Analysis / For Pete's Sake

More points dropped raise concerns for the Union

Photo: Howie Pollard

“I’m pissed.”

That’s how Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya led off the press conference after a match where he scored the second-fastest goal in club history.

Bedoya’s squad followed up that first-minute goal with a mediocre performance, ultimately scraping a 2-2 draw with one of MLS’s worst sides.

In the race for the No. 2 seed in the East, Philadelphia had seized control of their own destiny on Saturday night against Nashville. They promptly threw it away last night, dropping points from winning positions on the road for the third time in four matches.

With just two games left in the regular season, let’s focus in on some of the storylines coming out of Wednesday night’s draw.

A striking problem

Kacper Przybylko had — let’s just be blunt — a miserable performance against Toronto.

Despite being presented with multiple golden second-half opportunities to bag a goal, Przybylko didn’t find the scoresheet. The striker hit a point-blank attempt from about three yards out right at keeper Quentin Westberg, while he blasted another one-on-one opportunity over the bar despite the presence of an open Sergio Santos alongside him. Near the end of the game, Przybylko’s last good chance found only Michael Bradley, who blocked it away. (More on that in a moment.)

And, making matters worse, Striker Muffin committed a bad turnover in his own defensive half that led right to Toronto’s opener, a poorly hit touch toward Jose Martinez that ended up in Matt Freese’s net just seconds later.

Przybylko is a tough player to evaluate, because his greatest value comes from things that most strikers don’t do. He’s willing to run and do defensive dirty work, including on dangerous opposing set pieces, and play deep in his own half doing so. And there’s no doubt that he scores goals — 11 so far this year in MLS play.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that he also leaves a ton of goals on the table. Whether it’s because of his lack of pace, his oft-poor finishing, or his struggles to get on the ball in dangerous areas, it seems like Przybylko should be more prolific than he actually is.

At this stage of the season, though, it doesn’t seem like Przybylko is going anywhere. Sergio Santos — who had the crucial equalizer last night — is just back from injury and not likely to play more than 60 minutes in any one match the rest of the way. Cory Burke, too, is recovering from injury and is far from going 90 90. And Curtin has shown us what he thinks of alternative options — Matheus Davo, or out-of-position attackers like Daniel Gazdag and Quinn Sullivan — with his substitutions and rotation patterns.

After the game, Curtin made clear that he’s playing the guys he trusts. The next month or so will show whether that trust is rewarded.

The Laws of the Game

The flashpoint near the end of the match was what looked, on first glance, to be a clear handball on Toronto’s Bradley in his own box — one that would have earned the Union a late penalty. Curtin said as much in his post-match presser, suggesting with a hint of derision that the referees would have a “lawyerly” expression for why it wasn’t called.

Incidentally enough, I am a lawyer — and so I’ll turn the explanation over to friend of PSP and actual referee Kevin Kinkead for the explanation.

So, the ball struck Bradley’s chest first, and only then clanged off his hand. Not a penalty, per the Laws of the Game. Both color commentator Danny Higginbotham and studio analyst Sebastien Le Toux agreed with that explanation on the Union broadcast.

It was the right call — and, more to the point, the result was no more than the Union deserved.

Paved with good intentions

Form is a funny thing. So much of how we process a team’s ups and downs depends on somewhat arbitrary cutoff points.

For example, the following two statements are completely true, and lead to completely different conclusions about the Union:

  1. The Union have been beaten just once in the last nine games, averaging two points per game during that stretch.
  2. The Union have won just one of their last four games, dropping seven points from winning positions along the way.

This team has been tough to get a read on all year. They’ve been often frustrating to watch, yet they’ve played some great games, yet they’ve dropped a bunch of late points, yet they’ve also won a lot of late points… and so on.

Last night, on the whole, wasn’t a promising data point. After jumping out to that early lead, Philly let Toronto control the pace of the match. The goals didn’t arrive until the second half, but they were coming. It was a frustrating performance with so much on the line.

At this point, there isn’t much road left. Two matches remain: Cincinnati at home — a game the Union should win by 45 or so — and NYC FC on the road. That match will likely be massive, as the Citizens sit both three points behind the Union for third and just four points above the red line.

A win last night would have allowed the Union some relative luxury on the run-in. Take care of business against Toronto and Cincinnati, and Philly would’ve been in great shape.

Now, there’s still plenty of work to do for the Boys in Blue.


  1. Stiker is a major issue for us. I say major because we are at a cross roads. Players like Przybylko and Santos and burke are not flat out “bad”. In fact, they can be pretty good.

    However, we are aiming to be better than good. We want to be great. And to get there, we cannot have strikers like these. We cannot wait multiple games for Przybylko to find the back of the next and get “hot”, we cannot wait for Santos to get injured again and again and only have him for 45 minutes here and there.

    We could keep these strikers and still be a good team. We could over near the top of the pack, go on a hot run, and even look good at times. But when push comes to shove, and we need to win, we are relying on things to go 100% right and we cannot have that. I can’t keep waiting on the 1/10 chance that Przybylko gets hot at the right time anymore.

    So we need an upgrade for sure. A real, clear upgrade. Hell, Przybylko/Santos/Burke can be a decent MLS strike group if we had a clear #1 in front of them to do the brunt of the hard work.

    But honestly, we need to outgrow our current strikers. We need better, and it was a pain watching Przybylko miss goals, give up a goal on an AWFUL back heel attempt, and misplay passes all over the pitch. His first touch also killed a nice attempt in the box.

    • I don’t even put Kacper at Santos’ level. If Santos could stay healthy Kacper should never see the field.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        But Santos and Burke can’t stay healthy. Every season, they miss a month or two. Meanwhile, Kacper is going to score 12-13 goals this season – plus the 5 he scored in the CCL – and it will be his third straight 10+ goal campaign (with last season adjusted for fewer games). There’s only a handful of guys in all of MLS who can make the same claim.

  2. As I mentioned in the comments on the game report, in the last 6 road games, the Union were in position to come home with 18 points. They ended up with 6. They need to find a way to hold on to the lead. While there have been some errors by the defense, a LOT is the inability of the midfielders to take pressure off the defense and for the strikers to create a 2 goal lead (the only win in those 6 games was the only one where they had a 2 goal lead at one point, and even there, they let Cincinnati close it to within a goal).
    NYCFC is now in position to take 3rd if they win their last 2 games (they are in Miami Saturday) since they would hold the tiebreaker. Atlanta could easily catch the Union if the U lose in the Bronx (they are home against Toronto, at Dead Bull, and at Cincinnati).
    At this point my expectation is that the season ends in Atlanta, just like it did 2 years ago, only this time without a home playoff win first.

  3. I am pissed as well.
    Kasper drove me up the wall yesterday. He usually does but then he scores and makes things better; but not last night.
    Will only be happy again if they win the next 2 games.

  4. Przbylko has been tough to figure out. He seems to me a guy who has the tools to be really successful with more quality than we’ve had there in a while. Sometimes, he looks really gassed to me. Other times, he’s just never on the same page with those around him. He definitely doesn’t get the service he should, I think. there are so many times I see him open or make a run for a poor cross or a missed pass or just ignored altogether. He’s also often so, so deep. I’ll see someone clear the ball at the 18 and realize it’s #23. I don’t know. This whole team has lacked a cutting edge this season in the final 3rd. It just hasn’t worked at all, regardless of who is out there.

  5. The Union should have won without needing that penalty, but that has to be a penalty.
    I don’t care if it hit part of his body first. He clearly extends his arm away from his body towards the ball to increase his profile. It was absolutely intentional and an unnatural position.
    But the Union shouldn’t have needed it, so it is still on them.

    • That’s a good point. I mean based on the it hit the body first interpretation, what’s to stop someone from playing it off their chest into their own hands, and chucking it down the field? Seems like if it came off someone else and you just didn’t have time to react, there’s an argument to be made, but if it comes off your own body, you should be expected to control it enough to avoid a handball.

  6. Jason Brooks says:

    Przbylko needs to decide if he wants to be a midfielder or a striker. I believe he plays up front though because he is not quick enough for the midfield and he would get destroyed by a fast attacker if he was on defense. He has speed, but he is slow to get up to full speed. He never goes after a 50/50 balls and what amazes me the most is how many times he will pass the ball away once he receives it in the box. It’s like he doesn’t want to score. Or he knows he doesn’t have the 1v1 skill to score if he doesn’t have an open goal. What I really can’t figure out is why Curtin leaves him on the pitch while pulling Santos our someone else who has been making runs and playing aggressively. He is clearly not the answer, but apparently Curtin likes leaving points on the table to watch Przbylko run in circles like a dog chasing his own tail…

  7. Things are starting to Fall in Place………

    Kacper is the best we have right now. A ball struck a couple of inches to the left or 2 inches lower and he has 2 goals. I am really happy to see Gazdag finally looking comfortable and confident. That will payoff bigger dividends in the playoffs then Kacper misfiring on a couple shots last night . Overall Kacper is very good in the air, has good foot skills for a big guy and a willingness to play some defense. His work rate is good. He also has 11 goals. ( not too shabby). I think he is a bit worn out from playing so many games this season. Jim should rest him vs Cincinati . I am more concerned with the recent bad turnovers deep in the Union end that have resulted in goals for the opposition. If Gazdag and Montiero continue work together and the defense tightens up the Union could go to the second round of the playoffs. I think the team overall is looking in better form then they played in September. Wow I actually sound positive ! Just imagine if we still had Aaronson SR. Oops! slipping back into my negative side. Time for another happy pill.

    • I’m right with you on the turnovers in the defensive end. It surprises me with Curtin because he was a defensive player. The multiple games and lack of rotation are showing! I was wondering if Jim thought he would play the youth movement at home…familiar with the field,home crowd to root them on. Build some confidence going into the playoffs. Just kind of thinking out loud.

  8. I’ll just leave this here, but Instant Replay disagrees. They say it’s a penalty. In the much better angles they have I don’t see any body contact.

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