Season Reviews / Union

Season review: The Union were who we thought they were

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: This post is part of PSP’s 2018 Season Review series, in which PSP breaks down the season that was and look at the off-season ahead. To read the full series, click here.

In 2018, the Philadelphia Union finished in sixth place in the congested mid-table of the Eastern Conference. They earned a franchise record 50 points and six road wins. Manager Jim Curtin led the club to their third U.S. Open Cup final in five years. They made the playoffs after missing out last year.

On the other hand: The Union could have finished as high as third if not for two consecutive Bronx meltdowns (not to mention a total collapse at home over a not-good Montreal Impact team). That third Open Cup final in five years also ended up a third Open Cup final loss in five years — and the game wasn’t even close. That playoff run? Over quicker than a SEPTA delay.

Were the Union a better team this year than last? Absolutely. But in MLS, success is often the product of surpassing or whiffing on whatever combination of players, management, and resources you can wrangle up in the incredibly balanced league.

It was a year of good and bad form (and luck) for Philadelphia, culminating in a mediocre year where the team again scraped into the playoffs. Which is just about what we expected. In his preseason preview, PSP Chief Editor Dan Walsh wrote:

Union fans could be in for another tough year. Or the Union front office could have done just barely enough to keep this team competitive… The Union could finish in fourth place or last place, and neither would surprise. Anything better would.

Yeah, that sounds just about right.

First, the pocketbook

Much of the wrangling over the next three months about the Union’s place in MLS will focus on spending. Any Union fan admitted to themselves long ago that Jay Sugarman is not going to Daddy Warbucks the squad into contender. But, as we’re about to see, spending does not always equal success in MLS.

Let’s check out this crazy table that breaks down how money translated into points in 2018.

Spending vs. standings

TeamSalary rankStandings rankDifference
Toronto119-18
LA Galaxy213-11
Chicago* 320-17
New York City FC47-3
LAFC550
Montreal615-9
Seattle74+3
Atlanta82+6
Kansas City93+6
Portland108+2
Colorado1121-10
D.C. United129+3
Dallas136+7
Philadelphia1411+3
Orlando1522-7
Minnesota1618-2
San Jose1723-6
Salt Lake*1812+6
Vancouver1914+5
NY Red Bulls201+19
Columbus2110+11
New England2216+6
Houston2317+6
2018 chart of ranks in spending and supporters shield standings.

* The rankings include Yura Movsisyan’s salary for Chicago, not his former club, Salt Lake, and he spent much of the season on loan abroad, with those payment arrangements not public. If factored for actual payment by teams, Chicago would drop to 6th, and Salt Lake could jump as high as 11th.

 

First off: Holy crap, Red Bulls. The 20th lowest spending club in MLS in 2018 set the single-season points total. It’s incredible. Other things that jump out from this table is Atlanta United is only the eighth-highest spending team in the league. Meanwhile, Chicago Fire and L.A. Galaxy’s front offices should be taking a long, hard look at themselves.

Now, for the Union. With the 14th highest salary in the league, the Union had the 11th best record. They finished ahead of similar spending teams like Montreal and Galaxy, but were outdone by lower-spending teams like Columbus and Red Bulls.

By the numbers, the Union finished right about where their spending indicates they should.

Acclimating the Czech and Yip City

In another season of ups and downs, the Union started the season with future MLS assist leader Borek Dockal still acclimating to his new team in MLS. The essential but late preseason signing meant that the Union stumbled out of the gate to a 3-5-2 record, including dropping seven points at home (four of those to woeful San Jose and Orlando City).

The other early struggle — that would soon become a whole-season struggle — was the well-documented yips in front of goal of both C.J. Sapong and David Accam. While Sapong forgot how to use his feet in the 18-yard-box, the vaunted Accam looked disinterested on the ball and, frankly, out of place on field.

In those first 10 games, the Union scored just eight goals and conceded 14. Not good.

Fafa and Burke not bust 

The season turnaround started both with Dockal’s comfort and Cory Burke finally earning the starting striker role in August (yes, it wasn’t until August!). While there are of course a million other variables, the Union went 9-3-2 when Burke started.

The Union underperformed their xG (Expected Goals) all year, but finally started hitting it — most of the time — once the club had found someone who could finish at striker.

It should also be said that Fafa Picault had a huge part in that turnaround. Once he finally became a regular starter in June (yes, not until June), Picault bagged 10 goals in 18 starts.

The young defense still struggled with keeping the ball out of the net, but the club could finally keep up on the score sheet.

On that harvest swoon

Despite the rise in form of the Union’s attack, the club again fell victim to an autumn stumble into the playoffs. Now, there’s actually a lot of nuance here. Philadelphia went 3-3-2 in September in October, which isn’t terrible. That included huge wins over Seattle on the road and at home versus Sporting Kansas City. But that spell also saw a huge missed opportunity when they were shellacked at home by Montreal and had an unlucky loss to Red Bulls to close out Talen for the year.

It’s not that the Union had a bad record once the leaves started changing, it’s that they missed real opportunities to, for once, exceed expectations and climb out of mediocrity.

Finals failure again

That autumn slog, of course, included the demoralizing 3-0 loss to Houston Dynamo in the U.S. Open Cup Finals. It was a devastating failure in a big moment for the club — a massive missed chance to secure the team’s first-ever trophy against a very, very beatable opponent.

But they fell short. They placed second. Mediocrity again.

Zero sum games

All this to say, for every success the Union had this season, there was a misstep and collapse. It goes both ways, too: C.J. Sapong had a howler of a year, Cory Burke had what will probably be his best professional season. The Union had their best-ever record, they still failed to make it out of the playoff knockout round. They played two elite teenage centerback prospects nearly every game of the year, they played two elite teenage centerback prospects who sometimes played liked teenagers.

In MLS, exceeding expectations simply comes down to more hits than misses. Whether it was due to bad luck, bad play, or bad decisions, the 2018 Philadelphia Union simply couldn’t pull themselves out of the 50-50, zero sum game, and finished the year a mediocre MLS team.

They were who we thought they were.

17 Comments

  1. Good article, but if we are going to bring up spending we must also know that salary does not equal spending.

    • +1 Came here to say this. Let’s look at some transfer fees.

    • Agreed, anyone talking salary without mentioning transfer fees in a single entity league is just lazy.

      • It doesn’t include GAM/TAM either, or any other top-secret $s King Garber sees fit to distribute. MLS team spending is so convoluted it just seems foolish to think you can make any comparisons across teams or definitive statements on who is spending what. Thank god for the players union releasing salaries, or we would know even less than we do.

    • It’s not lazy. It’s one thing to look at — and probably the one thing we have that’s most reliable.

      In Steve’s defense, I handed him the chart as is. I planned to use it again for a subsequent piece that discussed transfer fees as well.

  2. Pete A Mazzaccaro says:

    I’ve said it here before — the Union wants to be Red Bull when it grows up. Year in and year out, constantly competitive with a one of the lowest wage bills in the league. Maybe Ernst Tanner can help us get there.

    If we could do that and not the part in which Red Bull inevitably blow it in the playoffs, that would be great. Though a supporters shield for the Union would be remarkable at this point.

  3. Earl W Gardner III says:

    It’s not like Earnie and Sugarman didn’t tell us in the off-season not to get our hopes up

    • In that sense, they did outperform their expectations this year.
      .
      At the same time, nothing like setting the bar low to make yourself look better when you rise above it.

  4. A couple thoughts:
    1. The salary isn’t the whole story, pretty sure Atlanta would top the list with transfer fees added.
    2.The Accam bust really hurt. With Picault playing well, his position wasn’t needed and the money could have been spent bringing in a good striker, probably could have gotten us a couple wins in the early season.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    RL Burnside. ‘Bad Luck City.’
    .
    Anyone know the tune of which I speak knows the blues of which we Union Supporters have come to sing.

  6. What the numbers tell me is there is no point in spending tons of cash. With the transfer fees added in it might be even more telling. By those numbers alone, teams benefit more by spending from the middle to the bottom of the pack, than they do by spending in the top ten. Frugality seems to rule the table.

  7. This team never seemed to be able to pull the anchor all the way in the boat this season.
    .
    The Accam whiff was the first snag and no ones fault (but Accam’s)
    .
    The fact that the team just could NOT seem to find an answer at right wing all season, was the series of repeating snags.
    .
    But the one that really bugged me (and I am not Curtin bashing) was the 10 games it took before CJ was finally moved out of the striker slot and replaced with Burke. Burke had shown the ability to create a spark and lift the team’s level of energy, and he was left to languish for far too long. I just couldn’t understand how CJ got WAY more leash than any other player on the team. That was a self inflicted snag, and it was hard to stomach.

    • I agree with all of this, but I think Accam was never healthy this year so it’s really hard to blame anything for his season other than bad luck (and not a good enough backup plan).

  8. You gotta look at some of the transfer fees. Aside from the tens of millions spent by Atlanta and LAFC on transfer fees over the past 2 years some other transfers from “salary efficient” clubs include:

    Kaku (NYRB) – $6.25M
    Raúl Ruidíaz (SEA) – $6M+
    Paul Ariola (DCU) – $3M+
    Pablo Aránguiz (DAL) – $1.25M

    All of these were real transfer fees, not allocation/MLS dollars


    ** Props go to Dallas for buying Anton Nedyalkov for around $1.5M and then selling him back to his former league for over $2M over the course of about a year

  9. –The overall historical performance record of the team in summary has been only poor to mediocre — indeed it is quite interesting and ironic that the Union’s history section of the organization website is simply blank for the -year period 2014 to present
    — we have not won an MLS championship nor even advanced to the final match
    — we have never advance beyond the first round of the playoffs
    indeed we have only advanced to the first round of the playoffs only fourt times in our 9-year history of the team; MLS rules allow in my opinion too many teams to advance to the playoffs — so even this record of playoff appearances is highly misleading and over-rates the team after this 9-year history, we performed this season much poorer than the first-year team from Atlanta — this is simply unacceptable
    — numerous poor decisions by general or executive managment — the worst example of this was terminating John Hackworth’s position as Team Manager after only one year in the non-interim portion of that role; John is one of the best technical coaches in the U.S. and was extremely well-trusted, respected, and liked by the players; that move was very detrimental to the Team; Hackworth’s Louisville USL Team last week won that league’s championship: Promotion and Relegation anyone?

    All of the above has been under the ultimate responsibility of the Team ownership — yet Jay Sugarman is still the Chairman and principle owner without change in this role from the original structure. All of the above has happened despite very consistent, high-level support from the fan base; most matches are sold out even during times of poor or very poor peformance of the team. The feeling is fans’ money is being taken for granted.

    Conclusion: Ater 9 years of these results, we need wholesale changes in the team management and ownership

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