Roundtable / Union

PSP roundtable: Post-season, but pre-postseason

Photo: 215pix

Another Philadelphia Union season is behind us. But unlike too many seasons in the past, the team still has something left to play for. As we look to the MLS Cup Playoffs meeting with New York Red Bulls this Sunday, several of us wanted to reflect on the season that was before the Playoffs crystallize opinions around this team. This will not replace our regular season wrap-up roundtable, which will still happen when we do our end of year review and awards after the Union complete their 2019 campaign.

On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the Union’s season?

Chris Gibbons: 8. Best record ever. Best team ever. All without the top striker from last season and the most expensive offseason signing ever for part of the year.

Christian Sandler: 7. Record-breaking season on a number of fronts. Probably the best Union team any of us have ever seen over the course of a season. Would be an 8 or an 9 if not for a few bad losses and limping into the playoffs.

Steve Whisler: 7. Who would have expected the Union to have their record best season heading into 2019? It’s a huge accomplishment and everyone on the squad should be proud. Recent form prevents it from being even higher.

Peter Andrews: Incomplete. For stretches, this was the best Union team in club history, capable of both dominating matches against inferior opponents and snatching gritty wins when they weren’t at their best. The regular season is an 8, but the way we look back at this season will depend entirely on whether the Union can finally get over the hump in the playoffs.

Dan Walsh: 8. So far. For all the reasons said above. Imagine if the Marco Fabian signing had panned out too.

Nick Fishman9. It’s the best season in franchise history. They’re hosting their first playoff game in eight years and nearly won the Eastern Conference. Nobody expected this before the season. It’s why it could also be the most disappointing if Sunday doesn’t go well.

Jim O’Leary7. This is without a doubt the best Union team we’ve ever seen. But the playoffs can change that score if the Union revert to their bad habit of coming up short when it’s all on the line. Or if they buck the trend and really impress.

Shayan Waseh: 8. They accomplished a lot, and fielded a solid lineup throughout the season while sticking to the Union philosophy of development from the ground up. They squandered quite a few opportunities to rein supreme in the East, but overall, punched above their weight class for much of season. Getting third place in the East, and being within arm’s reach of first counts as a successful season in my book.

Tim Jones: 8.  Four major areas of criticism.  1. Inconsistent in “big” games played at home. 2. The turf fiasco earlier in the season – is it truly fixed, or do they need to trash it and rebuild it from the drainage pipes, sprinkler pipes, and gravel so they get a surface like Sporting Kansas City’s? 3. Midfield age and athleticism requires better depth. 4. Defense gives up way many too many goals when compared to elite teams in elite leagues in Europe.

What was the team’s biggest strength this season?

Chris: Resilience. How often did the “that’s so Union” theme start to creep in only for the Boys in Blue to go out and squash it? Yeah, they ended the season worse than they should have, but they’ll host a winnable playoff game next weekend. No one’s been able to say that about the team in years.

Christian: Depth. Ah, the virtues of depth. Guys like Marco Fabian or Ilsinho coming off the bench was a luxury that most teams in the league didn’t have this season. Jim Curtin had multiple options at striker. He didn’t have to panic when a guy went down. This was the deepest Union squad ever.

Steve: Versatility. The team has been able to go out and win a number of different ways, especially finally figuring out how to get results on the road early in the year.

Peter: Health. (In addition to what everyone else has said.) The Union’s two most irreplaceable players — Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya — missed a grand total of two games between them. Medunjanin and Jack Elliott, the Union’s most consistent defender, didn’t miss a single minute. Philly had some good fortune that the squad’s backbone could be counted on game in and game out.

Dan: Passing. When Ernst Tanner talked before the season about changing the way the Union play, I (and some Union players) got worried they’d lose the pretty possession play. They didn’t. In fact, it only got better.

Nick: Coaching. It’s weird to say after Curtin has been on the hot seat more times than not when the season wraps up. In his sixth season, Curtin is every bit deserving of being a finalist for MLS coach of the year.

Jim: Adaptability. As admirable “play the same style every time” is in abstract, in practice it just didn’t work. This year the Union did a better job changing things, be it formation or lineup, to suit the opponent and suit the situation. It’s how the team avoided slumping for more than a handful of games at a time, and it allowed them to bounce back quickly more often than not.

Shayan: Their biggest strength this season was definitely their capacity to generate goals and be more efficient in the final third. Prior seasons have been marred by a struggle to produce goals despite high possession and ample opportunities. This season, even when the Union weren’t playing their best, they were able to keep putting goals on the scoreboard.

Tim: Three. 1. Their ability to bounce back from bad games. 2. Their ability to play extremely well at home. 3. Ernst Tanner’s genial ruthlessness. He’s a personable nice guy. But there is also iron certainty there.

What was the biggest weakness?

Chris: Consistency. The stretch in May, the one where the Union could’ve run away with the East but instead took 2 points from 9 at home, was brutal. So were the first two matches of the season and the last five.

Christian: Consistency. Multiple times this season it seemed like the Union were riding high and going to cruise into a first-round bye, and then a bad loss hit out of nowhere. Or two. One win in the final five matches of the season is highly concerning and not in-line with a championship club.

Steve: Complacency. The whole Ilsinho/4-2-3-1 thing worked (really) well a few times as the Union climbed to the top of the table. And then it stopped working and the pretty-soccer-without-scoring woes of last season have crept back.

Peter: First halves. Too often, the Union started slow and relied on super second halves (and super sub Ilsinho) to bail them out. It worked more often than it didn’t, but when it didn’t it was infuriating.

Dan: The lack of a second productive creator other than Ilsinho. Marco Fabian hasn’t been that guy, and the Union haven’t been creating a ton of chances lately when Ilsinho isn’t a second half sub. Still, Fabian can be that guy.

Nick: Defense. The Union failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 11 matches and pitched just six shutouts over the season. When they needed to lock up shop, they struggled.

Jim: Offense. Don’t get me wrong, Pryzbylko had a great season, but the Union player with the second most goals (Marco Fabián) has less than half his number. That’s not enough, and missed chances all season long are the reason why the Union couldn’t lock up second in the East, let alone first.

Shayan: Inconsistency. One game, they’d look like MLS Cup champions, and the next game, they’d look like they were counting on a goal materializing out of thin air. Keeping up a consistently high level of performance is hard in the MLS, but it’s necessary if the Union want to continue to be considered playoff contenders.

Tim: Midfield pace and athleticism.  As good as it has become, it is not elite for MLS. And as a whole, the team gave up way too many goals.

What surprised you most about the Union this season?

Chris: Openness. For years this has been a team of secrets, with the exception of Jim Curtin who’s always been as clear as he can be. Suddenly, Ernst Tanner is talking pragmatically about the team, its direction, and the pros and cons that go with trying to get better over time.

Christian: Bounce back. After those rough streaks or after a bad loss, I was at the front of the line for calling the Union fraudulent. I consistently thought they would fade away and barely make the playoffs or cough the season up. They’ve always seemed to bounce back in some way and get back into form. Now they just have to do it again with everything on the line.

Steve: Swagger. The 2019 Union have that confident attitude and street soccer doggedness that’s often found in championship teams. That feels new.

Peter: Kacper Przybylko. If you’d asked me to guess, before the season, which Union player would finish with 15 goals, I would have picked Kacper… seventh? (Behind some combination of C.J. Sapong, Cory Burke, David Accam, Sergio Santos, Fafa Picault, and Marco Fabian.)  But the man I call Striker Muffin came out of nowhere to be the team’s most potent striker in years. Where would the Union be without him?

Dan: Tactical flexibility. Jim Curtin toggled back and forth between the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1 almost perfectly, and it’s why he’s been shortlisted for MLS Coach of the Year for the second straight year.

Nick: Record. Sure it’s simple, but was anyone expecting the Union to sit in first place for most of the year?

Jim: Roster flops. We’ve got a half-million dollar Brazilian forward, and a Mexican national team star. And none of us would be surprised if they didn’t start on Sunday. Could you imagine what this team could have been if those players had played at the level we thought they would? Could you imagine if they start playing like that now?

Shayan: Brenden Aaronson. He has a lot of growth to do, but being a regular starter for an MLS team at age 18 is an astounding achievement, and not one that anyone really expected. Especially considering that he outperformed Marco Fabian, who the Union pay $2 million more for per year.

Tim: Their ability to score goals, to come back, and to close out games.

How do you think the Union will perform in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Chris: Eastern Conference finals, lose to NYCFC.

Christian: First-round loss to New York Red Bulls.

Steve: Second round loss to Atlanta United after 120 minutes.

Peter: All season, I’ve said that I’ll believe this Union team is different when I see it. This team is good enough to get to the second round and give Atlanta a run for its money, but recent form suggests that we’re seeing another end-of-season swoon for Philly. They’ll lose 3-1 to the Red Bulls on Sunday.

Dan: Ah, what the hell: Let’s give a shot of hope and say they’re going to the MLS Cup final. Atlanta without an injured Miles Robinson might not get out of the first round, and although NYC has had the Union’s number at Yankee Stadium, sooner or later, I got a hunch Philly’s due to get theirs.

Nick: While the Union will win their first ever playoff game, heading to Atlanta on short rest will be too much for Philadelphia to overcome.

Jim: They really could make it all the way to the final, I don’t think there’s a team they can’t beat. But going down to Georgia is hard, and I wouldn’t put money on them getting past Atlanta.

Shayan: I would be very disappointed if they lost in the first round. They have the most difficult opponents among the 4th to 7th place seeds, so it will be a challenging first round for sure. However, the expectations will be for them to win, especially at home. From there on out, it’s a complete gamble.

Tim: They will beat Red Bulls in overtime at home in an exhausting 120-minute dogfight.  They will then lose to Atlanta at the Benz four days later.

Who do you think will win MLS Cup 2019?

Steve: NYCFC.

Peter: LAFC.

Chris: LAFC

Dan: LAFC.

Nick: LAFC. They’re the league’s most entertaining team and its best.

Jim: Seattle.

Shayan: Los Angeles FC

Tim: Los Angeles Football Club


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    This is the first game I’ve ever watched for this team where I do not care how the game looks.
    ….asthetics, this weekend are a non-factor– play loose…. but JUST FUCKING WIN this match.

  2. i’m with you Jim, on Roster flops. with Santos, Wooten and Fabian, i thought the second half was gonna be epic. so disappointing, despite the DC, LA, ATL run of form at home. 2-3 more wins would’ve been the minimum if those players were healthy and it’d be more of “who do we play in the west for the cup?” optimism rather than “meh, just hope they get a result sunday.”

  3. I would’ve given this team a 9 if they had (practically) sealed up a CONCACAF spot. The final week of the season was such a damn letdown that it’s left a bad taste in my mouth, and I have to reduce their grade to a 7. But still the best season in club history.

    However, they must win this game against the Red Bulls. Otherwise all my Union Negadelphianism will come roaring back. I don’t expect them to beat Atlanta on the road in the next round; that would be a lot to ask.

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