Analysis / Union

Playoffs and paper bags

Photo by Earl Gardner

The Union nihilist this author suggests himself to be died in Chester, PA Sunday night. His wife was by his side.

His body of course remained, a life ahead of the “real” him to live, but gone were the hardened crusts of disappointments past and the shell of indifference underneath. Emotions emerged from the caves into which they had long since been relegated and leapt forth, resuscitated and revived, reborn and brought to the surface.

It happened because of soccer. “That was amazing,” his wife screamed, fists in the air and bouncing like a pogo stick.

The Union won the most impossible, unlikely, heart-wrenching and heart-thumping, stadium-shaking, throbbing and pulsing, two shades of blue color-coding, beer-spilling and demon-exorcising soccer match any Philadelphia sports fan has ever seen.

In lieu of the novel this author feels compelled to write, perhaps to-be-entitled “Shaking Sugerman’s Hand: The Philadelphia Union Story,” here are a few thoughts about a match that will live forever in league lore.

Next man up

A reader texted after arriving at the stadium Sunday that Kacper Pryzbylko was walking around the concourse in street clothes an hour before kickoff. He then texted that Fabian wasn’t in the starting XI. The final message was one that Andrew Wooten and Sergio Santos were both starting atop a 4-4-2.

Pick your Nick Foles metaphor about this series of statements, but this wasn’t the script anyone expected for the Union. Or maybe it was, as a team that played more players in 2019 than ever before in team history were forced into yet another one-of-a-kind lineup. That they summarily had four unique players find the back of the net is worth its own recap.

  • Alejandro Bedoya – The first man up to every challenge and confrontation and the first man on the score sheet Sunday. If the team were going to advance, Bedoya would have to play a role despite his quad injury (with which he hobbled almost the entire match). Much like Tranquillo Barnetta and even Vincent Nogueira before him, Bedoya is doing more than one player’s job on the pitch. Like both men, he’s taken these outsized reigns and run with them, knowing matches like Sunday’s were the reason he was brought here in the first place.
  • Jack Elliot – The Sinewy Scotsman, Angular Anglo, or Gaunt Guardian. Whatever the nickname, he atoned for an earlier defensive lapse to earn’s highest rating for a defender in the match. That he deftly placed a rebounding header in the far corner of Luis Robles’s net to cut the visitor’s lead to 3-2 early in the second half is part of why his two-way value couldn’t be higher and why, in the conversation about who starts on the Union back line, his name is written in permanent marker.
  • Fafa Picault – Scoring shortly after being subbed on, pressing Red Bull defenders into hasty clearances (and talking trash to a one Rece Buckmaster for every minute of their shared appearance), ending the day with his best outing for the Union since July 3rd at Orlando City… For a player who seemed like he might be the next odd man out after David Accam’s exit, Picault simply put his head down, adapted in the way he’s done his entire career, and scored the second most important Union goal in 2019 thus far. The most important one? Well…
  • Marco Fabian – Loved, underutilized, mis-marketed, maligned, and more, the signing of Marco Fabian has certainly engaged Union fans in conversation this season. Then, to top it all off, he scored a goal that people will write the aforementioned books about (The Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald having penned the first chapter’s draft Sunday night). His goal was as beautiful as fans have ever seen in Chester and the player was as useful as he’s ever been in Union colors.

There are paragraphs to be written about every player on Sunday, just not space for them here.

One of them deserves a section of his own today, albeit for the wrong reasons even after such a rousing victory.

We need to talk about Dre

Soccer games have two halves.

That’s a good thing for the Union of course (who are now -8 in first half goals in 2019), but particularly for their talisman and goalkeeper Andre Blake.

A series of errors by the Jamaican international gifted the Red Bulls a part of all three first half tallies: allowing one on a shot to which he got both hands, a second on a flailing attempt at a cross that left a gaping void behind him, and a third on a parry onto the feet of an onrushing attacker that triggered some to flashbacks from this year’s Gold Cup.

Blake is a good keeper, one for which the Union traded up to draft.

He wasn’t great on Sunday and nearly cost his team the match.

This ebb in performance wasn’t a one-time occurrence though, as the enumeration of his flaws is well-trodden ground on Philly Soccer Page (and for this author goes as far back as two years ago). To be fair, Blake has also been raved about more than once on these pages. But both opinions are useless without data to back them up and there is ample data on Keeper #18.

It’s quite a gamut to be sure. Here is perhaps the most glaring point of comparison, one between Blake and another well-known goalkeeper in the league.

  • Goalkeeper 1: 34 matches played, 12 shutouts, 101 saves, and 44 goals allowed
  • Goalkeeper 2: 26 matches played, 3 shutouts, 59 saves, and 41 goals allowed

The second player on that list is Andre Blake in 2019, regular season only.

The first? Zac MacMath wearing Union blue in 2013, a season in which the team finished 7th and out of the playoffs: more matches played, fewer goals per game and per shot, and far more shutouts per game.

These are apples and oranges perhaps, and they may even be plumcots.

Moreover, there’s a reasonably high probability the Union get bailed out on Thursday by Blake, and possibly more than once, he of the Spiderman-esque agility and quick reflexes. Marco Fabian proved Sunday that it’s never too late to write the next chapter of your Union story. So while Union fans may have bailed on Blake in the first half, Union players seemingly didn’t. Frankly that’s the way it ought to work on a winning, more-than-the-sum team.

But as one reader mentioned late last night, “Blake is now a thing.”

The author’s response? “Blake is definitely a thing.”

Up next, man

The new structure of the MLS playoffs has created more urgency and attractive soccer than anything since perhaps the league’s old “Hockey-style” shootouts.

The compressed, single-elimination schedule also means that tired legs and hangovers from celebrations must fade quickly with another match ahead (insert “chartered flights” opinion here).

Union fans know that mighty Atlanta United await them, in a place where 65,000 screaming fans and the deadliest scorer in the league not named Vela are nearly unbeatable. They also know that a lesser version of this 2019 team already took a point there in March, and the year before, PSP Editor-at-large Dan Walsh (a man not prone to hyperbole) called the team’s performance against the champions-to-be “the gutsiest [one] in team history.” Beyond that, they know while the injury bug has bitten the Boys in Blue, it also took a chunk out of the Five Stripes as well with Michael Parkhurst probably done for the season.

As one Atlanta insider commented Sunday night, “Paul Pogba’s brother at center back with Santos and/or Ilsinho running at him is going to be a big problem.”



  1. This will be unpopular but this is why at the very least we should be open to upgrading this position, and in general we should jump to accept any offers that come in for him.

    At this point Blake is who he is, and while he is capable of saving us games he has now shown he is capable of losing us games.

    And we just need a steadier hand at GK. We can’t move forward and continue to become a great team if at the back of our heads during every game is “I hope he doesn’t flap at this cross.” We AND the players on that pitch need to have unwavering faith in each other, and at this point Blake has done enough to plant permanent doubt in all of us forever.

    And we need better than that.

    • I was on board with selling Blake after he was great 2 gold cups ago but it might be too late now. They’ll be a match every so often where he makes a few great saves but the bobbles, lack of accuracy kicking long and blunders on set pieces don’t appear to be going away. We could probably get a cheaper keeper and use the money saved to upgrade/pay to keep someone else at another spot.

  2. So which team drafted Blake? How many years has he been with said team? And how has he developed there?
    What does it say if this is where we are after acquiring such a talent? Why would anyone think moving on to a different keeper wouldn’t result in the same issue?
    Just some questions I guess…

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      These are legit questions, to which I can only offer a few guesses.

      Part of his development is on the team, part is on him. Moreover, he’s YOUNG for a keeper and has absolutely gotten better at some things over time (notably his distribution). Should the team move on, it would be because they can get American keepers (the international slot is important) with roughly equivalent skills for less money.

  3. U would have moved on 2 years ago if you could have. There was hope for 2020.but he’s likely played himself out of the move.

    The best 2 keepers you had you let walk-1 b4 the year began, the other during the middle of it.

    He was the keeper who helped you play (out the back) the way U say you want.

    Advancement comes when you admit mistakes-or fate-and learn to move on quickly.

    • Carlos Miguel Coronel had everything a keeper needs save one, hands. 21 year-old rookie Matt Freese played ahead of him the entire time he was here because his instinct is to parry, not catch. Freese was supposed to be the keeper for the Steel.
      Check whatever Bethlehem replay tapes you want, and whatever records of who started when and in what order.
      The Brazilian was brought in to be the back-up and possibly the number one. He flunked out because of his hands, and was gone by mid-summer.

      • 50th Ranked says:

        He”flunked out” b/c Salzburg’s #2 got wrecked in a motorcycle crash and his old club begged Tanner to cut the loan short.

        Never felt his hands were an issue in the MLS games I saw him play. What was his record again?

      • Tim I believe both Coronel and Freese have outplayed Blake this year. For me the one thing Blake gives you is the ability to make a spectacular save. He doesn’t give great distribution. His instinct of when to go or not to go is really bad. To me there are so many other plays in a match where both Coronel and Freese read them better. They were off the line quicker being decisive and putting out fires that Andre would let burn down the house.
        I’ve pretty much have been down on Blake for a while now, and his last performance just cements for me the Union could spend their money better at that position.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Holy Shit…. almost forgot to mention.
    Hey —–New York Red Bull… don’t forget to shave those fucking B-porn mustaches you all grew in solidarity. Tools.
    the elephant

  5. I don’t know why everyone is THIS down on Blake all the sudden. If you want another point of reference, he’s still the starting keeper, and captain for a decent national team.

    Blake has not had his best season, but he’s done nothing remotely like this. Keepers have YEARS to improve. Blake used to be terrible at distribution, and now he is far, far better. Whatcha wanna bet he comes back next year far better at dealing with crosses?

    Oh ye of little faith. I have no interest in anyone else between the pipes, thanks.

    • I agree except we were thinking that if Bedoya hadn’t been injured Sunday Curtin would have saved the last sub to bring in McCarthy for penalty kicks!

  6. I would have to agree there is not enough room for all the praise deserved by the players. I haven’t see anyone mention Aaronson’s name much. I thought he was pretty good on the night. But you nailed it on the 4 guys in your piece. As far as Dre goes…he is what he is. I may be completely wrong but I feel like he has trouble with the wet weather.

  7. Regarding the Zac vs Dre, there’s probably no good way to compare it statistically, but B Carrol as holding mid vs Haris as holding mid probably makes a difference, as does the new high-press style of play.
    We are going to allow more breakaway/odd-man rushes in a high press with a #6 who is 30+ and thinks like a #10 before he thinks about D. Those type of chances are undoubtedly generally harder to save.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I agree with this in theory, but MacMath faced twice as many shots that year as Dre did in 2019 and allowed about the same number of goals.

  8. Andre Blake made three horrendous mistakes.
    How many times did he come out and snuff breakaways?
    Anybody remember when MDre had to make like a wall at point blank range? If he doesn’t save that one in the 46th or 47th minute RB are up 4-1, and history would have changed, how we don’t know, but … .
    Shutouts and shots and goals reflect the defense as a whole much more than the individual keeping goal. WE Americans are hung up on individual statistics because that is what our baseball heritage has taught us, and it is legitimate for that sport. But soccer defense is a team effort, like ice hockey, “pointy”ball, and basketball to name three.
    In a highly negative way, Blake illustrates why the starting keeper is not necessarily the most spectacular but the one who most reliably makes the saves everyone expects should be made. No mistakes is more important to a team and its coaches than a single brilliant fireworks display.
    WE are all illustrating that principle in the conversation above.

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