For Pete's Sake

Shooting for the moon

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Shoot for the moon, the saying goes, and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.

I have sometimes jokingly reformulated this aphorism differently: shoot for the moon, but if you miss you’ll drift off into the inky blackness of space with little hope of survival or rescue.

Same situation; two perspectives. Do you try to accomplish something unlikely, safe in the knowledge that you’ll accomplish more in the attempt than if you simply didn’t try? Or do you set your sights lower, afraid of the consequences of failure to meet a lofty goal?

For much of their franchise history — and especially the last three years — Philadelphia Union have been in the latter camp, satisfied with a perpetual goal of sixth place in an eleven-team conference.

This season, however, there are signs that the Union aren’t willing to settle for mediocrity.

It’s paid off in their hot start to the season.

Setting “franchise records”

For the last three seasons, the tag-team of Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin preached patience and expectation management. The club’s leaders made it clear that they simply couldn’t hope to compete for the top spots in the Eastern Conference, and set about putting their team together accordingly.

The Union made almost no in-season transactions to gear up for the stretch run, ran out the same lineup week after week now matter how much certain players were struggling, barely attempted to win matches away from home, and seemed satisfied with squeaking into the playoffs.

(Is it fair to lump Curtin in with Stewart here? I think so. Curtin’s conservative tendencies were evident in 2014 and 2015, even before Stewart ever took the job. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get credit for the job he’s done this season, but it does mean that we shouldn’t look at this season’s eight-game sample and call this “the real Jim Curtin.”)

Union marketing all winter long focused on the club’s “franchise-record” number of points earned last year. That is, of course, true — in the same sense that my latest YouTube video diary set a personal record with 657 views. (Note: this, mercifully for everyone, does not actually exist.) It’s just not very impressive when your “franchise record” is coupled with another pathetic playoff exit.

It seemed as if the Union were afraid to set their sights on the sky, to dream of accomplishing something great. (The closest Union fans got to “shooting for the moon” was the long-debated construction of Fabinho’s sun rocket.) Understandably, each passing season saw energy ebb from Talen Energy Stadium. Malaise and fatalism reigned over the Union’s long-suffering supporters.

But things have seemed different ever since Ernst Tanner took charge.

The winds of change

In his end-of-season press conference, Tanner made it clear that he expected more from his manager and his squad than first-round playoff exits and Open Cup runner-up trophies.

He backed that up with an aggressive offseason that saw the Union splash more cash than any that came before. Even with Sergio Santos battling injuries and Marco Fabian in and out of the lineup, inspired signings like Kai Wagner and Jamiro Monteiro have infused the Union with quality in key positions.

Curtin, too, has discovered the benefits of aggression. After season after season of an unchanging squad, this year’s Union uses a new lineup seemingly every week. Curtin has pulled the plug on struggling strikers more quickly than in past years, been repaid for his faith in Brenden Aaronson with a sterling debut season, and experimented with multiple formations — sometimes even in the same game!

(To be fair to Stewart, too, some of this is the long game coming to fruition. Years of investment in the Union’s academy have stocked the roster with young, cheap, talented players. Homegrown keeper Matt Freese jogging on to replace superstar Andre Blake on Saturday is yet another example of that foresight paying off.)

More than anything, though, it seems like this Union isn’t willing to set their sights merely on sixth place. Curtin made it explicit after an excellent win over Montreal, one of the most encouraging statements I’ve ever heard the Union manager make.

This is the sort of attitude that is not only more likely to lead to success on the pitch. It’s the type of attitude that will get the fanbase — understandably disheartened after year after year of failure — on your side. That’s exactly what this franchise needs right now.

Now, the Union aren’t completely free of some of their old habits. Curtin and his coaching staff have always talked about road matches like any pitch outside Chester is made of molten lava, targeting just one point (at best) from each away game. The Union do have one away win this year, but bad habits seemed to creep in last week when LA Galaxy (who are, in fairness, in terrific form this season) punished a lackadaisical Union side that looked uninterested in doing what it takes to win.

That’s why this Saturday’s match in Vancouver is so interesting to me. There are plenty of excuses the Union could use to avoid going for a win: cross-country (and across-country) travel, injuries to Fabian and Blake, a historical lack of success in Vancouver, etc.

Going for the win on the road against a struggling Whitecaps side would be yet more evidence that the Union aren’t afraid of losing.

Are they ready to shoot for the moon?

10 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Good article. It is definitely nice to hear Curtin and Tanner talk the way they are. The only way this team draws more fans and gets more relevant – is by winning. So far, I will say I am impressed with what I am seeing. I thought the lineup this past week vs Montreal was insane. But hey it was something different. The other thing that impresses me so far this season, is that it seems like they really know how to press, when to press, etc. The team has a system and the players know their role. It’s very encouraging to see.

    • It’s the most encouraged about this club that I’ve ever been.
      .
      I’m still very curious to see Santos fully healthy and Fabián fully meshed with the team.
      .
      Is it just me or does it seem like Monteiro has adapted and gelled with his teammates more quickly than Fabián?

      • Yes
        .
        Yes
        .
        Yes, but I think it’s because they are two different types of players. Monteiro is a high-motor glue guy to me. He’s everywhere breaking up plays with the skills to play any midfield position. A player like that fits on any team really. He’s like Chelsea’s Kante for an example. Whereas Fabian is more creatively skillful like say Liverpool’s Shaqiri. He’s both able to create for others & himself, while having a good nose for goal. Creative and productive play with others takes more time to coalesce. That’s how I see it anyway.

      • Good analysis.

  2. pragmatist says:

    It’s a refreshing season. In years past when they have done well, you waiting for the bottom to fall out. You just knew that we were all do for a swift kick to the giblets.
    .
    But this year just feels different. It feels like talent is spread out across the field. And it feels like the players are truly invested in the success of the team (not that players of the past were not, it just feels more intense this season). From Medujanin hustling on defense, to Ray increasing his offensive involvement (granted, it was a low bar, but he is definitely more involved), to Bedoya being an offensive presence, to the new guys making an immediate impact…
    .
    All of this, again, just *feels* different. I’m not saying that they are lining up for a Cup run, but they are most certainly a team that inspires confidence…and that is very new!

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    ….it seems, above all things, this team is distancing itself from self inflicted wounds…. this image carries on further in both imagination and intimate detail drawn out deeper and deeper – for another paragraph. But upon second thought, has been removed—– for your sake- and maybe likely, mine.
    .
    Carry On. You are doing better.

  4. In our very empirically focused world, the concept of “mentality” gets short shrift. There’s no OPTA stat for it. Instead, when this team has come up short we look at formations, tactics and xG differentials to diagnose what went wrong.

    I’ve often wondered what damage has been wrought by the “we’re not worthy” narrative pushed by nearly every owner, front office staff member and coach at the organization. I’m glad to see Curtin’s quote. At the risk of sounding like a “proper football man,” it suggests a change of mentality and culture. And that can only be good. And it should be a change taken not only by the team but by us fans. We should expect more.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Remember what Sugarman reported Tanner as having said to Sugarman, from the press interaction at one of the events of pre-season — New Jersey & Fabián, maybe?
      .
      I do not presume to try to quote, but substantively it was that Sugarman should be getting more for his $10,000,000 a year invested in rosters than he was. [i assume all three roster levels, including amateur, but I do not know that.]

  5. I mentioned this on another thread, but I was at the last match, sitting right at midfield. And the thing that amazed me was that we totally dismantled Montreal — one of the top defensive teams in the league — without even playing our best. We were missing our starting CAM, 2 CBs, and our stud keeper left the match injured early in the second half, burning a sub. Both of the wing midfielders had lousy games. And we STILL won 3-0.

    I almost feel like I have no choice but to be cautiously optimistic at this point…

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