenced by every team in the playoffs—- save one- if we use the sample size of one game provided.

    Last. Giovanni Savarese… 2-0 in his year long young career in the Clutch Matches.
    .
    Jim Curtin….0-7.
    .
    and if I read one more time about VAR I’m going to puke. As if it matters. It doesn’t.

  6. Dammit Dan, why are you too now putting doubts in my head.
    .
    There are two things about this season that I have trouble getting over and are the biggest sticking points/questions I have when it comes to Curtin.
    .
    The Open Cup loss. The third Open Cup loss. We can argue the true importance of the Open Cup, but what is certain is the more funny money you receive and a shot in CCL. Besides that, the coach himself has put such weight into it. He promotes it’s importance, especially when it comes to club with financial woes. I think he’s right. I also think a good coach finds a way to win one, given three opportunities. This is a huge hurdle for me to get over.
    .
    The second is Curtin’s squad rotation. He seems to grudgingly get more flexible year by year. Is this because to the lack of talent available to him, inexperience, badly timed injuries, or a combination? It’s exceedingly frustrating to watch the same fault of starting a player obviously not in form way past the point they should. It affects the team, the player himself, and one’s own coaching career. It’s a blind spot that’s well past needing fixing.
    .
    These are my major problems with Curtin. These things need fixing before the manager can truly become more than just a player’s coach to me. I truly believe there are people unable to win the big games and make the big time. They are those coaches, managers that take a team only so far before the ones who can really win the trophies, take over.

  7. Nice piece, Dan. I think it’s those 6 reasons and a 7th — a coach who has run out of ideas and doesn’t know how to get the best out of his squad. I think he’s been extended more than a fair share of chances over the last 5 years. It’s time to try something different.

    In one way, yes, if this team committed to bringing in a multi-million $ striker, retained Dockal and reinforced the squad at left back, right wing and maybe holding mid, Curtin would fare better. But if this team is going to continue to underspend, it needs a coach who can get more out of that sort of team. Not that I think it’s possible, but I know an Eddie Howe, Chris Houghton or David Wagner would whip this team into a better position on both points and elimination game performance.

    Maybe a better manager isn’t in the Union budget. It seems certain a top $ striker isn’t. But this team needs to spend more money somewhere or it’s going to be mid table purgatory

  8. Richie_the_Limey says:

    Dan – your number one reason why the team failed “Reason 1: No good, usable alternative to their possession game” is surely what a coach is paid to do. I.E. come up with strategy / coaching to adapt to different game situations. Therefore it is 100% Curtin’s fault. If all you do is play the exact same way every single game in every single situation then it is easy to play against a team like that. If your ambition is mediocrity then great… Jim Curtin = Coach of the Year !

    • Ted_the_Limey_Slapper says:

      And you forgot to mention (again) he played that stupid 4-3-3 all year!
      .
      17-11-3 after the first 9 games. Most wins in team history. BAH!
      .
      Bunch of league “know nuttins'” kicking him around for Coach of the Year consideration. BAH!
      .
      Aaaaaaargh! That phoney one trick pony!!!
      .
      Your light shines like Rudolph’s blinkin’ beacon in this morass of useless facts and truths.

  9. Something I’d like to know more about: There was a post on Reddit today about Orlando accidentally triggering clauses in a player’s contract for games played in a season.
    .
    Given the Union FO’s terrible lack of spending, do you think Curtin is ever under pressure to not rotate squad members due to games-played clauses?

    • I think it has happened multiple times for the Union, though probably more often prior to Curtin’s tenure.

      Roger Torres is the most notable example. I never confirmed it on or off the record, but I remain convinced there was something very questionable in his contract stemming from the controversial Nowak/Gutierrez contracts for players from the Colombia/Panama area.

      I think John Hackworth got rid of all those guys as soon as he could because there were questionable components of their contracts. Note that none of them lasted in MLS more than 1-2 years.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if it happened with Eric Ayuk. He is the most likely recent example. Jay Simpson seems like a possibility, but that feels more speculative than Ayuk.

    • i mentioned that point a few weeks back that Curtin seems handcuffed when it comes to players like Simpson or Elliot. Is it possible? Maybe but Ps p or tannenwald would have uncovered that by now, one would think.

  10. Some of the comments about squad rotation and spending are completely unfounded.

    1. It is well-documented that the less squad rotation you do on a team that doesn’t spend in the top 1/3 of a league, the better the results are. This makes sense as most of the support (bench) players are not of acceptable quality. Teams without depth that rotate a lot (eg, San Jose, Colorado, Orlando)…how’s that working out?

    2. The Union were 17th out of 23 teams in player spending if you amortize Transfer Fees, which are a huge part of Player Acquisitions in the sport of soccer. Given that, the Union finished 6 spots above their expected value re: PPG.

    Blaming Jim Curtin or the coaching staff is about as wrong as a viewpoint as there is. Player quality wins in pro sports, period.

    • Interesting point re: amortization of transfer fees.

      Where do you draw that data from?

      Can you explain more? Thanks.

    • I don’t think any of us are asking for anything drastic in terms of squad rotation. I specifically am asking for the coach to rotate the 30 year old midfield trio during three game stretches. Rotating one or two out to start matches is not a huge ask I think. Especially when a more defensive strategy could be called for. All three faded towards the end of the season, probably also carrying various knocks and dings between them. I also think starting a non-productive player consistently is not helpful (CJ, Wenger, etc.). I don’t think either of these things is out of reach or too much change for a team to handle.

  11. Chris Gibbons says:

    If Dockal gets here in January and adds 4-6 more assists, C.J. has even a mediocre season (say 8 goals instead of his statistically expected 14), and Accam stays healthy and gets his mediocre number too (say 5 instead of 10), this team contends for the Shield, is much more flexible and deep, and takes a lot of pressure of young players… thereby making squad rotation more palatable.

    It’s almost like the coach looks smarter, better, and more prepared when his players execute.

    • If.
      If.
      If.
      At end of day all you are left with are if this, if that.
      I like Curtin. Anyone who has spent more than 3 minutes talking with him does.
      But end of day, or season, and hearing him trot out team salary differences as excuse for losing=== change of scenery needed for him and for union.
      He is decent coach, and he may thrive at say san jose or Colorado applying lessons learned here.
      And union can roll dice they get Doug Pederson and not Richie kotite.
      I’d like to see a coach who recognizes Bournemouth can go head to head with man United and not whine about salary. Hell, Alexis and pogba make more than entire Bournemouth team, klinnsman made more in 2015 than entire 2015 base pay of world cup winning uswnt plus their coach salary thrown in, before counting what ussf paid for his helicopter. And accam vs burke, Simpson vs rosenberry?
      Salaries are unfair, so him why bother suiting up in your best dressed coach outfit if salary predetermined every game union played?

      Pissed off uniongoal sick of the excuses===because change only happens when you man up and stfu with excuses.

      Ps. El p, I agree with you more than I disagree but above to me was more disgusting than kr helping up beasley. That hand up happens in most games by most players, some even being very enthusiastic in helping if other player dive or wastes time. =-)

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        If the team’s biggest offseason signing misses essentially a third of the season, the team’s second biggest offseason signing misses basically the whole season, and the team’s returning and record-holding scorer decides to take the whole year off, that’s on the coach? I’m not making any argument for or against Curtin, just that these facts are highly influential for the outcome of a person in his position.

  12. Against playoff teams 6-8-3

    Best season EVERRRRRR, 1.35PPG

    Why is it there are excuses for Curtin but not the players?

    Is Haris suddenly slower but the pitch was too small?

    Are self motivated leaders like Ale but the coach was dealt a bad bounce in the Cup final and a team that folded?

    He wasn’t ready then Dan, spot on. He still doesn’t have his teams ready for big games and isn’t the guy for the job still.

    They re-sign him and you apologists can keep this dumpster fire. Ad Finem Whathaveyoudoneformelately

  13. Craig Schenck says:

    Great piece, Dan!

  14. Bournemouth final place in table since being promoted to EPL:

    16
    9
    12

    Bournemouth spending last 2 seasons. 10th-12th (Salary + Tramsfer Fees).

    Give or take, finishing where expected. Good start this year (T-7), would be stunned if they finished top 9, as Everton, Man U, and Leicester on their heels.

  15. Agreed. Great article.

  16. Cash poor owner + Meidocre coach+ not.
    State of perpetual mediocrity…..Cash poor owner + Not enough talent = Just barely making the plAyoffs. This season they got lucky with The Doakal signing. They swung for a miss on Accam. DoCkal or a better player is a must next year just. To stay competitive. They need a cash boost from a partner to not be in this state of perpetual mediocrity.

  17. I think it would be silly for anyone to say that the Union’s falling short is “on Curtin”, as though he were somehow entirely responsible. Clearly he is not entirely responsible, or even mostly responsible.

    There is also evidence showing that most coaches don’t add wins to their teams.

    However, it appears equally clear that — as I put it in comment to Peter Andrews’ last post — Curtin is not getting us any “wins over replacement”. We can see with our own eyes how the guy runs players into the ground — even when are not playing all that well (Medunjanin, Sapong) or have more than capable backups (Trusty) — how he substitutes too late to have an impact on the match, how tactically inflexible he is (and how it costs us when there’s a need to change tactics).

    I spent years saying that there was no point in firing Curtin, because the turmoil would do more harm than good, and the trouble was clearly the talent level of the team. Well, the talent level of the team is certainly an issue — the main issue, even — but at this point I simply see no reason to keep Curtin. We might as well take a flyer on someone else who could potentially get more out our forever-limited budget than he can.

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