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?

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