Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Good-but-not-great

Getting back to winning ways is a good thing, so let’s start there. I thought the Union looked a bit more like themselves versus DC, and they showed characteristic fighting spirit to battle back and earn the full points. DC played another three-back formation, something that has troubled the Union, but Philly was able to overcome it; Kacper P. got the game-winning goal, ending a five-game drought; and Dániel Gazdag got a smart assist and generally looked good at the 10 spot.

And yet, it’s hard not to feel a little deflated. I keep looking for the Union performance that says they’re “back,” whatever that means. My last column noted that the Union are in a bit of a slump, but it’s not yet time to panic. I still believe that—they won, after all—but we aren’t yet seeing the fluidity, cohesion, and coherence of the earlier stages of the season.

Of course, there are explanations for the poor form we could find if we looked—there are always explanations. For one thing, the season is long, and it’s hard to play well the whole time. For another, the Union have had many absences, due to international call-ups and indiscipline, which has made it hard to maintain continuity. And there’s a growing book on how to disarm the Union’s press, thereby nullifying much of what makes them great.

But those all feel like excuses. If the Union are to be a great team, and I believe they have that in them, they must find a way to manage all of the adversity a season brings. Last year, they did, better than any other team in MLS. This year, they are staying afloat, one of several good-but-not-great teams. That’s fine, for now. It’s certainly good enough to make the playoffs. But it’s hard to see them achieving more than that unless something changes.

To my mind, that state of good-but-not-great is epitomized by Sergio Santos. Santos is a tantalizing player. He combines so many attributes of a top-level striker. His speed and strength are what catch the eye, but he’s also a good finisher when he’s on, has an intuitive sense of where to be on the field, and the foot skills to beat a man or play a useful pass. Looking at the box score of the DC game, you would certainly say he’d been what the Union needed him to be. He scored the first after a great run and finish, and set up the winner with another great run, cut, and pass.

That said, the only reason the Union needed a second goal was because of Santos’s needless foul inside the box, which gave DC a penalty kick. Add that to the fact that, for all that his goal and assist were excellent, he doesn’t produce those moments nearly often enough, instead spending large portions of every game on the deck “injured,” rather than trying to actually, you know, win, and you have someone who is constantly frustrating. He shows he has the capacity to be brilliant, but only in limited flashes. Would it surprise anyone if he did not score again for weeks, giving his spot straight back to Cory Burke?

And yet, what if this is the moment where he levels up, and scores eight more goals between now and the playoffs? That’s on the table, too. If he did that, the Union would be better than good.

I don’t mean to pick on Santos. He’s not the only Union player not playing their best. Strikers can’t score without getting the ball in good spots. The Union’s first tally on Saturday was the result of a wonderful, flowing move that included moments of individual brilliance from multiple players. Olivier Mbaizo started the play by stylishly getting away from two DC players trying to press him; Przybyłko directed traffic as the counter evolved, and occupied two defenders with his run (see below); and I really enjoyed the intelligence and touch of Gazdag’s assist. It was a great team goal, and something we haven’t seen very often of late. That the Union can produce something like that, and then literal hours of toil, is precisely the problem.

It’s a First World problem, in the end. The Union are second in the Eastern Conference, and will have every opportunity to remain there and host one or more playoff games. We don’t have much standing to complain, really. At least we’re not Atlanta United fans, following an organization that is completely lost. But the Union have shown us what they are capable of. Accepting less than their best feels like a letdown. It’s their own fault. They’ve shown us that good-but-not-great isn’t close to good enough.


I would be remiss if I did not mention the rumors that have emerged in the last day, that the Union are, or were, pursuing Gabriel Silva Viera, a 19-year-old Brazilian striker that plays for Palmeiras. There are conflicting reports that Palmeiras rebuffed the Union’s offer of $2.5 million, or that the Union pulled out of negotiations—this was written Monday night, so by the time you read it, there may be more news. This writer knows nothing of the player or the negotiations. What I do know is that the Union’s interest in a player with a price tag that high shows the organization (that is to say, Ernst Tanner) is aware of the Union’s scuffling form and are seeking solutions. That’s a very good thing. And there’s nothing like more competition to light a fire under an inconsistent performer.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Good points. And I remember following a lost organization, as a lot of us do. Nice to have that behind us. Love the $2.5m transfer rumor… true, false, whatever. I agree with you – it shows they recognize they have a need. Hopefully they acquire someone who can make an immediate impact.

  2. I think looking at the team in a critical way as to how it can do better is a perfectly valid thing to do. I love seeing this team compete and love that it is in so much better a state than it was before Tanner for here. So yes, Jeremy. I’m with you. It should be better, and, importantly, it can be better.

    One thing I keep thinking about is the opportunity the Union has to go after the CCL. If the U can get that upgrade at striker, or just start playing better, the team can make a legitimate run of it. Three games to go. This chance is not going to come around every year.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Is CCL final only one leg? Also agreed. I Love the strategy of looking into the 18-22yo player pool, for the potential to sell on and profit. Hopefully good news comes soon.

      • Tim Jones says:
        I interpret the information available at the URL above available as confirming my memory that the 2021 SCCL Final is a single leg.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        It is only one leg and my worry is that getting a draw rather than a win in the second leg against Atlanta could cost them a chance to host the finals.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        I think the consensus is we’d rather play Azul, who have a long history of choking, right? Going one leg on the road to Monterrey is almost as big of a challenge as beating America in 2 legs. Not that both teams aren’t mammoths compared to MLS’ top tier teams

  3. SoccerDad says:

    Anyone know how many different line-ups have been thrown out there this year? A big part of last years success was based on throwing the same line-up out there game after game. Have we had the same lineup in the field (both players and positions) for consecutive games this season ? Flach has played the 6th most minutes on the team (and Mbazio the 4th most) it takes time to integrate players into a squad, and the Union have replaced over 2300 minutes with 1 guy who had’t met his teammates before April, and another who was mostly an un-used sub. I bet that Ernst thinks the season is going better then expected.

    Are we winning pretty ? No

    Are we dropping points against opponents that shouldn’t ? Yes

    Do we see glimpses of a team that should be able ride out the fixture congestion ? I do

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      I agree. I think this year was originally a transition. He probably figured the crop of 17-19yo players would become Europe candidates in 2-3 years and by that time we’d be elite, and didn’t expect the vets to continue to pick up all that slack or Flach to be this much of a difference maker. I think all of us, including Tanner, are realizing we can win right here right now. Getting a trophy this year is very possible, and I think we have a fantastic chance to return to CCL next year. I know we’re not elite at the moment, but I’m very optimistic.

      • Supporting the transition-year theory, another thing that we have probably all heard is that covid financially beat up very badly many of the top-league eurpoean teams, so there might be a summer fire-sale on talent. Ernst may have been planning to take advantage of that all along.

    • +1000 Soccerdad. Thanks cause I don’t have the energy for this.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I like this reading of the tea leaves. And the point about replacing minutes makes a lot of sense.

      • If you re-write this article in a month, with the possibility of everyone available, barring injuries, and the Union are still putting in like performances, I think you have more of a leg to stand on. I mean essentially you’re saying ignore the circumstances, the Union should be better because they were better last year and we expect more. Have I gotten that wrong? Cause if I haven’t that’s something I would expect a year ago from very different circles and generally had it’s start on a Russian laptop.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        All4U, what I’m saying is that the best teams find ways to perform regardless of the circumstances. And, while there have been some challenges this season, I don’t view them as out of the ordinary. If we say that the team are simply victims of circumstance, we’re removing any agency from them.

        I’ve spent years being an apologist for the Union, but even I can see that they’ve left points on the board in the last six weeks. Great teams muddle through their bad patches of form and still take those points, just like last season’s team did.

        And if we’re arguing that they aren’t where they need to be yet because they are still integrating new players, it doesn’t change the overall point, that they are not yet a great team.

      • While I can not honestly say the Union are playing great, I do think the things they are doing make them a really really good team. Where you look at dropped points, I’d argue some of those were saved points and other Union teams of the past would not have been able to do that. I truly disagree with how you got to your conclusion. And this line in particular has really got my panties in a knot “Accepting less than their best feels like a letdown.” Let me first say that I don’t think you wrote it this way, but it comes across to me as entitlement. We got something nice, so we expect it every time, all the time and no excuses. So when it hits me this way, I’m confused, shocked and dismayed.
        It looks like this is going to be a long season for me. Maybe I’m concentrating too much on certain aspects that seem more important to me than to you and others. I don’t know. What I do know is that you and el P aren’t alone and my perspective is the minority, and it’s left me dumbfounded and confused. Thanks for taking the time Jeremy. Despite my inability to grasp this, I’m quite enjoying it. Be well all.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        All4U, I don’t think we’re nearly as far apart in our opinions as you make out.

        For instance, coming in to this season, I think anyone, and certainly me, would have been completely happy with where we are. And, in truth, I am pretty happy. But the early season happened and showed that this team is capable of doing even better. Meanwhile, they’ve been in a bit of a rut since coming back from the international break.

        Now, el P has stated he doesn’t really like the style of play, which is not my issue. I see a lot of beauty in it when they are singing. What is frustrating is watching many players, even stalwarts, making lazy turnovers, or the system not functioning the way it can. In short, we know they can play better because we’ve seen it happen _this season_.

        So, I’m totally with you that this team is awesome. I’m not pessimistic about them or their chances. But I also love that they have gotten to a level of achievement and consistency that we can gripe about them not living up to their own standards.

      • OK that’s a bit better for me to digest. I guess it’s that I’ve come to a place of contentment and trust with the Union. As you say it’s their achievements and the consistency, with Ernst and Jim steering the ship that have done it. I may puke after writing this but without the ability to recall a better term, it’s been like I’ve had an epiphany that things will be alright. Yuck, that made me squirm. It is not a feeling that I’ve ever experienced before and it’s quite confusing. So much so I get indignant when others make valid criticisms of the team. SMH. Thanks, I have much more to chew on and think about.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        No, I totally get it! It’s weird to feel confident that the Union are going to do the right thing most of the time, to believe that they are going to win most games. It’s amazing to have that trust, considering the years of mediocrity and even incompetence that came before.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Solid read on the landscape, Jeremy. As per the usual.
    I too have argued it’s a good team, on the record over the course of an entire season with so much shit up in the air —the team will be right there… and be a solid finisher and potential Cup Candidate.
    They are also very sloppy right now compared to points throughout the season when we have seen flashes of what really is under the hood… It’s not travel soccer or ECNL. It’s not the varsity soccer team. This is Philadelphia. This is professional soccer. There are standards and criticisms levied on every single street corner adinfinitum for the other sports.. It is the landscape. This is the forum to discuss all that to tedium… in a parallel universe ‘we’ are calling on 97.5 doing it.
    Good stuff.

  5. I’m curious what readers and contributors think our ideal lineup is right now. Our trusted diamond system would seem to leave out Flach or captain bedoya with jamiros return, would it not? Or does Gazdag replace a striker? I think we need a formation change if we plan to field our best 11

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      This is right. We have five “first-choice” midfielders for only four places. I think right now that Flach is the odd man out, but becomes the automatic first sub, sometimes even if a striker comes out, with Gazdag moving up, as you said. But also I think there will continue to be opportunities/needs for rotation, as the season progresses.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Given that this season will have 15 or 16 games more than last year (including CCL but not the playoffs) I would like to see continued squad rotation among the 5 midfields. It’s nice that they have several players who can play at multiple midfield positions.

    • Midfield for me would be Gazdag, Monty, Flach and Martinez. Bedoya sits the bench. I think Bedoya is done or close to done. Even if Flach wasn’t here, I’d still throw Fontana or McGlynn in over him. Midfield I think Curtin goes with is what Jeremy says. I would hope that Curtin does some rotation either way.

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