Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Searching for a story to tell

My colleague and compatriot Chris Gibbons has a gift for picking up the disparate threads of activity in Unionland and weaving them into an entertaining narrative.

If I share that gift, it is intermittent, at best.

And, looking around the Union landscape, I don’t see a new story. The old one—the Union are one of the two best teams in MLS—is still true, even with a frustrating loss to Cincinnati not long ago. They still have the best defense; they still have an emerging powerhouse attack.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to talk about. No, there’s plenty to say. I just don’t have a pithy framing device for you today. It’s more of a potpourri.

Martínez benched?

After his lazy defense led directly to one of Cincinnati’s goals, José Martínez started the game against Chicago on the bench. As against Houston, Leon Flach started at the 6 and Jack McGlynn took the left side of the diamond.

And, just like against Houston, the Union scored four goals. Coincidence?

In short, the answer is yes, it was a coincidence, though this lineup does seem to oil the gears of the offense in a way that the Martínez-Flach pairing does not.

It was also not a benching, per se. Jim Curtin clarified in his post-game press conference that Martínez missed a largish chunk of training leading up to the game as he dealt with a private family matter, so Curtin thought going with the players who got the practice reps made the most sense.

Regardless of the reason, the change was effective. Whatever malaise was afflicting the team against Cincinnati was gone, and the team looked back to its best.

Let me reiterate that just because this lineup has worked doesn’t mean it’s what the team should shift to permanently, nor does it mean Martínez no longer has a place in the side. But any day the team performs well is a good day, and the coaching staff will certainly be taking this lineup into account as they prepare for the final games of the season.

Fullback flux

Two things to think about when it comes to the fullbacks:

First, it’s that Olivier Mbaizo has done enough to win back the coaches’ trust, and has rewarded that trust with several good offensive performances, including a couple of assists in recent games. His return has also arguably led to the defense being less secure. Whether any individual goals against can be put down to him, it is true that he gets further upfield, more frequently, than Nathan Harriel, which puts more pressure on the rest of the team defensively.

This is the primary question facing the coaching staff right now: Is it worth it to make changes to the lineup that improve the offense (adding Mbaizo and McGlynn) if the defense suffers? With Harriel and Martínez and Flach on the field, the Union defense was historically good. Without two of them, the defense may end up as just the best defense in MLS in 2022, rather than all time, but with an offense that can score two-plus goals a game more often than not.

If forced to choose, it seems pretty obvious what Curtin and co. will do, but I bet it hurts his defender’s heart to do it. And in the playoffs, where the value of a clean sheet goes up, we may see more of Harriel yet.

The second fullback point to cover is the possible loss of Kai Wagner to Leeds. Curtin confirmed that talks are happening, and if Leeds (or anybody else) pay enough (and Wagner can get a work permit) then the Union will sell, and they should.

It would be a huge loss for the team, however. Aside from his 11 assists and set piece duties, Wagner is integral to how the team functions. He, perhaps more than anyone not named Andre Blake, seems irreplaceable. Yes, Matt Real is here, or Harriel playing on his weaker side, but Wagner has been so constant, and so productive, the drop-off is bound to be significant, no matter what.

As much as I want to see Kai succeed and get to Europe, I have to hope it happens in the winter rather than now.

When they are good, they are very good indeed

Against Chicago, the Dániel Gazdag-Julián Carranza-Mikael Uhre triumvirate showed again that they are easily the most potent attacking group the Union has ever assembled (and no, when they are bad, they aren’t horrid at all, but I liked the line for the heading, sue me).

Gazdag was the star of the show, and Carranza got on the score sheet, but all three made important contributions. They are all different, both physically and in how they play. It’s a delight to watch when they are clicking and, for once, Union fans have reason to expect at least one more season of the three of them together before they break up. I assume one if not more of them will move on to a bigger league eventually, but for now they are ours. Enjoy it.

Enjoy it

If I have a narrative for you all today, it’s really that. We’re living in the best of times. The Union have a chance to win another Shield, or MLS Cup. That’s remarkable. Don’t let go of the memories of the before-times, the pre-Ernst years, because it makes this all the sweeter. And, should the good times fade away, it will give us hope that they can be found once more.


  1. Larry Guengerich says:

    Saw the game in person for a change, and was impressed with Uhre even without his name on the score sheet. Great runs, vision and made the whole line better

  2. I’m guessing that Harriel and Martinez get the nod tomorrow night (in part because Harriel did not play for Union 2 Sunday like he has most recent games).

  3. John P. O'Donnell says:

    As the season is progressing, there are story lines that if they play out could lead to a watershed moment for MLS. In the West, LAFC is on a historic pace to take the Supporters’ Shield. Meanwhile the Seattle Sounders coming off the breakthrough win of CCL might miss the dance for the first time. In fact right now no team from Cascadia would make the dance, another first since they entered the league.
    If LAFC could somehow win the SS and break the curse by making it to the Cup they would represent what a lot of fans want, a team spending money on the way to a championship. They would be the new Toronto, Atlanta and once upon a time the LA Galaxy.
    On the other side of the continent you have just the opposite in your Philadelphia Union. A team that couldn’t compete the same way financially. The first thing you notice is that the teams above all have some of the richest owners in the league. Credit Sugarman as he conceded he’ll never be able to do what these other teams have accomplished. Credit Richie Graham for selling him on the vision of an academy system and how in a league with a salary cap they could compete, possibly even thrive.
    If both teams make it to the last dance you might see for the first time two polar opposites play. The “Story to Tell” if this was to happen you would have so many story lines if somehow, someway your Philadelphia Union could win. Let’s face it as it would be a David vs Goliath moment if there ever was one in MLS. You would think the suits in MLS headquarters would love this matchup. If anything it would showcase how in a league based on parity how two different cultures of thought can be successful and coexist.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      That would be the marquee matchup, definitely. I’m personally on the fence about doing things that disrupt the parity of the league, like removing the salary cap. The parity is one of my favorite parts of MLS, but there are compelling arguments in favor of removing some of MLS’s financial restrictions. Having a Philly/LAFC cup final gives the league cover to go a few different directions. The real test would be if LAFC or teams like them start to make the final repeatedly.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I think that as the league expands, the salary cap makes more and more sense. If you’ve never seen Once In a Lifetime about the New York Cosmos of the late 70’s and early 80’s you should check it out. It helps show how one “great” team in a league can completely take down the league as a whole when games they are not involved in are not drawing at all. If MLS has 30 teams and only 5 or so have a chance to win because they are completely buying up foreign talent, then attendance for the other 25 will plummet and eventually drive many into bankruptcy.
        While leagues dominated by a small handful of teams works in places like England, Spain, and Germany where there is only one major sport competing for people’s time and money, in the US, fans of perennial losers are likely to start turning to other sports.

  4. Once again impressed by the reporting on this site! For an article you reporting having to work to put it together, I enjoyed it. Keep up the great work and I’m directing all the U fans in my life to here. Thank you again!

    It also remains a pleasure to see so many comments from an educated fan base!

  5. Murphthesurf says:

    Good article Jeremy
    Thank you, and hope to see everyone at the Final
    DOOP ⚽️

  6. You’re too kind. If anything, I enjoy the banality of the grind – maybe more than I should.

  7. if the Kai negotiations advance far enough in the next 24 hours, he may become unavailable for selection

  8. McMohansky says:

    Nice article Jeremy.

    Certainly is an enjoyable team and I don’t think many are taking it for granted.

    A lot of respect goes to Curtain for taking the methodical, conservative approach to team building. The players have seemingly all bought in and the *team* is way above any individual, to the degree that no one individual seems irreplaceable. Not that anyone wants to see Kai leave, I agree he and Blake are the most difficult to replace, but that

    the whole is greater than the sum if its parts

    Long may it last.

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