For Pete's Sake

Work to be done after lackluster start for the Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The day before the Philadelphia Union’s season opener in Frisco, Texas, PSP’s Dan Walsh laid out a list of things that have to go right in 2020 for the club to match last year’s successes.

From that perspective, the first match of the season was a worst-case scenario. Consider:

  • “Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos must stay healthy and replicate what they showed at their best last year.”

Instead, the two strikers looked disjointed and ineffective, neither really troubling Jesse Gonzalez’s net (other than a late scuffle started by Santos).

  • “[Brenden] Aaronson must make The Leap.”

The 19-year-old midfielder showed no signs of making a leap on Leap Day, barely influencing the match and setting up very little for the attack.

  • “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.”

Warren Creavalle started.

(We’ll get to this one in more detail below.)

  • “Andre Blake must play like the Andre Blake of seasons past.”

Blake had some highlight moments. He also kicked a goal kick out of bounds that led to Dallas’s first goal, and probably should have done better to cover his near post.

  • “Ilsinho must play like he did last year, when he was the most electrifying player in MLS.”

Ilsinho came on in the 66th minute, as usual, but I’m not convinced he had more than a handful of touches.

About the only thing that didn’t go badly was the introduction of Norwegian signing Jakob Glesnes in the backline, who showed real flashes as both a defender and as a distributor. Even he, though, could have done more to close down Zdanek Ondrasek in the course of Dallas’s first goal.

The Creavalle of it all

Let’s zoom in on the No. 6 for a moment.

Ernst Tanner made a bold decision in the offseason to cut ties with longtime starter Haris Medunjanin — a key cog in the club’s attack and a leader on and off the pitch, but a player whose advancing age and defensive limitations raised questions about his overall effectiveness.

He then brought in two players from overseas with the use of transfer fees — 21-year-old Slovakian Matej Oravec and 25-year-old Venezuelan Jose “El Brujo” Martinez — to compete for that spot on the field.

And then, in the first game of the season, the starter is… MLS journeyman Warren Creavalle.

There’s no other way to slice or dice it — it is a massive disappointment that neither of the club’s offseason acquisitions were able to replace a player whose picture appears next to the word “mediocre” in the dictionary.

After the match, Curtin indicated that both Oravec and Martinez are still settling in and adjusting to a new team, league, and country. I don’t doubt that the transition isn’t easy, but that outcome nonetheless reflects poorly on either the club’s recruitment — identifying players who are not immediately ready to contribute — or the coaching staff — unable to integrate new players into the starting lineup, even after six weeks of preseason training.

You could argue that Creavalle makes some sense in the first match of the season on the road, as a player who provides stability and ball-winning. His actual performance, though, was disjointed. There were good defensive moments, to be sure, but Creavalle is too often out of position or unable to find a pass forward in the attack. Without a presence at the six who could serve as a platform, the Union’s midfield was too often overrun.

Don’t expect to see him out of the lineup next week, though. Curtin described him as one of the Union’s best performers after the Dallas match. I disagree with that assessment — but I’m only making the lineup in Football Manager, not in real life.

It’s just one game

Despite all I’ve said above, I still think patience is warranted.

Jim Curtin’s Union teams are historically slow starters, midseason dynamos, and slow finishers, and both Curtin and Tanner are entitled to some benefit of the doubt after what they produced last year. Let’s not forget that last season’s Union started with two poor defeats — home to Toronto and away at Kansas City — before settling into a groove that took them to the start of the Eastern Conference.

A defeat against LAFC, one of MLS’s premier sides, this weekend would not be the most surprising thing in the world. But there is no question that the performance needs to be better.

The Union are counting on a number of players to make a step forward, and their offseason acquisitions to impress in MLS.

If signs aren’t seen by the end of March, it will be time to panic.

  • It’s early, but I think Jakob Glesnes is going to be a fan favorite. After the match, he explained the travel differences between the Norwegian league and MLS succinctly: “In Norway, the longest travel is two hours, and we consider that to be a very long trip.”
  • For a more glass-half-full assessment of the first game, you can check out Jim Curtin and Ale Bedoya‘s post-match press conferences in full.
  • I drove 1,500 miles round-trip over the weekend in order to catch this game live. (Yes, I am aware that this is deranged behavior.) I’ve now covered the Union at half of the active MLS venues, and I would say that Frisco’s Toyota Stadium is both objectively not that great and better than I thought it would be. Part of the problem is that the TV cameras are pointed at the side of the field that has absolutely no shade from the sun — hence, it’s usually the emptier side. The addition to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in one end is a neat touch, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get there early enough to visit.
  • Food recommendations if you ever drive from Denver to Frisco (who wouldn’t?): La Cosina Cafe in Raton, NM, the Donut Stop in Amarillo, TX, the Pecan Shed in Henrietta, TX, and Whataburger basically wherever you go in Texas.


  1. 1500 miles? It seems like you took the game more serious than some of the players seemed to unfortunately.
    In your opinion, which are the must see mls stadiums, and which are disappointing? Thanks!

  2. My least favorite part of this year will be watching Gaddis play way more than he should. I know, I know, he is not enough of a problem to hate on all season long, BUT THAT IS EXACTLY MY ISSUE.

    It’s infuriating. It’s the curse of Ray Gaddis. Not so terrible that we need to replace him right now, but so lacking in what we need to see from a RB in 2020 that I can’t bear to watch him kill attacks and look lost each time he has the ball. It’s like Reno Mahe all over again. He is JUST mediocre enough that no one is clamoring for him to be replaced but still bad enough that you go “Man we need to update this position “soon””.

  3. When we hear about Tanner’s vision for how to play, the word that comes to mind is dynamic. That performance was anything but. It seemed like 5 guys and Blake were told not to go past midfield. The Dmid transition play was so bad that by the end of the game Bedoya was dropping back to where the #6 should play just to get the ball transitioned to midfield.
    We are not going to win this year with Dockal or Haris passing because we have no one capable of it. If we are going to win, it has to be with the fulbacks bombing down the field to help on offense and the #6 both starting the offense and being in the attacking end to help finish it – though obviously behind the other mids most of the time.
    Part of me also wonders what it does to the psyches of the players when Jim clearly puts out a lineup aimed at tying.
    I feel like Ernst has made the team into a muscle car and Curtin is telling them to keep it under 30 around town or they might get a ticket.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      The transition was too slow on Saturday, but wasn’t that far off from what they’re looking for. You’re right though: there wasn’t enough commitment to the transition from everyone and so it looked like there wasn’t a transition at all.

      Bedoya dropped into that 6 spot all the time last year in the second half of games. Ilsinho was high, Gaddis was right behind him to prevent the quick counter, and Bedoya was tucked inside and deep to make sure they both could use him in a triangle.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Bedoya also went back to the #6 after Fontana and Ilsinho had come on.
      The shape of the midfield can easily change, from a diamond (or a rhombus), to an isosceles trapezoid (or a box), and in an extreme case to a caltrop (a spike).
      And all of us need to find time to read the explanation of Gegenpressing that Chris Gibbons posted in his tactical analysis of the match. comments won’t allow links, so here is the URL.
      The text was in English even though it is a German link and a German publication.

  4. So way off topic (though Peter did mention it), does anyone else play FM? I picked it up for the first time recently and started a save with the Union after the January transfer update. I played my first season, which technically was the 2019 season and was able to win the league, supporters shield, and coach of the year with the new squad (after trading Aaronson to Bayern with three games left and being unable to find a international spot for El Brujo for the whole season). So I still have tons of questions because of MLS and their wacky rules. Does anyone have a good youtuber to follow? Or is there a Reddit blog somewhere? Help please.

    • I have played since FM08 and I have personally avoided MLS because of all the rules and regulations and set up. It’s just not as fun. Playing in a league like Germany is 100 times more fun with barely any roster limits, being able to have a real youth setup, a salary limited only by the budget (and not the ridiculous 6 types of contracts, etc). It’s not only more straight forward but also allows you to do so much more.

      I don’t know if there is a good way to learn the MLS aspect of it. Based on my limited exposure to FM fandom, since it is a EU focused product most fans don’t really focus or pay attention to MLS in the game.

      • Thank you for responding. I did start a “journeyman” save in the third tier of Irish football. I found it much easier. One of the issues I’m having is that the USl isn’t a playable league along with how to make the academy pay more dividends. It’s almost like playing with one hand tied. Maybe I’ll just settle for wining the league and move on. Thanks again.

    • This might not help you play the game, but possibly my favorite thing ever written on the internet is Brian Phillips’ account of playing FM09 with Pro Vercelli, a lower league team in Italy, and making them into the greatest club in Europe. It’s worth a read, both because it’s well-written and because I think it captures the unique pleasures and possibilities of FM:

      • Thanks Peter. I will definitely give it a read. As an aside, I found a guy Loki Doki on Youtube, who took the worst team in Britain, Fort William (FM19), and tried to work his way up the ladder. He actually ended up running a donation campaign for the club and earned around $3k for them. At some point he was going to have a special where he gave them the money and figured out what they’d put it towards. I haven’t gotten there yet (I’m 40 something odd episodes in). I found it quite interesting that he had an impact on the real life club. He also doesn’t take it real serious and is actually quite a funny guy. If you are bored one day, I recommend giving him a look. Thanks again.

      • I’m five or six posts in and I already hate Walter Columbo. The team hasn’t even played a game. Thanks Peter, this WILL be enjoyable.

      • Hah! Yes, love the saga of Walter Colombo. I will have to check out Loki Doki — thanks for the tip!

  5. Nice recap – really enjoyed it! You are insane for driving all that way! Hope we get an awesome DP!

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    One thing I think we are forgetting when discussing Ilsinho replicating last year is that pretty much everything he did last year was at home so we shouldn’t be surprised that he didn’t contribute much on Saturday.

  7. Blake blows says:

    can’t badoya play the number 6…? Keep Santos out wide and kasper up top? I think we have to go 4-2-3-1 again with the way the team is set up. We have no one in the back 4-5 that can push the ball forward. Put aaronson or Monteiro behind kasper with santos and Monteiro our wide…. idk. Getting rid of Fafa kinda messed things up with speed on the flanks. Jose ( stop with el brujo until he proves his worth!!!!!) and the Oravec better produce something ASAP….. otherwise why did we sign them?
    Also, why are we and the union ok with slow starts? I know we’re losing next Saturday and it pisses me off. LAFC has been in the league for 3-4 years and they’re already miles ahead of us as far as a franchise is concerned. Union ownership should be embarrassed by that performance last week And after LAFC crushes us the players should be too. WTF union?

  8. Thanks for the drive Pete! And the match and restuarant report! I guess the road games really take a toll. Hope to see the new guys at the home game!

    • Tim Jones says:

      the U. S. of A. is a continent,.
      Paris to Moscow in Europe is very roughly the same as Philadelphia to St. Louis.
      I once figured out that flying time from Edinburgh, TX to Vancouver< BC Canada — Rio Grande Valley Toros to the now defunct Vancouver USLC side — was seven hours inside the plane. That number makes no allowance for having to make connections in San Antonio, TX, to say nothing of the joys of TSA time requirements prior to boarding any plane.
      Further point, the world cup held in the USA in '94 was the first one in which WC group-stage matches were played in different time zones. That experience, when in one group one third match was on the east coast but the other was in Texas and a tie meant that both teams in Texas would go through, is why third round matches all start at exactly the same time and are played simultaneously.
      WE are huge compared to Europe or the heavily populated portions of South America.

      • To follow up on Tim’s point — doing the drive really emphasizes just how vast this country is. So much of the area between Denver and Dallas is practically empty, vast fields and farmland stretching to the horizon in all directions, dotted by towns of less than a thousand people. Hard to remember when (like me) you’ve lived in urban areas your whole life. Glad you enjoyed the report.

      • Yes this country is bigger than we grasp sometimes. Gleaned saying 2 hrs is a long time says a lot. I have friends both 3 hrs North and South of my southern New Jersey home. I think we Americans take road travel in stride! Keep up the great work Pete! And safe travels!

  9. First thank you for this report Peter. It still hurts my soul to watch this team in this market not have the ownership this fan base deserves. I’m still hopeful and will always pull for the Union. However, it’s like knowing your child has so much potential to excel, but is content to not even try. The child then comes up with every excuse not to excel but to just get by. MEH! This team needs Aaronson to play well beyond what he has shown and for Oravec or Martinez to be what they were brought here to be. I just don’t see it. How is this team honestly set up to build off of last season?

    Second, I will never complain about driving from NYC to Subaru Park to see my hometown Union again. Your are a Warrior Peter.

  10. Short term plan

    After reflecing on the game, it is evident that Harris was much more important to generating the first step of the offense then Curtin and Tanner realized. He frequently started the offense through the deep middle. Could pick out the open player with a long range pass and his direct kicks were always dangerous.

    Creavalle can not fill that role and it apperars at this point the 2 new imports at midfield are not ready or may not be able to perform that function.

    Jacob Glasenes does check one of those boxes in his ability to make the long accurate pass. He also can defend which Harris could not

    Until the other 2 new mids are ready I say move Glesnes into Creavalles position and bring back Elliot immediately.

    Santos and Kacsper should move out wider and Aaaonson should roam the middle top third of the field. I realize the Union were talking about moving more play through the middle but they apperar to have poor spacing and neither Santos or Kacsper are at their best in tight spaces.

    I just don’t see the “new system ” working with the current forwards.

    I always believe in any sport you develop a system that matches the skill of your players. Nobody is successful the other way around. Please don’t be stubborn and wait til you go 1 -7 and 2 before you change the system. You will lose the teams confidence the fans and never catch up. Even if you bring in new players in May that fit the system better you might be to far down in the standings to make a change.

    I say give the team 6 games max with your ” new system” . Hopefully you have integrated the 2 new mids in the line up by then, If things have not turned around you go to very paragmatic plan to win and change your system to fit the current players.

    Are you listening Tanner.?
    What do you think ?

    • I think one game does not a season make. I think changing the position of a player new to the team, league, and country, is absolutely a panic move and a bone-headed idea. I think over-reacting is a bad trait people from the Philadelphia area have ingrained in them almost from birth. It should be snuffed out post haste. I think this iteration of the Union, under direction from Tanner, is not a one, two, or even three year project. Patience is a virtue. Chicken little syndrome is not.

      • wow ok if you say so…. hope your happy with next week results if you see crevalle in the starting line up at the back of the diamond. by the way glesnes can and has played central def mid and is rated well at this position and is rated by the different soccer evaluaters lke futhead and fifa only slghty better at cb. Elliot is solid at cb. based on your philosophy of playing out of postion surprised you don’t care that Elliot was subbed on as a forwaed, any have a nice day/

      • First off, take a moment to calm down. Then you may want to re-read what I wrote because you assumed I wrote things, that I certainly didn’t.
        Creavalle wasn’t the problem last week. Sure he made a mistake or two, but he wasn’t the only one. You could say, Glesnes made a mistake on the first goal, and Curtin basically did say it. Next, I never said Glesnes couldn’t play CDM. I said it wasn’t a good idea to move a player new to the league/country and team to a different position. The Union brought him here to be a CB. He is going to be playing CB, especially when Mark Mack goes away for the Olympics. He’s practiced preseason as a CB and the Union specifically brought in other players to play the CDM position. So it makes no sense to move a guy that has barely settled yet, in a panic move, just because you don’t like the person the coach chose to fill in the CDM position. Where you get that I have a “…philosophy of playing out of postion…” is beyond me. Never said that. Feel free to go back to last season where at some point in time I advocated for Bedoya to play wingback.
        I’ll be happy with this week’s results if the Union get a result. My happiness with what the Union do, is never based on the playing time, or lack thereof, of one player.
        I agree Elliot is a solid CB.
        I could care less what FIFA and anyone else thinks. Just to make things clear and so you don’t assume again, that doesn’t mean those people and organizations don’t have valid points or are able to make evaluations. I’m sure they can. But I have my own eyes connected to my own brain. I’m more than able to draw my own conclusions. I don’t base what I think on the opinion of others, especially without putting thought into it.
        Stop assuming and attributing thoughts and words to me, that I never said. May you too, have a nice day.

  11. have a nice day.

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