For Pete's Sake

The glass

Photo: Earl Gardner

With 22 games played in a 34 game season, we’re moving into the final third of the Union’s MLS campaign.

Philadelphia sits in first place in the East on both points and points per game, a result that few predicted at the start of the season. But — after a miserable 4-0 loss in Salt Lake City and a rough sequence of results over the last three weeks — there are reasonable questions to ask about the direction of the team this season.

There are two ways to look at the Union’s current situation — the “half full” approach and the “half empty” approach. (Honestly, that’s a natural way to look at many things in sports, where almost all evaluation is imprecise and informed by your perspective.)

The purpose of this column is to take a look at the optimistic and pessimistic outlook on three Union storylines and evaluate which case seems stronger. Let’s get to it.

The run of form

The Union have managed five points in five games since the end of the Gold Cup break, but they remain in first place in the East. Is the sky falling?

  • Half full. Of course not. The dip in form is explainable by several factors, including a tough set of fixtures — two mid-week matches, a game at Yankee Stadium, and a trip out to the Mountain West — and an unlucky set of injuries that has seen three of the team’s best players this season in Jamiro Monteiro, Ilsinho, and Kai Wagner miss matches. The Union are still on a club-record pace and have decent cushion over their pursuers. Get the easy win over Chicago this weekend and things will look a lot better.
  • Half empty. Five points in these five matches may actually be a generous total, given that the Union have looked downright awful for large stretches of these matches. The only win required Orlando to get two red cards, and only late goals salvaged the two draws.  Maybe the Union’s form issues run deeper, besides. Has the club had an actual comprehensive victory since topping Toronto FC on May 11? In the ten matches since, Philadelphia has earned 13 points, with two of those three wins in that time coming in games — against Minnesota and New York Red Bulls — where second-half comebacks were key to the victory. 1.3 points per game is closer to the red line than to a top-of-the-table side.

Verdict: half full. Some of the stats from the Union’s recent matches really scare me — particularly from a defensive point of view, which we’ll get to in a minute. But the Union remain fundamentally in a strong position. With Monteiro, Ilsinho, and Wagner back in the lineup — and Andrew Wooten joining the roster — my guess is that the Union’s slide won’t last to the end of the season. Even if they can’t match the blistering pace of the start of the campaign, Philadelphia is extremely well-positioned to secure the club’s first home playoff game since 2011.

The defense

Part of the Union’s dip in form is the result of a suddenly leaky backline, which has conceded 21 goals in the last ten games (after just 11 in the first 12). How concerned should we be?

  • Half full. Maybe a little bit, but the fundamentals are sound. The defensive corps has both talent and depth — Jack Elliott has had a Best XI type season, Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie are both highly touted prospects, Kai Wagner has been a revelation, Ray Gaddis exists, and the backups (Aurelien Collin, RJ Allen, Matt Real, Olivier Mbaizo) can get the job done in a pinch. And behind them, the Union still have one of the best goalkeepers in the league in Andre Blake. Even if things aren’t clicking perfectly right now, Jim Curtin has time to tweak his defense to get it in tip-top shape for the playoffs.
  • Half empty. Will Curtin make those tweaks, though? Trusty and Gaddis are in terrible form right now, yet neither seems in serious danger of losing their job. That’s partly due to the rough seasons some of their backups are having — McKenzie is having a nightmare campaign with only 12 minutes played in the league, while Mbaizo is on the shelf with a meniscus injury and Allen was just signed off the street. Only seven teams in MLS have given up more goals than the Union, and a solution isn’t immediately apparent.

Verdict: half empty. If there’s one thing about Philadelphia that scares me right now, it’s the defense. The goals conceded against RSL included some true howlers, as Chris Gibbons pointed out in the post-match analysis today. Trusty’s regression, in particular, is discouraging to watch. Compounding the problem is that the Union’s preferred style of play this year already puts a lot of pressure on the defense. The Union earning their first clean sheet in over two months against Chicago this weekend would be a really good first step.

The Curtin extension

Entering the season on a one-year deal, Curtin was rewarded for the Union’s campaign so far with a two-year contract extension. Did Ernst Tanner act too soon?

  • Half full. No — Curtin earned the new deal. After season after season where many doubted Curtin’s coaching chops, he seems to have put it all together this year now that he has a genuinely strong roster to work with. Continuing to dangle an unceremonious uncoupling over Curtin’s head at the end of the season would be pointless; there are benefits, besides, in showing faith in and loyalty to a dedicated servant of the club who is extremely well-liked around the Power Training Complex. Plus, there’s an advantage to certainty: a free agent Curtin might be in high demand if the club did make a deep playoff run, and we all know that the Union aren’t likely to win a bidding war if it comes to that.
  • Half empty. Yes — what’s the rush? The knock on Curtin remains that he can’t get his teams over the finish line, with an 0-5 all-time record in cup finals and playoff games and a general trend of late-season collapses. With a third of the season left to play, and the Union’s powerhouse campaign showing some cracks in the foundation, what’s the harm in finding out if Curtin can truly close the deal? Besides, from a pragmatic perspective, it’s unlikely that Curtin would leave the club of his own accord at the end of the season if management wanted him back, even if he felt that he earned the contract earlier in the season.

Verdict: half full. I am far from Curtin’s biggest fan, and I’m still far from convinced that he’s the next coming of Pep Guardiola. That being said, it’s really tough to argue with the overall results this season, and Curtin deserves to have the club show some trust in him. It also makes sense from the Union perspective — if you like your guy and you want to ride with him, then putting pen to paper once there’s a satisfactory agreement is the right move. And even if the situation turns sour down the stretch (or at some point in 2020), a two-year deal isn’t so onerous that the Union couldn’t get out of it if they wanted to (even if it would be very embarrassing).

13 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    I wonder if we see a full strength Union on Saturday obliterate Chicago into the Chester night, or if we see a still-weakened side drop home points. That will go a long way in cup measurement.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    There is no spoon.

  3. half empty. no hate here, just my gut telling me the back line is a disaster, Fabián is a bust, and we lack depth due to injury. they’ll sink in the standings because other teams are getting it done.

  4. Half empty. Seen it too often that the Union’s 1st half of the year is great and then they fall apart for the 2nd half. Will be pleasantly surprised if they don’t fall apart. Actually, with some of the ‘strong’ teams sitting mid table they may be better off not finishing 1st or 2nd come playoff time….

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    It’s impossible to tell whether the glass is half full or half empty without knowing the likely duration of the three big injuries…and I haven’t seen anything to indicate whether any or all of them are short or long term. And don’t forget Aaronson came off at half time injured Saturday night. That’s the 4th straight game that someone left early. (Ilsinho against NYCFC, Monteiro in Orlando, Wagner at home against Orlando).

  6. I’m still looking at a glass half full here. My biggest concern is not resting Medunjanin and Bedoya. I worry they’ll run out of gas and that even a healthy Monteiro won’t be able to keep the season from slipping away. If the midfield can stay fit, we should contend into the playoffs. I do agree that the backline is shaky. I think it can hang on long enough and well enough with a fully fit midfield.

  7. I’m going to say half full but as I’ve told many people for weeks, the schedule is what’s going to kill us. It’s brutal and that’s being kind. In the end we’ll probably be in a spot we thought we’d be in when the season started and that’s about 6th place.

  8. Perfect Time to Send a Message from Tanner…..Curtin should resign if he starts Marco, Gaddis or Trusty… Healthy or not Marco does not start. His performance against Salt Lake game was disgraceful. Timid mostly backward passes, never attempted to force his way thru going forward, backed off from all 50/50 balls and 0 shots on goal from a guy who we thought would be a leader in goals and assist. His worst outing of the year in a game where he should have shown why we paid him the big bucks.

    Fontana needs to start over Marco. Aaronson needs to be told to attack the goal more and not depend on dumping off to the other mids when things get tight. Real needs to start if Kai can not. Gaddis and Trusty need to sit also based on their last few games and especially after the disaster at Salt Lake . Collin can start at CB and anybody on the Bethlehm team could match what Gaddis gives to this team which is at his best passable one on one defense and no ability to contribute any thing offensively. Id rather bring back Sheanon Williams in a hearbeat.

    • John Ling says:

      If Montiero is still out and Aaronson is still dinged from the RSL game, Curtin will have no choice but to start Fabian, with Fontana sliding into Aaronson’s “spot” wide next to Bedoya. Even if Montiero is back, he almost certainly won’t be ready for 90 minutes – and I’d be surprised if he were ready for even 60 minutes honestly. Curtin could try to start Montiero and then piece things together (Fabian, Ilsinho if he’s ready) but that seems to be courting disaster to me. I think the better option would be to start Fabian, and directly put the pressure on him – let him know just how unacceptable his play was against RSL, and let him know with no uncertain terms that a similar performance against Chicago will result in a change in the lineup.
      .
      As for Gaddis, I completely agree with you there. I’ve wanted to see anybody else start at RB all year.
      .
      And lastly, Trusty… I’m really not sure there. It would be easy to say RSL was caused by having Fabinho next to him – except Trusty’s issues extend well beyond just this game. Curtin even did the rest thing in the 2nd game against Orlando. His regression is troubling. I think if this team has any designs on staying in first, then a change has to be made – it’s probably what’s best, at least in the short term, for the team.

  9. SilverRey says:

    I’m still feeling in a ‘half-full’ mood even after this bad stretch. We know how to look solid out there even if it seems like we forgot at RSL (5 shots? and two of those were Fabinho?). But that definitely showcased that there is a lot of dead air in a half-full glass that needs to be addressed. Don’t flake out on us now Curtin – you were just starting to show you belonged.

  10. Everything was set up for us to play terribly at Salt Lake. So I’m not so much worried about that performance. The travel, the altitude, the schedule, the injuries, all enough to make the team look out of sorts.

    But I think here’s where we find out if Jim’s ready to make the next step as a coach. We got some people in bad form and/or needing a rest — will he do it?? Start Colin for Trusty for another match or two. Give Haris a night off and let Fontana start — he’s looked good enough in limited action to get a run out against a weak squad like Chicago. If Gaddis continues to play like this, maybe let RJ Allen start a match. You can give guys a break, send a message, light a fire, maybe find out some things about your next man up. Beats running your team into the ground in the summer heat.

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