Roundtable / Season Reviews / Union

Season review: End of season roundtable

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.

What grade would you give the Union’s season?

Jim O’Leary: C. This team played well this season with an exciting and engaging style of soccer that should have made them a media darling locally and gathered national attention. And they earned another US Open Cup Final appearance and locked up an MLS Cup Playoff berth earlier than anyone should have expected in a competitive Eastern Conference. But they failed to step up when those earned opportunities arrived, and as a result it’s hard to say this team did anything other than disappoint.

Tim Jones: B. They legitimately made the playoffs playing attractive, watchable soccer. They were forced to discover that their bench was good enough to beat the two best teams in the West. Postseason flops reflect the lack of postseason experience, (See Phillies, 2007).  To earn an A, they must make it to the Eastern Conference finals. They are no longer patsies for the best, but cannot compete with them day-in and day-out without taking special measures.

Sara Griswold: B-. It was a season of ups and downs, but the Union looked better than we’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever. It was an exciting season: They clinched a playoff spot early and made it through to the US Open Cup final again. Of course, it was a one-and-done in the playoffs, getting knocked out in the first round after squandering chances to earn themselves a home playoff match, and they didn’t win the US Open Cup again. They worked hard and earned big opportunities, but when the time came to step up, the team didn’t play well enough to earn a win. Overall, it was a slightly better than average season for the Union.

Chris Gibbons: B-. Every single pundit in MLS predicted this Union edition would be a cellar-dwelling side of castaways. In making the playoffs instead, the team wildly over-performed in 2018, played occasionally beautifully while doing it, and stuck with an visible identity through it all. Even though the season ended on a sour note, the Union were unequivocally better at the end than at the beginning and are absolutely the best version of the side in the franchise’s history.

Steve Whisler: C+. Given the roster, the youth, the star player yips, the injuries… the Union had a pretty solid season and, moreover, played some hella beautiful soccer at times. Still, they couldn’t make the leap to a team that can dominate and exert their will over teams, which is the next level for this squad. The Open Cup loss knocks it down from a B- to a C+.

Ryan Rose: B. If you look at it one way, they finished above preseason expectations. If you look at it another way, the Union fell apart after a streak of great soccer and backed into the playoffs. Regardless of how you look at it, they went to an Open Cup Final and made it to the playoffs. Good enough for a B from me.

Mike Servedio: C. It was close to a B-. The team played some good soccer this season and had a chance to finish as high as 3rd in the Eastern Conference going into Decision Day. But the reality is, they finished 6th, lost another playoff match, another Open Cup Final, and pretty much played to the average standard we’ve come to expect.

Dan Walsh: B-. On the field, the Union entertained and often played excellent soccer from May 10 until falling short in their season’s last week. This was the most stylish Union team we’ve ever seen, and they were full of players worth rooting for. If the Union had closed the deal on bringing Borek Dockal in earlier, they could have played this year without the awful start that put them in a hole and avoided a playoff road game at Yankee Stadium, by far the league’s worst soccer venue.

Peter Andrews: C+. As usual, the Union were streaky. After an awful start, they warmed up through the summer and looked good doing it. It all came tumbling down in the last weeks of the season, with the side turning in embarrassing performances in both the MLS playoffs and U.S. Open Cup final. They finished with a negative goal differential and are still yet to win a playoff game.

What player impressed the most this season?

Tim: Mark McKenzie impressed me the most this season. I had expected him to spend the year with Bethlehem.

Sara: Fafa Picault. He scored some beautiful goals this season and was creative up front, tried some impressive things, and generated some great chances.

Chris: There are a lot of options here, but Keegan Rosenberry’s reemergence at right fullback did two things: First, it shored up that entire side of the formation for potentially years to come; and second, it removed from his back the menacing “Sophomore Slump” monkey that seems to live around Union camp.

Steve: Mark McKenzie. Out of nowhere, McKenzie took hold of the starting center back spot and totally exceeded expectations. The Union shipped a lot of unnecessary goals, some of that due to who was in front of them (more on that below), but McKenzie was not the problem. The kid has a tremendous upside and will soon figure into the USMNT’s plans.

Jim: Honestly, Jay Simpson. He could have given up on this team, it looked like the team had given up on him. Only reason he saw a start this season was because the Union were resting almost their entire squad. And he came out, put in more effort than some of the regular starters, and succeeded. That’s tremendous mental fortitude on his part, truly impressive.

Ryan: I hate to make an echo chamber here, but Mark McKenzie was outstanding. Not only did McKenzie play well beyond his years, he played well beyond the level of most MLS center backs. If he continues his development, the Union might not hold onto him.

Mike: Auston Trusty. I thought he was the most consistent defender on the team this season and made a huge leap coming into a starting role. McKenzie played very well as others have noted, but I thought Trusty was the most consistent member of the back line for the full season.

Dan: Borek Dockal. He showed what a difference a quality playmaker can make, making everyone around him more dangerous in attack.

Pete: Auston Trusty. Trusty’s athleticism and smarts combined made him a rarity among young defenders. I question the wisdom of playing him every minute, because he did seem to dip in performance near the end of the season, but Trusty’s first full season exceeded all my expectations.

What was the biggest disappointment this season?

Jim: The U.S. Open Cup. The Union were objectively the better team going into that game, and they fell flat on their face and never got up as soon as they got to Houston.

Tim: For me the biggest disappointment this season, so far, has been the investment in David Accam. The tale isn’t over, but counting on surgery to restore elite speed seems iffy to this layman.

Chris: The overall missed opportunity of such a good team. The Open Cup is the clearest example, but so is the way in which the team crashed out of a home match for the playoffs and then the competition altogether. So much was on the table for them and so little was done with it.

Steve: In a year when there was a major backslide for clubs four through eleven in the Eastern Conference, the Union squandered a legit chance to finally give their fans another home playoff game. All that said, getting walloped in another Open Cup Final hurt the most. The club had what will probably be their best chance for the foreseeable future to win a trophy and blew it.

Sara: Definitely the US Open Cup final match. The Union worked hard to get to the final, played some great soccer and earned their spot. All of that hard work was undone in that match. They looked out of sync and couldn’t generate anything, the total opposite of every match they’d played to get there.

Ryan: The last stretch of the season. After beating Seattle Sounders in Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, the Union beat only Minnesota in their last five matches. Granted, those were some tough teams (Columbus, New York Red Bulls, NYCFC), but just one win would have gone a long way.

Mike: The Open Cup Final loss. Of the three losses, this one maybe stung the most as Houston may have been the most beatable team the Union played in a final. And not just the loss, the listless performance in such an important match was a huge disappointment.

Dan: Obviously falling short against NYC in the last two games. The Union were good enough to do things in the playoffs, but they ran up against an awful matchup for them and didn’t handle it well.

Peter: The U.S. Open Cup loss. It felt so ripe for the taking, a poor Dynamo side against a Union team in red-hot form. Laying such a thorough egg hurt more than any other result this season.

Best moment of the season?

Jim: The game in Atlanta. Granted it was a loss, and the two red cards no doubt contributed to the following loss in Toronto. But the way the team responded, and refused to give up in the face of ludicrous odds is exactly the type of team the Union need to be to capture attention in Philadelphia.

Tim: The best moment of the season was Jay Simpson striking Alejandro Bedoya’s feed home for the first goal against Kansas City, the game-winner for a side that started eight reserves among its 11.

Sara: The August match against New England. Elliott, a center back scored two of the Union’s three goals in that game. One was a brace, which was the first brace ever scored by a defender in Union history. It was an exciting, history-making match.

Chris: 0-0 at Red Bull Arena. The Union showed they could play with the best team in MLS, doing a better Red Bull impression than the the Red Bulls themselves. A missed penalty shorted the Union their deserved three points, but the performance was inspiring nonetheless.

Steve: The Union’s run in August was tremendous. The 2-0 win over NYCFC stands out, but after losing the Open Cup final and grinding a result out on the road in Seattle, bossing future Western Conference champs Kansas City 2-0 with a reserve side was a moment where you saw the heart and hustle of Jim Curtin’s team.

Ryan: The win at home against NYCFC felt like a turning point. A sign that this team was the real deal, that they could compete with the best in the league. Oh, those were the days.

Mike: I don’t disagree with anything listed above. Just another to add to the list: the away win in D.C. Heading into United’s brand new stadium with the home team in a good run of form having just added Wayne Rooney, the Union outplayed their hosts with some style.

Dan: The Jay Simpson games, the two-game stretch in which the Union stunned Seattle on the road while a man down with a stoppage time winner and then knocked off Sporting Kansas City while playing a squad full of backups. Never in Union history have there been two more improbable wins. They weren’t as pretty as that great August stretch, but they were remarkable because of how inexplicable they were.

Peter: All of the moments listed above were great, with Ilsinho’s goal at the end of the 2-0 win over NYCFC being a personal favorite. One more: the crazy 4-3 win over Chicago Fire, where David Accam’s only goal of the season was the game-winner.

Can the Union be successful under their current business model?

Jim: Yes, so long as they spend money on things like transfer fees in the same way they’ve spent money on one-time costs like building Talen Energy Stadium or the Power Training Complex. If they’re not able (or willing) to invest in the short term, they’ll never be able to capitalize on the benefits of those one-time investments.

Tim: Given the long-term nature of the business model both on the pitch and on the balance sheet, there is insufficient evidence to make a judgment either way, especially since the Sakiewicz years lacked vision, philosophy, and plan.

Sara: Yes, as long as they make investments in players. Like Jim said, investing in solid players right now is how you reap your other long term business investments. Keep spending on development and utilize the Steel as much as possible in the long term, it seems to be paying off now after two or three years.

Chris: Why not? There is little correlation between spending money on players and actually being good in MLS. Grab a talent or two again this offseason, get lucky (instead of unlucky, like Nogueira leaving or Accam being hurt all season), and make another run.

Steve: Yes. Look at Red Bulls. The Union are absolutely capable of building a squad in that mold.

Ryan: No. I don’t fault them for scrimping on transfer fees. I think it’s great that they invest as much or more on the back-end of the club than any club in MLS. We’re already seeing dividends. But if they don’t sign a DP level striker and a DP number 10, which somehow seems like part of their business model, it’s not going to work. For a business model that boasts long term sustainability, every single offseason has seemed unbearably shaky.

Mike: They can be successful but they can’t win an MLS Championship with this model. If success is making the playoffs and possibly moving on to a conference semi-final, they can do what they have been doing. If they want to compete with the elite teams in this league, they will have to pay transfer fees and sign designated players.

Dan: Yes, but not successful enough for my tastes. They can be a playoff team, but they won’t win any titles unless they commit to spending more on players.

Peter: Yes — see Steve’s point about Red Bulls. The problem isn’t the business model. The problem is the relentless acceptance of mediocrity (often using the business model as justification).

If you were Ernst Tanner, what’s one unexpected move you would make this offseason?

Jim: I’d let Dockal go if Henan Jainye’s price isn’t reasonable. As good as he was, and as essential as that position is for the Union, their transfer money would be better spent on two or three smaller signings than one big one.

Tim: Hand the keys to right wing/right attacking midfield to Michee Ngalina, assuming he continues to earn them in 2019 preseason.

Sara: Unpopular opinion, but I’d consider dropping Sapong if, and only if, a high scoring, fan favorite striker becomes available, like Ibrahimovic or Zardes. Yes, it’d be a lot of money, but Sapong didn’t score goals when the Union needed him to most. In fact, he only scored four goals this season.

Chris: Sell or trade Andre Blake. Part of Blake’s mystique was how good he had to be when the Union couldn’t defend. Assuming the Union’s young defenders get better, that won’t be as much of a problem next season. Thus, the money saved and earned from the transfer could go toward a winger or striker, a position where the Union have a desperate need.

Steve: Move on from Haris Medunjanin. The best teams in MLS all employ defensive midfielders who clog the field and kick start attacks. Medunjanin is simply not that player. With Dockal (or another similar player) at the 10, they don’t need the regista in the No. 6 spot. His defensive ineptitude was the difference in far too many matches — and left a young backline to fend for themselves without any help. If Derrick Jones isn’t going to be the answer at defensive mid, they need to bring in someone who is. With Haris still on the books next year, they should use him as a late game offensive sub when they’re searching for a goal and looking to play the ball in deep.

Ryan: Convince Jay Sugarman to invest in a scouting department. With real scouts. That go out, and scout players. It looks like homegrown rules are going to change soon to put a premium on which clubs can find the best talent first. Tanner has proven he’s a good judge of talent. He just needs people to find the players to judge first.

Mike: Trade C.J. Sapong. He’s a player with value that I just don’t quite buy into as being a franchise striker.

Dan: Give up on David Accam and go find a left-footed, inverted right winger. That’s unexpected only because Accam is at the nadir of his value and the Union won’t be able to move him at profit, but sometimes you need to cut your losses.

Peter: Trade Alejandro Bedoya. Having your most expensive player be a do-everything no. 8 isn’t a recipe for MLS success. Tanner should at least investigate what his trade value is and, if the Union can get a quality attacker, move on from their aging captain.

What signing must the team make to be successful next season?

Tim: A third striker capable of playing as well, or better, than Cory Burke. Burke’s best feature at Bethlehem was his defense. He is now trying to conserve his energy, in part because he needs to survive game after game after game with no relief. He is no longer a Jamaican dire wolf consistently terrorizing opposing defenders and keepers.

Sara: A creative number 10. If Dockal does leave the Union, which is a possibility this off-season, then they’re back to last year’s big problem, shuffling midfielders. Even if Dockal stays, having another creative, all-purpose midfielder on their squad would not be a problem for the Union.

Chris: A starting-caliber striker. Sapong and Burke have shown both Union fans and MLS their skills and their ceilings. Neither is good enough for the team to take the next step, thus it’s time for the team to go shopping.

Steve: A game-breaking striker who can actually stretch a backline would sure do the trick.

Ryan: Again, I’d like to give a unique answer here, but there’s no question. The Union need to sign a DP-level striker. Not just to be successful on the pitch, but to prove to the fans that the ownership is committed to spending the necessary cash to put a good, entertaining product on the pitch.

Mike: They need a left back, and probably a replacement #10 if Dockal goes. If Dockal goes, I’ll say the 10 is the most important thing. If Dockal stays or is immediately replaced with a quality center midfielder, the team must go out and get another striker, preferably a DP with a strong track record of scoring goals. A speedy, in behind guy would compliment Cory Burke or C.J. Sapong the most.

Dan: They need to retain Dockal or replace him with an equally productive playmaker, and the latter is unlikely. Otherwise, they will regress significantly.

Pete: Until the Union get an upgrade at striker, the rest doesn’t matter.

Jim:… and as is traditional, a left back.

8 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Dear UnionGoal.
    .
    The player who impressed me most this year was Keegan Rosenberry. Easy to argue he was the most consistent, technical and tactically sound player on the field. His attacking skill, mid to long range passing is among best on the field. It is clear, sitting in Jim’s doghouse was the tinder needed to spark a level of focus and concentration much needed to earn his spot as the clear cut RB of choice.
    .
    Sometimes, we just need some adversity to see how we respond…. to bridge the gap from early adulthood to manhood. Here’s hoping he continues to grow.
    .
    I am ruthless. But I am fair.
    .
    ‘nough said.

  2. The Bethlehem news that broke after the roundtable occurred means the organization has major capital expenses for which it has probably been planning for a date in the future pushed forward.
    .
    2019’s Bethlehem player development project will save the costs of renting from Lehigh, but lose the revenues of ticket sales and video advertising.
    .
    travel costs to home games are on the players. The club provides a van for those without their own cars, and sometimes lives on the charity of other employees.
    .
    And now they have to accelerate the capital expenditures necessary to create an acceptable venue in Bethlehem.

  3. Grade: C – they did what an avg MLS team does, get 6th in the playoffs and bow out. Credit due for getting to the Open Cup, but most of that is lost by losing a very winnable game.

    Impressed: Fafa emerging this year impressed me most. Tied for goals (10), and so many away goals – bright future.

    Biggest Disappointment: Inability to get results in either NYC game is up there, but it has to be Open Cup loss for the third time. Standing in the rain at Schmidt’s was a great experience, until it wasn’t.

    Best Moment: Union OWN Audi Field!!!! Great bus trip with SOB, great win over DC United!

    Union Success: Yes, the model is fine. While I would love for our dear Sugarman to get a insanely rich partner, we aren’t that far down the salary chart right now, and many MLS teams are finding success with less. $$$ did not show well this year – Crew, RSL, Por, RB all had minimal roster $$. We need to invest in our scouting dept.

    Tanner move: Clear out half the roster. Simpson, Accam, Medunjanin, Borek (if China asks too much), Fabinho (move him to accademy coach), Yaro, maybe even CJ – that’s nearly $4mil right there. Build this team in his vision. With a new coach.

    Signing: Coach. After that Striker. And/or #10 if needed. Followed by LB & RW.

  4. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    The Union season in review.

    Jim Curtin is starting to look like Andy Reid in the biggest games where he’s 0-7.
    Person who had the best season: Ernie Stewart
    His goal from day one was to get the job he got even though it didn’t exist when he took this job.
    Person who had the worst season: Accam & Sapong
    In the fine tradition of the Union, almost every year since they started one of the highest paid player’s doesn’t see the field. Sapong meanwhile after getting a raise lost his job to a player who wasn’t suppose to to the field this year.

    I have to give them a C

    They got young players on the field but 0-7 is everything with me and it’s time to make a change with the coach now. With new teams coming into the league, Curtin will get a second chance just like Jesse Marsch & Mike Petke did.

  5. What signing do they need?

    A new Coach.

    The current occupant of the job is not ready for prime time.

  6. Grade: C, color me unimpressed overall.
    Biggest disappointment: Easily the cup final. A win in Houston would’ve allowed me to forget a lot.
    Best moment: Who knows. I was at the Revs game when Jack scored his brace. That was special.
    Can the Union be successful: Sure; to echo everybody, the NYRB seem to do just fine.
    Unexpected move: Tough question. At this point I’m willing to see just about anything happen. In Ernst I trust.
    Signing needed: A marquee goalscorer, pure and simple.
    .

  7. My sentiments largely mirror Pete Andrews (must be the name). Only thing I would not do is trade or sell Bedoya, unless the deal were good. I wouldn’t unload him for the sake of unloading him. But I would really look to making that midfield a lot younger.

    • Yeah, I don’t think you should dump Bedoya for the sake of dumping Bedoya. My point is that if you’re thinking about his value league-wide vs. his value on this team, he could be an interesting trade asset to get someone at a premium position. Could be wrong but it’s worth exploring. Agree completely that the midfield needs to get younger, one way or another…

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