Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Are the Union actually bad?

Photo by Paul Rudderow

Okay, the title is clickbait.

However, after watching the Union slog it out in the heat against a not very good DC United team, it’s a question worth posing. The problem is that the Union have yet to hit high gear offensively. There have been beautiful moments—and Kacper Przybyłko’s goal was a beautiful moment—surrounded by a lot of toil.

By now the issue is well understood: Brenden Aaronson has not been replaced.

Aaronson was never an offensive fulcrum, but he fit into the system very well, and losing him has had a cascading effect:

  1. It forced Jamiro Monteiro from the side of the midfield diamond where he is best. Monteiro can produce so much—see the DC goal—but still feels like a bad fit at the 10.
  2. It blunted the Union press. Monteiro is a two-way monster, but Aaronson had an intuitive ability to be that pest that jump-started the press.
  3. It exposed the Union as vulnerable to other teams’ pressure. Without another technical midfielder who is comfortable playing in tight spaces, the Union has been broken down a lot easier when in possession. Leon Flach is a great addition to the team, but his ability to retain the ball under pressure does not compare to Aaronson’s.
  4. It created a gap between the strikers and the rest of the team. The strikers and the rest of the team are rarely in sync. As for those strikers, they are frustrating and inconsistent (even Przybyłko, who seems to be finding his league scoring touch again, doesn’t influence games enough). Cory Burke’s work-rate alongside Przybyłko is beneficial to the Union press (and he holds the ball better than Sergio Santos), but they aren’t complementary pieces.

So, what’s the solution?

It seems simple enough—replace Aaronson! And the hoped-for replacement is already here (and played on Sunday)—Dániel Gazdag. Will Gazdag’s arrival solve everything? His outing against DC was short (and after a single practice with the team), so judging anything now would be foolish. In his first two touches, though, he managed to do things that were unexpected, which is hopefully a preview of the sort of destabilization he can induce into opposing defenses. Of course, now he is off to play in the Euros, so an answer is at least a month away.

All of this ignores one very important thing.

Whether or not the Union are firing on all cylinders offensively, or if Gazdag can solve that problem, it’s worth acknowledging how good the Union are going the other way:

  1. Andre Blake is the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and looks the part again this season.
  2. In front of him, Jack Elliott and Jacob Glesnes have formed a formidable partnership. Glesnes looked somewhat error-prone in recent weeks, but put in his best defensive performance in a Union shirt against DC.
  3. Kai Wagner hasn’t had the same influence offensively as in years past, but continues to be one of the best left backs in MLS.
  4. Olivier Mbaizo continues to affirm his place. Mbaizo was Mbad with his passing versus DC, sending multiple passes to the other team or even just out to touch. Nevertheless, he was very solid defensively and provided an outlet going forward.
  5. In midfield, Jose Martínez was off-key in his return from suspension, but can be much better, while Leon Flach has proved a capable deputy and understudy.
  6. Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro are tireless in their work ethic.
  7. Those maligned strikers, for all their flaws, work extremely hard defensively.

The Union are really hard to beat.

They have given up a total of zero goals away from home this season over five away games, including the CCL. The team defends as a unit, relentlessly tracking back to recover from turnovers or line-splitting passes. They give up relatively few shots, and the ones they do are generally low-value. When they do get broken, they have Andre Blake bailing them out.

The overarching point is the Union are a work in progress offensively, but offense is not the only metric on which a team should be judged. Even if the Union aren’t able to get it together and become the offensive team they have the potential to be, they will still contend, and could even win MLS Cup with the team defense they play.

Even when it looks ugly, the Union are still a very good team.


  1. The elephant in the room that I haven’t seen mentioned is how Gazdag got a nice jog out after an afternoon of meeting the team while Fontana stayed on the bench. Cue post game comments where Curtin talks like Gazdag is his child and how “we trust him already.” Not to mention how they basically rushed him over just for half a training session and 20 minutes on the pitch.

    This tells me Gazdag is this teams perfect 10 atleast on paper and they expect him to solve most of these issues.

    It’s not that I don’t believe them, instead I am looking at Fontana and expecting to hear this summer he has been sold. For cheaper than we would think since his deal is expiring, but I can’t imagine Fontana would want to stay in this situation.

    I don’t even think Fontana has looked that bad recently – at least when he has been playing the 8 and 10. As a striker he had trouble. But either way I think it’s clear Fontana lacks something the coaching staff requires.

    • pragmatist says:

      I brought this up somewhere else, but I think Fontana has a particular quality that Ilsinho has – he’s best off the bench. His starts have rarely been special, and in fact he tends to disappear when he starts. But when he comes in as a sub, defenses are simply not ready for his off-ball speed and he seems to thrive against tired legs.
      I’ll be curious if Curtin falls into an old bad habit where we can all predict all 3 subs by halftime. Will it be Fontana/Ilsinho/Flach? Or will it be Santos/Flach/Findlay?
      Or are we getting close to McGlynn and possibly Aaronson taking Fontana’s minutes? If that’s the case, I would imagine he would be less than pleased, even if they have earned it.

      • Good points, that is all possible. Which is good to have options off your bench.

      • Section 114 says:

        What does this team need?
        1. A true 10
        2. A backup 9 behind Santos.
        3. A backup 10
        4. More midfield wing depth behind Bedoya/Monteiro/Flach
        5. Depth everywhere but striker to deal with the upcoming international absences.

        Fontana may not be ready to be a starting 10 this year. I think that’s been clear. And hopefully solved with the Gazman. (nick?)

        But Fontana could be the solution to ALL of the other problems, other than RB/G depth. And if that’s what his age 21 season is, it’s ok. Not every homegrown is Brendan Aaronson.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      The Fontana question is big. Clearly, he doesn’t do something the coaching staff needs him to do to earn their trust. I hope he does it. I hope he gets minutes. Because even when Gazdag gets here for real, there will be minutes available through rotation, and Fontana does things that nobody else on the roster does (though maybe Gazdag will).

    • Hypothetically… The union offered Fontana an extension and he refused it. If he does not accept a contract extension ,who would trade for a player that has six months left on his contract. No one. Technically, if he wants to stay in the mls, he would then negotiate with the team he is being traded to. If he were to go overseas, the overseas team gets a player for free, they wait until his contract expires and union get nothing, not sure what compensation they could get. So the question is, why would the Union play Fontana, and build his stock up when they get nothing in return. I think the plain answer is, they won’t, and we won’t see much of Fontana the remainder of the year. Similar to what happened to Trusty.

  2. silverrey says:

    Another big thing that Aaronson brought that we definitely haven’t replaced is speed in the transition. He was so good at going verticle as soon as he got the ball, which spurred a lot of our odd-number attacks. We lack that now.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yes, definitely, and this is one place where Monteiro bothers me sometimes. He holds onto the ball or tries to beat a guy when he could just lay it off, etc, or turn upfield and go.

  3. pragmatist says:

    The good news about the offense is that they are not limited by a philosophy. There only real limitations at the moment are key players and chemistry. These are things that can be addressed, whereas a park-the-bus philosophy is not only boring, but makes it difficult to change the mindset of the players. This team looks to run when they can and make quick, laser passes from the back and midfield. Hopefully, things click for them. But I can’t see this group retreating into a defensive shell if they can’t find their offense. They’ll keep pushing, and they will eventually find their rythym.

  4. They get to the final third when teams dig in, and have no ideas. The off-ball movement has left much to be desired forever.

    They only have life when the press creates turnovers and instant lanes.

    They struggle to execute a final pass.

    Other than that Mrs. Lincoln… was the playmaking?

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    at this point the absence of a player capable of unlocking a defense or having an idea worthy of possessing the ball with an intent —-beyond humping it upfield from the goalkeeper, lumping it across the goal mouth …..or worst of all which I’ve seen at every level of Union Academy up to and through the first team and its sister club nearby…turning it over on purpose just to win it back again further upfield … so glaring— I wait until the Hungarian kid arrives and adapts to see what the full expresion of this team looks like.
    ….until then, they are definetly not bad. They are ugly. Truth.

  6. winning ugly = you’re not that good.

    • I actually think the opposite and that we are a good team. What Union team from 2010-2018 was winning that game on Sunday? Good teams find a way to win when they play poorly and that’s what happened on Sunday.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Chelsea last won the league by winning the ugliest way possible

      • well chelsea didn’t win the league lol, but atletico madrid won theirs with a similar style

  7. I have wondered what the deal is with Fontana. Seems like he is in the Curtin dog house. Hope his situation gets settled. The team is winning games that, a few years ago,they would have lost! There’s times ugly is all you got.

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