Roster depth and other illusions

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Union needed a goal on Saturday.

Up a man and in front of a full house at home, they had a chance to put their rivals – rivals who were perfect through 5 matches on the road, an astonishing feat – down for good.

Their first two changes were a striker who has underperformed for the other striker who has also underperformed, and a midfielder who is still finding his feet for another who doesn’t offer much in the attack. The third substitution was a right back who already has his bags packed to leave town for the team’s best player on the night, its two-way wing back.

Left in pinnies were two young, guileless attackers with track records of scoring bangers before graduating high school.

Union fans were also left, left scratching their heads – this isn’t an Open Cup Final when one team brings on Obefemi Martins and the other brings on Pedro Ribeiro. It’s a regular season game in which, up a man, two of the team’s three strikers continue to seem done and dusted while the only healthy attackers are left on the bench.

It’s maddening.

The Union have preached about being 2-deep at every position since Earnie Stewart was running the show. That depth is an illusion so long as the understudies can’t ever find the main stage – no matter what the “stars” do week in and week out…

…especially when they continue to forget their lines.

Jackson Pollack and the “drip technique”


Not everyone loves the abstract expressionist artists Jackson Pollack.

One reviewer called his work “mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless, ” while others suggested that his work was “not a picture, but an event.” Beauty is subjective, of course.

The Union made life difficult for the visitors on the weekend, snuffing out chance after chance over the top and giving the guests from Harrison little else to do when they got the ball. More than 2 passes in a row was rare.

As a result, New York’s scattered plot of passing looks a lot more like random energy than a coherent masterpiece – but it worked again in Chester.

Whether fans enjoy the Red Bull style, employed by the energy drink and its conglomerate of clubs and the Philadelphia Union as well, it’s hard to argue with results – both teams near the top of the table, extremely difficult to break down, and able to find space and chances on the counter.

Yes, it’s a bit splattered chaos, but it’s also a bit magnificent.

To be fair, the Union’s canvas only looks slightly more flattering this week because of the man advantage they earned and the possession that came with it. Most week’s they’re as derivative as can be.

Will either side change? Probably not. This is their system and it’s working.

Moreover, any artist will tell you that he or she could always add more to a piece.

It’s knowing that a piece is finished that’s the hard part.

Separating what’s important from what’s simply noise

Coins have two sides.

Flipping a coin means a 50/50 chance that heads or tails will come up any individual time.

Shooting a soccer ball in a game certainly isn’t a 50/50 chance, but there are metrics to quantify the odds for fans – Expected Goals (xG). The Union are creating enough xG in aggregate to believe they should be winning more than they are, and certainly not dropping points as often as they have.

Underneath that aggregate number though are some pretty lean individual chances – proverbial coin flips. Removing goals, in the team’s most recent 5 game streak of giving up early leads, their next best chance has been far less likely to be successful than 50/50.

  • Julian Carranza’s point blank miss on Saturday? 0.47 xG.
  • The Union’s best non-scoring chance against LAFC? 0.19 xG.
  • Against Nashville? 0.13 xG.
  • Montreal? 0.22 xG.
  • Toronto? 0.25 xG.

Union fans already know the team have gone five games in a row with an early lead, only to concede at least once afterward.

Unlucky? Sure. Unexpected? Not really.

The Union haven’t created much beyond these initial goals, putting too much pressure on their defense to be perfect while their offense struggles to get in gear. It’s not sustainable, and if Cory Burke and Sergio Santos don’t find their feet, or Mikeal Uhre can’t get fully healthy (or has a first year like that of his attacking counterpart, Daniel Dazdag), leaves the team little chance they’ll be playing late into the postseason this year.

What are the chances? 50/50, maybe.


  1. Gruncle Bob says:

    Great description of Mbaizo for Harriel!

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Chris’s fundamental point is absolutely excellent, that the youngsters are not being thrown into the mix when the older starters are not doing the job.
    But Chris’s analysis like most of those of all the rest of us, me included most of the time, focuses on winning. Winning is what makes it fun to go to the game.
    But as Chris himself has pointed out so many times over the years, winning is not the most fundamental goal. Developing assets for future sale is.
    WE all loved Brenden Aaronson’s and Mark McKenzie’s last year because the team won. But consider the year before. Those two assets — my apologies to two fine young human beings whom I have just commoditized — were still developing the year before. The team was good, but not one of the elites in the league.
    Jim Curtin’s most important skill is not winning games, as nice as it is for us fans when he does so. His most important skill is judging when one of his young charges is ready to step up to the next plateau of soccer productivity and excellence.
    I should not put it all on the head coach because it is abundantly clear that those judgments are made collectively by the professional-level technical staff. But in my defense Curtin is in charge of daily first-team man management.
    Right now the youngsters are not starting because for each there remain aspects of their games that need improvement before they can replace the ones ahead of them. Several of those in the “ahead” positions on the depth chart have categories of their own on which they need to be working. as well.
    The Union do not have 11 fully complete two-way players. They have more who are close than they’ve every had. But 14-18 fully complete two way players is a luxury available only the cash-stuffed vaults of the Bayern Munichs, the Manchester Citys, the Liverpools.
    For the Union the whole must exceed the sum of its parts.
    From what I have seen in Union II’s matches when the first-team youngsters have played, each one has flaws in need of attention. the Open Cup match revealed some of those needs for remediatiom.
    The kids will be forced into use by the schedule both this month and later on. Remember that three to five of the HGs could be called up to the U20s in July.THode experiences will help with development.
    But I agree with the brain trust that they are not yet fully ready to replace on a permanent basis.
    For me, the really interesting future conundrum will come this summer if some European-based club makes an offer for Kai Wagner that cannot be refused. That would change the Union’s season profoundly.

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      Excellent perspective here.

    • Union fan says:

      Far be it from me to try to debate Tim on soccer matters but to play devil’s advocate, there is also a concept in development of any skill called plateauIng. Sometimes in order to push through to the next level you have to be challenged with the next step and just figure it out, even if you don’t appear to be ready. Maybe the young HGs are discouraged sitting on the bench game after game and are stagnating. In 11 games so far Aaronson has played 43 minutes total, McGlynn 109 and Sullivan 133. Sullivan’s numbers skewed a bit by starting one 82 minute game, the only start combined between the 3 of them and only because Bedoya was injured. And Sullivan played fine surrounded by first teamers and the Union won.

      When Tanner put the roster together those 3 HGs were the 3 most important bench players along with Santos. If you look at the roster there is really no one else to supplement the starters than them. It’s on Curtin to find roles and challenges for them within the first team. I guess some people will say they aren’t playing therefore they must not be ready. I’d say Curtin isn’t making use of everything he has and over-relies too often on a core of guys who never seem to leave the field.

  3. Curtin certainly has strong defensive skills and knows how to get the most out of his defense. I am not sure if he has the same acumen on the offensive side and wonder further if he has the staff to help him get more out of the offense. We can always say they do not have the personnel to pull it off, but is some of this the coach’s inability tactically on the offensive side of the ball to get the most out of what he has? Burke and Santos have showed they can score in the past. Why not now?

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      I too have wondered… if we are consistently getting them into dangerous positions, and the stats say we are, is that answer really just a ton more reps at finishing drills? Getting that muscle memory deepened?

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I’ve always been of the perspective that defense comes down to organization and effort, while offense comes down to organization and skill (with a dash of magic, perhaps). The Union have three of the four things clicking.

    • Maybe Pat Noonan is being missed, as he was a forward and helped coach the forward line

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I think they miss Noonan, but they couldn’t score much last year either. I think they miss Uhre and still need time to gel.

  4. Winning it all is the goal this year, or atheist it should be.Rewatched the last 15 minutes and it came down to a couple of good saves by Cornel to keep the tie. I am changing my mind on McGlynn and Burke. Burke played much better than what I thought after the defeat and Mc Glynn provide so.e good service. This team does have good depth in most postions.They are in the best position ever to make a run for the title. It would be riminal to the fans to let Wagner go during the season.This is what drives me crazy about soccer.No other pro league in the U.S. would consider giving up one of their best players for allocation money when they are so close to winning it all.This team has still not hit its peak.Uhre when he is healthy will add another dimension .He can score passes well and has great speed. The best I s yet to come.!

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