Season Reviews / Union

Season review: It’s over. Now what? (2018 edition)

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This post kicks off PSP’s 2018 Season Review series. Over the next two weeks, we’ll break down the season that was and look at the off-season ahead. 

In another city, this would be an optimistic time for soccer fans.

  • Their professional team played the most stylish soccer in its history.
  • The club set team records for wins and points in the standings while making the playoffs and the final of the nation’s most prestigious single knockout domestic tournament.
  • A quarter of the starting lineup was populated by local kids made good. Two were teenagers, the first ones to come up through the club’s academy to crack the lineup as regular starters.
  • The young head coach finally looked ready for prime time, earning his place in coach of the year conversations.
  • The sporting director advanced to the general manager job for the U.S. national team.

These are all good things.

But this is Philadelphia. We have history here.

Another season has passed without a playoff win by Philadelphia Union. That makes nine straight seasons — all of them, in case you’re counting. The next playoff win will be their first.

For a time this year, the Union were as fun to watch as any team in the league. There were the stunning wins over Seattle and Kansas City, the 5-1 domination of Minnesota, huge road wins like the August victory over D.C. United and that last minute stunner in Chicago, and the wild and controversial red card loss in Atlanta. You had Borek Dockal creating goal after goal, Cory Burke coming out of nowhere to power his way through defenders, and the rise of young center backs Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie.

The Union often passed through teams like hot knives through butter, with passing combinations like we’ve never before seen in Chester. Ilsinho dazzled when he was healthy. Andre Blake continued to be a human highlight reel.

For a while, the Union looked like they could do anything. They made the U.S. Open Cup final. They were within shouting distance of third place eight days before the regular season ended.

Then they lost key games down the stretch in demoralizing, kidney-punching fashion. A crushing 3-0 loss in the U.S. Open Cup final, capped by a Trusty own goal. Then, two harsh losses at Yankee Stadium over the course of four days. The first took them from potentially third place to sixth, and the second sent them home for the year.

That was just what happened on the field.

Despite an exciting on-field product, a series of demoralizing seasons on and off the field proved hard to overcome, and the Union recorded their lowest ever attendance for the second straight year.

The regular season is over for the Union. What comes next?

Reasons for optimism

There are plenty of reasons for Union fans to be optimistic.

  • The young back line. The back four were the league’s youngest and will only get better. They have three good center backs aged 23 and younger, while right back Keegan Rosenberry is still 24. If U.S. U20 Men’s National Team captain Matt Real can win the starting left back job, the Union’s back line could be very young and very impressive next season.
  • Andre Blake. Goalkeeper Andre Blake is probably MLS’s best shot-stopper in open play, and backup John McCarthy has shown the quality to start in MLS as well.
  • Alejandro Bedoya. Captain Alejandro Bedoya looks to have several good years left in him, and he was as effective a midfield passer as there was in MLS this year.
  • The assist king. Playmaker Borek Dockal led the league in assists and gave the Union the creative presence they desperately needed.

This team just looked flat out great for stretches of the season. Even when they didn’t, they were still often oh-so-fun to watch.

And fun was what this team’s fan base desperately needed. It’s not that complicated. Union fans needed to fall in love with their team again after being jilted in such awful, embarrassing, off-the-field ways earlier this decade. This Union squad gave that to them — for a time.

Then they got punched in the gut.

The questions that need to be answered

Question marks still abound for this team, and the off-season will be where we learn those answers.

  • Dockal’s transfer. The Union must lock up Dockal via a full transfer or another year on loan, as he is only on season-long loan from Chinese side Henan Jianye, which is flirting with relegation this year. Dockal turned 30 in September. He was probably the Union’s most valuable player this year, and they need to retain him.
  • Who is the head coach? Jim Curtin is out of contract. To some (including me), he earned a one-year extension. To others, it’s time to move on from the Philadelphia-area native.
  • Medunjanin’s future. Haris Medunjanin turns 34 in March. His passing remains elite in MLS, but opponents routinely exploit his subpar defense and speed to kill the Union’s high back line on the counterattack.
  • The question at striker. Who is the striker? Will the Union stick with Cory Burke, who showed he can score but hasn’t proved he can effectively do other things the Union need (like defense and hold-up play)? Or will the team finally spend big money on the proven striker they have needed for years?
  • The Accam bust. The big David Accam acquisition proved a massive bust, and he ended his season with hernia surgery. We’ll see whether the Union give Accam another try in 2019 or try to move him. The best role for both him and Fafa Picault appears to be as an inverted left winger, which poses some interesting questions after Picault’s excellent season.
  • Ernst Tanner’s impact. All this takes place with the backdrop of a new sporting director in place. Tanner has done impressive things in Germany and Austria, and this off-season will be his first chance to stamp his presence on the Union. Will he want to bring in his own coach? Will he significantly change the profile of the club?
  • Spending, or lack thereof. As always, there is the question of whether Union ownership will spend enough to compete. The Union ranked 14th (or, more likely, 15th) in MLS in team salary this year, and they have never dropped much on transfer fees. Most of their competitors do.

On the field, the Union showed enough to bring the fans back, but many fans still seem skeptical.

It’s not that the Union don’t spend. Their technical staff is bigger and more proficient than ever in the team’s history. They finally have a model with at least one coach per unit (forwards, midfielders, defenders, goalkeepers), and their scouting department finally exists. The Academy is finally producing players for the first team, such as Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie.

But the Union haven’t sufficiently splashed on impactful players in a way that excites the fan base. Numbers don’t lie, and the attendance numbers are down again.

The Union potentially have a great foundation on which to build. But they have clear challenges this off-season, and they have to answer the call.

Obligatory list of team needs

We’ll explore this more later in our Season Review series, but here’s the quick version.

  1. Retain Dockal.
  2. A reliable, impactful, two-way striker.
  3. A starting right winger.
  4. An MLS-quality, two-way left back.
  5. The emergence of a backup No. 10 attacking midfielder from within the current roster.
  6. An owner willing to spend sufficient money on top players to legitimately compete for an MLS Cup.


  1. 7. A coach who is not a moron and can adapt a game plan;

    8. A lineup not dictated by the marketing of the Academy;

    9. A legitimate star on the front end instead of the cut-out rack junk we have had foisted upon us.

    • Is it really necessary to call Curtin a moron? Maybe you don’t think he’s doing a good job and should be replaced, but he is definitely not a moron.
      Of course it doesn’t say much for you if you’ve been spending time rooting for a team for 4.5 years where you think that the coach is a moron.

    • In addition to the great point raised by Andy, it seems to me your #9 is effectively the same as Dan’s #2.
      And your #8 doesn’t even make sense. If the goal of the lineup was to “market” the academy (as you claim) don’t you think Jones would’ve started more? Don’t you think Fontana would’ve started more? I mean, the kid scored a goal in his game; that certainly would’ve been a good enough excuse to keep him in there at least another few weeks.
      Put it all together, and it looks like you just want an outlet to bitch and moan, rather than discuss. That’s OK with me – it just means I don’t have to pay particular attention to your posts.

      • The last part of your point is the one you want to focus on. There’s definitely an axe to grind here. Moving on.

  2. Unfortunately it looks like Henan Jianye will not get relegated as they are at 34 points with one game to go and two of the teams on 32 points play each other in the last game. (One team has already clinched one of the two relegation spots.)

    • Henan Jianye have won their last 4 in a row.
      They changed from a Korean to aChinese as head coach some time in September.
      Because it is China, if the Union want Dockal, they must devise a way For their Chinese counterparts to save some face.

  3. On my wish list is an 25-30 yr old elite holding midfielder who can protect the back line and effectively pass out of the back. Jones may be the future, but having kids shield kids is not a great idea. A good veteran presence that could steady the D and actually play D (unlike Medunjanin) would be really helpful. Jones could be his understudy.

  4. Talking with a friend the other day…. MLS Regular Season review and all. And a question came up. Does anyone remember any ugly, cringe-worth, season-ending injuries this year? Something like Seattle’s Steve Zakuani’s leg break, or Kenny Cooper’s audible leg break when he was with Dallas, or Justin Mapp’s dislocated/broken elbow when he was with Montreal. None came to mind and I did watch a lot of MLS games besides the Union.

    • Thankfully there wasn’t anything too tragic this year that I can remember. There were a handful of guys retiring early due to injuries, but not a big moment in a game.

  5. If I could defend the pessimistic outlook as something other than just representative of a garden variety ‘Negadelphian’ attitude:

    While all of Dan’s reasons for optimism are valid, nothing this team has done has gotten it past the bar it set in its 2nd season — a 2011 playoff appearance and a speedy elimination. Every gain made doing nothing but keeping the team in the same exact place.

    In order to get the fanbase interested again, the team has to do something to move forward on the results side. And that will require not completely blowing it in big moments.

  6. “In another city, this would be an optimistic time for soccer fans.”


    What a disappointing opening statement. Other cities have not been asked to wait like this – 5 year plans, lack of stadium development/training facilities, The Academy, etc. This organization lacks any urgency in terms of production. The fanbase is consistently told to wait longer. Again and again.

    A decade in and we’re told to wait more. Stop. Curtin’s a nice man, but not the coach needed to move this club forward. He’s had five seasons and has failed to win a meaningful game. It’s time to move on.

    • I don’t know. I think I would be pretty depressed to be a Revs fan. 20 yrs in and still in a American Football stadium and just “now” breaking ground on a training facility. Despite the history of visits to MLS Cup finals, talk about feeling like an afterthought. We want a rich owner. How about having a rich owner that still doesn’t spend on you.

      • “At least we’re not New England” really goes a long way to proving my point.


        Also, Revs may be trash but they do have two more trophies than the Union.

    • How long did it take in Toronto before they even made the playoffs?

    • That line doesn’t refer to the Negadelphia concept. (At least, not mostly.) It refers to the baggage that Philadelphia Union has.

      Rapids fans would be thrilled to get a season like this. Same with some other teams too.

  7. I think as said more eloquently by others above, it’s the length of time, the set backs, and basic holding of the status quo in the standings even though advancement on the infrastructure side seems to be bearing fruit that causes most of the negativity.
    There are also the alarming trends of this organization, late season collapsing and player fatigue and/or being over used.
    Change for change’s sake may actually be what’s needed here. Despite what Jim has accomplished with this team, it has gotten very stale with the fan base. This will be the third year in a row where we’ve seen the same stuff different day routine. I surrender. I give. Enough. Stop the torture. I’ll tell you everything, just make the gingerman go away. What is it about red headed coaches that this town can’t get rid of them?
    Maybe I’m being illogical, or too emotional. I really don’t care. For my own peace of mind and emotional well being, please let there be a new coach next year.

  8. on philly soccer show podcast today:
    Jim Curtin: managed 150 games in MLS. never won a playoff game.
    no other manager has that many games during a tenure.
    next closest: Jeff Cassar (Real Salt Lake) had 103 before being axed last season.
    why are we defending him?

  9. John P. O'Donnell Jr. says:

    0-7 in meaningful games over the last four years is proof in the pudding. I’ve defended Jim but I believe with a new technical director, now is the time to make the move. Sadly I don’t think he’s the problem and this team needs more revenue to compete. One player at D.C. made a huge difference with the fans and I think it’s what’s needed here.

    • The flaw in your argument is that you have forgotten what the man truly in charge from whom we rarely hear has said.
      Sugarman is not interested in the short-term fixes of a Schweinstieger, a Rooney, or an Henry. Does such a move create a strong short-term? Absolutely.
      Sugarman has verbally abjured that approach as have his investment choices. He’s a long-haul guy in his primary business and in his business plan for the Union.
      He doesn’t want Zlatan because if Zlatan doesn’t win a championship, Zlatan moves on and money invested is wasted.

      • Money isn’t wasted if the star gets more people interested in the team, brings people to the stadium, gets people to buy money, and creates new fans.

    • I get the 0-7 and if you can upgrade any position – coach, player, front office – you do it. And the “can’t handle pressure games” was on my mind ever since the season ended.
      Then a thought came to me the other day:
      Out of those 7 games, how many were the Union favored to win?

  10. Is this the first off-season we will see a sale of a player to Europe? Could that be where the funds we need for other players come from?
    McKenzie and Trusty (in my eyes) have the equivalent skill and physical qualities as Miazga did when Chelsea came calling for him, no?
    If Ernst can bring that aspect of the football world to the Union that just may be the thing to get us over the hump.
    I’m for Curtin staying.

    • and Accam going …

      • Sapong never scored double digits in his career then had 16 in 2017.
        2017 Offseason Analysis: “Fluke”
        Accam averaged 11G and 5A per season with the Fire before having only 1G and 0A this season.
        2018 Offseason Analysis: “He sucks! Cut him!”

      • @CPfeif – I’m not saying “he sucks” – I think it is more that he is not a fit for the system. – He never demonstrated to me the willingness to put in the defensive work required of the role he was asked to fill.
        and I am for Sapong going too.

      • @JHV
        I should have said that my comment was not directed solely at yours but rather the number of commenters that are referring to him as a “bust” or saying that he should be cut. He has a proven track record in the league and now we know he was playing with an injury issue. At 28yrs old, it is reasonable to expect to see him bounce back next season and for a few years be a valuable player for this team.
        I also argue that he is a perfect fit for this system and even more so for the more up-tempo one that Tanner has spoken about. My reasoning for this is Fafa’s success – they have very similar skill sets. Now, I’d also say that there is a bit of redundancy in having both but that is on the front office, not the players. Also the best teams have redundancies talent wise so that when one player is injured or out of form they do not lose anything.
        Bottom line: it is way to early to pull the plug.

  11. I flip flop on Curtin. No big game wins,slow to sub,little or no formation change. But he has gotten better with the last two even if it’s only been forced by injuries or a crappy field. And change for change sake seems harsh. But if the coach goes, which players also go! Accam,CJ,Fabinho? That’s the problem I have. If the coach goes you need to shuffle the players as well.
    Any thoughts PSP faithful?

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