A View from Afar / Season Previews

The Negadelphian’s Guide to the Union in 2019

Photo: Earl Gardner

There may be no team in MLS this season with both as high a ceiling and low a floor as Philadelphia Union.

This team could win the Eastern Conference or miss the playoffs without surprising anyone.

That’s what happens when a team completely changes its tactical philosophy during a single off-season.

Have they made enough personnel moves required to adequately staff that new system?

Have they had enough time to practice it?

Opening day is Saturday, so we’re about to find out.

Here are some major questions for this team, and let’s do it from a slightly Negadelphian point of view that has a good bit of Devil’s Advocate mixed into it. 

Have the Union traded Earnie Stewart’s tactical dogmatism for Ernst Tanner’s?

At their best in 2018, the Union played arguably the most attractive soccer in their history. Borek Dockal led the league in assists. Their possession game drew admiration from well outside Philadelphia. Yet they ran into the problem of having no Plan B, so wedded were they to former sporting director Earnie Stewart’s dogmatic view on how the game should be played.

The problem was tactical inflexibility, not a faulty system.

Stewart’s replacement, Ernst Tanner, is tossing all that completely out the window this year.

The 4-3-3 possession system is out, we’re told. The 4-4-2 diamond high press is in.

The new system could be what Union head coach Jim Curtin has truly wanted while being limited by Stewart’s dogmatic hewing to his very Dutch preferences.

Then again, the Union may have exchanged Stewart’s dogmatism for Tanner’s.

Why can’t they play both at different times?

Or will they play both? Is the talk a smokescreen for the league?

How do the Union’s three most dynamic returning attackers fit in a tactical system without wingers? 
Photo by Earl Gardner

After a great 2018 season, Fafa Picault faces an uncertain 2019. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

The Union no longer play wingers, according to Tanner.

That would be fine if, well, the Union most dynamic returning attackers weren’t all wingers.

Fafa Picault is now a striker. Picault has played striker before, notably in Germany. Of course, Union fans have seen that his strength is the creation of scoring opportunities, and his weakness is the finishing of them. He flourished last year as an inverted winger.

David Accam is an afterthought with a similar positional profile. When healthy, he was one of the league’s most dangerous players as an inverted winger who was halfway to a second striker. We know now that he wasn’t healthy last year, which is likely why Chicago vastly overpaid for C.J. Sapong. (More on that later.) Accam is now likely fourth on the striker depth chart. 

Ilsinho is … well, we don’t really know what Ilsinho is now. Probably a freewheeling right-sided shuttler coming off the bench (or backup No. 10), given he isn’t fit enough to play wingback, even as a sub. But how many minutes are there for a right-sided reserve shuttler when the Union’s most perfect fit for a diamond midfield is Alejandro Bedoya, who plays that position?

If these three have demonstrated anything in MLS, it’s that they create scoring opportunities when healthy. They bring a ton of excitement to the field.

None of them may be Union regulars by May. Sergio Santos wasn’t acquired to sit on the bench.

Is it wise to base a wingback-dependent system upon unproven fullbacks? 

When you play without wide midfielders, the fullbacks provide attacking width.

For a team planning to rely so heavily on outside backs, the Union are coming in with an awfully untested fullback corps.

The starting left back job is Matt Real’s to win or lose in 2019. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

U.S. U-20 international Matt Real or 22-year-old German import Kai Wagner will likely start at left back. Combined, they have less than five games of MLS experience. Fabinho fit the attacking profile for this system, but on the backside of his playing career, he’s not the answer.

On the right side, Olivier Mbaizo looks to be the preferred choice, with all of one MLS match under his belt, unless veteran Ray Gaddis wins the job. Gaddis has the defensive chops for the high press when healthy, but his offensive game is limited.

Oh, and by the way, they’ll be flanking the league’s youngest center back tandem.

Has Ernst Tanner overinflated the quality of the lower Germanic divisions?

Speaking of Kai Wagner …

The third division of Germany? Really?

Exactly how many players from Germany’s third division have succeeded in MLS?

I’ll wait while you look that one up.

(Still waiting. Still waiting.)

Maybe you remember former Union left back Giliano Wijnaldum, from Germany’s second division, who washed out with the Union after one year.

Or maybe you watched MLS last year and saw all the players Colorado imported from England’s second division. They spent 2018 failing.

The time has long since passed when MLS quality was low enough that players from Europe’s lower divisions routinely walked into MLS starting lineups and performed. The league has improved.

Maybe Wagner will be different. Maybe goalkeeper Carlos Miguel Coronel, from Austria’s second division, will be too. They’re young players early in their careers, and the fact that they start their careers in lower divisions doesn’t mean that’s the extent of their capabilities. Good scouting finds are good scouting finds, wherever you find them, and Tanner most certainly has a proven track record of that in Europe.

Still, this looks a lot like the typical European overinflation of his home country’s quality in comparison to MLS.

Did John McCarthy get pushed out for a guy from Austria’s second division?

That brings us to goalkeeper John McCarthy, otherwise known as Union fans’ favorite everyman local guy made good.

John McCarthy’s penalty heroics are a thing of the past for the Union. (Photo: 215Pix)

When it was announced he was leaving the Union, Jim Curtin said all the right things about a popular player who was moving on. He wants to compete for a starting job somewhere, Curtin said. McCarthy is definitely a player who needs playing time. He progressed to the point where he looked like he could compete for a starting job in MLS. 

We didn’t hear much from McCarthy himself. 

McCarthy will be playing in USL this year.

Was Curtin’s story the real one, or was it the admirably face-saving support of a player-friendly coach who wasn’t making the decision?

The Union replaced McCarthy with a guy from Tanner’s former club. A cynic might say it looks like Tanner pushed McCarthy out for a foreign goalkeeper.

Regardless, it doesn’t require a cynic to know that, if there’s one position you should not spend an international roster spot on in MLS, it’s backup goalkeeper. America produces goalkeepers.

Do the Union have enough center midfielders, considering they plan to play four at a time?

Marco Fabian, Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin and Derrick Jones are the likely starters in center midfield. Bedoya and Medunjanin are in their 30s, and Medunjanin clearly wore down last year. Fabian has a history of back trouble. Jones has yet to hold down a starting job in MLS.

Depth matters.

So who are the backups? Warren Creavalle is the No. 6. (If he’s the starter, the Union have problems.) Ilsinho and Anthony Fontana are probably shuttlers (the flanks of the diamond midfield). Brenden Aaronson is the No. 10.

Is that good enough? 

Why are the Union the only MLS club whose head coach doesn’t determine their tactical identity?

Jim Curtin is the only coach in MLS who doesn’t control his team’s on-field tactical philosophy. Instead, Philadelphia’s sporting director does. Curtin merely gets to implement someone else’s vision.

Is that wise?

It probably was when the Union fielded him as an inexperienced head coach who was hired for the role before he was ready.

And maybe you like it if you view him as disposable or on a one-year prove-it-or-go basis. It looks an awful lot like the model for Red Bull’s clubs in Europe.

Curtin is now entering his fifth full season at the helm of the Union. He placed fourth in the MLS Coach of the Year vote in 2018. He was just given a new system to implement and has only a one-year contract.

It seems like a recipe for a firing.

If Curtin succeeds, every Negadelphian may just have to accept that he has developed into one hell of a coach. 

And what about Marco Fabian??!!

Nah, this is a great move. Even Negadelphia cannot dispute. 

Sure, a Negadelphian would note that he’s barely played in over a year due to back problems and then, after surgery, difficulty breaking back into Eintracht Frankfurt’s lineup.

Whatever. This guy is a star. He’s a No. 10. He’s the Union’s first quality Mexican player. And — crucially — he’s on a one-year contract, so if he fails, it’s a one-year test drive. You know, like Borek Dockal was. Low risk, high reward. When fit, Fabian is exactly what the Union need on and off the field.

This sort of signing, along with the acquisition of forward Sergio Santos, is the sort of move that shows even the most Negadelphian of Negadelphians that Tanner’s moves may be bold and risky, but they also may be very, very smart.

Postgame bonus: A note on the C.J. Sapong trade

There is no way a 30-year-old MLS striker coming off an awful season with a cap hit of $525,000 and entering the final year of his contract is worth (up to) $450,000 in allocation money.

Further, what’s up with the “we’ll give you $100,000 if we get it” part of that trade, not to mention the mystery $50,000 component?

Something is fishy here, my friends. The spidey senses are tingling.

But wait!

Philadelphia’s trade was with Chicago, you say? The same Chicago that just last year fleeced them of $1.2 million in allocation money in exchange for the league’s biggest injury bust?

Ah ha! 

This must be what we call a make-up trade, folks. You could call it whatever you want really, because precedents aren’t easy to find.

After Accam ended his ineffective season early with a surgery for a sports hernia, we learned he had likely been playing injured most of the year. One would expect the Union to be furious about this.

Enter Chicago again, to make good.

“Sure, we’ll take Sapong’s high salary off your hands, particularly since he projects as your fourth striker (at best) this year,” Chicago general manager Nelson Rodriguez effectively said. “We’ll even overpay for the privilege of doing it. So don’t file a grievance with the league office or anything about Accam. We got this. Sorry?”

Sapong should help Chicago. He provides depth at striker and on the wings. When in form, he’s very good. He can give them a target striker for Nemanja Nikolic (or Fabian Herbers!) to play off in a two-forward set that can provide the sort of tactical flexibility that Chicago head coach Veljko Paunovic loves (perhaps a bit too much, at that).

Union fans should wish Sapong well. The trade is as lopsided as you’re ever going to see in MLS, so his departure helps his team. 

13 Comments

  1. I want to address the Curtin issue as a former wait and see guy, now a detractor. For me the biggest questions about Curtin have always been tactics and squad rotation/substitutions. If Curtin rotates the squad and changes tactics to fit individual teams he’s facing, I’m much more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if he tries something different and it fails, I’ll probably also give him the benefit. But, if it’s the same old run a non-producing player game-in and game-out, then no, I will not rethink my stance. If it’s the same not using 3 subs, or insert 1st sub at 70th minute followed by second sub at the 80th minute, then again no benefit given. If it’s running the same team out with 3 games in one week bulls**t again, then no, no benefit from me. This year again, Curtin should have the most depth this team has ever had. He’s also being given (supposedly) more freedom than he’s ever had. If he doesn’t take advantage of these things, then he truly needs to be given the boot.

    • The Curtin question really is the most compelling to me. In addition to these points, All4U, I’d add that Curtin likes to run certain players into the ground. Medunjanin sticks out to me as a prime example. The guy is well north of 30 and was sent out match after match after match without a rest. A little bit of squad rotation never killed anybody.

      As far as who makes the tactical call, it is strange that Curtin appears to be taking direction. I’m still not clear if the 4-2-3-1 came from Curtin or Stewart. I still suspect that scheme really might have been Curtin’s idea. I think it’s safe to say the 4-4-2 is Tanner’s choice. As tough as it might be to switch systems, I do think it suits this squad much better. Though I agree, we could use some midfield depth.

      • Pete as far as your first point, I tried to cover that in “If it’s running the same team out with 3 games in one week..”. Probably should have expanded on that, but totally agree with you.
        .
        I still wonder about the 4-3-2-1. Curtin has stated before it was Stewart asking him what Curtin wanted to play. Now was there a misunderstanding that this formation was ALL they could play? I kind of wonder about that. I do believe that the steadfastness was from Stewart. Totally agree the 4-4-2 is all Ernst. Though Ernst seems to be more flexible on the subject. Time will tell I guess. I’d love to read a tell all book from Stewart or Curtin in ten or twenty years about the behind the scenes during Stewart’s reign.

      • The 4231 was already Curtin’s go-to set-up, Stewart just doubled down on it trying to unify the Union’s academy pipeline. I couldn’t see Curtin picking this particular tactical 442 in 1000 years.

      • All4U, I think your writing was fine. My reading, not so much. 🙂

        And yeah, the Curtin tell all will be on my must read list. Though I suspect he’ll be a pretty dry read.

      • Pete, no worries my eyes have had a few times where they read what they wanted and not necessarily what was there (especially on this site). Meh, mistakes happen to us all.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        To put the Negadelphian persona aside for a moment — and it was great fun to play it for once —

        I’m very curious to see if Santos plays as an inverted right winger opposite Picault/Accam on the other side, with Burke at striker in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1. That’s the variable I’d find most interesting.

      • Dan I would like to see that version of the 4-3-3 myself. I also think we may see a 4-2-2-2 version of the 4-4-2 at times on defense with Haris on the field.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    This article is what I’m talking about!!!! All negative all the time baby!! Same shit, different season!!
    .
    In all honesty I am genuinely intrigued to watch this season unfold. As stated – they could be so good or so bad… and deep down, I’m not sure what they’re going to be. Unlike other season’s when deep down… I know they are gonna be crap 🙂

  3. in re: McCarthy.
    .
    The high pressure all over the field requires a sweeper keeper with feet.
    .
    That John McCarthy could not get an MLS team to take a look is unjust. but he made need a year of full activity to get that chance.
    .
    The razor thin margins of security when the opposition succeeds in creating transition require feet.

  4. Dan, that is an OUTSTANDING point about the Sapong trade. I never thought of that. And I was baffled that anyone would take Sapong off our hands, given his salary. Your explanation not only makes sense, it’s about the only sensible explanation I can come up with. Very, very shrewd thinking.

    As for performance, I am already on record saying that I think this will be a pretty good squad this year, but I expect them to struggle mightily in March and into April. On offense, they will need significant time to gel, since Fabián is totally new to everyone, he needs to learn the league, and we don’t know whom we’re starting at striker anyway. This isn’t Curtin’s fault.
    _
    On defense, I suspect Curtin’s over-rating of Medunjanin will keep him in the starting lineup far too long — perhaps even at the back point of the diamond, which will be a complete disaster. He might work out on the left, but even there I’m not sure he plays enough defense. This will have cascading effects, especially since our biggest weakness, and the one that will determine our ceiling, is the fullbacks. No idea what to expect there, since we’re dealing with a bunch of youngsters who could fly or flop. If they really flop, wouldn’t surprise me to see a summer deal, or a switch in formation.

    Should be an interesting season.

  5. 700 chopper says:

    I am Mr.negative after Saturday’s game I seriously doubt this team this year we looked like hammered shit out there. I feel sorry for McCarthy he’s from my alma mater and I liked him I hope the new guy is any good and in ending our midfield was way slow and shitty looking the game was more like a scrimmage.

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