A View from Afar / Union

The state of the Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

So yeah, I’ve been busy.

In the last few months, I’ve moved from Italy to England, written “End” on my first book (and am working like crazy on revisions), and generally flipped life upside down.

Yeah, I know. Wow. 

That means I have an entire Philadelphia Union’s off-season worth of thoughts bouncing around my head, and the season starts this weekend.

Forgive me as I cut loose a bit. It might be a while before you hear from me again.

Ernst Tanner does not mess around

After two off-seasons, Ernst Tanner looks like the guy who picks the worst and cheapest team in Football Manager or FIFA because he likes the challenge of making 800 moves per off-season to squeeze every last ounce of blood from that stone to somehow still beat the game.

He sold Auston Trusty and Fafa Picault to help fund the transfer acquisition of Jamiro Monteiro.

He let Haris Medunjanin go for nothing in the waiver draft — the waiver draft, of all things, which rarely features much quality — to force his head coach to fully abandon the possession game in favor of the all-out high press.

Then he added a TAM-level center back, of all things — no, not a right back — and added some fresh, young legs in center midfield, none of which are proven at this level.

Tanner is playing this game at the next level, a highway gambler fully confident in his abilities.

Last year, Tanner hit on nearly every signing, but he didn’t dismantle the roster immediately and still left Jim Curtin with the security blanket of players who fit the 2018 style. The Union won last year by wearing teams down for 55 minutes and then bringing in Ilsinho to break tired ankles.

Now, Tanner is going all in. The departures of Picault and particularly Medunjanin effectively force Curtin to fully commit to Tanner’s vision of a pressing, 4-4-2 diamond team now that the roster lacks a proven playmaker or winger.

Transitions like this aren’t easy, and Tanner is asking an awful lot of this team. Be ready for a rough ride.

Life after Medunjanin

The Union are going to miss Medunjanin big time. 

Without him, the Union have no creative or possession fulcrum. Monteiro was a revelation last year as a dynamic box-to-box player who made a ton of plays, but he was not a ball-dominant playmaker in the way we usually think of the concept. Aaronson was excellent as a teenage rookie, but he usually lacked the final product (shot on goal or pass to create the goal).

There was always someone else orchestrating from the back: Medunjanin, who went the full 90 minutes in all 34 regular season games last year. 

Now, who links the defense with the attack? Who finds the ball deep from their center backs?  Who slows the game down for the Union when necessary? Don’t say no one. Even uptempo teams have to kill a game late when holding a lead. Maybe 21-year-old Slovakian import Matej Oravec proves to be that sort of player, but none of us know what the Union have there yet.

Medunjanin’s departure more fully effects the identity change Tanner wanted, but it presents significant short-term problems. 

What has to go right

With the roster as it stands now, there is no guarantee that this team will improve after the departures of key players. To even match last year’s achievements, the Union need several things to go right.

  • Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos must stay healthy and replicate what they showed at their best last year. When they don’t, Andrew Wooten must adjust to MLS and actually contribute.
  • Aaronson must make The Leap.
  • New center back Jakob Glesnes must settle in quickly, because Mark McKenzie could miss two to three months on Olympics duty, starting in March. 
  • One of the new center midfield signings has to come good, and Anthony Fontana has to finally cement a regular spot in the center midfield rotation.
  • Andre Blake must play like the Andre Blake of seasons past, because the Andre Blake of 2019 was a shell of himself.
  • Curtin must coach this team up again, because his roster is underfunded, as usual.
The Ilsinho factor

Finally, Ilsinho must play like he did last year, when he was the most electrifying player in MLS. (Zlatan? Pfft.) 

Consider the most revealing underlying statistic about this team:

  • When Ilsinho was on the field last year, the Union were +23 in goal differential.
  • Without Ilsinho, the Union were -15.

Ilsinho flourished most as a second half sub, with the Union shifting from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-2-3-1, with Medunjanin as deep-lying playmaker, Alejandro Bedoya at right center mid, and Ilsinho creating on the right. Picault was often the left-sided winger whose speed forced defenses to stay a bit honest.

How does that 4-2-3-1 look now?

Like many teams in a wide open Eastern Conference, the Union could finish anywhere from first to tenth, and it shouldn’t surprise you. They have all sorts of questions entering the season. It could be a rough start. 

Quick hits: Resurrect the Steel

Bethlehem Steel FC was a fascinating and exciting prospect.

Philadelphia Union II looks about as exciting as watching paint dry.

The Union have surrendered any sense of ambition with the project by renaming the club and planting them at newly christened Subaru Park, where an average of one out of every 30 stadium seats is likely to be occupied for Union II games. That’s like a practice game. Even Brendan Burke isn’t coaching the team anymore, moving upstairs to a player personnel role.

Minor league baseball and hockey have succeeded in the Lehigh Valley. Seattle has shown how to do it right with their USL club in Tacoma. Give a USL team a good, small stadium, and they’ll draw four to five thousand fans per game. Then again, that requires serious investment, which no one has accused the Union of in a long time. 

Quick hits: England
  • Want to know how I settled on my new town in England? The town’s semipro team is called the Daniels. Seriously. We liked the house. I wavered on the commute. Then I learned that and took it as a sign. (Yeah, pretty dumb, I know.) 
  • MLS is on pay TV here. A bunch of late night games. I’m recording five games. I get the Union match on Monday, and I took the day off to watch it as soon as it comes on. Nobody spoil it for me.
  • If you’re wondering, I didn’t expect to move here. I thought I was headed back stateside. Then it was hurry up and go.
  • Best soccer experience so far: Watching a Leicester game in a pub in Leicester.
  • I haven’t gone to a game yet. All the talk over the years about MLS moving to the “international” August-May schedule? The British and Irish leagues should move to a March-December schedule. Cold and rainy is no fun — seriously, just give me snow already — but the summers are glorious and temperate.
  • This is a long way from the my old Germantown Avenue rowhouse, Pennypack Park, and the 700. Life takes you down unexpected paths. Then you watch the Union and Philly comes with you.

17 Comments

  1. Good to have you back, Dan, even if only for a moment! Hopefully, we’ll get a few more surprise entries from you this season.
    Good luck in the Isles!
    .
    As for your summary of the team, I go back to my standard pre-season view: Give me 6-8 games before making any real opinion of a team’s prospects. That seems like a lot, but anything short of that is premature. Too many new pieces, along with the usual expected/unexpected development/regression of players. The uncertainty is part of what makes it fun!
    .
    That said…yeah, Blake needs to return to his full Blakeness. If that happens, this team will receive a major boost that can carry them all season long.
    .
    C’MON THE U!!!!

  2. Good stuff. I’m with you 100% on the first three sections in particular.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Working for the State of PA as I do, I’m kind of tied to being here – among other reasons too – but man, it seems you’re living my best life. Always enjoy reading your stuff, even though it’s not as frequent. I sure hope you’ll make a trip over for MLS Cup this season at Subaru Park tho 🙂

    • Me too. 🙂

      The expat life is kind of a strange thing. You see all these fascinating things, experience these new cultures, but you have no sense of home. At least, Italy was like that. England already feels that way. (Now, if I was among the Celts on these isles, it might be different!)

      PSP is one of the things that ties me back to home, which Philly (and the Lehigh Valley) became after 11 years there, so it’s great to write and then read the comments from longtime readers like you and others who have replied on this threat. It’s like reconnecting with old friends.

      So thanks for the kind words, for reading, and helping with that reconnect, both OMW and everyone else below who had the nice comments.

  4. Good to hear from you, Dan! Agree with most of what you wrote. Enjoy the expat life! Before you know it you are back ‘home’.

  5. The dark horse combination is Michee Ngalina and Ilsinho.
    .
    Ngalina does not have an elastico, but his feet are quite good, and he has real pace. One datum does not prove anything, even to a history teacher unless it’s the 1st dynasty in Ancient Egypt and the Narmar palette.
    .
    But that said, Ngalina took a Dallas center back 1 v 1 and physically threw him away before he found the Brazilian at the top of the box for the first Union goal. The defender started the match.
    .
    If the Congolese has learned how to be physically effective, … .

  6. Best of luck to you in your new home! The Medujanin move definitely is the scariest off season decision, so it had better result in fewer goals allowed. I’ll miss that creativity – those perfectly weighted balls over the top were something to see.

  7. Always good to hear your well thought out opinions on the team. Good luck in the UK.

    C’mon the U and Up the Daniels!!!

  8. Welcome back Dan, and best of luck in England! Great article as usual! All Union games this season will be streamed live on the Union website. It will be restricted to the Philly area. I’m not suggesting it, but for the record, the computer’s IP can be changed with a VPN software :-).

  9. Remember when the Ol’ Chipper dumped Foles, Shady, and Desean for basically nothing? How’d that work out? And now the edgy innovative Euro leader of the U dumps Medunjanin, Picault, and Fabian for basically nothing? “It’s the system, individual players don’t matter.” What’s the Old Chipper up to these days? Oh yeah, back in the amateur ranks.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Tanner signed Monteiro with the money from trading Picault and Trusty. Would you rather have Monteiro or Picault? Medunjanin played every minute last year and has a lot of miles. The fact that we loved him can’t get in the way of knowing objectively when it’s time to move on. And although I hold no ill will towards Fabian, how can anyone objective claim he should be a part of our future?
      .
      And what about the additions Tanner has made?
      Kai Wagner, top 3 LB in MLS.
      Sergio Santos, with a ton of potential who I think is ready for a big year.
      Not to mention Miro, who was our best player last year.
      .
      And one more thing:
      While he’s “dumping” players, he’s retaining the ones who matter. Besides re-signing Miro and Ilsinho, in this month alone he’s extended the contracts of Kacper, Bedoya, and McKenzie.
      .
      I think he knows what he’s doing. And if it wasn’t obvious already, I trust him. As do most fans who follow the team closely.

  10. So like your the guy who started the best soccer blog in Philly! You of all people should be able to stream the games! Also the PSP staff should be able to stream no matter where they are. It’s like a news thing..or am I just naive?

  11. I think, Montag, that in your benevolent enthusiasm, you are forgetting that those who create the stream are doing it to make money.
    .
    We have to assume that the Union are p[aying the streaming source, or are footing the bill to do it themselves.
    .
    Nothing in this life is free.

  12. O captain my captain crunch is gone says:

    This is awful. Warren is the QB of this team? We’re going no where. This is tough to watch. Blake is finished. A bit too much weed for him. Always late to react.

  13. Omg these guys suck!!!!! Are you for real union? This is what I spent 2g’s on? My u9 can coach a better game. Blake is awful. Can’t make a big save: Santos and kasper look lost. Fuckin hell…. this is not a good start!

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