Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: The stories we tell ourselves

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

So, Leagues Cup is over and league play has resumed.

The mid-season mini-tournament was certainly an experience that warrants some unpacking and, with the Union well-placed to make another run at MLS postseason glory, there are some layers to how Leagues Cup ended that may echo through the rest of the season and beyond.

Strange days

It still feels deeply weird that Lionel Messi plays in MLS.

That he is doing what he is doing is both astonishing and utterly predictable, given his abilities. The biggest surprise is the competence with which Inter Miami has built a team around him. This was not a franchise that screamed “competence” before now, but here we are.

Before the Union hosted Messi and Friends, there was a sense that Philadelphia were as well-suited as any team in MLS to make life difficult for them. That Philly were, instead, co-conspirators in their own defeat—lining up in a formation that gave too much respect to Messi and then playing with fear—means the question of whether the Union do indeed present a problem for Miami wasn’t really answered.

The Union rolled over.

Had they been at their best, who knows? Messi might have rolled them anyway. But that’s a game that hasn’t happened yet.

It’s entirely possible that it is a game that will not happen until 2024 (at the earliest), as the only way the two teams could meet again this season is via the playoffs. Miami is not out of the playoffs theoretically, but they would have to win out or close to it to be in. It’s unlikely that their current level of performance is actually sustainable. They may in fact be the best team in MLS, but Messi will miss games for internationals and load management – something is likely to give.

Then again, what if they just win every game?

Is that any stranger than the fact that Messi plays in MLS at all? Nothing about him playing here seems real, so why not just never lose again? Whether you hope for that or not is between you and your god.

I’m sure the Union’s players would like a second chance.

Dealing with failure

And they should want that, because their performance against Miami represented one of the biggest failures in Union history.

The loss itself is not the issue.

The fact that it was the result (at least in part) of decisions by Jim Curtin and the poor play of the team on the field is what makes the result so difficult to take. It was deeply disappointing to witness that shambles. These are professionals that have earned a great deal of respect and they did not show what they are capable of. They fell down, in the worst way.

For it to be another failure in a semifinal or final makes it sting all the worse.

The Union have been blessed to contest a good number of semifinals and finals, going as far back as 2014 (before the team blossomed into its current form). That so many of those games have resulted in losses is both statistically insignificant and a big deal all the same.

It’s not a big deal because it represents an inability by the team to win big games—that’s just not true.

It’s a big deal because narratives matter to humans, and a lot of the current players have now lived through more than one failure to win a big game. The human mind being what it is, those players likely overplay the value of their failures relative to the value of their successes. It will take a strong mind and group culture to prevent the idea that the Union just aren’t capable of winning big games from creeping into the minds of at least some of the players, to say nothing of the coach (and the fanbase).

So, while the Union have returned to league play and looked good, even dominant, doing it, this problem won’t go away.

Say the Union end up with Miami in the second round of the playoffs, having overtaken Cincinnati and improbably won the Supporters’ Shield. Or, say the Union have to go to Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Finals or host LAFC in MLS Cup. It doesn’t really matter what happens in those games, with all the variance that comes with soccer: lose them, and it’s more evidence proving the Union’s supposed inability to win the big one.

The only salve for this psychic wound is winning.

Winning is a habit

As such, it was good that the Union dispatched DC United so ruthlessly on Saturday (and beat CF Monterrey before that).

DC had managed to hold the U scoreless through their last two encounters, so to score against United so early and so easily—and in such classic Union style—meant the world. It was the Union reasserting the story they tell themselves about their identity: 4-4-2 diamond, press-and-counter, blow the doors off them—that’s the team the Union wants to be. It’s what has brought the team the success they have had.

  • As useful as formational and tactical flexibility is, the Union needed to remind themselves of what makes them good.
  • Jack McGlynn went 90 and was at the heart of things.
  • Jose Martinez was at his best until going off injured, then Leon Flach came in and locked things down.
  • Jakob Glesnes turned in one of the most dominant centerback performances I can remember seeing in a long time. The goal he and Andre Blake prevented together was ludicrous and he got booked for a tackle so strong and clean the ref couldn’t believe it was legal.
  • Julian Carranza returned from injury and looked good, reminding everyone of what he might have offered against Miami – including setting the table for his partner Mikael Uhre, who despite scoring against Monterrey still needed that goal.

All of these things help the Union write the story of their season.

Whether or not Philly gets to face Messi again this year, finding a way to say the Leagues Cup fiasco was an aberration—that the team that demolished DC is the true one—is vital. And if the Union go to Toronto and are able to deliver a similar beatdown (nothing’s guaranteed obviously, but there isn’t a much better time to go to Canada and get a win), then that’s another brick in the psychic construction.

String a few wins together and no longer is the team worrying about how they will perform in a big match. Instead, they are reeling Cincinnati in, trying to take back the one-seed that LAFC stole from them last year.

That’s a much better story to tell.


  1. Jeremy how they handled that night still sits like Angostura Bitters in my mouth. Get rolled… fine. I can live with it.
    Play scared. Play not to lose as though any team in the WORLD has EVER really contained that guy, those guys….can’t have it. This city is Rocky hitting Apollo with so many body shots he couldn’t lift his arm, sir.
    I never thought anything would be harder to swallow then Gareth Bales… Syrup of Ipecac— but this is very very close. Having trouble moving on in truth.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Why is it strange that Messi is in MLS? It’s the same retirement league that has overpaid for past their prime superstars in the past. At least Beckham was only 32 and stayed 5+ seasons when he came. Once Messi realizes how much travel is involved, he’ll either retire, go elsewhere, or start skipping road trips (and won’t people who paid mega dollars for tickets be pissed when he doesn’t show up?).

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      It’s weird because he’s the best player currently alive. Right now. And he plays in MLS. Whether he’s retirement age is immaterial. He’s better than anyone has ever been while playing in MLS. This isn’t even Zlatan-level, who came to MLS then went back to Europe successfully. This is the best player of all time. He’s going to win the Ballon d’Or this year. Because he just won the World Cup.

    • Tata Martino telegraphed a compromise strategy in New York. Messi is clearly okay to dress as a benchie.
      If I have managed to understand current thinking about workload management, half an hour of hard work does not create a need for special rest and recovery. Jim Curtin has said that up to an hour falls into that category at open practices in previous years.
      Technical staff behavior sending first teamers down to Union II but having them substitute out after 60 minutes reinforces my impression of load management tactics.
      New Yorkers got to see him. HIs teammates knew he was coming and played with that psychological security presumably.
      It is a strategy the Union themselves have used in away matches during periods of schedule congestion.
      The International absences are the problem that cannot be finessed with any ease. Miami dare not fudge releasing the captain of the reigning World Cup champions when he needs to serve his higher responsibility.
      And in the regular season there are no penalty kick shootouts to salvage lost points and lost momentum.

    • Going to back Jeremy here. It is weird that Messi is here and that he seems completely committed to the program. He’s taking everything seriously and enjoying himself which playing in places like Chester, PA and Harrison, NJ — things I would have believed to be impossible as recently as 4 months ago. Maybe less.

      My benchmark DP player has always been Robbie Keane. Came here and just balled for LA. Made 125 appearances over a five-year period and scored 83 times. Picked up three MLS cups and a Supporter’s Shield along the way. I’m not sure how long Messi will stick around in Miami. I think it’s conceivable that it will be his last professional stop. If he sticks around for three years or so, and keeps his current pace, he’ll have really put his stamp on the league.

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