Union

Why the Union won

Photo by 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.

There are plenty of reasons why the Union fell short in 2018. There are an equal number of reasons why the Union won in 2018 too.

The Philadelphia Union won more games than any prior iteration of blue shirts this season because:

  1. Andre Blake is the league’s best shot-stopper and it’s not even close
  2. Their center backs were strong, in spite of their youthful lapses
  3. Jim Curtin’s vision of a possession oriented side finally became a reality
  4. Fafa Picault was precisely what the rightward tilted Union needed from a left winger
  5. Cory Burke got hot, like REALLY hot
  6. The team defended together
  7. Ilsinho found his niche and his groove
Reason 1: Andre Blake

This website has lauded Andre Blake for the work he’s done defending the Union net. For most of his tenure as Union goalkeeper, he’s had a lot of work to do in that department.

This website has also questioned Blake’s overall contribution to the team philosophy and whether or not he was the answer for the team moving forward.

In 2018, Blake showed his value by saving more shots inside the penalty area than all but one keeper in the league and making more saves than any other keeper whose team made the playoffs.

Blake also improved his passing accuracy by roughly 10% year over year. This helps in stopping shots because, if the Union have the ball, the other team can’t score.

Reason 2 and 3: Build from the back

The Union’s defense was certainly not perfect this year. In fact, the team gave up more goals in 2018 than they did in 2017.

However, center backs Austin Trusty, Mark McKenzie, and Jack Elliot (a combined one year of professional experience among them going into the season and an average age of 20) put the league on notice that the Philadelphia Union were going to be poised out of the back, split lines either with their passing vision or their guile on the ball, and create triangles with midfielders and fullbacks alike, in every corner of the pitch.

Passing accuracy increased from these central positions too, both in raw percentages and in Elliott’s year over year number. That, coupled with Andre Blake’s aforementioned growth, a marginal increase in accuracy from Ray Gaddis (yes, Ray Gaddis completed 85.4% of his passes in 2018. On the topic of Ray Gaddis, he remains the team’s best left back despite not having much of a left foot, and for all of the hand-wringing about his play over the years, he’ll have his name next to Sebastien Le Toux on the Ring of Honor when he finally hangs his boots up), and a 15% increase from Keegan Rosenberry, allowed the Union to be the possession team they’ve always strived to be.

Moreover, it allowed the Union’s midfield trio, all of whom have worn the captain’s armband for their respective national teams in the last 18 months, to be the best version of themselves.

The Union’s most notable performances were those in which they passed their opponents dizzy on their way to points. Though NYCFC had the last laugh in their sandbox on Halloween, it was clear what the Union were capable of on an actual soccer field… and the sequence below wasn’t even the best one of the night.

Reason 4: Fafa raises the bar

The Union attack down the right side nearly half of the time and in the central channel about a third of the time. The remaining scraps of attack come from the left.

Fafa Picault feasted on those attacking scraps to the tune of 10 goals and 5 assists in 2018, despite being suspended for the first three games of the season after a spat in a closed-door scrimmage. In 2018, Picault was the perfect option on the left for the Union. While the possession-oriented Boys in Blue drew their opposition away from Picault’s side with crisp passing in tight spaces, Picault drifted even further left. Then, when Haris Medunjanin or Jack Elliot picked looked up to switch the ball, Fafa was either suddenly one-on-one with a backpedaling defender or away altogether, a full grown Dashiell Robert Parr blazing into the final third.

What Picault brings to the team should be the model for Union transfers going forward: a borderline international with genuine talent and at least one deadly skill (in this case, speed), a player who works harder than his opponent for 90 minutes plus, and has more than a bit of a chip on his shoulder/nasty streak.

Reason 5: Cory Burke got hot

Cory Burke made it until May before finding a spot in the Union’s Starting XI. When he found that spot, he kept it for his own by scoring a goal in nearly every match he started.

All told he tallied 10 goals and an assist as the tip of the Union spear, most notably for 9 straight league wins (with him as a starter).

Cory Burke is part of why the Union won in 2018. He may continue to be part of that equation in 2019. However, the lanky and lean Jamaican isn’t a long-term solution for the Union, nor is the player he usurped, CJ Sapong. Both have shown their abilities and their ceilings, but more importantly both have shown Union fans and commentators alike that the Union can win most matches when their striker plays well.

It’s that “plays well” part, so inconsistently found in Chester over the years, that’s the limitation.

Reason 6: Under pressure

The Union are a high risk, high reward team. They press their opponents in every corner of the field, attempting to either overwhelm them on one side of the pitch and create a mistake, or force a difficult long pass or clearance from their opponents that’s more likely to be turned over.

The Union won in 2018 because they executed this strategy more effectively than they ever have before. In matches against the best press and possession teams in the league (like New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew), the Union matched or bettered their opponents, almost apples to apples.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the Boys in Blue were coordinated in this effort in spite of their league-minimum striker, the delayed acclimation of their attacking midfielder, and the complete loss of their other massive off-season signing.

No small feat for a coach.

Reason 7: Skill-sinho (makes more sense as a hashtag than “Ilskill”)

Fafa Picault’s one deadly skill is speed. Ilsinho’s one deadly skill is skill.

Whether dancing through Chicago Fire defenders en route to atomizing the net behind them, or New York City FC defenders en route to gently driving a dagger into Pigeon hearts, or any of his other late-game exploits in 2018, the Union found in Ilsinho the game-changing substitution they’ve been looking for since their inception. Since coming to Chester from Ukraine, Ilsinho always looked dangerous for 30 minutes in a match and then completely absent for the other 60.

The catch with this was Ilsinho started most matches.

As a sub, the beguiling Brazilian doesn’t have to worry about wind. He can spend a tidy half an hour by running at tired defenders, finding the space that tends to open up at the end of soccer matches, and using his unending bag of tricks to find opportunities for the Union.

Like this one.

Summary

There are a lot of things the Union can do to get better in 2019. They absolutely got better in 2018, setting records and playing some beautiful soccer.

It’s worth recognizing success as much as it is opportunities for growth.

2 Comments

  1. Let’s not forget reason 8 – Dockal. Being among the top Assist leaders in the league is evidence of how effective he was as to “why the union won” and may not next year without him.

  2. Great article! There was a lot to enjoy about the season. However I believe this fan base is tired of groping for anything and everything in order to celebrate mediocrity. This team needs to step up and perform in the real challenging and defining moments. It’s starts with the ownership, front office and coaching. Ernst Tanner’s defining moment starts 11/19/2018 at 12 noon. Hopefully it won’t be another mediocre one.

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