Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Cliff diving

Photo by Andy Spearing

The Union lost to Nashville on Saturday, as I’m sure anyone reading this website is aware. It was not pretty. The Union gave up a very early goal—to C.J. Sapong, of all people—then failed to break down an organized and resolute Nashville squad. The Union were creaky, and ponderous, and could have lost by more. It was hard to watch.

If you’ve listened to the All Three Points podcast, you know that I’m an optimist, and that I try to see the bright side. I try to counter our Philly-sports-fan habit of going Full Negative at the first sign of trouble. And so I was reluctant to read PSP’s match report or player ratings, because I knew the comments would be full of anger and disbelief about the ways the team had found to be bad; of Jim Curtin’s many shortcomings; of how the front office needed to bring in an external solution that could save the day. PSP has the best commentariat of any sports website I’ve spent any time on, but for my own mental health, sometimes I have to stay away, because negativity like that seeps into my consciousness and can mess up my day.

At the same time, I try to be a realist. Just because fans are upset and angry and disappointed doesn’t mean they are wrong. The Union deserve their share of criticism when things go sideways. Sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes, Curtin makes a mistake, even if his thinking usually makes sense. I know my tendency is to wear rose-colored glasses, so after this loss to Nashville, I have to ask: Are the Union in a slump?

One thing I should note about PSP commenters is that, even if most folks on the page are madmadmad, one or two brave souls always chime in with some version of, “That was bad, but the U are better than this, so on to the next!” And there’s definitely something to that. The Union have been very, very good this year. This is their first loss since the second game of the season. They are currently third in the Eastern Conference, and a good bet to stay in the upper levels of the East for the duration. If you look at their total numbers, including CCL play, the picture is pretty rosy.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the last several games have not been at the same level as much of what came before. Since returning to play after the international break, the Union have been below par. The time off came at a bad time for Philly. The Union were rolling in May, and it’s always hard to regain momentum after a stoppage. The record since returning to play reads one win, one loss, and two draws, with six goals conceded—five of them coming against Atlanta and Chicago, which is pretty bad.

If we were inclined to say “Yeah, but—” we could note that two of the six goals conceded were fluky own goals (take those two goals away and the Union record since returning becomes 3-1-0), and the Union scored six goals of their own, some of them incredible. But at a time when the Union should be well rested, they look tired. When they should be fresh and full of zip, they look out of ideas. Chicago and Nashville both used systems incorporating three at the back and wingbacks to bamboozle the Union, something pioneered by NYC FC against Philly. Have the U been figured out? Will good teams take away what Philly does best and force them back into mediocrity? Is this . . . the end?

I see you, Cliff of Union Despair.

So let me take a step back. I don’t know the answers to the questions above. I’m concerned about giving up six goals in four games, when the rate before that was less than a goal a game. I’m also concerned about getting things right in midfield—seeing what Gazdag can do as a playmaker; monitoring Ale Bedoya’s health and wellness and ability to contribute at a high level; making sure José Martínez walks the disciplinary tightrope without falling off; and that Leon Flach proves Gregg Berhalter wrong for not bringing him to the Gold Cup. I’m concerned about our strikers scoring enough goals. And I’m concerned about what happens when Andre Blake et al. are away.

But I can see the bright side, too. Martínez is back, and will get better as he remembers how to play within the Union structure. Gazdag, though he calls himself a natural No. 8, will get a run at the 10, and should only get better, considering he’s been here a matter of weeks. Hopefully, that helps a turgid Union offense flow. And, while we lose Blake and others to the Gold Cup, Flach remains, and will be available to spell Bedoya as needed. Finally, there’s always the chance Ernst Tanner magics another player-savior out of his Rolodex.

So, where does that leave us? The concerns about the Nashville game, and the lower level of play since June began, are legitimate. There are also explanations for some of the regression, and reasons to feel like the Union can correct course and play strong through the summer. We, Union fandom, are traumatized by the history of this club. We have years of mismanagement and mediocrity to weigh against the much-improved product we have been treated to the last couple of seasons. So yeah, maybe the Union are in a bit of a slump. But there’s no reason to go Cliff diving . . . yet.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    It’s difficult to stay away from the Cliff, to be honest. The bad games are just… ugly, and they remind us all of The Lost Years. When the team played possession, the moments of brilliance were so scrumptious they made the losing seem palatable. Now that they play chaos, “ugly” can last for games at a time across dominating wins and frustrating losses.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yes! The style of play matters. I’ve read elsewhere that fans are more tolerant of losing if the team has a discernible plan/playing philosophy. But I’d argue that style of play is part of that. The Union aren’t trying to control games, per se, or dominate possession, so they do just kind of look ugly sometimes. And if they’re losing, too?

  2. Tim Jones says:

    C. J. Sapong scored on a well-placed, long shot. What are the odds of that happening frequently?
    And Nashville deserve credit for doing what they do very well.
    My own read is that Curtin has to use this period of time to get his side ready for the forced squad rotation that will be the schedule in October. If he does not they pace of games will hammer them.
    A secondary suspicion is that he may be preparing a bit for the CCL semis.
    He’s got to figure out where Gazdag fits best. Keep in mind that at the End of the Hungarian’s season for his Budapest club, he was reportedly playing striker to help them avoid relegation.
    Something I would love to see later this month or early next is Gazdag, Monteiro and Ilsinho on the pitch together for the last 25 minutes. That combo could be magical.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I definitely co-sign your first two paragraphs. The Union gave up a low percentage shot, and Nashville is a good team, especially defensively, playing at home. Tough game, no matter what.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    I’ve tried to be pretty straightforward and reserved with my commentary the last few games. The have earned some good will I feel. In the past my default position was as Ming the Merciless and at times likened the entirety of the organizaiton to a bacterial infectioin gone septic. So I can definenlty skewer them and have… as was deserved if we are being honest.
    Week in week out at the moment, I have concerns at mulitple stations of the cross with the team but am also willing to wait …..and aim to take the full collective of the season- come mid September when so many things will have played out and stabilized and we will have a full body of work to really evaluate what this team is. I figure 2nd-4th is the realistic end point. I figure playing at home in the playoffs didn’t matter last season. I figure if they are healthy and rolling well, I have seen enough to argue they are a Cup Contender. The truth is… it is all moot until we see post season success now. This is where this organization is and that is the expectationi.
    in the meantime: INT Breaks. Players away. Effects of selling on players. Youth and how to incorporate. The new ACM. Strikers that score in ‘fits and dizzy spells’ and have not yet proven to me to be capable of shouldering MLS Playoff Burden. A seeming inability and more to the point unwillingness to play through the middle and do something other than counter or whip in crosses… are the focal points.
    From an aesthetic point of view… I’ve had to surrender that too a bit. We are a german gegenpressing old english route one team and that sadly seems to be the norm in the Greater Philadelphia Region of youth soccer up to the first team. Which leads to this final thought on the subject….
    …. I’ve surrendered a lot to Ernst’s :: Vision Philosophy and Plan and am generally pretty sanguine about it. All will be revealed in the next 10 weeks. Aesthetic or not, I think they are a pretty good team.
    Just Play Well.

  4. T.Coolguy says:

    I think it may be illustrative to compare this team to last year’s Union. Even with Aaronson, last year’s team generally struggled to break down packed defenses and often struggled to score when down a goal. These are pretty big flaws, but last year’s team still won the supporters shield. I don’t think this year’s team is better than last year’s (we miss Aaronson a bit, but we really miss MacKenzie), but there was no way to really keep our two rising homegrowns and Tanner has done a good job rebuilding in ways that will make us a solid team this year and possibly even stronger in 2022.

    I’m thinking that this year’s team is likely to finish top 3 in the East and at most be an outside contender for the supporters shield. But, if things click right, we could contend for the MLS Cup. And honestly, that’s not bad for what’s essentially a year of reloading on the fly.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is the silver lining perhaps: basically no one in the world is reliably good at breaking down a packed defense. The U have company, and it still seems like a lonely place to be.

  5. I’m with you Jeremy. Glass half full,rose colored glasses, more optimistic than pessimistic. This team has changed our expectations. It’s been a fun ride to get here! This is, as others have said, a bit of a rebuilding process. The Elephant in the room has pounded the team when they need it but has been mellowed by recent success. I am hoping that the Cliff is a very lonely place! I for one removed it from my GPS favorites.

    • It’s where I live but it’s more of a badge of honor than desperation and repair that originally brought me there.
      Decent team. The late drama to salvage in Chicago and North Jersey have pasted over bad games. Would be worse otherwise. Fully expecting this team to be uneven during these internationals. My only real concern is playing well enough ahead of the CCL semi to think we have a chance against America.

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