Commentary / For Pete's Sake

Taking stock of the Union with three games to go

Photo: Stephen Speer

Somehow, there are only three games left in Philadelphia Union’s MLS campaign.

Let’s zoom out and take a big-picture look at where the Union are, how they got here, and what to watch for as the playoffs loom.

Turning things around

When Club America knocked the Union out of the Concacaf Champions League on sat below the playoff line on September 15, Philly sat below the playoff line.

What they’ve done since is remarkable — five wins, two draws, and one loss in their next eight MLS games, a blistering 2.12 points per game pace.

It’s fired the Union back toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings. With the 1-0 win over Nashville on the weekend, second place is now the Union’s to lose. And with a pancake schedule over the final three games that includes bottom-feeders Toronto and Cincinnati this week, they should secure that spot with little difficulty.

The implications of that second seed are huge if the Union are able to make a deep playoff run. Other dangerous sides like Nashville and Orlando would have to come to Subaru Park in the semifinal round, and the Boys in Blue would avoid the rampaging New England Revolution until a potential Eastern Conference final at Gillette Stadium.

Examining the offense

What’s even more impressive about this run is that the Union haven’t really gotten much better at the problem that plagued them all summer: creating consistent offense.

Fifteen goals in eight games isn’t anything to sneeze at. But consider where about half of those goals have come from:

  • Kai Wagner’s opener against Orlando could easily have been called off for a foul in the buildup by Kacper Przybylko.
  • Sergio Santos earned the Union a draw at Red Bulls off a limp corner that bounced in the box.
  • Jack Elliott gave the Union an early lead on Columbus thanks to a free kick so poor that his coach and teammates were making fun of the attempt after the match.
  • Both goals against Montreal were fortunate: a free kick by Jamiro Monteiro that took an incredible bounce off the back of the keeper, and a free kick by Wagner that possessed magic powers on the way through the box and into the far corner.
  • Your mileage may vary on Daniel Gazdag’s second goal against Minnesota, but the keeper probably should have knocked Alejandro Bedoya’s flick-on header over the bar.
  • And, finally, the sole goal against Nashville came off a penalty caused by a fortunate bounce of a free kick into a visiting player’s arm.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying. A goal scored off a dead ball or a lucky bounce counts just as much as a well-worked move or a laser strike into the top corner. And the Union have done really well to capitalize on what they’re good at — specifically, set pieces.

But great teams are able to create consistent offense from the run of play. Last year’s Union squad could do that. This year’s? It really hasn’t clicked.

The biggest obstacle to a playoff run remains the same as it’s been all season: when the chips are down, against a good team, how are the Union going to score a goal?

Marauding Monteiro

To my eyes, Monteiro remains the Union’s most obvious difference-maker.

When he’s engaged and up for a match, the entire team looks more dangerous. Monteiro puts so much pressure on opposing midfielders and defenders that he can effectively nullify an entire team’s attack (particularly with Jose Martinez and Leon Flach behind him). His shift against Nashville was a man-of-the-match worthy performance.

That effort has been inconsistent this year, starting before he handed in a transfer request. There have been too many matches where Monteiro looked lackadaisical or disinterested. Even after his surprising return to the team this summer, his performances have been up and down.

But overall I’m encouraged by his play in recent matches. His chemistry with Gazdag is growing, with the first goal in the Minnesota game a prime example. And his play against Nashville suggests that the Union are getting the best version of Monteiro at just the right time.

A word on Matheus Davo

Ernst Tanner’s philosophy on overseas signings has been pretty straightforward — it’s better to buy a bunch of relatively cheap guys and hope most of them hit than to put all of the Union’s limited eggs in one basket.

Sometimes, of course, that means that a guy is just a total bust. The Union paid a decent-enough transfer fee for Matej Oravec before last season. By all accounts, he just couldn’t hack it over here, and that’s why he never cracked Jim Curtin’s lineup. He will almost assuredly depart this offseason having never played a competitive minute for the Union (or even Union II).

It looks increasingly like Matheus Davo might fall in that same category. Tanner plucked the 21-year-old forward out of the Brazilian second division on loan this summer, with a club option to buy at the end of the season. His guaranteed compensation this season is just over $250k, a solid salary.

And he’s managed just one 18-minute appearance so far this season.

All we can glean about Davo comes from Curtin’s choices. So far, those choices have been clear — even with multiple strikers out for extended periods of time, Curtin has opted for basically any other solution than turning to Davo. That includes playing Gazdag and Quinn Sullivan out of position at striker, and turning to a Christmas tree formation that only requires one striker.

At this point, it would be very surprising to see the Union pick up Davo’s option for next season.

Maybe all Davo needs, though, is a change of shirt number. The two players before him to wear number 7 were Andrew Wooten and David Accam. Not exactly auspicious company.


  1. I don’t think Kacper played his 1st year here either did he? Give him a chance to settle and maybe Davos can be ok

    • Kacper is a fair comparison, although I think there are key differences. Specifically, Kacper came here on trial after a serious injury, and he didn’t sign a contract until September. So it’s not surprising that he didn’t play at all in ’18.
      I think the expectations were higher for Davo. Look at the quote from Tanner’s press release: “We have looked for a technically advanced striker like Matheus who can play underneath his partner and link defense to attack. We look forward to getting him quickly integrated into our system.” To me, that reads like a guy they expect to be a contributor.
      That said, they might pick up his option anyway and hope that an offseason to settle lets him come in next year like Przybylko did. I think that’s not a likely outcome, but it’s possible.

    • Kacper was recovering from injury when he first signed. I think he was also able to play some minutes with U2 (Bethlehem Steel).

      • Vince is correct.
        By memory, Kacper started the season opener for the Steel away to Birmingham and got one for certain and maybe a second in the win.

  2. Before completely writing off Davo, remember Kacper’s 2018 season with the Union (0 appearances – club option for 2019).
    My thought is that I’d like to see the Union finish in 2nd or 4th. 2nd means at least 2 home games if they win the 1st with a 3rd if New England is knocked out. 4th means likely only 1 home game but puts them in the best position to knock out New England the same way New England knocked the Union out last year (one team on 4 days rest and the other on almost 3 weeks and somewhat out of rhythm – I’m guessing the Thanksgiving game will be in New England since the Patriots are home that Sunday).

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    ignoring for a moment the fact home field has never helped this team in the playoffs, I agree completely with the thesis of this article. I ‘reported’ in the early part of the season with so many stops and starts relative to INT games and CONCACAF this team was well positioned to end up 2nd -4th and they are on track to do so.
    How they FINALLY respond with a good outcome in the playoffs is the only thing that matters now. It is time to eveolve. PERIOD. Anything short of advancing in the playoffs is falling short and with this constructed roster which has displayed it is capable of playing well…. will be a failure.
    Regading montiero- he has been squarely in my cross hairs lately… and I appreciate your comment about his level of engagement as “up for a match” because this has been a consistent theme in his play this year. I stand by my belief he has no fear of the bench—
    — and this has created the dreaded MLS-openia in his play we often see in players who come from overseas after years of playing in: an absolute cut throat development environment- have to be absolutely tuned in and turned on otherwise you get eaten alive and sit withering on the bench environment we hear so often about.
    Montiero seems a bit too content -a bit too often these days for my liking. This past Saturday he was “up for it.” I hope his level of engagement continues to evolve over the last few weeks and into the post season. Really, this all comes down to Kasper in my opinion during the post season. Can we catch him in one of those 3 goals in 4 games. 5 goals in 3 games runs which will propel them forward. He needs to produce.
    Regarding the international players it is a very interesting circumstance on any given game day the only American player on the field for this team is Alejandro Bedoya who’s 107 years old. I mean, I guess Flach too..I appreciate some of the cameo’s Paxten gets and Jack get and Quinn get- I hope to see these players with pronounced playing time next year. So bringing in guys like Bueno and whoever the hell else they get on a cheapy can kinda fall by the wayside.
    I mean truly, what does it say Ernst Tanner and to a large degree many GM’s in this MLS country are okay with brining in a Paraguayan from the second division over a USL player or MLS2 player or or or. In my opnion it does not bode well. I aftcually find it disheartening so few players transfer over from USL to MLS. Course if the divide lengthens between USL and MLS which I hope it does, maybe that crossover will lessen even more. IDK strange is what I mean.

    • I would say home field significantly helped the Union in their only playoff win. The Union have won 50% of their playoff games at home and 0% away.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Hmm- you have better recall then me John. I acquiesce and stipulate- and upon looking it up…
        Red Bull 2019. good correction.

      • Actually, it’s 33% at home. Losses to Houston (2011) and New England (2020).

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    RE: Davo… for me, I have no problem with him not cutting it and as a result, not playing. If Sullivan plays over him, so be it. It shows the depth of the youth. The way the Union are built they have to take shots on guys like Davo and maybe they get lucky and maybe they don’t. What is great about Tanner, is he doesn’t cripple the roster/salary cap with a bad signing/bad player you are then forced to play. The old Union team would have to had trot Davo out there every game and watch him be terrible (assuming he is – I actually have no idea, really).
    My point is, Tanner took a shot… it didn’t cost much… Jim doesn’t think he can play, so he doesn’t… the youth steps in and at times, plays very well… and the team, while still needing striker help, is 2nd in the East, a year after winning the Supporters Shield. I have nothing to complain about.
    Go out and replace/upgrade in the offseason. Or let Davo stick around, because he doesn’t cost a ton, and see if he acclimates to the team next season.

  5. In re Davo: I KNOW nothing more than anyone else.
    Jim Curtin is a defense first coach.
    That means Davo has to understand his defensive responsibilities and then execute them.
    if he doesn’t he doesn’t play.
    Like Pete, I am increasingly skeptical of his return.

  6. I wonder if Montiero’s being “more up for it” recently has to do with Gazdag playing next to him as dual #10s?
    In Gazdag he has another player making creative off the ball runs to create options, space and scramble defenses – like Aaronson did last year.
    Before Gazdag’s recent improvement, Montiero had to try to do more by himself, which is less his game.

  7. John O'Donnell says:

    Finishing second has a statistical advantage since 2011 the last year they played MLS Cup at a neutral site.
    That year the Galaxy won the Supporters’ Shield and the Cup.
    After that year, the Cup was played at the team with the best record. In ten games the MLS Cup winner is 8-2 for the home team.
    Two number one seeds have made the Cup final and only one has won.
    Ten number two teams have made the final with four winning and twice it was a match up of the two number two’s.
    Three teams have made the final as a number three seed and won twice.
    Three teams have made the final as a number four and also won twice.
    Two number five teams have made the final and neither won.
    Of course the last two years have seen the playoffs change from aggregate to one and done but both Cup match ups consisted of 2-3-4 teams.
    So finishing second has the best statistical chance of getting to the Cup. Winning the Supporters’ Shield has been a curse since 2011 the last time a team has won both.
    Winning your last four in a row and playing at home is the momentum this team needs. Getting the forwards healthy for a run is also crucial. All three of them are streaky scorers and if they can all get hot at the same time….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *