For Pete's Sake / Union

Can a tough CCL defeat spark a playoff run for the Union?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

At the end of Philadelphia Union’s two-legged Concacaf Champions League semifinal, the scoreboard read four goals for Club America and zero goals for the Union.

Few observers would have been surprised about that scoreline before the tie started.  America are the biggest side in Concacaf, a Mexican powerhouse that regularly win Liga MX and Concacaf Champions League titles.  They play their home games at a punishing altitude in Mexico City, and any road games they play in the United States feel like home games.  Subaru Park on Wednesday night was a sea of pale yellow shirts, supporters who’d traveled from all over the United States to see their side in person.

But the final score obscures more than it reveals.  The Union did not play poorly over the two legs — in fact, they were much better than they’ve shown in MLS recently.

That performance offers a path forward for a team that, suddenly, finds itself below the red line in league play.

Hard-luck Union

The Union didn’t catch any breaks over the two legs.

Las Aguilas did not slice and dice the Union’s defense open at will.  Of America’s four goals in the tie, two were scored off deflections and another was a penalty.

At the other end of the pitch, the Union could have won a late penalty of their own in Mexico City when Cory Burke was bundled over in the box.  Last night, the anger was over the referee’s failure to produce a red card to Bruno Valdez after he pulled down Kacper Przybylko in the box.

(After reflection, I tend to agree that it should have been a red.  The rules have been changed to try to avoid “double jeopardy” for DOGSO tackles in the box, where the defender concedes a penalty and gets a red.  But, for me, Valdez isn’t making any attempt on the ball, he simply knocks Przybylko to the ground.)

In the second leg, the Union created a decent amount of chances and had Club America on its heels for at least the middle third of the game.

But it wasn’t enough to get on the scoreboard, or to overcome the quality gap between the teams — a gap epitomized by the penalty showdown between Jamiro Monteiro and Guillermo Ochoa.

Compare the two players’ pedigrees for a moment.  Ochoa is a legend in Mexico — a national team goalkeeper with more than a hundred caps to his name.  Monteiro is the Union’s sole Designated Player, but he is relatively anonymous outside of Philadelphia.  He, too, plays for a national team — that of Cape Verde, population just a bit smaller than that of Wyoming.

In the battle of star against star, Memo’s shined more brightly.  It was, frankly, a world-class save to push Monteiro’s penalty up and off the crossbar, and almost as impressive to immediately spring up and deny Burke on the rebound.

Monteiro didn’t hit a bad penalty.  I wager it beats almost every keeper in MLS.  But it wasn’t good enough to beat Ochoa — just an inch too close to the keeper, just a fraction short on power.

On the night, the Union’s best players weren’t good enough to change the game.  Aside from the penalty, Monteiro had a poor outing.  Tasked with manning the No. 10 position, he struggled to find the game on offense and didn’t offer the usual buzzing defense that he provides at his best.  Daniel Gazdag, the recently acquired attacking midfielder, didn’t even earn a position in the starting lineup.  Przybylko and Burke were relatively anonymous, save for the one excellent combination that earned the penalty.

(As a quick aside, I would give Jim Curtin a middling grade for this one.  The lineup was too conservative for my tastes, needing two goals, but the strategy made some sense — keep the visitors off the scoreboard, look to nick a goal, and then go for it in the final half hour.  But Curtin waited way too long to make his subs, bringing on Gazdag and Paxten Aaronson with just 15 minutes left in the match.  Even if America hadn’t scored immediately afterward, that’s not realistically enough time to change the game.)

Back to the league

All this said, a performance that isn’t enough to beat Club America is still one that wins you a lot of games in MLS.

That’s what the Union need right now.  An indifferent-at-best run of form through the summer has seen the club tumble down the Eastern Conference standings.  At the end of last night’s games, Philly sat in ninth, outside the playoff places with eleven matches to go (albeit with a game in hand on many of their competitors).

Getting into the playoffs won’t be the cakewalk it seemed earlier this season.  But last night’s performance looked more like the best version of the Union than anything we’ve seen recently.

The Union have more talent than many observers give them credit for — enough talent to, largely, go toe-to-toe with the region’s biggest club.  At their best the Union play with an intensity that’s hard to match in MLS, frustrating opposing attackers and converting their chances at the other end of the pitch.  That blueprint is what we saw against Club America, even if the goalscoring continues to be a major issue.

Captain Alejandro Bedoya agreed after the match, telling reporters that “if we play like this in the league, there’s no doubt that we should be in the playoffs and beating most teams.”

If the Union want to start filling up Subaru Park again, it’s time to prove it — starting on Sunday afternoon against Orlando.


  1. Personally, I do find it ironic how so many people are writing off the chances of a deep playoff run based on things that don’t matter like form or ability. Like seriously, we LOST to the 8th see NE last year. This is how playoffs work, this is how they are sold. “In one game anything can happen” blah blah blah.

    Not that I necessarily expect us to win the cup, but I think as long as we make the playoffs (which I think we will, we are certainly better than whatever the 9th team in the east will be) we have as good a shot and winning and advancing as any other team. That’s the point of playoffs.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      I agree with this, but NE was no 8th seed to me. They had to play the Shield winners 5 times and were finding form towards the end of the season. Maybe that can be us. Maybe we get in at 6th or 7th and hindsight of a deep run makes people say that’s no 8 seed.

  2. I agree that the Union played better than expected last night and that there is talent and fight in this team to push into the playoffs. But I still don’t see how this team as currently constructed is going to start scoring goals. Przbylko just appears to be cooked. Burke does a lot well but is always just a bit short on either his touch, his finish or movement. If Davo doesn’t provide a step up and/or Santos doesn’t step up, I don’t see it.

    Last night it looked like Przbylko was often just getting puttled so far back or wide. These guys just aren’t getting the service they need. When the service does come, they’re so often not in the right place to find the ball. I don’t know how they solve this issue.

  3. I’m tired of looking for moral victories when the franchise continues to come up small in the biggest of matches.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      They’ve earned more points than the one before in each of the last seven seasons, including winning the league last year. They also went toe-to-toe with the region’s largest club as the only remaining member of their league in the region’s largest knockout tournament. They’re a goal post and a missed penalty away from trophies in two of their other three biggest matches. It’s a frustrating morning to be a Union fan, but pretending like moral victories are the only things to cling to is just incorrect.

    • Spot on comment.

  4. My worry is that the same thing that was lacking last night is the same thing that has been lacking since June, the ability to finish. No matter how well they play box to box, if they don’t put the ball on frame and past the keeper, they aren’t making the playoffs.

    • Yeah, look, that’s the big issue. And I think the fundamental problems with the offense are tough to envision changing at this point. But it’s also possible that (1) one or more of the strikers gets hot, and (2) being more disruptive in midfield leads to more fluky goals happening, and maybe a bunch of 1-0 wins gets you in. We’ll see.

    • Anyone paying attention knows that what Andy said is the name of the game. No goals=no wins. It really boils down to that. We have a solid MLS level keeper, and the defense isn’t tremendous but serviceable enough to get results provided we bag goals. Much of this is also down to ownership and management and trades and signups, but that’s always been an ongoing discussion of an ongoing problem with the team.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        They outperformed xG last year and won the league. They’re underperforming it this year and are barely treading water. Same guys, bigger sample size.

  5. To answer your question bluntly – No.
    CCL hangover has affected better teams than ours. I see the Union scraping into the playoffs, and then getting booted out in round 1.

  6. ….the Montiero situation is strange.
    …not as in estranged— but strange… it’s those feeling out moments when you get back together with a significant other after breaking up —and you’re both like… it’s just not the same anymore.
    Maybe it passes, but ‘the still small voice in your belly’ is telling you the truth.

  7. Vince Devine says:

    Respectfully disagree on your Jamiro PK attempt. That kick was telegraphed. His initial movement and subsequent approach announced that he was shooting right side. Our academy keepers would have guessed properly and made the stop. It was a total choke.

    • Wracked Opinion says:

      Agreed, Vince!

      It appeared that Jamiro never even lifted his head to see where the keeper was and absolutely telegraphed his kick.

      An amateurish… and dissapointing… attempt at best.

      Tough to witness such an opportunity squandered, but this has been a recurring theme for months now.

      In the larger scheme, unfortunately the Union has too often been a hard, frustrating watch since June.

      Perhaps I’m imagining things, but for some reason it seems to me that the beginning of this ‘slump’ has correlated eerily with the extensions given to the GM and Manager.

      Anyway, it currently seems that they don’t have nearly enough speed… up top, nor in the midfield… to rely on a counter-attacking strategy.

      Furthermore they also don’t have that game-changing individual talent in these areas either.

      It surely feels like the lack of offensive support by the midfielders has simply rendered any potential Union striker combo ineffective.

      Hopefully somehow they can get hot to finish the season and play more engaging matches.

      It will be very interesting… and telling… to see what occurs between now and the beginning of next season.

      We will see…

      • I think the mid-June timeframe was coincidental to the management extensions. More significant has been missing players. In June it was Martinez/Gazdag for COPA/EURO’s. In July the 3 Jamaicans were gone. In August Monteiro wasn’t playing. Throw in the lineup rotations against New England due to CCL/International duty and the team has really been in havoc.

  8. I really liked the 4-4-2 diamond……last year.
    We just don’t seem to have the personnel to play it well this year. BA did a great job turning the ball over deep in the opponents end and connecting with the strikers. We don’t seem to have anyone that can replicate that play.
    At this point, with this personnel, I’d like to see them roll out the same 3-4-3 formation/personnel as they did vs NE, (with Montiero in at one of the wings) playing the kids. It would be so much more interesting than crosses ad naseum.


  9. worth noting for Sunday that Orlando will be missing Nani for a red card, and also Andres Perrera in the back for a red card.

  10. That penalty kick would have been saved most of the time. Jamiro’s was clumsy as he ran to the left and too far essentially overrunning then returned to the right and back towards the ball and could no longer shoot against his body He telegraphed the side to which he was shooting. Once the goalie knows this it would require perfect placement to beat him.
    Given the form that Jamiro has shown this season, it was not a surprise that his tell was too apparent to a top goalie

  11. Compared to last year, the Union really miss Aaronson and Ilsinho…and no one has stepped up to replace them.

  12. Our team isn’t as good as last year, but it’s good enough to make the playoffs and should. The CCL run exhibits what success brings. They’re professionals who should be expected to want success for their own self-interested career marketing and achievements. Even some of the rookies got a taste of that as late subs for their future considerations.

  13. In Tanner We Trust says:

    An issue that isn’t being mentioned is Curtin leaving the midfielders out to dry. Are we starting to dislike Flach because he gets starts despite the desperate need for offense? We shouldn’t, because it’s not his fault and he gives 100% effort every match. Are we resenting Bedoya for playing every minute at a position where we really want fresh legs? Again, we shouldn’t. Even if he tells Curtin he’s fit enough to make an impact 90 minutes per game, that’s Jim’s decision.
    And finally, most importantly, are we starting to get frustrated at Monteiro’s play at the 10? We really, really shouldn’t. I don’t care what it says on his back, he has never been a 10. He was brought here in 2019 under the idea that he could play 6 and 8. Have we ever liked seeing him at the 10? While he may not be as dominant a force as 2019, he hasn’t gotten significantly worse. He’s simply played significantly more time at the 10. And he’s had little to no time to develop chemistry with Aaronson, which should be a focus for the rest of the year. If Curtin plays Monteiro at the 8 next year with Aaronson at the 10, I think people will see.
    Also, since when is it a box to box destroyer’s job to save the team with a penalty? There were 2 strikers on the field, one with a shaky penalty history and the other I don’t believe ever taking a pen for us. And there wasn’t a true 10 on the field to take it either. Based on their skillsets, we NEED to stop asking certain things from Flach, Bedoya, Monteiro. At the end of the day, Flach should be subbed when we’re losing in the 2nd half, Bedoya should split way more minutes with the kids, and Miro shouldn’t play the 10 unless Gazdag and Aaronson are both injured.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      I also forgot to mention Fontana. Maybe it’s not as much Curtin’s fault as I implied. He probably assured Miro that Fontana would get a real chance at the 10, allowing Miro to be box to box. While I wish Jim had given Fontana more time, he underperformed. So they go out and get Gazdag, immediately handing him the keys, and he underperformed. Not really Gazdag’s fault. Coming off a very long season with somewhat of a relegation battle, he also struggled to build chemistry with his new teammates. Long story short, still no answer at the 10. I was extremely happy with the lineup Wed night, especially at the 10, but I do understand Curtin’s nerves. Gazdag couldn’t be trusted to save our season, and he for some reason doesn’t believe Aaronson could be more effective than someone playing out of position.

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