Analysis / Commentary

The Union need pragmatism to go the extra mile

Photo: 215pix

The Union have been a team that straddles the line between being competitive and just missing the mark. There are lots of reasons for that – some of which the Union have done a good job of patching up, and others that are still concerning. Haris Medunjanin’s movement has significantly improved, Kai Wagner has been a revelation, and the recent willingness to experiment in the midfield and offense has been a breath of fresh air. In fact, with three wins in four games, Union fans should still be optimistic in spite of the recent loss against the scorching-hot LA Galaxy.

The case for pragmatism

The real question at the moment is finding the X factor that gets the Union to the next level, especially against the big teams of the MLS. Philadelphia has done a good job getting points from comparable teams, but they have only gotten 1 point from their three matches as underdogs this season.

When examining the matches that the Union have lost, as well as the goals that they’ve conceded, a clear pattern begins to emerge. One of their biggest weaknesses is that they get in their own way. The Union’s first loss was due to negligence on the part of the midfield, with both of Michael Bradley’s goals resulting from a lack of defensive coverage. This can be chalked up as the early growing pains of a new system, but the Union’s next loss was the epitome of shooting themselves in the foot. A controversial penalty, a careless Marco Fabian red card, and a Jack Elliott own goal saw Sporting Kansas City win 2-0 against a Philadelphia that looked like it was losing against itself.

This weekend’s loss served to confirm that one of the Union’s biggest problems is that they expose themselves through poor decision-making. Zlatan Ibrahimovic crumpled Auston Trusty for the first goal, the Union gave away a debatable penalty for the second, and Trusty was sent off with his first MLS red card which effectively killed the match.

Even in games that Philadelphia have won, the Union have been a liability for themselves. For example, Marco Fabian needlessly gave FC Dallas a free-kick which they put away to get the lead and nearly win the match before a last-minute Union comeback.

What pragmatism would mean for the Union 

It may seem that the problem is that the Union are overly aggressive, resulting in more fouls and set piece opportunities. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, only one team has fewer yellow cards than the Union. At the same time, the Union have the third-highest red card count in the league. The Union also have the third-fewest fouls per game, but the third-most penalties called against them.

It seems the problem is that too many calls go against the Union. Whether it be because of the situations the calls occur in or the quality of refereeing – the refereeing has been truly terrible this season – is uncertain. However,  one thing that the Union can do is be more pragmatic and cautious.

When going for the ball, they need to remember that the referee is likely to call against the Union. When defenders lunge to get the ball, especially in the box, the Union need to remember that referees are trigger happy. When Zlatan grabs Trusty’s body to catapult into the sky, Trusty should fall down to stop that from happening rather than try to jostle. When Fabian or Trusty are on yellow cards, they should keep in mind that the referee will happily give them a second if given a chance.

If the Union played with the pragmatic understanding that 50-50 calls will go against them, and they were able to avoid putting themselves in situations that give leeway for interpretation to the referee, they could be second in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, a big money offensive superstar signing would be the number one way for the Union to get more points on the table, but of the realistic routes that the Union are willing to take this season, playing with more pragmatism and a touch of cynicism may be exactly what the Union need to get to the next level.


  1. pragmatist says:

    I feel like I am required to comment here…
    1) MLS Referees are a burning tire-fire on top of a pile of used diapers. Calling them horrendous would be an insult to things that are legitimately horrendous. Expect nothing to change for them because…
    2) …we don’t have a superstar, and MLS officials have always slobbered over the stars. It’s as bad in MLS as it is in the NBA, where LeBron can criminally assault a defender and the defender will get called for a foul. Same thing happens in MLS.
    So, we could counter with our own superstar (sure….). But more likely, we will need to aspire to be another version of Columbus. Find our Higuain (Fabian?), Meram (Aaronson?), Trapp (Monteiro?), Zardes (Accam/Burke?), and win through execution of a system and as a team without relying on star power.
    Seems simple, but it’s easier said than done. And it feels like we are equal to a team like CLB, especially when we manhandle them at home. But when you watch them play against an LAFC/LAG/ATL/etc., they feel calmer and more in control. Like they belong. A decade of failure has taken its toll on the Union, particularly when the big moment comes around.
    Personally, I think the Galaxy game was a one-off. I think the Union are more in control of what they want to do this year and are moving towards success. It was just a bad night, where lackluster performances combined with typical MLS trash officiating. Move on, get back on track.

  2. Referees want control of the game, players want to get away with as much as possible. The union cannot win games by being too physical, i agree with the piece here, be tactical, let the other team get yellow, red cards. So maybe this approach should be practiced and adopted. This is not to mean that fouls are not necessary, please,,,,,,,,,,,, sometime its the only defense. Ronaldo, and Messi get the benefit of stardom its true so the tactics for them should be adjusted. How true that Zlatan gets away with manhandling Trusty as he goes up for his header.

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