Commentary / Union

The schedule isn’t easy, it’s just a soft opening

Photo: Stephen Speer

In just six games played the Union are five points clear of second place in the east, and have a whole extra win between them and second place in the Supporters Shield race by virtue of remaining the only undefeated team in MLS. It’s an exceptional run of form, and it’s a testament to the work done in Chester for the past several seasons.

But there’s a significant asterisk that has been left out of every power raking that the Union have topped. They’ve got these results against teams ranked 17th, 20th, 28th, 24th, 12th, and 15th in the Supporters Shield race. Improbably enough expansion team Charlotte FC is the only team the Union have faced so far this season that’s in the top 50% of the standings. So it’s not unfair to ask if the Union are actually good or just fortunate to be facing teams that are in a bit of a rut.

Of course most of those games are inevitable parts of the MLS season. The Union will play Montreal, New York City, Charlotte, and Columbus at least twice in 2022, that’s just how the MLS schedule works. Which means Orlando, the Red Bulls, and Atlanta will also get to play those teams at least twice. In fact the Red Bulls have also faced San Jose, Minnesota, and Montreal already this season, along with surprise bottom-dwellers New England. So if the Union have a schedule advantage it’s in how they’re exploiting their calendar and taking points where they should, not that their schedule is unfairly easy.

And let’s not pretend that the Union facing this lesser competition is a fully realized version of itself. Head Coach Jim Curtin admitted as much when he said “I think we’ve been good in all the games, we’ve been certainly sound defensively, but we’re not a finished product, which I really, really like at this stage.

To put it another way the Union have yet to achieve what Curtin believes they’re capable of. And he’s got a point. Julián Carranza has shown moments of promise but clearly isn’t fully in sync with the rest of the team, to say nothing of Mikael Uhre. Anyone who’s seen his highlight reel from Brøndby IF knows he’s capable of more. He just hasn’t had enough time in training, let alone on the field, to get on the same page as the rest of his teammates.

Which all makes sense in the larger context of the 2022 MLS season. Due to the unique way the 2022 World Cup host was chosen the season started earlier than is traditional, and unique success in 2021 means the Union’s previous season ended later than has been previously traditional. It significantly shortened the off-season. Now add in the cancelled spring training games against Montreal and Nashville. And don’t forget the fact that due to immigration issues beyond the Union’s control Mikael Uhre only physically joined the team a little over a month ago.

The Union as a whole, and their two strikers signed to designated player contracts this off-season, simply haven’t had the pre-season time to get to know one another, to work out the kinks and find best practices that will make them successful later. To draw a parallel, it’s like when a restaurant does a soft opening before “officially” opening. No advertising, no fanfare, just a few days of running the kitchen, making sure workflows make sense for front of house, that sort of thing.

So what the Union are doing is no different than when European teams come to the States to do a tour before the “real” season starts. Get some reps, find out what works and what doesn’t, and make a bit of money along the way. The difference is when (say) Wrexham AFC comes to town that’s all they get. But when the Union have faced “lesser” opposition in the first six weeks of this season, they get to walk away with three points too.

14 Comments

  1. Andy Muenz says:

    A few comments here. One of the reasons the Union’s schedule seems weak is that except for Minnesota, all of the teams that the Union have played have a loss against the Union whereas the teams they haven’t played don’t. I know that seems obvious, but in the middle of the pack, one loss can make a big difference. Yes, Charlotte has the most points of the teams they’ve faced, but Charlotte’s also played one more game.
    .
    One major difference between this season and other seasons is that in the past when the Union had a relatively easy start, they didn’t take full advantage like they have this year.
    .
    I have the feeling that this season’s dates are going to be the norm going forward for MLS, since they are very similar to the originally scheduled start and end dates from 2020 before all hell broke loose.

  2. Interesting perspective.

    The challenge is that MLS truly is an ‘any given Sunday’ league… and injuries always play a role at some point.

    The key to all this?

    FIRST TIME IN FRANCHISE HISTORY… WINNING… And after 15 seasons in Sec 114…. THIS IS HEAVEN… no matter how it’s defined.

    ENJOY!
    DOOP!

    Make Toronto suffer.
    They did to us for years.
    6th win, Sat.

    Hosting MLS Cup 2022 in Chester!

  3. Not to over look anything, but these matches are pivotal…
    May 1st in Nashville, then in LAFC on the 7th, US Open Cup May 10th or 11th… and finally at home vs NYRB and Miami… by mid May everyone will feel the DOOP Power in every corner of MLS.

    Hosting MLS Cup 2022 in Chester!

    • Andy Muenz says:

      It gets worse after Miami, 4 days later they are in Portland and they wrap up the month in Foxboro before the early June break.
      .
      My guess is that they won’t go with a top tier lineup for the Open Cup.

  4. John P. O'Donnell says:

    In the future the MLS season will probably start the same as this year but end in December. Since the league will stop for a month for Leagues Cup.

  5. I never understand this mentality…

    ‘They’re only beating teams at the middle or bottom of the table.’

    Who do you think put them there? When you’re only 6 games in, we’ve handed 5 of our 6 opponents a minimum of 20% of their collective loss columns right now.

    Just to prove how specious the argument is, let’s turn the whole thing on it’s head. So far, the Union are 5-0-1 in 6 matches.

    In those 6 matches, 2 were against 2021 Playoff teams (Minnesota, NYCFC). 2 of the remaining 4 were teams that missed the playoffs by a single point (Columbus, Montreal). 1 of the remaining 2 was against 10th place San Jose, and the last was against an expansion team with no history available to judge.

    The whole argument of ‘teams we beat don’t matter because they’re not ranked highly’ is stupid, because us beating them is a huge part of the reason that their rankings are what they are. It the Union lose all of those games instead, do you look at the table and go “Oh well, we shouldn’t be too upset because the teams that beat us are all above us on the table?” It’s dumb.

    • Exactly. If you take the teams who the Union beat and give them 3 points, and take the points away from the Union, you end up with Charlotte first in the east with 12 points, Columbus 2nd or 3rd with 11 points, and Montreal with 4th or 5th with 10 points. The loses to the Union make a big difference in the standings.

    • Specious…. Excellent!

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is fair, but in the Prem for example, I think there’s a decent correlation between a team’s record against the top X number of teams and their place in the table – maybe cart and horse, but there as a data point.

  6. Deez Nuggs says:

    The other way to look at this: from the top of the mountain you can only see trees by looking down.

  7. Isn’t that part of Gollum’s riddle?

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