Season Review / Union

Season review: Marco Fabian

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

October 20, 2019. Major League Soccer playoffs at Talen Energy Stadium. It’s the first home playoff match the Philadelphia Union have hosted since 2011. It’s the biggest match in club history and it’s against a rival. A match made for big names and marquee signings.

And here comes the Union’s…off the bench?…in extra time?

In the end, it was Marco Fabian that was credited with sending the Union through to their first-ever Eastern Conference semifinal in Atlanta. The goal was an ugly deflection that is still open to interpretation. To some, he was shooting and should be deemed the hero. To others, there was two men at the back post and a shot was ill- advised. To some it looked like a cross.

Ultimately, as we sit here two weeks later reviewing the Union’s season before they watch another MLS Cup  from home, it is more or less a moot point. That goal is, on paper, the biggest in club history, but it does not define the Marco Fabian signing — nor should it. The finish could have been a goal-of-the-season candidate or a worldy from outside the box, and it still would not necessarily mean that signing was a success.

He may have made the headlines, but the mere fact that Fabian was coming off the bench at that time tells you a lot about his tenure. It tells you a lot about expectations.

Fabian was (and still is) one of the biggest names to come out of Liga MX in Mexico. Before he left Guadalajara in 2016, he had amassed over 50 goals (8 on loan with Cruz Azul in 2014) and made over 200 league appearances. It’s not often that a Mexican player travels across the world to play in Germany, especially not with a seven-figure price tag. Fabian netted eight more goals for Eintracht Frankfurt over 43 appearances all the while playing for El Tri (Mexico’s National soccer team) and building his worldwide fame.

There’s a reason Wells Fargo decided to feature him in a commercial with Landon Donovan. He’s a mega star that every Mexican soccer fan on the planet knows very well. When he signed with the Union this year, he had over a million more Instagram followers than the club itself. Do Instagram followers have anything to do with soccer? Not really, but the fact is that Fabian is global soccer figure, and not many of those have played in Chester.

Of course, that’s exactly why Tanner brought him in. Not to promote the team or sell tickets, but to be a difference maker. To be a reliable goal scorer and fill the void that Borek Dokal left behind. Fabian was not only supposed to be the star of the club, but a major star in MLS. Perhaps because of all that and perhaps because people expected a certain level of play, 2019 (at least before the big goal) was an understandable disappointment.

Some of it was his final statistics: Seven goals and one assist is a respectable season for most players, but there is no question that supporters expected more from such an experienced, prominent talent. Could you blame them after Dockal posted 18 assists in 2018? Some center-attacking mids specialize in scoring and some in passing, but to post one assist over the course of a season is definitely puzzling.

Of course, you can’t solely look at numbers. Part of the Marco Fabian story was simply him getting on the pitch at all. It was only expected that Jim Curtin would lock Fabian into his starting XI for the season and never look back, but that was far from the case. Whether it was a tactical question, a suspension, or an injury, it was rarely clear that the biggest name on the team would even start a match.

How much of that was his fault? It’s subjective.

Everyone is prone to an injury and card suspension isn’t significant if it’s not frequent, but the tactics are a bit different. If your marquee signing is fully fit and not in the lineup, that’s always someone’s doing. Either the manager or the player is going to be behind that type of decision. Too often this season, supporters were left asking “Where’s Fabian?”

Frankly, fitting into the team’s tactics should not be an excuse when it comes to his campaign. Tanner knew who was going to be on the roster and knew what formation the team would run when they brought him on. Great players make tactics a secondary concern. Great players are in the XI before anything else happens. You can say that it was Curtin’s doing for benching him so often, but the reality is if Fabian was good enough training, that would have changed. If he was impressive enough, he would have left Curtin without a choice.

Obviously, in interviews after the Red Bulls match, he defended his player. What else is he going to say? Genuine or not, Curtin’s defense of Fabian means nothing in the grand scheme of things. That’s his job. People had a right to criticize Fabian and one goal doesn’t change that.

The fact is he was healthy for both playoff matches and was beaten out by an 18-year-old. Forget about how much Curtin likes Brendan Aaronson or what formation they were playing in those matchups. Why did that happen? Why did it happen twice? To say it was solely an individual’s fault is surely not fair, but you don’t sign a global star worth millions with the intention of bringing him off the bench in the biggest matches in club history.

The other reality is that Fabian was often underwhelming when he was on the pitch in 2019. In a lot of his 23 appearances, he quietly roamed around the attack without any bite. On more than one occasion, he was subbed off after an hour or so and fans were left thinking, “What did he do, exactly?” He just simply didn’t have the impact that was often expected.

Was that tactics? Did he not like where he was playing on the field? Did he have trouble settling into MLS for some reason? All of those things are possible, but none make for a proper excuse. None are going to render his potentially lone MLS season a success all of the sudden. Maybe it was pressure. Maybe the expectations were too high from the jump and maybe they were far more difficult to overcome than soccer-related points.

We may never know, but there’s no question the expectations were there. The kind Dockal never had to deal with. His 2018 season started very slowly but was never a big deal because no one knew who he was. His Instagram page is microscopic. The next thing you know he’s an MLS leader in assists and one of the Union’s best-ever signings. Expectations are very real, and sometimes the absence of them can be a blessing.

Whatever way you decide to classify Fabian’s season, the cliched “what if” questions are looming. What if he was at his best all season? What if he was as productive as Dockal and the Union held on to the No. 1 seed in the East? What if his tenure was undisputed?

If he goes back to Mexico this offseason, we’ll never know.


  1. “It’s the first ever home playoff match the Philadelphia Union have hosted.”
    FYI, Christian: The Union hosted the Houston Dynamo in 2011.

  2. I think that it is legitimate to question why it was ever thought by anyone that Fabian and Medunjanin could be a successful spine to a diamond midfield in a high-pressing 4-4-2 formation.
    I realize that hindsight is 20-20, but based on age, work rate and speed alone, I am not sure how they thought those guys could do it together.
    Haris had good numbers this year, but he got those numbers and functioned adequately in part because both of the 8’s collapsed towards him on D to compress his defensive area and cover his lack of speed.

    • Exactly, you need young horses with engines that don’t stop to play the press. Notice the youth movement in world footy….it’s because the tactics warrant it!

  3. Who?

  4. I honestly enjoyed watching him do side-to-side shuttling outside the 18 later in the season. There were times when he was super effective at building team chances. And the megs were glorious.
    But there are also some very apt comparisons to Roland Alberg – certainly statistically.
    It’s a shame that his adjustment period took so long and that he never really produced at the level that he is probably still capable of.

    • The comparison to Roland Alberg is also apt with respect to a certain… selfishness of play.

      Forwards are paid to be selfish. A forward is supposed to be the guy with the nose for goal, and a better finished than anyone else, so when a forward is selfish, it generally an asset. A midfielder? Not so much. And Fabián was always taking these absurd long range shots, as though he needed to win the game by himself, rather than help the team. And it just looked even worse that almost all of them sailed way high into the crowd.

  5. In Tanner We Trust says:

    I wanted so badly for him to prove everyone wrong, including myself. At times he seemed like he wanted to be here. We’ll see what happens now.

  6. Not mentioned in the article but also worth considering, Fabian’s back injury in 2017 that limited him to seeing the field only 8 times in league in his final two seasons with Frankfurt.

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