Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Inbetweeners

Photo: Stephen Speer

Before I was a Philadelphia Union fan, I was an Arsenal fan. (I still am, technically, though the Union hold pride of place in my heart.) Any Arsenal fan who started following the team at any point in the last 20 years has probably heard of Arseblog, if not read it religiously. I’m the guy who still uses an RSS reader, and Arseblog retains its place in my feed.

I bring this up only to use a term invented, I believe, by the venerable Arseblogger, which is: Interlull. The Interlull refers to the time during breaks in the club soccer season when players fly across the globe to play international matches for their national teams, thus leaving fans of their clubs to wait, often bored, without football they care about, hoping only that no one gets injured while away.

For MLS fans, whose league often plays through international breaks, the Interlulls are somewhat less boring, in that there are matches still being played, and as someone who also follows the USMNT, I am often interested in international matches, too. Nevertheless, this current ’lull does feel a little slow, with no Union game midweek. Further, the Homegrowns held down the fort last weekend, with many first-teamers absent, and the Union have now almost entirely righted the ship heading into the final stretch before the playoffs. Things are just kind of . . . fine, I guess.

And yet here I sit, feeling a creeping sense of dissatisfaction. Why? The Union sit in third place in the East, with a good shot at being second by the end of the regular season. The young guns have continued to grow, and our veterans are mostly starting to perform, even the strikers. I should be happier, right? In attempting to understand this feeling, I have arrived at a few conclusions.

The first is that, while it is technically true that, as I just said, the Union have “righted the ship,” it doesn’t yet feel that way. The long malaise of the summer, and the disappointment of the failed CCL run (calling it failed is harsh, but that’s how it feels), are still front of mind. That the Union have been pretty great, at least from a results perspective, since the second Club América game is not yet balanced against what came before.

The second conclusion is that, while the team is starting to fire on all cylinders (or more than before, at least), there are many caveats. Kacper Przybyłko has started to find his scoring touch, but Sergio Santos hasn’t scored in several games. Leon Flach is playing very well, but José Martínez has not been at his best. Paxten Aaronson has started to show out, but Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn aren’t contributing at the same level as they did earlier this season (albeit in quite limited minutes). Jamiro Monteiro seems to have successfully reintegrated into the team, but Dániel Gazdag seemingly never integrated in the first place. There are a lot of good things happening, but there’s a lot of room for improvement, too.

Finally, looking ahead to the rest of the season, and trying to handicap the Union’s chances, I’m struck by the sense that this year’s team has a ceiling. Last season, everything felt possible, and the Supporters’ Shield proved that. In 2021, I don’t believe that the Union can win MLS Cup. It could happen, but there are other teams that are objectively better than the Union, and Philadelphia hasn’t shown it has game breakers on the roster who can win a game by themselves. Nor is the collective at the same level as last season’s. There is still time for the narrative to change. The Union could continue this good run of form the rest of the way and go into the playoffs ready to make some noise. But we haven’t seen enough evidence to make me confident it’s going to happen.

So . . . what?

In the end, it seems to me that, like others have said, the Union are in a transition year. They are inbetweeners—transitioning between one iteration of themselves and another, and hoping no one notices how awkward they are in the meantime. We don’t know the inner workings of Ernst Tanner’s mind, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if his plan from the start was to bring Gazdag in to be an 8, long-term, knowing that Aaronson would be ready to be the starting No. 10 by 2022. Perhaps he knew that Monteiro was coming to the end of his time here, and he certainly recognized that Alejandro Bedoya was on the downward slope of his career bell curve. I imagine he hoped for more from Gazdag, in particular, but as an organization, I bet the Union are in a better position than Tanner expected, given all the turnover.

Or not. Tanner isn’t a mystical guru; he makes mistakes. Maybe he thought we’d go from strength to strength, that Gazdag would be Bořek Dočkal 2.0, and the Homegrowns were further along. Maybe the Union are underperforming his expectations. I don’t believe that, but it’s possible.

Regardless, Tanner has earned the benefit of my doubt. I look forward to seeing this team emerge from its chrysalis next season as something more than it is now. And, hopefully, it can surprise me between now and the end of the season.

17 Comments

  1. I would say this is part of life in being an MLS team that is not the richest one there. We lost our two best players last year (one of which is a lock to play in the World Cup) and did not replace them sufficiently. As a result last year will be the peak unless we can get hot in the playoffs. That said our academy if it stays well run we can be consistently on the top half of the league.

    • Honestly, this is a feature of MLS. Outside of Seattle, really, every team has ups and downs, year-to-year. Look at Atlanta and LAFC. I like that, because it means more teams have a genuine shot each year to do something good. But like you say, the challenge is staying relevant even in a down year. The academy gives the Union a chance to do that.

      • Even Seattle has had downs and got lucky. Wasn’t one of their cup wins a few years ago once where they were way out of the playoffs, had a horrible summer, then went on an incredible run to just sneak into the playoffs?

    • Losing Aaronson was clearly losing one of our best players. Who is our second best player that we lost? I still see Blake, Wagner and Elliott. From the next tier I still see Martinez, Montiero, Kacper, and Santos. Watching this team, this year, it is beyond contestation at we are missing Aaronson in the middle of the field in all facets of the game. As for our second best player that we lost, no idea who you’re talking about.

      • Probably not the second best player but I think he’s referring to Mark McKenzie. And I would take him over Elliott or Glesnes.
        .
        I would also take Gaddis over Mbaizo.

      • I guess we were watching different games the past couple of years. No way I’d rather have Mckenzie back over Elliott. Glesnes maybe. They both have the same propensity to make a boneheaded pass out of the back directly to the other time. Mckenzie’s against Mexico was my favorite though. We were lucky to move on from him, let alone get paid. He’s a ball of unrealized potential.

    • Who was our second best player? Watching this team, this year, struggle offensively and the general lack of our ability to create turnovers in the opponents half puts Aaronson at or right near the top of the list for our best player last year. But second best? I still see Blake, Elliott, and Wagner. Hell, I still see Martinez, Montiero, Kacper and Santos. Which one of these guys would you ship out to get this mystery second best player back?

      • McKenzie! Definitively second best last year. Findlay isn’t anywhere near him. I agree on the Gaddis comment too but was afraid my section of the River End would heckle me for that comment lol.

      • And of course I exclude Blake from that comment but he is a keeper.

      • Subjectivity is an amazing thing. Couldn’t disagree more. I recognize his potential but it seems to me his general field awareness is keeping him from realizing it. Looks like his new team is realizing this now as he’s struggling to get on the field.

        PS: Never exclude Blake from a list of best Union players. I’ll never forget all the games he kept us in when we were terrible and could only score off Conor Casey headers

  2. Sorry, you lost me at the first sentence. It should have said, “I want to be in the that number, when the Spurs go marching in.”
    .
    Seriously, I actually think the Union are in an interesting place. They are starting to peak as the playoffs approach. Unlike last year, they won’t get a bye in the first round which I think was a major stumbling block for them…being on 2.5 weeks rest playing against a team who was back in game shape having played a few days earlier. They will have to deal with another international break just before the playoffs but I think they are in a position to be the hot team going in and go on a run like Columbus did last year.

    • I’ll just ignore your first sentence and say that, otherwise, I agree. I’m hoping the Union are about to really go on a run. I’m not sure it will happen, but it definitely could, in which case this season might feel a whole lot better in a month than it does right now.

  3. MLS is strange because of the relative parity and the playoffs. No loss ever really feels like the end of the world, but conversely, no win feels transformative, either. Lows aren’t so low. Highs not too high. Contributes I think to the ‘blahs’ of a regular season. Just need to land in one of those many, many playoff spots and see what happens. I tend to watch primarily to see the team play well. They’ve not been brilliant lately, but better on the eye than they were through their struggles. I’ll take it.

    In the playoffs, anything is possible in this league. Union play Nashville at home soon and could conceivably grab 2nd if the good form and put themselves in a favorable place for the playoffs.

  4. MLS Cup? Maybe not but it sure would be sweet to take down New England and re-pay the favor from last year.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Oh, that would be lovely. I’d enjoy that.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      They match up really well with NE and absolutely owe them one. That would be a heck of a game.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        Yeah if you told me at the start of the year we’d beat Shield winners NE and make the CCL semis, I’d 100% take that. Would be nice to get a trophy but this is definitely a transition year.

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