A View from Afar / Union

Taking stock: The Union at midseason

Photo: Rob Simmons

Philadelphia Union are now 19 games into the 2019 regular season, and they closed the first half of the year in first place with the best start (9-4-5) in team history.

They have, however, now started the second half of their season in most inauspicious fashion, blowing a 2-1 halftime lead to New York City FC to fall 4-2 at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. It wasn’t the best start to the season’s second half, but it’s worth noting they were on three days rest and appeared to run out of steam after halftime, gave up two extraordinarily dubious penalties after NYC’s Valentin Castellanos was rewarded for obvious dives, and generally outplayed NYC for most of the match. The loss is what it is though: Not the best sign.

Still, there have been so many good and intriguing signs during the Union’s first half of the season that it’s worth taking stock.

The good

The stands at Talen Energy Stadium are starting to fill again. Union fans are out and, dare we say, even (cautiously) optimistic in a way we haven’t seen since the team’s early years, before former manager Peter Nowak ruined everything.

The team has displayed a style of play about as entertaining as what they showed last year, which was until then the most stylish Union side we’ve ever seen.

They have displayed more depth than we’ve ever seen from a Union side, although they have also become dangerously thin at center midfield, where their oldest and most crucial starters play.

Their academy has begun to bear fruit, with Auston Trusty and Brenden Aaronson locking down roles as key contributors. Mark McKenzie’s season has been largely lost to injury thus far, but he started more than half the team’s games last year.

Their head coach, Jim Curtin, has also “made the leap” after years of appearing out of his depth. It’s a term we generally use for young players, but Curtin was a young coach thrown into his current job before he was ready. Now we see what he can do when given enough talent to deploy a quality side. The Union’s patience has been rewarded.

And their new sporting director, Ernst Tanner, has proved to be an absolute whiz on the transfer market. Kai Wagner, Jamiro Monteiro and Kacper Pzylbylko have been tremendous signings. Wagner has solved the left back problem that dates back to the trade of Jordan Harvey in 2011. Monteiro looks like the most talented box-to-box midfielder the Union have ever fielded, while Pzylbylko scores goals and plays aggressive on defense and in holdup. Incoming German-American striker Andrew Wooten fills a clear need and comes in off a tremendous hot streak in 2. Bundesliga. Meanwhile, Tanner acquired substantial assets for talented players who were on the outside looking in: David Accam, C.J. Sapong, and Derrick Jones.

Even Tanner’s less successful signings look like they were exactly the right moves, even if they haven’t panned out yet. Sergio Santos has shown signs he can break out if he can stay healthy and get comfortable. Marco Fabian has experienced injury troubles, but even if he proves a failure, he is on a one-year contract with two team option years. Fabian was a risk worth taking.

Meanwhile, the team’s newfound formational flexibility, with a 4-4-2 diamond joining the 4-2-3-1, has made a big difference on the field.

The bad

That said, there are some causes for concern.

Cory Burke’s visa troubles have left the Union thin at striker, though Wooten is expected to address that.

The Union have little depth in center midfield. Team leaders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin are both on the wrong side of 30, and, each needs an occasional breather if they are expected to maintain their quality form all year. Should one get hurt, Curtin might have to abandon the diamond midfield. Jones has been traded. Warren Creavalle is hurt. Anthony Fontana hasn’t played center midfield for the Union this year. Fabian and Ilsinho may be nominally viewed as center midfielders, but neither really is. They each fill an attacking positional niche, Fabian as a No. 10 and Ilsinho as a right-sided attacking player. Aaronsen has played the No. 10 attacking role and as a midfield shuttler, as has Monteiro, but they need to add another midfielder to the mix.

Right back is also a potential problem spot. Veteran Ray Gaddis has played fairly well, but it’s without question that this is the weak spot in attack. Olivier Mbaizo failed to win the starting right back job and has shown no signs he will. The Keegan Rosenberry trade still looks awfully questionable, the one glaring flaw in Tanner’s transfer record thus far. Imagine this team with Rosenberry and his passing acumen. Imagine Ilsinho the super sub with Rosenberry and the current team as constructed. Rosenberry’s defense is better than the perception, too: he leads the league in passes intercepted with 52, 16 more than the next best player.

Finally, there’s the question of goals. So far, the Union have scored plenty and lead the Eastern Conference in goals scored. Still, one wonders what happens if the goals dry up for Pzylbylko, which seemed to be happening until he scored in his last two games. Wooten’s arrival gives Curtin another option.

The outlook

All that said, the Union’s prospects look potentially very bright, though no Union fan with a lick of experience with this team or Philly sports will allow too much optimism. Medunjanin and Bedoya are the core around which this team is built, and running them into the ground without rest is a surefire way to ensure this team goes nowhere in the playoffs.

That said, we are seriously talking playoffs — and even more. Nobody in the Union locker room should be talking about anything more than the classic Americans sports cliche, “We’re going to take it one game at a time,” but fans and outside observers have no such requirements, outside of jinx concerns.

Wooten is a key addition. A quality center midfielder will be the next so that they can give Bedoya and Medunjanin the rests they need.

If that comes through, this is a potential championship team. Even with Atlanta, D.C. United and both New York teams finding their form — both Atlanta and NYC passed the Union this week in the standings on points per game — the Union have what it takes to play with anyone in MLS. LAFC is clearly the league’s best team, but someone has to play them in the MLS Cup. Why not the Union?

The club will spend the next few months trying to pull it off. There are no promises in sports, but there is promise. This team is eminently worth watching, and you know you’ll want to be there if it finally comes good in the end.

Quick midseason awards

Because it makes for great argument, here are my midseason awards for the Union. (And if you’re wondering why I get to hand them out, well … total missed opportunity by last week’s columnists. You snooze, you lose!)

MVP: Haris Medunjanin

Everything the Union do in possession and attack flows through their regista. His ability to dribble through traffic is so effortless, and he only needs one foot to do it. He ranks 11th in MLS in key passes with 37, and every player but one ahead of him is an attacker. Medunjanin was left exposed defensively early this year when the Union were figuring out the diamond midfield, but now they have, and Medunjanin actually ranks among the league’s top 20 players in tackles.

Most deserving of an all-star spot: Jack Elliott

With apologies to Andre Blake, maybe MLS’s best pure shot-stopper when in form, Elliott has been outstanding all year, and his performance level has put him among the league’s elite center backs this season.

Most impressive all-around player: Jamiro Monteiro

Monteiro has been a revelation since joining the Union. His defensive coverage has papered over the Union’s defensive holes in midfield, and he leads the league in tackles with 58. His ball skills have wowed observers, and he has netted 4 goals and 5 assists in 15 games. WhoScored.com rates him statistically as the sixth most productive player in MLS this year, and he may be the league’s best box-to-box midfielder right now. The Union should open up the pocketbook and pay for his full transfer.

Most pleasant surprise: Practically everyone

Who among you would have predicted that Kai Wagner would become a top left back, Kacper Pzylbylko a reliable scorer, and Brenden Aaronson a breakout contributor as a teenager? And then how about we raise the ante by noting that Jim Curtin is, for the second straight season, cementing a reputation as one of the league’s best coaches?

Biggest disappointment: Marco Fabian

This is a given, as the Mexican international has missed much of the season due to injury and cost the Union points with his dirty play when healthy. He has half the season to come good, and if he does, a good team will get a whole lot better.

Most entertaining player: Ilsinho

He started Saturday and created a goal against NYC FC, but don’t let that fool you. As a substitute coming in for the last 30-40 minutes of a game, he has been one of the league’s most dangerous attackers this year. With 4 goals and 6 assists in just 640 minutes, he has created a goal every 64 minutes.

9 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Hard to argue with the awards you gave out. Although Ilsinho would be a fun guy to watch in the All Star game and some of his heroics this year could’ve justified a nod.

  2. Nice summation of the season so far, Dan. I agree with the vast majority of it.

    I think I share your concern about the midfield. It’s probably what worries me most about this team down the stretch. I dislike the fact that Curtin leans on Bedoya and Medunjanin so much. Particularly when we roll into MLS fixture congestion. Can’t Fontana spell Bedoya on a Wed.? If he can’t, why is he on the roster? Go get someone who can fill in.

    • agreed. they both deserve a rest and, without the excuse of the Open Cup, force squad rotation for league games. also agree with the awards as well as the outlook. there’s reason to be optimistic and if they fail it’ll sting but we should embrace the good team and take the (hopefully only occasional) lumps like NYCFC

    • SilverRey says:

      The problem with both Bedoya & Medunjanin is that they both play in an atypical unique style. Curtin has had to create a system built around their quirks.
      .
      That makes it very hard to drop someone else into either of their spots without playing a different setup/style.
      .
      Not to say it can’t be done, but Curtin has a lot invested into the way we play right now through those two. Barring injury, I don’t see either of them missing a minute – whether or not they ~should~ get rest.
      .
      We all know Curtin doesn’t believe in resting guys anyway…

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Don’t forget they started the first half of the season off with 2 losses. The second half started with a draw and a loss so a slight improvement (the New England game was number 18 which is in the second half). And despite what everyone says about Saturday being a poor performance, the Union were setup to lose given the difference in rest for the two teams plus the atrocious ref. Without the second PK call, the Union have a much better shot at mentally holding on to the lead.

  4. In Tanner We Trust says:

    Excellent assessment. Let’s hope Wooten and Fabian rise and take us to the next level. Also, is it fair to say Monteiro is the best player this team has ever had? Even on his off days, he still contributes so much on both ends

    • I can’t say that Jamiro Monteiro is the best player to ever play for the Union, but he’s in the conversation. Tranquillo Barnetta may have the edge, or maybe Borek Dockal once he got acclimated to his new surroundings. Maybe even Bedoya, though it’s hard to measure with a “glue” guy. They all played different roles and against different versions of a rapidly-evolving league.

      • Monteiro has fallen off in his play slightly of late, but for a while he was easily the best player ever to wear a Union kit. I would still give him the edge over Barnetta, Bedoya, and Nogueira.

  5. I think Medunjanin’s lack of defense costs us too much, though it has been on an intermittent basis. He also spends a lot of time trying long balls over the top that don’t work.

    I think our true MVP is Monteiro, but if you didn’t want to repeat awards for the sake of the article, I might have to give it to Bedoya, who is constantly filling in the holes that need to be filled, from hustling up the right side to mix up passes with Ilsinho near the endline to coming back to cover for Gaddis when he gets caught upfield.

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