A View from Afar / Union

Goodbye to the great Union tease of 2018

Photo: Paul Rudderow

For a while, 2018 looked like the season that professional soccer in the Philadelphia area was finally recovering and blossoming into what fans always hoped to see.

A good team.

Stylish, possession-based soccer.

Fun to watch.

Now, as the year comes to a close, it just looks like a tease.

  • Borek Dockal proved a one-year rental. We’ve seen no sign Union ownership will open their pocketbooks for a replacement of equal quality.
  • Hometown boy Keegan Rosenberry, otherwise known as one of the two best passing right backs in MLS, got traded to Colorado in exchange for a bag of soccer balls.

With these two key departures, the signal is clear:

The new Union on-field identity that emerged in 2018 is likely going out the window following the ascension of new sporting director Ernst Tanner. The attractive passing game looks to be on its way out.

Instead, we’ll probably see the “run fast, inject chaos” approach, likely in the form of a German-style frenetic pressing approach that we’ve seen from the New York Red Bulls. (Haris Medunjanin ought to start packing his bags, because he isn’t capable of the first part.)

The Union look to be starting over — again.

The team took two years to nail down the possession game that former sporting director Earnie Stewart wanted to see employed. We finally saw it come to fruition this year, and from May through October, it was fantastic.

Now Stewart is gone, and his replacement may be burning that down.

What the Rosenberry trade reveals

The Rosenberry trade is particularly revealing.

You don’t trade one of the best passing right backs in MLS, particularly given his local ties and the club’s stated vision of building from within, unless you strongly feel he doesn’t fit your style. Rosenberry’s strengths are his passing, ball control, and local ties. His long throw-in is a weapon. He’s fantastic on the overlap when he has a quality winger in front of him. His defending is average, his recovery speed ordinary. At his best, Rosenberry is a perfect right back for a possession-oriented club.

Did his very public late 2017 rift with head coach Jim Curtin never quite get resolved? Possibly, but they looked fine all year.

The fact that Rosenberry was entering his final contract year should be irrelevant. If he goes to Europe, you retain his rights upon his eventual stateside return.

You don’t send a good local player to Colorado for a measly $300,000 in allocation money ($400,000 if certain incentives are hit).

You pay him.

Some may find significant context in Atlanta’s trade of Greg Garza, possibly the league’s best left back when healthy, to Cincinnati for $450,000, but that overlooks Garza’s injury history and Atlanta’s inability to protect him in the expansion draft.

You only make this trade if:

  1. Rosenberry doesn’t fit your club’s vision.
  2. He’s a locker room problem.
  3. You’re infatuated with backup right back Olivier Mbaizo’s athletic gifts in a high-pressing system, and the Union are paying him peanuts.

Bet on No. 1, with No. 3 a contributing factor and No. 2 speculative at best. Colorado got a steal.

The glass could be half full

There is plenty to like about Tanner so far.

  • His openness and candor are a refreshing counterpoint to Stewart’s obfuscation.
  • His early signing of striker Sergio Santos is a good start, even Santos’s track record shows he is anything but a proven quantity.
  • The notion of tactical flexibility should inspire joy in the hearts of Union fans.
  • A 3-5-2 featuring Jack Elliott flanked by Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty could anchor the Union for years. (Yes, no one from the Union has stated this will happen, but it should, given the makeup of the core roster.)

Nonetheless, the Union entering 2019 look the same way they do every season: Things look tenuous.

Union chairman Jay Sugarman has shown no signs that ownership will spend any more money than in the past. Given that Dockal was a one-year rental, that’s a major problem, because we’ve seen the difference a top creative playmaker makes for the Union and other clubs. With one, you compete. Without one, you don’t.

Most international winter transfer windows open this week. Who knows? The conversation could — should — be very different once training camp opens in late January. Maybe what replaces the possession game will be grand. Maybe head coach Jim Curtin will be loathe to abandon tit after it worked so well most of last season. Maybe there’s some other variable.

Still, 2018 feels like a tease. It may have started and ended poorly, but from May through October, the Union played the most consistently entertaining soccer in their history. Optimistic Union fans — if such a thing still exists — should have left the season excited to see what that club could do with their back line returning with a bit more seasoning. It seemed like a season upon which to build. It didn’t seem like the Union needed to jettison Plan A. They just needed to develop a Plan B to go with it.

Now it looks like that possession style is never coming back. It was, at least, nice while it lasted.


  1. Well I felt pretty lousy about the Rosenberry trade when it happened, but you’ve succeeded in making me feel worse about it. And the club overall.

    And on that note: there is no such thing as an optimistic Union fan.

    • Just a note, I for one am excited to see what team Ernst will supply Curtin with. I’m optimistic about what Ernst will do. I’m not as optimistic about what Curtin will do with what he’s given.

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        Ernst touting Gaddis’ talents is not a good sign

      • Gaddis is solid. I’d argue if the money from Rosenberry is spent better strategically, up field, it doesn’t matter as much. Besides I think M’baizo will fill in well enough with probably just as many mistakes as Rosenberry made.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Keegan Rosenberry was a defensive liability. Simple.
      ….that’s why he’s not being returned. Same player, 4 years younger and 1/2 as expensive is right behind him.

  2. I guess the title is correct in saying the “…tease of 2018”. Because that’s all it really was right, last year’s version of the Union tease?

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    For me, this franchise is often emblematic of the great US Soccer story.
    Skipping form one set of activities to another, searching the internet for something new, using that for shot minute, Double Pass, Clairfontaine, half the culture want to possess and showing aesthetic, half the culture can’t ‘tolerate 25 pass sequences.’
    As it relates to the game, I’ve finally resigned our cultural differences as being the single biggest hurdle to get over… and the reason for this is simple, its a closed game. Instead of our cultural differences and pockets of authenticity arising in multiple regions and sub regions, which opportunities to express all the way to highest levels of the game, they live in the shadows always standing in line being “Big Us Soccer Marketing”
    On one hand I’m thankful for Big Us Soccer. On the other hand, its a cross and albatross.
    Kinda like the bother who torments the shit out of you daily in the house, but then has your back on the street.
    As for Earnie Stewart and Ernst Tanner. Interesting these two men come from cultures that in and of themselves are upside down trying to refine themselves… Dutch Footy and German Footy. Maybe its a tell tale heart for us.
    Philadelphia Union. US Soccer. Always in a state of tension-flux.

  4. something, something, Amobi Okugo, something, something…………
    Let’s wait until the season starts and everyone sees how Tanner’s vision for the Union takes hold/shape before proclaiming that the Keegan trade is a bust.

  5. I prefer to avoid the Christmas rush. Tanner had a chance in my mind and abjectly squandered any initial credibility when he left the Jolly Red Idiot in charge.

    No matter what kind of car he builds, he left Mr. Magoo at the wheel.

  6. John Harris says:

    They sold KR because he was approaching the end of his contact. If they were interested in quality the U would have kept him. Obviously this is true if he’s better than Mbaizo. If Mbaizo is a better prospect and you are interested in quality, then keep KR for depth. Under all circumstances you keep him if you’re moving the a 3-5-2 because KR played midfield in college. This is not a legitimate ownership group.

  7. Thanks PSP, great job in 2018.

    Don’t mistake Stewart’s “obfuscation” for professionalism and gamesmanship. And don’t forget who brought you Dockal, Haris, Keegan (draft), Ilsinho, Bedoya, and Fafa. All under Stewart’s reign, as was the best season in Club history. Club should have done everything in its power to keep him and continue the successful trajectory. It did not.

    In most lines of work, those leaders who are “open and candid” publicly generally lack the skillset to do the actual job itself.

  8. Not a defensive liability, enough with bashing him. He is more offensive weapon than defensive but capable, average defender — seemed limited in his role under Curtin, much like Cunningham under Ray Rhodes. Hope Colorado move allows him more creativity.
    End of contract so money plays a major part. And possible rift with Curtin couldn’t be resolved.
    Tim Jones guessed age a factor but strikers are same age or older.
    No matter- he is gone so AMEN, no more grumpy elephant singling KR as root of all evil when so many other issues blocking team success. Good start to 2019!

    • el Pachyderm says:

      you have your lens. i have mine.
      i certainly agree Keegan brought a versatility in possession that was strong and enjoyable to watch.
      he also lost his mark consistently and gave up way too many back side goals… that more often than not in these hallowed halls was blamed on the RCB he was playing with than the actual player who lost the mark. in Keegans defense, he seemed to be improving as a defender IMO.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Course the new sporting ting director did move him, so it stands to reason I may be more right than you about the RB UnionGoal… who I’ve been more fair and balanced over this season which seems to be overlooked, but hey I’m grumpy and it was all Keegans fault.
      Black and white people are the hardest to argue with.

      • Who will you blame now grumpy?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        after all we’ve been through here… this is how you chose to start a new year by coming at me?
        after a really thoughtful State of 2019 Post by you the other day to boot.

  9. On Rosenberry’s value. Defender’s seem pretty inexpensive in MLS. Chicago Fire signed the Brazilian CB Marcelo for a reported $560,000 fee. He’s 29, and waning, but was a strong player in a very good league (Portuguese).

    If Rosenberry’s total transfer fee comes to about $450,000, that seems pretty good to me. I’m bummed the kid didn’t work out here, but am also a bit fascinated by Tanner’s decision making. He clearly didn’t rate Rosenberry even a little bit. At least didn’t think he was good enough to justify hanging onto a few hundred thousand $$.

  10. So are we experiencing a “Freaky Friday “/”Trading Places ” kind of start to 2019?? Union goal and El Pacyderm swapping their disposition…I got nuttin!

  11. PSP, stop trying to make 3-5-2 happen! It’s not going to happen!

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