Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Assessing the early season

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Let’s have everybody take a deep breath. Ready?

Breathe in—1, 2, 3—and out.

There, that’s better. I imagine that’s how the Union are feeling now, having completed a break-neck schedule that began on April 7, with the opening match away to Saprissa, and crammed in an additional nine games in the following 37 days. For the math-challenged, that’s 10 games in 38 days, for a game every 3.8 days.

It’s a miracle they’ve come through it at all, let alone as well as they have. Since we have this little breather before the next game, on Sunday versus DC, this seemed an opportune moment to take a look back and assess what we know about this team.

The record

Jim Curtin is fond of saying that the league table doesn’t lie. Teams are only as good as their records. That’s a way of saying that there are no moral victories, and he’s right, but only to a point. The Union’s league record is a middling 2–2–2 right now. In a parity league, that’s good enough for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, at 1.33 points per game. That’s not nothing, but it’s  not where the Union want to be. It also doesn’t tell the whole story.

In addition to league games, the Union have played four Concacaf Champions League matches, winning three and drawing one. That puts the overall record at 5–2–3, which would translate to 1.8 points per game. It’s possible that pace would not be enough to win the Supporters’ Shield, but it would put the Union in the hunt. Of course, non-league matches do not count for MLS points, but when looking back at this month-plus of games, it presents a much more positive picture, and bodes well as league play continues.

Replacing Gaddis, McKenzie, and Aaronson

At the start of the season, the biggest question was how the Union would replace the players that had moved on: Ray Gaddis, Mark McKenzie, and Brenden Aaronson. In Olivier Mbaizo, the Union had a player-in-waiting to replace Ray the Eternal, but opinions were mixed. While Mbaizo’s offensive game was an upgrade, would his decision-making and execution in the passing game make him a net downgrade?

After ten games, the jury is not yet back, but the signs are good. Mbaizo’s contributions to the attack have outweighed his issues with possession passing, and he has become more secure in that department as time has gone on. If he isn’t yet the team’s locked-in right back of the future, he’s certainly earned more time, and has been a key contributor.

At center back, the Union brought in Stuart Findlay from Kilmarnock in Scotland to be the third member of the rotation, but his time has been limited due to injury. Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes have formed a solid partnership (only six goals allowed through 10 games), but fatigue may be an issue for Glesnes, who has produced a handful of errors lately. Findlay will get his chance to stake a claim to a starting spot.

It is the No. 10 role vacated by Aaronson that is still causing the biggest problems for the Union. Anthony Fontana was to be given the keys to start the season there, but because of injuries at striker he played on the front line instead. The surprising play of newcomer Leon Flach kept Fontana there, and then put him on the bench. Fontana has had just a few appearances in that top-of-the-diamond position, and he’s mostly underwhelmed. No matter his role, Fontana has struggled to find the game, nullifying his potent shooting. His best outing this season, though, was his most recent, versus the Red Bulls of New York. He started at the 10, made a telling contribution in the build-up to the Union’s goal, and just generally looked lively and useful going both ways. That’s good, because the alternative—Jamiro Monteiro at the 10—is flawed, as well. Luckily, help is on the way.

Newcomers

But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about Flach some more. Brought in from St. Pauli in the German second division, Flach was supposed to be midfield depth, but he’s been much more than that. First on the left side of the midfield diamond, then as the No. 6, filling in for José Martínez, Flach has looked like the ideal player for the system the Union play. He’s feisty, a good passer, strong in the tackle, with an engine that runs forever; he may be the long-term successor to Alejandro Bedoya.

Flach’s play has kept the Union midfield turning over, but there’s been no hiding that they’re missing something going forward. Enter Ernst Tanner, with the incoming transfer of Dániel Gazdag, newly crowned Player of the Season in the Hungarian top division. He’s 25, scores goals in all sorts of ways, and makes assists. No one knows if players coming into MLS will work out, but he is precisely the kind of player the Union need. If he clicks, the Union become a truly scary proposition.

The state of play

So, where are the Union now? They’ve dealt with their losses admirably so far, getting into the CCL semifinals and staying afloat in the league. They don’t give up many goals and are dangerous on the counter. But the lack of an offensive fulcrum and usable depth are issues that could derail them. Of the homegrowns waiting in the wings, only Jack McGlynn has seen real time. He’s looked like a viable player, but it’s still early days. For now, the Union will hope that a more sane pace of games will allow them to get through the summer while playing at a high level. If Gazdag beds in quickly, there will suddenly be midfield depth, with both Flach and Fontana as bench options to rotate through.

If there’s one more thing on the wishlist, though, it’s at striker, where the various pieces don’t quite fit together. The Union can win with the striking core they have, but finding a combination that truly sings, whether in-house or with another addition from outside, would push the team to a new level.

Overall, though, the Union have to be very pleased with where they are.

14 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    Jim Curtin’s comments yesterday about not really practicing because of the packed scheduled are useful in this conversation (game, rest, recovery, game, rest, etc…). Chemistry and build-up are the kinds of things that only grow after lots of practice, and as the season goes on always get better for a well-coached team (which the Union are). That’s especially evident in breaking down a compressed team, which the Union aren’t great at right now but have been pretty good at over the last two seasons. As they recover, add new pieces, and generally get to focus on playing a game as opposed to being healthy and not missing one, that stuff will come.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    One of the worries based in part about how they’ve done so far is when the schedule gets insane again in August. They play on Sunday, August 1 and Saturday, August 20. Between those two dates they have FIVE games for a total of 7 in under 3 weeks. That’s a pace that’s more frantic then the one they had to start the season and it will be in the heat of summer.
    .
    Oh, and one of those games is at altitude in the heat and smog of Mexico City.
    .
    My worry is that they are going to hit another slump then and will be struggling to make the playoffs.
    .
    The good news is that so far the Union have been better on the road (3 wins, 1 draw) than at home (2 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses) so maybe they will finally win a road playoff game.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      That is a concern. But hopefully, by then Gazdag will be in the rotation, making rest for various midfielders a thing that can actually happen. Also, I would argue that the Union never really slumped. They underperformed in two-ish games, but it’s hard to complain about the overall picture. Hopefully the league position will be improved by then, too, making any slump less of a problem for the stretch run into the playoffs.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Turns out that as per what I just posted below, one game in that stretch has been moved to October but CCL does mean that Monteiro, Mbaizo, Martinez, and Blake will likely miss the 2 rescheduled games due to World Cup qualifiers.

    • Vince Devine says:

      There’s a good chance MLS reschedules their August 8 game vs NE, to give them a better chance in the CCL semi-final. Schedule changes to accommodate teams participating in CCL have happened in the past.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Just saw a Facebook posting on the Union website confirm the dates August 12 @Club America (10pm) and September 15 in Chester (9pm). Sucks that the game is starting so late on a school night when kids probably won’t be able to watch.
    .
    Also looks like the August 14 game in Cincinnati has been moved to October 9 and September 16 game against New England to September 3. Both of those are during International breaks.

  4. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that would make me doubt the Union will make the playoffs this season. And with the CCL ongoing, that should really be the primary goal for this team right now. Stay healthy, focus all the energy you can on beating Club America and make sure you stay above the playoff line by keeping the rotation steady (don’t run Bedoya into the ground by Aug.).

    I’m also retaining optimism for Gazdag. While the Hungarian first division is probably pretty close to the least competitive in European football, Tanner has been a superb scout of talent. Eager for him to start, though I know it’s going to take some time. Lucky for us, Hungary is in a group with France, Germany and Portugal for the Euro. He’ll be done with international duty on June 23.

    • Scott of Nazareth says:

      I’ve yet to see any sort of expected arrival date for Gazdag – so another month at least?

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        It’s not really clear, due to the visa process and Covid quarantining, etc. Curtin said he hoped to have him in for a game or two before the Euros start, but I don’t think we should hope too hard for that.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        The Union only have two games between now and the start of the Euros so I’m guessing that getting him and integrating him into the team before then is somewhat unlikely.

      • Agree with the above. Don’t think we can do more than speculate. I’m assuming he doesn’t set foot in the States until after the Euro. Hopefully they can use the month before Hungary’s third group game to sort out visa issues.

  5. Great summary, Jeremy! So sweet to see you write again for PSP!

  6. The game was on Sat 15th vs NE.

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