For Pete's Sake

Time for the Union to find some consistency

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Somehow, there are only seven matches left in the MLS regular season.

(I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like first kick was just a few weeks ago.)

By all metrics, the Philadelphia Union have exceeded expectations this season. They’ve set a franchise-best pace through 27 matches, notching 13 wins and 45 total points. They lead the Eastern Conference in goals scored, second in the league only to the runaway freight train that is LAFC.

They held an iron grip on first place in the East for two-plus months, only falling into second this weekend. With a seven-point edge over fifth-place New York Red Bulls, the Union are in fantastic position to play their first home playoff game in over eight years when October rolls around.

And yet…

Despite what has been, objectively, a good season, it’s hard not to see warning signs.

Since the end of the Gold Cup break, the Union have struggled to find any sort of consistency, both in attack and in defense. And — troublingly — a baffling lineup change against Chicago this past weekend suggests that, rather than building steadily toward the playoffs, the Union squad is still very much in flux.

With a massively difficult run-in ahead, it’s time for Philadelphia to find some consistency.

Messy results

The Union’s last ten matches — dating back to the end of the Gold Cup break on June 26 — have been a mixed bag.

The raw numbers aren’t bad at all.  Philadelphia is 4-4-2 for 14 points; 1.4 points per game would be good for a playoff berth over a full season.

But sometimes points don’t quite tell the whole story. Of those four wins, I would characterize only two as comprehensive performances — defeating Chicago 2-0 at home and the nationally televised 5-1 demolition of D.C. It’s tough to be as thrilled by a 3-1 away win against ten-man Orlando City or an extremely fortunate 2-1 home win over a reeling Houston side.

The losses, more worryingly, have been ugly. Philly has been outscored in those four matches by a score of 14-2, including embarrassing 4-0 hammerings by Real Salt Lake and Montreal Impact. This weekend’s match wasn’t much better, with the Union unable to take advantage of a full half up a man against the bottom-feeding Fire.

In that ten-match stretch, it’s tough to identify any consecutive pair of matches where the Union turned in a good performance.

Chicago Fire that lineup into the sun

Some of the inconsistency has, undoubtedly, been down to players coming in and out of the lineup.

Talismanic midfielder Jamiro Monteiro missing most of July did not help in the slightest, while it’s taken time for big-money signing Marco Fabian to get up to full speed. Stalwart defenders Auston Trusty, Jack Elliott, and Ray Gaddis have hit major bumps in form. Summer signing Andrew Wooten has been on the roster for seven games and has yet to notch his first MLS goal.

In the face of much of this personnel turnover, manager Jim Curtin seems to have lost his magic touch in picking the lineup.

Starting with the D.C. game, Aurelien Collin replaced Trusty in defense. Despite questionable performances against both D.C. (where his absurdly needless foul led to United’s only goal) and Houston, Curtin announced last week that Collin was now installed as the starter, with Trusty and Mark McKenzie competing to be his backup.

Curtin also fell in love with Warren Creavalle, a competent MLS midfielder who put in the shift of his life against D.C. With Monteiro fully healthy, how Curtin chose to wedge Creavalle into the starting XI for the Chicago match was baffling from the moment it was posted on Twitter. With Creavalle in one of the central spots in the diamond, Monteiro took Fabian’s spot at the 10 — despite Fabian finally beginning to look comfortable in that role. Fabian was then horrifyingly miscast as a second striker playing next to Kacper Przybylko, the man who is never allowed to leave the lineup. (Przybylko has played every minute of every match since April 27.)

There were a couple things I disliked about this configuration. First, this was a truly ancient starting lineup for a team oft-praised for its willingness to play young players. The average age of the starters was 28.36 — three full years older than the team that started this ten-match stretch in New England. The team on the pitch getting older as the Union get into the close of the season is disappointing, but understandable. Results are what matter.

But, more importantly, this lineup wasn’t set up to get a result. Creavalle adds minimal value from the jump in a lineup that also includes Monteiro and Alejandro Bedoya. Marco Fabian is not a striker. And Collin may be suited to spot duty, but he’s far from his peak — the penalty he conceded to C.J. Sapong was rec league stuff.

(As an aside, I’d expect Collin to start again against D.C. — for better or for worse, Curtin is unlikely to so quickly return Collin to the bench after publicly declaring him the starter last week.)

Equally concerning was the Union’s total inability to generate offense in the second half with a man advantage.

As strong as Curtin’s performance as manager has been this season, he’s drawn the wrong lessons from the win over D.C.

And he doesn’t have much time to get it right again.

It doesn’t get any easier from here

For all intents and purposes, the playoffs start now for the Union.

Sure, they’ve effectively secured their spot already. But if the club is to make any noise, they need to secure a home game in the first (and maybe second) round and recapture their peak form from earlier in the season.

The good news and the bad news is the same: there are no cupcakes left on the schedule.

First is a trio of home matches against D.C., Eastern Conference leaders Atlanta, and Supporter’s Shield leaders LAFC. The Union follow that up with a brutal stretch of three road games in eight days — at Red Bulls, at San Jose, and at Columbus — before finishing on decision day by welcoming NYCFC to town. Of those seven matches, only one is against a team not in playoff position.

At the end of this stretch, we should know whether the Union are ready to make a serious challenge for MLS Cup, or whether 2019 will be remembered as yet another Union season that, right at the end, crumbled into dust.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    They need to figure out who and what they are.
    Real or fugazi.
    I’m betting on real… but a backslide into the playoffs will quickly lose me from the corner of Jim Curtin.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      A question worth asking: How does the inconsistency correlate with the departure of the assistant coach — Dick S………. — to join his brother’s staff in the Netherlands?

      • Union before his departure: 10-3-3
        Union after his departure: 4-5-2
        (If I’ve counted correctly.)

    • They certainly aren’t looking like the pressing team that they advertised. They pressed well in the NYRB 3-2 win and in the 5-1 DC win. Other than that, they are playing too many backwards balls after turnovers instead of pushing forward…
      I think Fafa needs to get back out on the field to offer a more direct option for breaking teams down. I thought he would have been perfect to go up against 37-year-old Schweinsteiger this past weekend. But what do I know…

  2. It’s hard to be consistent when it is unclear what their best starting 11 even is. With injuries to Monteiro & Fabian, and Wooten coming in late, I’m not even sure we have had our best 11 on the field together yet.
    For me, I’d like to see Monteiro at #6, Aaronson/Fontana/Picult at LM, Fabian at #10, Bedoya at RM and Kacper/Wooten up top. You pick ’em at back 4.
    We lose a little in passing without Haris, but Montiero will be a defensive destroyer at #6 and is very capable of passing and moving the ball up the field. He would help our D significantly. Montiero can also beat his man off dribble at #6 to move the ball upfield which Haris can’t.
    It may not gel, but Haris is a liability defensively at #6 and it is unrealistic for a guy his age to play every minute of the season anyway.

    • Be honest- Haris is not going to be benched…
      Our best shape with him in there is a midfield diamond with Haris at the 6, Monteiro and Bedoya at the 8’s, and Fabián at the 10.

  3. Good time to have a townhall meeting! Wish I could come tonight and pose some difficult questions. The way we play we will be lucky to end up with 7 points in the next 7 games.

    • They broadcast it on It’s available on the website. (I was the one who asked the question about the field quality.)

  4. Fabian needs to be put in position where he can shoot on goal. He also needs to earn his money and play both ways when he has to. Dc was playing short handed and did not have all their defensive starters in last game. Rooney is leaving and psychologically may not all be there for this game. Every union must play like it’s A must win game for each home match. No playing for ties and no going into a defensive shell even if they have a 2 goal lead. Bedoya has got to talk to the team and treat the rest of the season like every game is a must win. Dont expect ilsinhio to perform miracles. The other teams know his routine. Kascper needs to be accurate but not worry about making the perfect shot. It would be nice to see Monteiro score early so dc has multiple players to watch and can’t double team anyone.Collin needs to drink 2 red bulls and be totally energized same goes for Medunjian and Marco. Get Aaronson a flack jacket cor the game if he plays.

  5. Hmmmm….in season’s past Curtin was criticized (often rightfully) for not changing the lineup or rotating players. Criticism was also rightfully aimed at his predictable substitutions. Now he’s being criticized for the opposite?

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