Commentary / Union

The RSL loss matters

Photo by Colter Peterson of

I was talking to a Philadelphia Union season ticket holder about this past Saturday’s 4-0 drumming in Utah. I called it a miserable performance, because that’s what it was. It was embarrassing and it was the worst result of the season. It would have been embarrassing for any team, let alone the team with the second-most points in the league.

His response was that the Union were missing three of their best players. More specifically, “our best defender, our best midfielder, and our creative game changer.” He was referring to, of course, Kai Wagner, Jamiro Monteiro, and Ilsinho, respectively. All three of them missed the match with various injuries. I didn’t disagree with the labels attached to those players and instead posed a simple thought:

So what?

Just to reiterate, Real Salt Lake is nothing more than an average Major League Soccer team. Their record of
9-2-9 says exactly that. Before the win over the Union, they were outside a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Before that 4-0 win, they hadn’t scored more than three goals in a match all season. Before they steamrolled the East’s No. 1 squad, no one thought of them as a serious threat. Their goal differential is exactly zero (29-29). RSL is average, plan and simple.

You’re telling me the Union shouldn’t expect to get a result against that squad? The first-place Union?

I get it. RSL is a strong home squad. It is tough to travel across the country and it is tough to win road matches in MLS. It’s tough to win road matches in any sport. No one bats an eye if Philly goes out there and drops a 1-0 grinder. They’re allowed to have an “off night” and lose 2-0. That’s fine. What you’re not allowed to do is get dismantled. You’re not allowed to put out a plenty-strong-enough lineup and lose 4-0. Good teams don’t do that.

Yes, Wagner has impressed, yes Monteiro is probably the Union’s best player, and yes, Ilsinho is having his best season with the Union yet, but you know why that argument doesn’t fly? RSL’s top goal scorer didn’t play. Sam Johnson, who before this match scored almost a third of his team’s goals on the year, didn’t play. And they still drop four on you? Philly has more than enough pieces. Find a way to get around 37-year-old Kyle Beckerman (no disrespect).

Let’s say LAFC sits Carlos Vela (probably the best player in MLS this season) and travels to Rio Tinto. What happens? I don’t know, but they sure as hell don’t lose 4-0. I’d still bet on them to win. Do we really think if Atlanta United were to travel there without Josef Martinez that they would get man-handled like that? That doesn’t happen to good teams. True MLS Cup contenders don’t go on the road and watch the other side pass the ball around them. You can say those two teams and a few others are better than Philly and have been for a while, but that’s what the Union are trying to be, isn’t it? That’s what they’re striving for.

On paper, as the season ticket holder said, a 4-0 loss on the road in the West, “isn’t that serious.” A night off, an outlier. Burn the tape, move on. It’s just a hiccup, we’ll get players back, etc., etc. With context, though, it is serious. It’s serious because we’ve seen it before.

It’s serious because it’s the type of result that shouldn’t co-exist with a contract extension. Jim Curtin is trying to prove something here. He’s trying to prove that this season will be different and that he’s the guy. No more excuses. The harsh reality is Curtin hasn’t proven anything yet. He can hold first place for half the season or even win the Supporter’s Shield, but until he hosts, and wins, a playoff game, this season will not end up any different. Playoff run or more excuses, which will it be?

“Fabinho hadn’t played in a while and he got exposed.”

“Trusty got beat on a long ball, that doesn’t normally happen.”

“Road games are tough.”

“They just didn’t show up to play.”

Those are excuses.

“Andre Blake is one of the best goalkeepers in MLS. He started.”

“Marco Fabian is better than any player RSL has.”

“The Union have far more points and far more goals on the year than RSL.”

“The Union are out of the U.S. Open Cup and had a week to sit on this match.”

Those are realities.

Feel free to brush off a 4-0 result, but this isn’t the first eye-opener. Just last week in the second leg against Orlando, the Union failed to win (and very nearly lost) a home match against a depleted side with a losing record. Then there was the three-game homestand in May where the Union managed just two points. A blown lead to arguably one of the weakest sides in the league (Colorado) and a 3-1 loss to now 10th place Portland. There are just certain matches on the schedule that you have to win — certain homestands and certain circumstances that top teams take advantage of. They didn’t have to beat RSL, but they had to show up.

Sure, it’s time to beat Chicago at home this weekend and get the bad taste out of everyone’s mouth, but it’s also time for a serious gut-check. The Union have won one match in the past month. They may have a four-point lead in the East, but almost every single team below them has games in hand. That includes New York City, who has four.

A 4-0 loss to RSL matters because of the past. It matters because it came at a terrible time. For a team like Atlanta or New York Red Bull or Seattle that has proven they can win and win when it matters most, fine, shrug off a bad loss. For a team like the Union? A 4-0 loss feels all too familiar. A 4-0 loss is the kind of loss that defines way more than you think.

“4-0 on the road at a Western conference team is bad, but it’s not worst case.”

Then what is?


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Clearly an acceptable argument. For me, I didn’t expect any points in Salt Lake therefore how badly they lost was and is irrelevant: travel, weakned squad, playing at altitude, summer doldrums…. etc.
    What matters is Chicago this week at home coming off a shitty performance and a stretch where one could argue things are not too clean…. drop points at home against Chicago and I’m concerned.
    Chicago is a must win game and they damn straight better play with the conviction that says so.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    I actually think Atlanta could lose at Rio Tinto without Martinez. Lately they have been much better, but they are a different team without him. Lose 4-0? Probably not.
    The premise of your article is fair though. They could’ve / should’ve shown up and put up a fight and if they still lost, so be it. I agree with The Elephant though… if you beat Chicago at home this weekend, the RSL loss becomes an outlier. Draw, or even, lose, and the narrative will be in a death spiral.

    • Atlanta came and played RSL with Josef Martinez and they lost. So saying they might lose without him has no grounds. Get your facts straight.

  3. Excellent argument here. However, the Union are still top of the league. Almost every team in MLS goes through games like this on the road against the other conference. That’s just how it is. They were missing 3 of their most important players. You can make a million excuses but simply the performance was not good enough. Nothing to be too concerned about though. Kai, Monteiro, and Ilsinho make a huge difference and we see what they are able to to when fit. Every team goes through injuries and bad form. It’s much better to be first and hold on then play catch up in August and September. No need to fear. Incredibly tough schedule to finish the year. All playoff teams (except Columbus and 2 Chicago matchups). Can they stay in first? Probably not, but top 4 should definitely be the goal and keep fighting for the east. You never know.

  4. It’s not just a win v. Chicago this week end that’s important. Its the mindset this team needs to have to be consider a front runner in the league. A win Saturday will get the chicken$#!+ taste out of the mouth, but the team needs to bring a different attitude to the next few road games, especially at Montreal and DC, and get results, for this really to be considered an outlier. I am optimistic… but show me.

    I will say Christian that while the highest goal is the win the Cup, winning the Hub Cap is not bad. Doubt we can catch LA but I wouldn’t sneeze at the Supporter Shield.

  5. The biggest issue I have is that we had zero shots on goal all game! That and the total collapse of the defense is a major concern and is typical of the past, when our 2nd half of the season has been disastrous. Until this team turns things around and can win again 2 or 3 games in a row I see the glass as half empty.

  6. Alicat215 says:

    I have warmed up to JC over time, but the RSL match is where I get a little frustrated with him. If Jim knew he didn’t have three major contributors going into the match, why not tactically change up in both shape and how you go about the match?Jim has obviously been given tactical flexibility that he never had under Ernie, who was quite dogmatic. He didn’t show any nuance here, he rarely does. Why not go out to Rio Tinto in a 3-5-2 and flood the middle of the park if you know you are going to get creamed in there? Or even make it obvious you are playing for a point and meet them at midfield in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid? This is where I still scratch my head a little. The author is right about 4-0 being more than just an outlier…….1-0, 2-0…….sure, when you get spanked 4-0… tells more than that. Other clubs will also watch the RSL tape and come away with a few insights about our squad.

  7. I agree with most of what is said and think a 4-0 loss is not just a write off. We’ve been conditioned to expect the Union to suck and don’t seem to react as much when they actually blow a game like this.

    On the counter point – Teams at 3 and 4 in the shield race (behind LAFC and Union) both have 3-0 losses so they are not that unusual. Of course you need to also factor in the couple of 3-1 Union losses as well as a 4-2 loss. Seems like when the Union lose, they lose big.

  8. If Marco plays and does what be did in RSL the union should release him.

  9. With DC winning tonight they are 1 point behind Philly. Guess when they move it didn’t really matter you lost huh!

  10. FYI. RSL was missing their best goal scorer and their best defender, Onuoha.

    RSL is a very good home team. They are 7-2-0 this season, which is only topped by LAFC and SSFC.They had a legitimate loss at home to Portland recently, but that did include a rare appearance from their backup keeper. Portland has been miserable at home, but quite good on the road this season. RSL’s other home loss was a bit of a fluke with a 17th minute red card against FCD.

    They have been horrendous on the road over the last two seasons. Their 2-7-2 road record is in the bottom of the pack, and it’s what has kept them a mediocre team both this year and last. If they were moderately better, with 2 more road wins, they’d be sitting at 35 pts which would put them among the top teams in the league.

    But then again, if ifs and butts were candy and nuts…

    As an impartial observer, I don’t think this loss is an indictment against the Union, especially on the road.

  11. The Truth says:

    Chicago is must win. Personally, I don’t expect points at Rio Tinto.

  12. pandababa says:

    I probably won’t be happy until the Union develop a killer instinct. When we approach a team that we “should handle easily”, we should not be satisfied with just a point; we should always be looking for a 6-0 score. When we approach a team that circumstances indicate that we might not do that well, we shouldn’t be loading up the conversation with how hard it will be and that “if we can stay in the game, that’s good enough”. What is wrong with being a good team and expecting to win no matter what? Until the Union can show me that, I will continue to be a loyal, but frustrated, fan.

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