Analysis / For Pete's Sake / Union

Back to MLS action, work to be done for the Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Philadelphia Union return to Subaru Park tomorrow night, fresh off a Champions League semifinal that didn’t go the way they’d have liked… but could have been a lot worse.

Attention now turns back to MLS play, where the Union have been far from the Supporters’ Shield winners they were last season.  More than halfway through the campaign, Philly sit in fifth in the East.  They’re just three points back of their opponent on Wednesday, NYC FC, for second – although City have a game in hand – and just four points above Columbus Crew, currently the first team out of the playoff picture.

After a strong May and June, Jim Curtin’s men have been in a bit of a rut, conceding early goals and struggling to outscore their opposition.  But a quality demolition of Toronto before CCL play offers a blueprint for how the Union could start flying high again.

Here are three big storylines I’ll be watching as the Boys in Blue return to action.

Midfield management

There’s no sign – at least, at the moment – that wantaway midfielder Jamiro Monteiro is coming back into the team anytime soon.

His absence weakens the Union’s midfield.  Leon Flach, Monteiro’s replacement on the other side of the diamond from Alejandro Bedoya, has been a bright spot this season.  Little was expected of the 20-year-old when he joined late in the club’s preseason, but he’s played well enough – particularly at the 6 – to force himself into the lineup.

Yet Flach hasn’t been as convincing at the 8, mostly because he has not offered enough going forward.  When Monteiro was at his best, he was buzzing around the field, ball-winning and then running or pinging the ball quickly up the pitch.  Flach is all ball-winning and not enough pinging, at least at this point in his career.

So, then, a puzzle for Curtin: how to regularly get the ball to splashy signing Daniel Gazdag and the strikers ahead of him?  Gazdag has shown a willingness to work and try to find the game, but the service he needs – particularly in the dangerous center of the pitch – has been absent.

Maybe Jose Martinez can provide those passes.  Or teens like Quinn Sullivan or Jack McGlynn could get increased opportunities. Or maybe Flach can unlock a new part of his game – wouldn’t be the first time a 20-year-old developed over the course of the season.

But getting the midfield firing on all cylinders is the first step in turning this team into a serious contender.

Call in the cavalry

Monteiro is Union’s one impending absence — but he’s not the only personnel change that could shape the second half of the season.

The Union completed signings of a pair of 22-year-olds in the last month, bringing in midfielder Jesus Bueno and striker Matheus Davo.

These are young players and their signings are primarily ones for the future.  That said, it’s not crazy to think that one or both could play big roles down the stretch.  Curtin has shown that he’s willing to play young guys if he trusts them and believes in their quality — Flach, of course, being the prime example this year.

And you can imagine how both of these players could help the side.  Bueno can play at the 6 or the 8, giving Curtin options in how to structure his midfield (or to cope with absences that may come due to injuries or suspensions).

As for Davo, the Union need more goals…

Ride the hot hand

Before getting into that, a quick word on the defense.

Frankly, it’s not the problem with this team.  Sure, there have been a few bad goals given up recently.  It’s unclear whether Olivier Mbaizo can pick up his defensive play, and the combination of Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes seems to give up one or two heart-pounding moments per game.  But the unit is fundamentally solid: these are good players, with a top-class keeper behind them, and a midfield and manager that are committed to team defense.

Take one look at the table and you’ll see what I mean.  Curtin has said that the Union want to give up one or fewer goals per game.  That’s right where they’re at: 19 goals conceded in 19 games.

No, the problem has been the relative lack of scoring.  25 goals in 19 games is the fewest goals scored by any of the Eastern Conference’s current playoff qualifiers.

The root of that problem is two-fold.  First, as discussed at the top, there isn’t enough service to dangerous players in dangerous areas of the pitch.  There’s too much settling: swing it wide, overload, cross, repeat ad nauseam.

Second, all of the club’s strikers have been inconsistent. Kacper Przybylko has dropped off from his form last season, and can go entire halves without ever coming near the ball.  Sergio Santos will have games where he looks shot out of a cannon, and others where he is too busy chirping at the ref to get on the ball.  And Cory Burke has been in and out of the lineup, unable to stake a claim to a starting spot.

This is where Davo could play a key role.  The way to get through this stretch is to be ruthless about riding the hot hand up top.  If that means benching Przybylko, so be it.  With four quality strikers, Curtin has the ability to mix and match in search of the best combination, and to keep his guys fresh as the fixtures pile up.

There’s work to do to secure a home playoff game — but the Union should have the players to get it done.


  1. This seems a fair and accurate assessment to me.

    It feels a lot like the Union are going to keep trying the same failing formula, waiting until the pieces click again. Hopefully they will. But it still seems we don’t really have the right pieces to make this system work.

    That said, I haven’t been able to see a lot of Union play over the last few weeks. I haven’t really seen what is lacking with Montiero out. Haven’t really seen whether Gazdag has been able to play the 10 effectively. In the little bit I saw from him, he played more like a forward than a play-making midfielder. Perhaps my sample size isn’t large enough.

    I’d like to see Curtin and the coaching staff craft something that works with the players they do have. A 4-2-3-1 seems like a working shape. Pair Flatch with Martinex in the defensive midfield. Make Przbylko your 9, target man, Santos out on the left wing…. Perhas Davo on the right, use Gazdag as a 10. Anyway, the Union need to figure it out soon. It gets late early out there.

  2. John P. O'Donnell says:

    What is the deal with Montiero? Does he stay with the team if he can’t make a deal with another team before the deadline?

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is an interesting question. If his hand is played, then other teams know they can get him for cheap – and if the Union don’t accept an offer like that, what happens next?

  3. One thing to remember is that the Union aren’t the only good team from last season to falter this year. Despite having advanced further in CCL than any other MLS team, they still have the best record among the teams that made CCL.

  4. star player sitting out awaiting transfer while the club tries to integrate new blood from South America, aging veterans offer uncertain future while hope springs from newly promoted academy players, switching gears from international competition back to league play FEELS LIKE A RIGHT PROPER FOOTBALL CLUB INNIT?!?

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    Excellent work Peter.
    Personally I have preached a form of patience over the course of the season. Figuring with such a heavy burden of International play the team would be 2nd-5th at points throughout the season and round into form as we approached September.
    It’s time to see who this team really is the next three or four games up to and including the Orlando match to see if they really are a quality MLS contender. Hell, Portland sits in 7th place in the West and I can tell you unequivocally, they are a good team.
    I still think Union is a good team managing some significant challenges, and agree with the author, how to maximize Daniel Gazdag is the pressing issue….but with each passing week I am more concerned they are captives of their own system of play.
    You can’t control a tight midfield without players capable of controlling a midfield… and the statistics for relying on the cross to score goals are undefeated over time. It’s just not reliable not to mention so goddam boring which is an entirely different issue.
    What I am hoping to see the next month is a tightening up of crucial details: sharper passing, not over cooking a player who’s in behind and watching the ball roll out of bounds with self thwarting, not wrong footing a player at that penultimate moment of inspiration. Not committing the egregious dunderhead pass to the other team or tackling a player in the box…. etc etc etc. This team has been so so sloppy and if you watch some other MLS games… it’s eye opening how poor they can play.
    In my opinion these are the areas that will determine who this team ultimately is- same as for every other team, really.

  6. “Yet Flach hasn’t been as convincing at the 8, mostly because he has not offered enough going forward.”

    Agreed – love Flach’s motor and enthusiasm, but would prefer to see Sullivan or Paxten get the start at #8 to both individually offer more going forward and to better team up with Wagner out of the back.

    If Paxten starts at #8, he and Gazdag could also do some switching back and forth to create more confusion – assuming that Gazdag cant defend as an #8 for short periods.

  7. Ian England says:

    Where is Fontana? He seems like a clear guy to bring in to mix up the midfield or front line, but haven’t seen him in the 18 for some time.

  8. In Tanner We Trust says:

    For those asking about Fontana, he’s still in protocol I believe. Until Bueno arrives, I think we need to see McGlynn and Sullivan get minutes at the 8s. McGlynn seems better equipped to start whereas Sullivan does more damage off the bench. Surely there’s minutes for Bedoya, Flach, and the 2 kids if Curtin is willing to give the kids some rest. And that’s not including the factor of Gazdag at times struggling to go 90, so there’s opportunity for Aaronson as well.

  9. So Jose Martinez played the #8 for Venezuela in the Copa America. Why not move him to the 8, and Flach back to the 6?

    • That’s an interesting idea, although I think Curtin would be hesitant to make that move. It would be sacrificing some quality at the 6 in order to (theoretically) add quality at the 8. Given how much Curtin values defense, I’m not sure that’s a trade he’d want to make.

      • Gary Fredericks says:

        Play a 3-5-2. Play Martinez and Flach as the 2 CDM and Gazdag as the CAM, Bedoya and Santos on the wings. Wagner, Glesnes and Elliott in the back.

        Then Messi, oh we didn’t get him, sorry. Kacper and Davo up top. Keep the high press, we generate more attack with that. We never seem to play that way on the road though.

    • McMohansky says:

      Some games as an “8” but really as one of two pivots.
      That’s why many think switching to 4-2-3-1 might be the most natural ‘shake-up’ to help get the most from these players.
      Our diamond midfield worked great last year because Martinez was an elite 6 and Monteiro was phenomenal either as an 8 or a 10.
      This year El Brujo looks a half-step slower and obv no Monteiro so suddenly what was our strength is now lacking identity and authority.

  10. Very thoughtful Pete. And some insight into what the U are working through. How the new signings will fit and how quickly they can help moving forward will be key. I’m just hoping to see the team not go into free fall while they get their options sorted.

  11. One of the curious things to me is the Union’s seeming reluctance to “settle” for corner kicks in the offensive third. This is a team that is tall and good in the air and if my memory serves me well, is in the MLS top five in scoring from set pieces. Good teams play to their advantages; height and physicality in the box are Union strengths, I think.

  12. Gary Fredericks says:

    I wish by all that is holy that we would stop the passing crescent in front of goal and SHOOT more. Even in the box we pass, pass, pass. Go for goal, be ruthless. I notice our young guns seem more willing to do that.

  13. Just wondering what others might think of my all-time starting XI of the Philadelphia Union (4-2-3-2 – but pick your formation!) (I was at the first match at the Linc and am the proud owner of a signed Danny Mwanga jersey!):


    Rosenberry Valdez Onyewu Wagner

    Medunjanin Edu

    Barnetta Aaronson Bedoya

    Pescadito LeToux

    Bench: Mondragon, Fabinho, Califf, Picaut, Carroll, Maidana, Przybylko

    Manager: Curtin

    Really interested to start a convo on this topic. So sorry about the Azteca thing, but beating NYFC last night was aweseome.


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