Analysis / Union

We need to talk about Marco

While Jim Curtin might deservedly be MLS Coach of the Week yet again, it’s hard to argue that this season belongs to anyone except Ernst Tanner. The Union’s new sporting director has shown his scouting acumen in recruiting difference-making players from unlikely places who have both driven the club’s tactical shift and gelled with an existing roster of veterans: Kai Wagner is consistently cited as among the best left-backs in the league. Jamiro Monteiro is a box-to-box terror. Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko, despite recent slumps of form, both proved their goal-scoring abilities during the Union’s April surge to the top of the Eastern Conference.

And then there’s Marco Fabián, the Mexican international signed from Eintracht Frankfurt, where he was languishing after being sidelined with a back injury that required surgery. Fabián also figured in Mexico’s squad in the 2018 World Cup, where came off the bench in Mexico’s 3-0 loss to Sweden at the end of the group stage.

Fabián was the Union’s biggest signing ever, not simply in terms of money but of cachet: His arrival in Philadelphia was widely covered and his presence noted at 76ers games in the waning weeks of the NBA’s regular season.

The hope among the team and the fan base was that the Union were, finally, getting a star at the No. 10 position, a consistently productive player to build the rest of the midfield around after the departure of Borek Dockal, last season’s on-loan No. 10 and the league’s assist leader in 2018.

Fabián, however, has yet to fill the gap left by Dockal’s departure. Out of 1,530 available minutes this season, Fabián has played 442. In those 442 minutes, he has produced two goals, zero assists and missed two penalty shots.

Nearly everything written about Fabián’s signing in the pre-season buildup was suffused with excitement tamped down by the phrase “if he can stay healthy.” The primary concern was a repeat of the back injury that sidelined him at Frankfurt.

However, it’s an ankle that’s kept Fabián out of the lineup for most of the season. The sprain sustained during the LA Galaxy match in mid-April has persisted for two months. A return to the pitch last month in the Union’s win at Toronto aggravated the injury, and, just this week, Fabián was sent home from the Mexican National Team’s pre-Gold Cup camp. While he has the two-week Gold Cup break to recover from the injury, it remains to be seen whether he can fully return to fitness and lead the Union’s midfield diamond in the second half of the season.

Concerns over Fabián, however, are not limited to his absence.

His presence on the pitch can feel chaotic and sometimes out of control. During the match against Dallas, he gave up an unnecessary yellow card in a dangerous area, a free kick Dallas hammered in for the match’s first goal. The Union went on to win but only after scoring on a penalty kick Fabián failed to convert. Despite playing less than a third of the minutes, Fabián has as many cards as Alejandro Bedoya, and one of Fabián’s cards was a straight red. To be sure, it was a questionable red, and the additional game suspension given by MLS was excessive. However, the bare fact of Fabián’s season so far is that he tends to be injured, and his playing style seems to put him in further danger of missing games.

His lack of minutes is undoubtedly delaying Fabián’s adjustment to the card-happy nature of MLS officiating. And, sending our thoughts to Cory Burke in Jamaica, the Union have a history of largely effective players who commit too many dumb fouls.

However, Fabián was supposed to be a team leader in the mold of Bedoya or Medunjanin, both of whom commit deliberate, tactical fouls when required. For each of Bedoya’s yellows this season, he and the ref have both shrugged at one another afterward since it was clear Bedoya was deliberately taking a yellow in order to prevent some worse outcome.

The Gold Cup break is here, and Fabián has two weeks to recover and become a productive member of the starting XI before the Union travel to New England on June 26. However, at the midway point of the season, the Union seem to be in a familiar place for the club and fanbase: without a productive number ten. Brenden Aaronson is immensely talented, but his lack of a finishing touch has made it clear he’s not yet ready to be the tip of the diamond.

How the Union should respond to this absence this season remains unclear. A summer signing seems extremely unlikely given the team’s current salary obligations.

Thinking ahead to next season, Fabián could become an example of something the Union might not need: Splashy, marquee signings. Dockal did not make headlines, but he did make assists. Maybe, in the 10 spot, the Union need what’s worked elsewhere in the roster: low-key, workmanlike players who slot into the overall system. Lee Nguyen is languishing in an LAFC squad that has an embarrassment of riches. A productive-but-maybe-past-his-prime central midfielder who, like Nguyen, is already accustomed to MLS might be exactly what the Union attack—and budget—need.

Or maybe Tanner should return to what’s proved to work this season: scouring European lower divisions for talent. How’s the No. 10 at Würzburger Kickers, Wagner’s old club? Might he be looking to make a change?


  1. spot on. I’ve joked a few times before “doesn’t wagner have any friends?”

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    Nguyen would be incredible on this team.

    • SilverRey says:

      We should have been first in line to pounce on him once he started having issues in NE. We could have been into our second year of Nguyen rocking the CAM.

      • Travis DuBose says:

        Unfortunately, New England was determined that he not go to another Eastern Conference team.

      • agree with this. was disappointed it didn’t happen. coming here, he’d be deservedly starting.

  3. I don’t think Fabian has played enough minutes to be properly critiqued just yet. It’s better, I think, to be wondering about a player’s health than to be talking about him actually playing and failing to live up to promise. If he ultimately doesn’t play more minutes on the back half of the season and fails to contribute, I think that’s ultimately on those who brought him here (Tanner, et. al.) That could be mitigated by a mid-season signing, which might be important. I think Ilsinho has given us off the bench what we wanted this season from Fabian — a creator with skill and vision on the ball. We’ll see…

    • i feel a repeat of the Accam situation. i keep telling myself not to make the comparison, but, here we are

  4. NO…. to Lee. Good idea, but not what we need. Kai’s buddies, Jamiro’s buddies, Kasper’s buddies, Ernst has his priorities straight.

    If not this year, LAFC a juggernaut of Bradley ego, will not be stopped, just do not waste the amazing talent assembled, falling back into the 4-2-1-2-1 last night devolved into a loss. Hold firm with the 4-3-3 diamond. IT WORKS and so does the youth movement.

    We have our #10. But not the guy you think. The PR value of Marco’s signing was enough. I see tons of Mexican national kit at TES now, more than the past 9 seasons combined. His signing worked except on the field and that’s on him. I’m done with his chaos… great word! Done, let Aaronson play and learn for next year!!!!

  5. Give him time. Ilsinho also needed a long time to really shine.

  6. Saw wagners salary was 300000 this year. How was matt real ever going to compete with a guy being paid like a top 7 starter???

    • SilverRey says:

      It’s his opportunity to step up and become better than a guy being paid like a top 7 starter.
      I would have liked to see Real get more time this year, but he’s been timid in his 1st team appearances.
      Right now it looks like Curtin isn’t impressed considering Fabinho got the start over Matt last night. It might just be the jet lag after coming back from Poland though, and Curtin though Matt wasn’t ready to play 90.
      I would like to see him earn some playing time.

  7. Andy Muenz says:

    I’m worried he’s going to be Mo Edu but without the year and half the Union got out of him before the injury.
    Also, don’t forget that just like in the Dallas game, he gifted Toronto with the free kick that resulted in the opposition’s goal.

  8. The Truth says:

    Unfair to judge just yet. Hasn’t been fully fit and healthy quite yet. Hasn’t started more than a handful of consecutive games. I’m holding off judgement for now. Let the Gold Cup come and go. Let us get into the dog days of summer and maybe we’ll see a fit, healthy Marco change all our minds.
    If I had to make the call right now, I would not pick up the option year. I would let him go. But if he comes in and drops 10 goals or assists in the second half of the season? Big if. Let’s wait and see.

  9. el Pachyderm says:

    appreciate the write up. we have no way of really knowing how Fabian will assimilate with his peers.
    my thinking is after a ten game stretch he’ll be wheeling and dealing therefore it is only this lingering injury causing me concern.

    • like Dockal’s slow build last season. that was costly, but this year’s team has collected points without him. i truly believe if he can be healthy, Fabián will be an extra gear who could carry us deeper.

    • I agree with this. The #10 needs time to gel with the squad. Marco just hasn’t had that. And the few games he HAS had, there have been different people up front.

      He’ll have to stay healthy for a significant stretch of games now in order to make that happen. Our lineup is pretty well set, so he’ll have the chance to build chemistry. I suspect he will, in fact, do so. I might be wrong, but it is too soon for a definitive thumbs down.

  10. It seems like this article is not so much a condemnation of Fabian but rather a review of what we’ve seen so far and what it will take from Fabian in the second half of the season to make this a successful season for him.
    It’s a mid year review like you some times get at work:
    Thanks for coming in, Marco. First off, we’re super excited to have you with us. We know you have tons of skills which can launch us to the next level. While you haven’t had much success with the team yet we know that it will take you getting a run of games, staying healthy, and building chemistry with your teammates to know if there is a spot for you with the Union next year.
    In the short term, you need to get healthy. Follow the physiotherapists’ regimes, do your exercises, get back to match fitness. Hang out with the team, play some FIFA, take the new guys to dinner, whatever. We need you on the same page with them when you see the field next. Keep mentoring Brendan, Zandi, and the young guys. Share your experience so we can see you investing in them and in the club.
    When you get your next chance on the field, work your magic. Don’t worry about mistakes, we’ll keep feeding you the ball so you can keep trying. Just make the most of it.
    Good luck, Marco. We ALL want you to succeed here. We trust that you can, just take each step as they come.

  11. Does anyone know how long is Fabian’s contract?

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