Commentary / USL - Philadelphia Union II

What Union II has learned since the restart

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Philadelphia Union II head coach Sven Gartung uses games scores as concise references to previous games when discussing them with writers. Were he himself to summarize what we have learned about his side during the restart he would probably say something along these lines:

“Zero – Six.” “One – Five.” “Two – Three.” “Zero – Four.”

Any teacher who has processed a gradebook knows that concise labels – aka grade averages – hide information, even as they make comparison easier and communication more efficient.

The coach’s technique reminds listeners that the bottom line remains who won. But it also gives him more time to describe his real purpose: nurturing young soccer players. Growing behaviors that will later win games for the first team is the reason why Union II exists.

Followers of the old Bethlehem Steel FC remember that then-Sporting Director Earnie Stewart ordered the same template be followed throughout the organization. The same tactical shape was played in every game from the U12s to the Union. That is no longer necessarily the case.

When he commented on what he might change after his first months evaluating the entire soccer operation, Ernst Tanner circumspectly mentioned “tactical flexibility.” Sven Gartung’s Union II now demonstrate that. In the most extreme example Gartung trusted his players to know how to change shape during a match, into one they had never practiced.

“Two – Three”

Six minutes into the 3-2 loss at Hartford two Saturdays ago, he changed shape on the fly. The one they had never practiced was the strongest response he could make to the loss of starting striker Yomi Scintu.  He violated one of the coaching shibboleths for all sports, that you never try in a game what you have not tried in practice… but his boys made it work.

Danny Flores came on as a third defensive center mid – Gartung called it “three sixes” – and the kids adjusted seamlessly. They scored a beautiful second goal on the Athletic with Flores feeding Axel Picazo from the endline after a Nate Harriel interception. They forced the overconfident hosts to work hard for the full 90 to get their three points. And Hartford’s effort may have cost them, since they lost 1-4 in their next game at Indianapolis.

Adaptability and experience

Gartung immediately identified his best player available, and fitted his shape and tactics to him. His injury situation demands such flexibility.  All four of his strikers from March are now injured: Shanyder Borgelin, Yomi Scintu, Saed Diaz, and Issa Rayyan.  His youngsters at the position are not yet ready to start, Patrick Bohui and Caden Stafford, so he is playing a 17-year-old attacking midfielder as a false nine, Selmir Miscic.

His stated philosophy of getting his youngsters minutes begins by not pushing them too fast, if he has a choice. (At Pittsburgh last Saturday he did not.) But he also wants them to have real stretches of minutes, not just cameos in garbage time. And as promised he has used all five subs in every game in that fashion.

The difference between starting the 90, and subbing the last 30 is that he can tell the subs what he has learned by watching both their own marks and those who will be marking them. His eyes and experience evaluate the exact situation they will face, so he can suggest exactly what to do to succeed.

Lessons

So far, the boys have learned:

  • Never give up no matter the score. Violate that and you earn criticism and a seat on the bench. Uphold it and you receive authentic praise no matter the result.
  • The collective succeeds because everyone supports everyone else every way they can, from virtual birthday parties on Zoom during lockdown for those away from home to warning rookies about specific opposing players they have never seen.
  • If you are a field player and you make the bus ride, you will play at least 20 minutes. The keepers are rotating every other game.
  • The coach is direct, frank, and authentic in both his enthusiasm and his criticism. He demands everything they have to give, and he gives them everything he has to offer.

To illustrate that last, the team’s buses arrived home from Hartford at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning. Everybody else got a day off Monday to sleep and do laundry. Their 53-year-old leader ran at least one practice that day, for the boys in his group who are still raising their games from the Academy U17s to USL Championship. The team needed them for the “Zero – Four” match at Pittsburgh that Wednesday. One such had to start, prematurely. Three more came off the bench, one for 48 minutes, the other two for 26.

Observers have learned to expect:

  • A second-half bounce from the combination of Gartung’s adjustments and the subs he makes at half-time. The advice he gives his subs helps fuel it.
  • A positive bright start to every game. The variable has been how long it takes the opponent to adjust and break it down, as well as the conditioning to sustain it.
  • Bravery in continuing to attack, no matter the score.

The boys clearly respond well to their coach.

Parenthetically, amid the injury chaos two players have started all five matches and played every minute. They are Dante Huckaby, born in 2003, and Ben Ofeimu, who is a returning USLC pro. Both are center backs, Huckaby, left, and Ofeimu, right, although Huckaby has played three matches outside at left back.

A wish fulfilled

Kenardo Forbes, USLC’s newly crowned career assists king (39), is 32 years old. Jack McGlynn is 17. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Gartung compares USLC to the fourth division in Germany. When asked if any of those German sides were as young as his, he said, “No.”  The average age to the day of his most recent starting line-up was 18.3 years, and the oldest starter was 20.6. The average age of the same team at the final whistle was 17.9, exactly like the traditional New England prep school model (using postgraduates). At the end of the match, the rough equivalent of Hill School was left facing Bob Lilley’s experienced Riverhounds.

Ernst Tanner’s wish from two years ago that Bethlehem Steel FC’s roster ages would range between 17 and 21 has come true. For the United States it is a new developmental model that follows the best practices of Germany.

We suspect that somewhere Richie Graham and Jay Sugarman are quietly hiding their smiles.

2 Comments

  1. Great write-up. Unfortunate timing.
    .
    It kinda sounds like Sven was trying his best with what little he had. Frustrations boiled over?

  2. In case readers did not hear, the afternoon of the day this post went live, the Union announced a mutual agreement with Gartung that he stop being the Union II head coach.

    Marlon LeBlanc, former head at West Virginia University is the interim head, and his boys beat Red Bull’s II 3-2 for their first win of the season.
    .
    Commentator’’s curse? Much?

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