For Pete's Sake

What we learned from a good draw against LAFC

Photo: 215pix

In the most consequential stretch of the season so far — a three-game homestand against some of the best teams in MLS — Philadelphia Union rose to the occasion.

Seven points out of nine against D.C. United, Atlanta United, and LAFC have the Union in prime position to snag the second seed in the Eastern Conference — and the sweet advantage of hosting Atlanta in the second round, assuming the first round goes chalk.

Saturday night’s contest against LAFC were the only dropped points from the three matches. Nothing to be ashamed about, given that LAFC are the best team in MLS and a pure juggernaut (a goal differential of +44 is just bonkers).

Here are some things that stood out to me from Saturday and are worth watching as the season nears its end.

The Legend of Striker Muffin

I’ve sort of run out of superlatives for Kacper Przybylko.

The gangly striker picked up his 14th goal of the year early on against LAFC, his fifth in the last six games.

Although aided by some atrocious defending by Walker Zimmerman, it’s not an easy finish — Przybylko has to get the softly hit ball high enough to get it over keeper Tyler Miller but under the crossbar. That takes some skill.

(In my last column, I mentioned how much I hate “The Friendly Striker” as Przybylko’s nickname.  Thankfully, PSP’s Chris Gibbons came up with a great alternative (with some help from a random nickname generator): Striker Muffin. What does it mean? I don’t know and I don’t care — from now on, in this space, he’s Striker Muffin.)

Przybylko is the story of the season, in my eyes: in a season where he started, at best, sixth on the striker depth chart (after, in no particular order, C.J. Sapong, Cory Burke, Fafa Picault, Sergio Santos, and Marco Fabian out of position), he’s now tied for fifth in all of MLS in goals. And he kept his place despite the Union going overseas and picking up another striker, Andrew Wooten, during the summer transfer window. Striker Muffin has flashed an undeniable nose for goal to go along with a strong engine, good defensive instincts, and surprising speed and skill for a guy who’s six-foot-four.

That said, one fear here is that Przybylko going cold would be a shortcut to a quick playoff exit for the Union. What to make, then, of the rest of the striker corps? Picault had a decent shift on the wing on Saturday, but he can’t play as a second striker and is well below par as a finisher. Santos has had his moments in recent games, while Wooten appears firmly in cold storage.

The Union could use one of those guys rounding into form over the next few games — or Striker Muffin will have to do it all himself.

Blake’s big night

Much like in hockey, sometimes the key to a deep playoff run is just getting a keeper hot at the right time.

Thankfully, Andre Blake looks ready to step up to the plate.

Although the Jamaica captain earned an All-Star nod this season, I think most observers would call his season a bit uneven — especially during a midseason stretch where the Union were shipping goals on the road with astonishing regularity.

Saturday night’s performance looked like Blake reborn. There were the usual excellent reaction saves, the type of acrobatic, instinctive goalkeeping that has become Blake’s stock in trade. More impressive to my eye, though, was how confident he looked in coming off his line. With LAFC constantly looking to release Adama Diomande, Diego Rossi, and Carlos Vela in behind, Blake had to be alert to balls over the top. He cut off those chances before they could really begin — a must when you’re dealing with finishers as clinical as LAFC.

Now, you could put the blame for LAFC’s sole goal on Blake, as the visitors’ possession began after Blake lost control of a rebound. While Blake should hang on to it, it seems harsh to assign him too much blame in that situation to the keeper when the Union defense had several opportunities to clear before finally working the ball into the net.

Allowing just two goals combined to Atlanta and LAFC is nothing to sneeze at.

Some more thoughts
  • Young guns in defense. What a night for Mark McKenzie and Kai Wagner, huh? Wagner, a signing viewed questionably by many in the offseason, merely took the presumptive MLS MVP out of the match entirely. And you have to feel good for McKenzie, who’s fought through a nightmare season to earn back his spot on defense. I think he’s the Union’s best centerback right now — and can only get better.
  • What’s the deal with Marco? Missing a team meeting the day before the biggest match of the season is… wow. There’s no question that, although he’s flashed his obvious talent, the Mexican DP has disappointed this season, just as often turning in an invisible performance as a decent one. With the Union holding the option on his contract for next year, all signs point to a conscious uncoupling between Fabian and Philly. This will likely lead to the Union finding a new No. 10 in the offseason, their fifth in five years — whether that’s Brenden Aaronson or a new signing. (My gut says that Jamiro Monteiro re-signing in Philly is a long shot, both for financial reasons and because the player might want to fight for a place in Europe.)
  • The trouble with Tommy. I wished I could have been at Talen this weekend, both to enjoy the atmosphere and so I didn’t have to listen to Tommy Smyth’s commentary on the match. As much as I respect his long experience in the game, his analysis is just unlistenable at this point — offering very little insight about the match and about as neutral as Soviet-era Pravda. Seriously, it’s possible to give a Union perspective while still calling the game fairly and not claiming that every time a LAFC player touches a Union player it should be a yellow card. There are better options out there, and I hope the Union consider them this offseason.
  • Fly Union fly. The news that the Union plan to use zero of their four allotted charter flights this season is somehow both unsurprising and enraging. The upcoming stretch of three road matches in eight days — including a cross-country trip to San Jose — has been on the calendar for nine months. Jay Sugarman and co. should be ashamed that they aren’t giving the players and staff the support they need as they, for the first time ever, seriously chase an MLS Cup.

26 Comments

  1. Agree on many points. Tommy’s accent is fantastic to listen to, but he’s such a homer, it’s uncomfortable. I want someone to rationally and fairly analyze what’s going on out there.
    On charters, even if they’re comfortable with the recovery plan for players during this 3 game stretch, booking a charter is more about the message, the optics. San Jose this week could’ve sent a message that ownership fully has their backs. Feels like a big miss.

    And Monteiro? Give him whatever it takes. Pay him. Name the stadium after him. Pizza cones for life. Anything. What a player, and with the versatility to play any MF spot at a high level.

  2. 1. You mention Kacper’s nose for goal, defensive instincts, strong engine, and speed, with skill coming last. But the true revelation on this guy has been his finishing chops. The last two goals he’s scored, against LA and Atlanta, were PHENOMENAL finishes. Like, the finishes of a guy who should earn $1mil/year. I question whether he can do that consistently, but if he could, we’d probably end up selling him elsewhere.

    2. Agree on Blake. In addition to the things you mentioned, he also had some very good distribution out of the back, which has always been his biggest weakness.

    3. Agree on Wagner, and Mackenzie had a great match. (But you cannot tell me he’s playing better than Jack Elliott, who deserves consideration for the MLS Best XI.)

    4. Agree entirely on Tommy. And I actually found him kind of endearing when he started announcing games for us. Now he is positively cringe-worthy. The Union need to move on from him. (The guy who subbed for him for a match last month was far better…)

    5. With Fabian not returning, they’ll have a bunch of $$ to throw at Monteiro, and they should do so. Whether or not he will stay will simply depend on whether he liked being with the team, or whether he wants to go back to Europe. BTW, if they re-sign Monteiro, it should definitely be to play the 6 or the 8, not the 10. That’s not his strength. And young Brendan should slot in there anyway.

    • Agreed totally on KP. It’s poor writing on my part — in my mind, “nose for goal” = finishing while “skill” = dribbling around in midfield keeping the ball. The finishing is what has been the revelation.

      I am not as high on Jack Elliott as most people, and I think he had a rough match against LAFC. But, totally fair to say he’s been their best centerback over the course of this year.

    • Based on what we have seen to-date, it seems like a reasonable strategy to move contract money from Fabián to Monteiro.
      .
      Marco, you have the opportunity to prove everyone wrong from here on. (That’s a legit challenge… to stamp your name on each game without the “trying too hard” look, such as long-range moon shots into the River End, unnecessary fouls/cards, etc.)
      .
      This assumes he has not already burned bridges with Curtin to the exclusion of the match-day 18.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        How Fabian is used in the upcoming Sunday-Wednesday – Saturday game sequence will tell a lot.
        .
        When evaluating public comments by any team official about any player,always remember that the player is a monetary asset. Candid criticism reduces his market value, so you are VERY unlikely to hear it.
        .
        They need to preserve his value even if they have decided to move him.

  3. I like Tommy.

    Could they do better? Of course, and they have. Kyle Martino, Taylor Twellman, Alejandro Moreno… But all those guys were so good that they all moved on to bigger things

    But they also could do far worse, like Bob Rigby. Tommy may be Captain Obvious, but he doesn’t make me cringe like Rigby did.

  4. Would the U be able to get Bobby Warshaw to replace Tommy? He wss great during the open cup match. Would calling Union games conflict with his work for MLS?

    • Exactly what I thought.
      .
      Bring in Warshaw and team him with JP. Then bring Adam Cann in at halftime and post game with Bobby for dueling game analysis. That would be a fun game experience.

      • I don’t know anything about the details of Warshaw’s MLS arrangement, but he’d be number two on my list. Thought he was really great covering the USOC. Number one, of course, is Adam. Really wish we’d put a sell-on clause in his transfer paperwork…

      • ^^ Made me laugh! ^^

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Adam did very well with the Pumas match, as far as I am concerned. He needs experience, but his tactical analysis would be gospel as far as I am concerned.

      • Yeah. I was thinking signing Bobby for the next season or two while you take advantage of Adam’s homegrown contract to let him mature a bit before getting the full time starter spot.

    • I wonder if Mo Edu could/would do color commentary for the U. If JP can fit in Union matches between his big tournament work, maybe Mo could split his Fox duties with some booth time.

      To be honest, Tommy doesn’t bother me that much. Agree that the Union could easily do worse.

    • Warshaw would be great. I wonder if he is too much a soccer guy, but his open cup calling was what I want.

      Tommyis stuck in the past.

  5. Next year midfield will be interesting. Ideally we can let go of Fabian, and resign Monteiro. And I heard Bedoya would need to have an option accepted too? And is Medujanin signed for next year?

    You hope it all works out as you want, but it probably won’t. At the very least there is a chance Fontana would be fighting for a starting spot.

  6. I’m guessing they sign Monteiro. He means way too much to the success of this team. Plus, they want to sell players for profit. If he can put this type of season together next year, as well, while we have him under contract, the Union can profit, instead of letting a player on load just walk.
    .
    Plus, Tanner has already said that signing Monteiro is a priority. No reason to think that position has changed.
    .
    JM may want to go to Europe…but where? A mid-table Dutch team? Where would he go that would be a major step up in quality (MLS skepticism/cynicism aside)? He’s not likely to sign with a Champions League side. Unlikely to go to the Premier League. Maybe, but even a reach, would be a lower team in La Liga (Mallorca, Betis, etc). Same concept for France, Germany, and Italy.
    .
    But if he can do it through the first half of next season, he could be a summer transfer target for a better team.
    .
    Just an amateur opinion…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      At a recent Town Hall held at the stadium, Ernst Tanner was cautious about re-signing Monteiro. His comments indicated that the player’s expectations might be higher than ideal. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  7. RE Tommy. I lost count of how many times he mixed up Monteiro and Fafa this season. It’s embarrassing…

  8. The Union have played some very impressive football the past three games. My criticism is that they have been so erratic this season. How can this be the same team that got thrashed 4-0 by both Montreal and RSL less than two months ago? You could point to the fact that those were both away games, but that doesn’t explain that they were horrible; yes not bad, not outplayed by a superb team, but actually horrible. It also doesn’t explain letting a meager Orlando team tie us 2-2 at home or letting Portland beat us 3-1 also at home. I think this road trip will prove which Union team we can expect to see for the playoffs. A team that plays like the team we saw against LAFC should be able to win all 3.

    As to Kacper, if you must insist on giving him a nickname then please something better than Striker Muffin. That’s cringe worthy. He has shown me to be a quality striker with a finishing touch that I haven’t seen at Talen in ages. The goal against Atlanta was just phenomenal. The LAFC goal was beautiful but honestly is was every bit as lucky as it was skillful. The thing is that the good strikers get the lucky ones as much as they do the skillful ones.

    JM is a pure joy to watch every time he is on the field. As long as he wants to be here, the Union better do everything in order to keep him. Unless he doesn’t want to stay, there is no reason to lose him.

    Marco has been a major disappointment. Even his few good games have been just average for me. He has a rocket of a shot, but those quality strikes on frame are just too few and far between. When you compare him to players like Lodiero, Valeri, and Piatti you see that he isn’t even in the same class. Let him go and use that money to both sign Montero and a new 10. I don’t think Brenden is quite ready for that role yet. He shows flashes of brilliance but is not consistent. I have seen great improvements in him getting bullied and fouled. He is managing to avoid some and stay on his feet for others. If he stays on his feet more, perhaps the refs will start to protect him a bit more when he is fouled.

    For me Tommy has been horrible from day 1. He is constantly confusing one player with another. I forget which game it was or which player, but at one point he was talking about a Union player making a play, but that player wasn’t even in the lineup!! Luckily I only need to listen to him for away games since I am always in the stadium for home games.

    Speaking of announcers, why are the announcers watching the away games on TV just like we are? What kind of rinky dink operation is that? Can you imagine the NY Yankees announcers not being in the booth for away games? It just makes the team and the league look like bush league. How many times has there been something going on that the announcers can’t elaborate on because they didn’t see it on the feed? If they are at the stadium then they can truly add more to the experience.

    Blake was back to being incredible on Saturday. That’s a very good thing as we get ready for the playoffs. He just scared me on that one play where he started to dribble around an LAFC player. He managed to get out of that situation but it was scary.

    Yes McKenzie was very good but Elliott is still the best center back for the season as far as I see it. He is generally dependable and solid back there. He also is very good at distributing the ball whether it is a short pass in tight spaces or a long ball over the top.

    I need to give credit to Ray for his play against LAFC. I came in fearing how badly he could get smoked by Rossi coming down that wing. Ray held his own and locked down that flank. WELL DONE RAY!

    Lastly, the energy in the stadium has been off the charts lately. I know this may seem petty but I had to scream extra loud when we scored the goals against Atlanta and LAFC because of all the away fans in the stands. I could not believe how surrounded I was by both Atlanta fans and LAFC fans in these games. One Atlanta fan was particularly annoying and brash, but I just let our team do the talking on the field.

    OK so I’m on a roll. This is really the last thing. Yes I know how instrumental SOB have been to the formation of this team. However, when can the Union and MLS finally stand up and say enough with the cursing in their chants? This is a family and kid-friendly sport. Grow up SOB and have your chants without the curses.

    GO UNION !!!

  9. How about somebody just get Tommy to stop talking about the old onion bag.

    • I actually think the onion bag talk is one of his best features. Nothing wrong with a doop in the back of the old onion bag.

  10. Bobby Warshaw was excellent in the Union-DCU open cup game and on a couple of other non-Union games I’ve streamed. He would be a great addition to the broadcast. With the “success rate” of other prior Union broadcasters, you have to believe that the Union broadcast is viewed favorably by the pool.

  11. Did I read somewhere that MLS is looking at centralizing the announcers? Perhaps one or two teams would handle the majority of the games and all would work out of a central studio and nowhere near a stadium? Tommy and JP would be out of work then.

  12. Should we start a GoFundMe for a charter flight.. No hope to actually fund it (unless a secret santa steps in)… but even just to send a FU message to ownership and a “We got your back” message to the team?

  13. O captain my captain crunch is gone says:

    Can someone explain the charter flight issue?

  14. What we learned is that the refs in this league are still complete trash and or are biased against the Union. Ilsinho should had gotten a free kick when the defender impeded progress by blocking ilsinho from passing by. Secondly , for the clear hand ball in the box ! And his arms were out ! Every other team would have gotten the PK. There were still seconds left in the game. Absolutely pathetic from the ref. He should be fired for those missed calls. I’m not exaggerating. We would have had the chance to win the game. I’m tired of the obvious missed calls that VAR could easily solve.

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