For Pete's Sake

In Minnesota, a win for the Union’s mentality

Photo: 215pix

They never win that game.

The Philadelphia Union were on the road, in a hostile environment, coming off a disappointing homestand that saw the club drop seven of nine possible points.

They’d seen two separate leads vanish, with host Minnesota United’s second goal seemingly inevitable as they battered the bodies of Union defenders with shot after shot.

Pretty much everyone who’d ever spent time following the Union realized, with five minutes left in the match, that the best available result was a draw. Defeat looked just as likely.

And yet, in the 86th minute, a looping ball from super-sub Ilsinho completely missed the head of striker Kacper Przybylko, where it looked certain to fall to a Minnesota defender for the clearance. Instead, a foraging run from defender Auston Trusty got to the ball just in time, taking a striker’s touch and putting a striker’s finish past Vito Mannone to silence the Allianz Field faithful.

What possessed Trusty to pull off such an out-of-character play may be hard to quantify. (He suggested, post-match, that he’d been inspired by Saturday’s Champions League final. Having watched that Champions League final, I don’t understand how anyone could be inspired to do anything. But, I digress.)

But, where ever it came from, the Union left the pitch in celebration, having snatched a similarly out-of-character victory.

Mentality over performance

A theme among the post-match interviews in Minnesota was the fickle nature of soccer.

Sometimes, you play well, and you lose. Other times, it’s the opposite.

For the Union, Sunday was the opposite. Both Jim Curtin and Haris Medunjanin talked about the success Minnesota had in dictating the style of play — stretching the field, using their speed to get behind the Union defense, utilizing the hold-up play of striker Angelo Rodriguez. The Union didn’t control this match, not by a long shot. After a spell of matches where the Union found little reward for strong play, however, the Minnesota result represented a bit of a vindication.

Gritting out this result — not just through the timely late goal, but also the intense, body-sacrificing defending that blocked thirteen Loons shots on the day — speaks to the mentality of the club this season.

For many seasons, starting with ownership and permeating through the technical staff, the club has suffered from the relentless acceptance of mediocrity. Think of Earnie Stewart’s and Curtin’s constant refrains of patience, of bringing knives to gun fights, of being a team whose highest goal was something short of winning MLS Cup one day.

The tune has been totally different this season. Curtin acknowledged as much when he talked about the decision to go for three points on the road, late in the match, rather than settling for one.

I attribute the mentality shift most strongly to Ernst Tanner’s approach to management — straightforward, ruthless, and above all ambitious — but something like a club’s mentality is a little too simple to pin all on one man. Credit, too, goes to Curtin, who has shown a managerial touch that many (including me!) believed he did not possess. And credit goes to the players themselves, who no longer seem completely defeated at the first signs of trouble. The whoops and hollers echoing through the visitor’s locker room on Sunday, not to mention the post-match photo op, felt different than what I’ve ever seen before.

We’re in an age of data, a time where not a day goes by without the announcement of some new tool to measure the factors that go into a win or a loss. I think this is largely a good thing, and I am somewhat uncomfortable pinning the Union’s newfound success to the nebulous, unquantifiable variable of “mentality.”

And yet how else can we explain Trusty’s winner, a goal so unlike any other that have come before?

They never win that game. But — this time — they did.

Odds and ends
  • It seems clear enough that striker has to be at the top of Ernst Tanner’s summer shopping list. What will be interesting to see is whether the club aim for a depth signing or target a DP-caliber player. With C.J. Sapong in Chicago, David Accam in Columbus, and Cory Burke in exile, the Union are down to just three bodies at striker, plus the impossibly raw Michee Ngalina. Fafa Picault’s injury (and Sergio Santos’s stop-start campaign so far) indicate that the Union probably need at least one more competent attacker. But there’s a strong argument to be made that Philadelphia needs someone at the top of the depth chart, not the bottom — Santos is impressive, but he’d be so much better paired with a stronger partner than Przybylko, who looks increasingly overmatched with each passing game. Do the Union have enough money — whether just MLS funny money or additional investment from ownership — to make such a signing happen? The sense I get is that Tanner is going to try.
  • Underrated part of the Minnesota match, in my eyes, was watching two stud midfielders go to war in Jamiro Monteiro and Ozzie Alonso. Both are wonderful players to watch — strong, technical, athletic, and supremely intelligent. I thought Alonso somewhat got the upper hand, as Monteiro had maybe his quietest game of the season.
  • I can’t say enough good things about Allianz Field, which is right up there with Banc of California Stadium for my favorite recently built stadiums in the league. The Wonderwall — the impossibly steep safe-standing supporter’s section at one end of the pitch — was lively and loud throughout, making for a fantastic atmosphere. Good for the Twin Cities and good for MLS.

11 Comments

  1. The Duke says:

    I think people let the end justify the means too often on here. Imagine these scenarios:
    .
    One: Kasper’s sliding strike in the 91st minute against Colorado misses (which it did)
    .
    Two: Kasper’s strike goes in.
    .
    Three: Trusty’s last minute strike against Minn misses.
    .
    Four: Trusty’s last minute strike goes in (which it did).
    .
    All four of those scenarios are the same in principle. The game played and talent displayed before the strikes are the same. But scenarios two and four are “gut check wins” and “such strong showing of character.” While scenarios one and three are “typical Union” and “such a disappointment.”

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Agreed. Results-based analysis.

    • pragmatist says:

      You’re doing a good job of highlighting the major downfalls of the internet and 24-hour cable. If it’s not an instant, knee-jerk reaction, does it really count? 😉
      .
      Always try to look at performances and results in blocks. I try to break it up into 4 segments for the season:
      .
      – The First 6 Games
      – getting used to new players, new formations, new tactics, etc.
      .
      – Game 7 through Memorial Day
      – things have settled in, line-ups have settled, etc. This is how you should expect them to play if consistent…whether it’s good or bad.
      .

      – Memorial Day through the All-Star Break.
      – the dog days, when you start to see injuries, international call-ups, transfer rumors, etc. Things can get shaken up a bit here. Look at all the teams that switched coaches recently. Normally they would fit in the post-Memorial Day block, but they started early this year!
      .
      – The Playoff Stretch
      – like a distance runner, do they have a finishing kick? Or, like Union teams of the past, did they play poorly early and are finishing strong? Where was that 3 months ago? Or do the limp home because everyone has figured them out and they can’t properly adjust?
      .
      .
      Take each block and judge a group of results and performances. You can’t reach a conclusion on a single data point. Find trends and expected results.
      .
      But that type of logic has no place on today’s internet. 🙂

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    In my mind, whenever you are tied late, you should be going for the win rather than settle for the draw. Settling for a draw should not be looked at as “getting a result”. Just look at the Premier League where Man City lost 3 more games than Liverpool but also won 2 more to win the league.
    .
    Pretty much the only time it’s acceptable to play for the draw in a regular season game is when you are losing. Remember, last year in Seattle when the Union flew across the country for a midweek game and went down a man but still scored the late game winner? That showed that a team can always go for the winner even if they are not always successful.
    .
    The other exception is in a knock out game where a loss would eliminate you and you think you’d be better off going to OT or PK’s.

    • I agree. Playing for a draw (when currently tied) is a losers mentality.

    • pragmatist says:

      I’d argue two points that somewhat agree with you:
      .
      1 – The fans would rather see you go for it. Pushing for the winning goal, even if it means occasionally conceding the losing goal, is FAR more entertaining than just waiting out the final 5-15 minutes of a game. As a fan, I feel like I’ve been cheated when I watch teams practice their passing at the end of the game.
      .
      2 – Much like going for 4th down, there has to be some type of metric that shows a benefit to pushing for the goal. You get 1 point for a draw, but 3 for the win. For now, ignore the concept of the “6-point swing” game.
      If I push for a winning goal in 3 games, let’s say I get the following results:
      Win 1
      Draw 1
      Lose 1
      I have come out with 4 points instead of 3. If that draw turns into a loss, it’s still 3 points that I would have had anyway.
      .
      Yes, there are conference standings to be concerned about. But it’s like playing a prevent defense. You are just courting danger when you do that.
      .
      Keep your foot on the gas and get the goal.

  3. It seems intuitively obviously that the Union should be looking for strikers… until you realize that the Union are second in the league in Goals Scored. And goals per game. And only a few teams (NYRB, Toronto, Seattle) are even close to them. LAFC is in the stratosphere, but offense has simply not been our problem this season. Even if you assume the number is slightly inflated by our 6-1 drubbing of the Revs, and you subtract a couple goals, we’re STILL second in the league in Goals Scored.

    • The real question is, in the playoffs when the Union will only be facing good teams and it’s “win or go home”, do they have a guy up front they can go to for a goal when they need it? I don’t think that guy is on the roster right now. Maybe Kacper, Santos, or Fabian will grow into that role as the season progresses.

      • pragmatist says:

        What about Burke? What does he offer when (if) he comes back?
        .
        The money makes this insanely unlikely, but Daniel Sturridge is out of contract and has been the subject of MLS rumors. Would handing him the team’s first mega-contract make sense and be the difference? Or should we hope that Tanner unearths a gem from the Slovenian 4th division?
        .
        It doesn’t have to be Sturridge, but I would love to see this team make a signing of intent this summer. Strike while things are going well and keep the train moving.

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    If this team seizes this opportunity and can grab a LEGIT DP scorer for like an 18 month deal… they can make serious noise the rest of this season and next season and hopefully grow back a fan base for real. I know Montiero cost money and he’s a necessary investment but at this point and maybe I’ll regret this… I wouldn’t bring Fabian back next season… and I’d pre-spend that “savings” this summer on the DP striker. I’ll live with Gaddis at RB all season, if it means a legitimate, game-changing, never had in Union history-type striker.

    • pragmatist says:

      We’re in first place, and they’ve done it pretty much without Fabian at all. So while I appreciate the signing, it does seem like money that could be spent elsewhere.

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