For Pete's Sake

Familiar and unfamiliar

Photo courtesy Major League Soccer

A tournament that felt unfamiliar in every way came to a familiar end for the Philadelphia Union.

The 2-1 defeat last evening to Portland Timbers that sent the Union out of the MLS is Back Tournament at the semifinal round featured elements the club’s fan base will recognize from years of playoff and U.S. Open Cup heartbreak — a team outmatched tactically, poor team performances on a big stage, high-leverage opportunities to swing the match in their favor wasted.

Yet it’s not fair to say that the defeat should overshadow what was overall a successful tournament for the Union. They picked up seven points for use when the MLS season resumes — time, place, and format TBD at this point. They put some of their young players in the shop window and shined a flattering light on them. And they gained real notice around the league for their play as they fired their way through to the semifinals.

“It wasn’t meant to be tonight,” Union manager Jim Curtin conceded post-match. “[But] I won’t allow it to take away from the strides and growth that the team made in this competition.”

That penalty

The turning point in the match came late in the first half, when Jamiro Monteiro earned a penalty out of very little.

Sergio Santos, who’d had a great tournament so far, stepped to the spot.

It went… poorly.

That moment felt all too familiar. As the ball sailed over the bar, my thoughts flashed to the 2014 U.S. Open Cup final, when a late attempt by Vincent Nogueira that could have won the match clanged off the post instead.

The normally placid Curtin seemed irritated to be asked about why Santos took the penalty — the first in his professional career — after the match. “I figured that would literally be the first thing that [the media] would come up with, try to blame someone… We’re a team, we win as a team and we lose as a team. He missed, and that happens in sports.” A follow-up yielded little better results. “He’s a striker, and he took the penalty, and it happens — he missed.”

These things happen, sure, but it’s fair to ask a striker to at least put their penalty kick on frame. It was not a banner night for the Union’s two starting strikers overall. Santos was not nearly as influential as he’d been in the prior match, and Kacper Przybylko struggled to impact the game save for a late disallowed goal. The sole goal on the night belonged to forgotten man Andrew Wooten, notching his first goal for Philadelphia nearly 14 months after he was signed.

Breaking down the block

This iteration of the Union wants to beat you in transition — playing good defense and springing a deadly, opportunistic counterattack when the moment presents itself.

Allowing an early set piece goal and playing a team comfortable ceding possession makes it tough to play that way. It was obvious fairly early in the second half that the Union would need to adjust their approach to get back into the match.

That adjustment never really came. The by-now-predictable insertion of Ilsinho early in the second half wasn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, with the Timbers quite aware of what the Brazilian magician can do. In need of a goal (and later two), the Union left offensive black hole Ray Gaddis on the right to help Ilsinho create. Curtin chose to use only two of his five allotted subs — one of whom, Wooten, scored the team’s only goal.

This piece isn’t the tactical breakdown, but it’s worth asking whether Curtin used all the cards in his hand to try to change the complexion of the match. Why not change the team shape – bring Jakob Glesnes into a back three, shifting Alejandro Bedoya wide for width? (Or even using Glesnes at CB and Jack Elliott in the midfield, as we saw earlier in this tournament?) Why sacrifice Santos for another attacker? Why use only two of your five allotted subs, leaving fresh legs like Anthony Fontana on the bench as the squad on the pitch seemed to die of exhaustion one at a time? (Elliott mentioned after the game that some players were suffering from “overuse injuries.” Not a good sign.)

Jim Curtin has gotten a lot of things right in the past year; he has clearly grown as a coach, as a man manager, and as a tactician. And it’s on the players on the pitch to make plays most of all. But there was as little imagination in the coach’s box on Thursday night as there was on the pitch for the Union.

Heading home

With the defeat, the Union are set to leave the Disney bubble, which they entered five weeks ago today.

It’s a long time to be away from family, especially during these times — a fact that Andre Blake acknowledged after the game, noting that “life’s more than just soccer.”

He’s not wrong. But to the extent that, for those of us who care, life is at least somewhat soccer, I’d have to proclaim this tournament a success from a Union perspective. The bubble held, the lingering presence of the coronavirus not impacting the tournament at all after the first week. Soccer returned to our lives, even in a very strange form, and the Union made that soccer pleasant to watch. We were treated to some brilliant goals and excellent performances. The pain of losing a tournament is evidence that the tournament was worth winning.

Now, after a couple months of certainty, we return to the unknown. The Union return to their homes, not sure when or where they’ll play next. They’ll try to carry the momentum of their Orlando performances into the restarted season, even as we’re not sure if key pieces like Brendan Aaronson or Mark McKenzie will even be on the roster when the season resumes. There will not be a bubble.

In a year that has been unfamiliar for all of us, it will be another unfamiliar step for the Boys in Blue.


  1. Good summary, Peter. Gio Savarese had his boys ready to frustrate the Union and Curtin didn’t have any answers. I wonder, too, about asking too much of Bedoya and Przbylko on minutes. Wooten should have entered that game a lot earlier for Przbylko.

    Glass half full: We’ll have done better than all but two teams in the tournament. Not a bad return.

    • I agree, part of a managers job is to cultivate your bench. No team is able to rely on the starting 11 to win games all season long with 0 rotation. Curtin has always been stubborn to this regard.

      Wooten needed a start, especially with how bad Przbylko as. Fontana needed more minutes, to spell that midfield.

      I’m tired of excuses, I don’t care if every player on our bench is the worst player of all time. I need to see players prove they are bad on the field and Curtin isn’t even allowing that, to the detriment to our starters.

    • This match was lost in the three group matches when little squad rotation happened. When you don’t bleed your bench you have no bench.

  2. Chad Boardman says:

    FYI – wooten did not score a game winner…

  3. I see on twitter that MLS plans on teams playing an additional 18 regular season matches in 3 phases of 6 games. Everyone will have 9 home and 9 away, regardless of how regular season started. This is so unfair to Union if true. We played at Dallas and at LAFC. So if all play the planned 23 matches, the Union will only have 9 home games while others 10 or 11. We should get an extra home game. And I know there’s probably no fans, but there’s a familiarity to your home field.

  4. Curtin tightened up and not in a good way. He looked afraid to make moves.

    In the end, the U did not substitute much in a World Cup format, and payed the price when the players ran out of gas. Przbylko looked gased for the last two games.

  5. Scott of Nazareth says:

    I don’t blame Curtain for giving Santos the PK opportunity, but for a quick second I did think he might have given Przbylko the shot as a way to maybe snap him out of his funk.

    • A comment was made in the previous article about Santos high in confidence after the prior two games. But it doesn’t just take confidence to beat the keeper. Some veteran & situational common sense goes a long way. The union REALLY needed that goal. While missing the PK high happens a fair amount, it is literally impossible to miss the goal low. A veteran puts it low and hard towards one of the corners. Even if the keeper happens to guess right there is a decent chance for a rebound. Particularly for his first professional PK, he’s got to keep it simple when his team is depending on him.
      You are right Przbylko or Monteiro should have been the choices.

  6. Nothing but the inevitable reversion to the mean.

    Philly hasn’t had a decent PK taker who inspires confidence since Dockal had enough of watching and took over. Before that Alberg, and before that LeToux.

    Who could ever forget the spats between Roly-poly and Sapong?
    That’s when Curtin says he lets the players decide. Bad move.

    Coach, CM and Forwards got exposed. Union were more fortunate than good overall-lucky enough to have Blake remember what it was like to stop shots regularly just in time……..

    When they run into good teams who can handle the press and get scored on first…….there is no plan B. You’ll never find one in a Cracker Jack box btw.

  7. Thursday, The Athletic’s MLS duo of Stejskal and Tenorio confirmed most of the details the reported late last month about the upcoming schedule. Starts Aug 21st. A first phase of regional matches, during which the Canadians stay n Canada. A second phase during which the Canadians move to the U. S.
    A total of 18 more matches, regular season followed by single elimination playoffs. A draft of the schedule has been sent to each club, which I assume is normal procedure for the club to tell the league what in the proposal works and what runs into local conflict and needs adjusting.

    The new information in the piece is that Nashville and Dallas will play twice in Dallas Aug 12 and Aug 16, with a third scheduled for later to make up the three regular season points opportunities they missed by been withdrawn from the tournament in Florida.

    The second bit was assumed in late July but is now confirmed, with Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto all looking for bases in the U. S. from which to play their seasons. S & T mention Portland in conjunction with Vancouver and the East Coast with respect to the teams from Ontario and Quebec.

    Keep in mind that NYC FC is also looking for venues in which to play, with Yankee stadium not available due to concentrated use by the Yankees.
    Who knows whether the watch parties at the Stadium have created enough evidence to persuade local health authorities to allow any attendance on Chester, at and extremely low percentage of capacity, of course.

  8. Santos’ “effort” did not remind me of Vince…it took me back to 2014 Maurice Edu kicking a similar field-goal PK.
    The issue I have with Curtin is he manages subs like Andy Reid managed a game clock. There was NO reason to end the game without making at least one additional sub. For example…the U needed more offense, and kept Gaddis (who is a great guy and great defender….but offers NOTHING going forward and every team in the league knows it) on the field.
    I guess we’ll have to wait and see what comes next.

  9. Part of me gets very frustrated at Curtin for his tactical limitations and his stubbornness about substitutions.
    The other part of me thinks that we probably don’t have game-changers off the bench either. And Santos comes out when he does because apparently he’s not 90-minutes fit. I do think Wooten should’ve come in earlier. And I would’ve liked to have seen Fontana get a chance to do something. But maybe Jim recognizes the drop in talent between the starters and the bench.
    If Aaronson gets sold this season, it will be a huge benchmark for the team. But it will also kill this season entirely.

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