For Pete's Sake

The gulf

Photo: Paul Rudderow

When you’re the only member of the Philadelphia media at a Union road loss, things follow a familiar pattern.

The game starts, and things fail to go Philadelphia’s way. The tweets come in to the Philly Soccer Page account — angry, disappointed, sanguine in the face of the inevitable.

And then players and coaches come out and explain that they’re proud of their effort, even if the result didn’t go their way.

Curtin’s statement made a lot of noise on social media, and it’s worth breaking down why. Here’s the full quote, transcribed.

“Connecting streaks to last year, it’s a new team, it’s a new season. I know you guys love to do that for the negative aspect of things. But at the same time, look, it’s two games so far. It felt like last season, when it ended, like we had a horrible season. I know that it was a successful season. A lot of good soccer that was played. But I also understand that the patience, going back to 2010, is thin. I’m part of some of that. But at the same time, I still think that if you take the perspective of what the team accomplished last year, the pieces that we added, we still have a strong group. Obviously, they’re going to be impatient because we didn’t get a result today. That’s the nature of sports. We understand that. But I’m still proud of the group, and I think our fans should be proud of the team and the way they played today.”

Now, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the media “loves” to be negative — based on my observations, the Union’s media corps is probably fairer about the team they cover than those that cover any other team in the city — but I understand why Curtin would say that. So let’s put that aside.

There are two parts of this statement that really stand out. The first is the insistence that these two games make “a new team.” Of course, nine of eleven starters on Sunday were Union players in 2018, as were two of three subs. But Curtin is right in the sense that some of the players are different and they’re trying a new style of play.

And yet, is it really a new team? Fans who have lived and — more often — died with the Union in the ten years of their existence don’t see this as a new team. It’s the same team, making the same mistakes, and delivering more of the same results. There is more continuity than there is discontinuity, regardless of whether the BIMBO logo on the front of the jersey is now monochrome rather than red-white-and-blue.

It’s difficult for the players, in particular, to appreciate that. Only three players on the roster — Ray Gaddis, Fabinho, and Andre Blake — have played for a Union manager other than Curtin. Even team leaders like Alejandro Bedoya can’t quite appreciate the full scope of what it’s meant to suffer on the banks of the Delaware for the last decade.

The impatience isn’t that the Union didn’t get a result on Sunday. It’s that it feels like they’re never going to get a result.

Which brings us to the second stand-out part of the statement.

“I think our fans should be proud of the team and the way they played today.”

In what world would fans, especially Philadelphia fans, especially especially Philadelphia Union fans, feel proud of their team after dropping their second-straight match, a match that it never looked like they were going to win?

For all the talk about Curtin’s background as a “Philly guy,” that quote rang as especially tone deaf.

Pride is earned. Support is earned. The Union, ten years deep, haven’t earned anything, no matter how “successful” folks around the Power Training Complex think last season was.

That’s why there is a huge gulf between how the club and the players think of their team, and how the supporters think of their team.

Only results, or a change in attitude, will cause that gulf to close.

  • A few leftover points from the game that supplement Shayan’s excellent analysis. First, the Union’s backline remains a cause for concern. While there were some outstanding moments of one-on-one defending in Sunday’s match, the play as a unit is getting the Union into trouble. The center backs are still adjusting to the new positioning of the fullbacks, which led to many of KC’s most dangerous moments. Take the first goal, which begins because Kai Wagner is far upfield in a Union attack. When the ball gets turned over, Johnny Russell is all by himself on the halfway line for a KC long ball. Auston Trusty tries to cut off the pass to Russell and misses rather than simply getting into position and containing the winger, which sparks the subsequent breakaway and penalty.
  • With zero goals from open play in the first two games, the Cory Burke-Fafa Picault partnership isn’t getting it done. Fafa, in particular, seemed to drift out to the left to collect the ball, leaving him in tough spots to attack the net. We’ve seen little of the promised attack, which is supposed to feature a high press and speedy assaults on the opposing net. It might be worth giving Sergio Santos a start — after all, the Brazilian looked on track to start opening day were it not for some knee soreness in the later part of preseason.
  • This was my first visit to Children’s Mercy Park, and I came away impressed. The field is set below street level, which allows the concourse to go around the top of the stands rather than underneath it. The supporter’s section was full to capacity nearly an hour prior to kickoff, and the atmosphere in the stadium (other than a shrieking emcee) stayed strong throughout the match. A visit there is a reminder, sadly, of how far the Union remain behind so many MLS franchises.
  • Although… maybe the problem is actually me.


  1. “First, the Union’s backline remains a cause for concern.”

    I disagree. I think the backline is being hung out to dry by having a 0 defense #6. It’s a super young defense that has been hung out to dry for years.

    “Take the first goal, which begins because Kai Wagner is far upfield in a Union attack.”

    Isn’t that the entire point of FBs in this system, to get upfield? We better get used to that. All the more reason we should have a defense first #6 in there who can defend sideline to sideline, like Jones.

    • HI James, in reference to “… for years.”
      One full season and a playoff game plus two games this year.
      “feels like years,” yes, I can easily accept that.
      Actually is “years?”
      Contradicted by those pesky things called facts.
      I get that the purpose of commenting can be to vent frustration. Been known to do so myself. Doing it now.

      • Tim, I appreciate your perspective and I know you have relationships with folks close to the team but… come on. It’s ok to admit they played poorly.


        Here’s a factual statement: The Union have never won a playoff game in 9 seasons.

      • I mean even before 2018, the backline consisted of players like Marquez, Elliot (his first go round), Rosenberry, Yaro. Those are still young players.

        Yes we had Onyewu but he was basically on one leg at that point.

    • James, the backline is obviously a problem. As we’ve seen within two games, Trusty does not know where to be on the field. Any other professional or pro euro team would have sat him by now. But that’s right we have Curtin who acts like a high school coach I’m my opinion.

  2. This great great article. Well written and well thought out. Everyone in Unionland (fan and organization alike) should read it. Good Job, Peter!

  3. Peter, I think you nailed Philadelphia Union fan resentments with these two sentences: “The impatience isn’t that the Union didn’t get a result on Sunday. It’s that it feels like they’re never going to get a result.” That is it.

    On the backline, I agree. I think Tanner’s goal is a team that presses a lot like Liverpool — Fullbacks sprinting down wings to provide depth, a high line for the center backs, which leaves them vulnerable to the counter. Klopp had a tough time keeping clean sheets before Van Dijk was acquired. I know a Union – Liverpool comparison is a bit of a stretch, but the mistake prone, pre Van Dijk Liverpool defense was not unlike what we’ve seen from the Union to start this season. It’s asking A LOT from our young center backs. They need to be very good at reading the opponent’s attacks before and as they happen. It’s going to to be tough.

    • More woefully so, we don’t have a single proven goalscorer. Our Salah (Sergio) can’t get a start. Our Firmino (Ilsinho?) can’t give more than 30 minutes. Our Sane (Fafa?) can’t score. The goals we’ve given up in these two first games would matter a lot less if we could actually meet our 4.62 expected goal potential!

      • You mean Mane — I made the same brain fart here a year or so ago. What helped Liverpool’s leaky defense was its ability to bang in a lot of goals. Our attack so far has been pretty toothless. If Santos doesn’t gel with this team, I think it’s going to be a painful couple of months.

      • Yes, ha, of course. Do you really think it’s a case Santos not gelling? I bet my mortgage it’s Curtin’s inflexibility. He’s going to ride Burke and Fafa into June, at least.

    • Oh it’s got to be Santos doesn’t practice well. That’s gotta be the answer.

      • Or he joined a new team, missed some time in the preseason, and just had a baby.
        Santos getting the starting nod is one of the things I wouldn’t read too much into just yet. If another two games go by and he still hasn’t beaten out one of Burke or Fafa to start then I would start to worry.

      • CPfeif with some very level headed points. Forgot about the baby.

      • Knee injury. Still recovering. They are playing it safe. Curtin is very high on Santos

      • This was in jest people…

  4. it’s easy to be cynical about the season ahead’s cadence: another slow start, eventual spring gelling, maybe string together some wins. woo hoo, we have a chance at the new, last playoff spot! #ichooseoptimism

    it’s also easy to see the organization as being tone deaf. indeed, “a familiar pattern.”

  5. pragmatist says:

    I like Jim, and I have been among the defenders. But there is a time when, at the very least, things have gotten stale and there needs to be a new voice.
    My biggest concern about changing managers is that I have zero-to-little faith that the FO will hire someone who is an improvement, and all it will have done is shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic.
    I have patience for all teams at the beginning of a season, it’s just so damned redundant…

    • Ideally this is Tanner picking the new coah, right? If he’s not the one picking out who’s best to run his system we truly are dooooomed.
      I was upset that he didn’t bring a guy in from the get-go. Now, we’ve just wasted a season playing out the Jim era. At least it will give Ernst time to acquire the pieces he needs. We do not have the right mix to do his system yet.
      I do have hope for the team, though maybe not this year (where have we heard that before). Sugarman is now spending more of his $10mil/yr on the first team now that we have basic infrastructure. And Tanner is focused on playing what could be a fun style. The two could converge and actually give us a winning team.

      • Or maybe Tanner saw Curtin in practice and looked at our roster and thought he did a good job with it? Especially compared to what kind of budget he’s going to get for a new coach maybe he thought Curtin is the best he could do.

  6. Two Union players in the worst 5 regarding G-xG:
    Fabian -1.02
    Fafa -0.64
    As a team they are -3.62.

  7. I’ll just reiterate what others have said. I’m allowing myself to be patient with the growing pains of a new system and tactical vision. I can also see the same perceived rut we are plowing into from the past 1-10 years.
    I’ll be shocked if Jim survives as the head coach by Tax Day. I’d much rather see a “DP” head coach using his tactical vision on a young team.

  8. I found Curtain’s comments insulting. What is with the smile on his face? You want fans to be patient, yet you play Harris at the #6, after he clearly showed in match 1 he isn’t suited the the position. Both games called for Aaronson to be used, yet is there just to watch I guess. I bet Tanner is regretting extending Jim. I just hope our next coach has a good reputation with growing youth (all positions), and doesn’t talk to fans like their stupid.

  9. Good Lord.

    The back line is “not a problem”…

    Not for the opposition it isn’t


  10. Wonderful Job Peter, and it certainly isn’t you.
    I guess we as fans should just be happy that a team showed up in a kit with Philadelphia on it. We as fans should just be happy with the new youth movement as there was one academy kid in the starting lineup. I guess we as fans should just be happy that our new striker made the 18 and was subbed on. I guess we should be happy that our manager is still learning on the job and is still adjusting to the idea of tactics.
    Maybe someday the coach will get onboard with the youth movement. Maybe someday the coach will make early subs. Maybe someday the coach will use the new players he’s been given. Maybe maybe maybe…Boy isn’t great to be a Union fan. I’m so happy aren’t you?

  11. I knew we were going to struggle mightily in March and into April. Said it specifically in a couple of comments in late February.

    The offense is gonna need time to gel. This is just like last year. Don’t people remember how Dockal looked like a complete bust for the first 6+ weeks? Then he got untracked, they learned how to play together, and started scoring. The same thing will happen with Fabián. That’s not Curtin’s fault.

    On the other hand, thinking that Haris is a #6 in this system is entirely Curtin’s fault, and it’s ridiculous. Presumably this guy Monteiro will help a lot, if he lives up to his Transfermarkt value at all. But the bottom line is that Haris likely just shouldn’t be starting on this squad. Jones needs to be given the chance. And if he can’t grow into the role, then we need to sign a #6.

    Also, I continue to be frustrated with Curtin’s poor use of substitutes. The guy just isn’t learning fast enough, and he isn’t flexible enough. If it doesn’t change within the next ~2 months, he should be out. I defended him for years, with many of the arguments people have given above. I am now convinced that we have little to lose by replacing him unless he shows us something ASAP.

  12. I have to agree with Scottso a bit here, nearly everyone said the beginning of the schedule was not just tough, but brutal. It should be no shock that we’re getting brutal results.
    I can definitely understand the frustration many feel with the pop-gun start, but I just can’t get as wound up as many seem to be.
    I think if we can see Santos up front with Burke, and leave Picault/Accam for late game appearances to run already tired teams ragged, things up front will improve quite quickly. Add M’Bazio rather than Gaddis, and I don’t know what to think about the Harris/Jones situation. I’m not calling for Jones if he’s jack-assing his way through weekly training. (Even less inclined because I’ve never really seen a lot of discipline from Jones in the few chances he’s had.)
    The on field friction between Bedoya and Picault was a crack worth paying attention to.
    Did anyone else see that sequence between Chambers, Fontana and Díaz last weekend? I really hope we’ll see more of these kids with the big team this year.

    • I missed the “crack” you speak of… maybe I tuned out when it became apparent?
      Yes, that sequence was beautiful. More please.

  13. Another demonstration of the “gulf” and pure irony of the start of the season is that the Union chose “THIS IS PHILLY” as their branding for the season
    No kidding , we’ve been living it for 10 years.
    Thanks for more of the same.

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