Stay or Go? The Philadelphia Union and the Road to Relevance

The 2016 Philadelphia Union finished with 11 wins, 14 losses, 9 draws, a -3 goal differential, and a playoff appearance.

The 2017 Philadelphia Union finished with 11 wins, 14 losses, 9 draws, a +3 goal differential, and no playoff appearance.

So.. they improved? Or they didn’t..

Wait, what?

Jim Curtin’s team clobbered Orlando 6-1 on Sunday evening, a visiting team that phoned it in so badly that I could have sworn they were match fixing. It was the Union’s biggest margin of victory in franchise history and only the second time the team had ever scored six or more. C.J. Sapong set the record for most goals in a single Union season and the retiring Brian Carroll was sent out in winning fashion.

In a way, that performance was the perfect end to another bland campaign, meaning that they played well when it didn’t matter. The Union needed results from March through September and didn’t get it done, beginning the season with zero wins through eight games and slumping to a miserable 1-10-6 road record. Questions of Jim Curtin’s job security were casually brushed off even as teams with similar records were axing their managers.

It was business as usual in Chester, where the season’s inevitable outcome was determined less than halfway through. Young players were benched, others regressed, and the team played the same damn formation before finally getting experimental when the season was lost. One step forward, one step back for a franchise that can’t seem to get out of its own way.

The positives are few.

Rookie Jack Elliott surprised everyone with his intuitive and veteran style of play. Sapong, who started the season on the bench, had a career year. Haris Medunjanin wound up being a great signing and Andre Blake again proved his case for a European transfer. Folks continued the treck to Talen Energy Stadium despite onset apathy and continuing mediocrity, showing me that this fan base remains recession-proof and dedicated.

The future is foggy because of owner Jay Sugarman, who simply does not spend the money required to create a competitive team. Sporting Director Earnie Stewart does not have the resources required to assemble a playoff-caliber squad. The Union tried to play Moneyball in 2017 while expansion Atlanta spent millions of dollars on talented players and shattered MLS attendance records en route to a year-one postseason berth. Philadelphia has played (and lost) three playoff games in eight seasons.

If this team is going to get it done, they need to shed those middle of the road, $500,000 contracts and play the high/low game with academy talent backing up three game-changing designated players. Using DP slots on a million-dollar midfielder and striker should be doable if their backups are $65,000 youngsters like Anthony Fontana and Adam Najem. That’s how you skate through on the cheap while pushing your academy model and fielding a competitive team at the same time. You kill three birds with one stone and give fans something to be hopeful for, but it starts with gutting half of the existing roster.

Go:

Maurice Edu, Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius, Warren Creavalle, Ray Gaddis, Andre Blake, Ken Tribbett, Charlie Davies, Brian Carroll, Fabinho, Jake McGuire, Oguchi Onyewu

I believe Alberg and Ilsinho both have option years coming up. I’d decline both and let them move on. Neither showed enough during the past two seasons to warrant a 2018 roster spot.

Charlie Davies confirmed he’s out on Twitter. His Union tenure ends with eight appearances and zero goals, which makes his trade one of the worst in franchise history. I’m just glad he’s okay after beating cancer and dealing with health scares involving his children. Some things are bigger than soccer.

Brian Carroll retired, so good on him for an underrated, trophy-winning career.

I’d sell Andre Blake, assuming the red tape is cleared up, and use the money on one of the DPs.

Chris Pontius can become a free agent, Fabinho’s contract is up, and I’d move on from the rest on that list if possible. I don’t know the contract status of some of those guys, like Gaddis, Creavalle, and Onyewu.

Maurice Edu should go to expansion Los Angeles on a safe deal to try to get his career back on track.

Stay: 

Jack Elliot, Josh Yaro, Auston Trusty, Richie Marquez, Haris Medunjanin, Alejandro Bedoya, John McCarthy, Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers, C.J. Sapong, Aaron Jones, Marcus Epps, Derrick Jones, Fafa Picault, Jay Simpson, Adam Najem, Anthony Fontana, Giliano Wijnaldum

I’m pretty sure they’re locked in on another year of Jay Simpson, since most foreign guys sign 2+1 deals. His second year I believe is guaranteed.

You still have a nice young core of defenders, even if this year did absolutely nothing for Keegan Rosenberry, Richie Marquez, and Josh Yaro. Those three didn’t help themselves at all, nor did the coaching staff, but they are still going to have to be part of the conversation moving forward.

McCarthy remains the backup and I believe everybody else I listed is under contract for next season. Marquez I’m not sure actually, so we’ll see what happens there. I’ve had one foot off the beat for at least six months now.

No clue: 

Eric Ayuk

He spent the season on loan. Maybe he comes back as wing depth if Pontius becomes a free agent.

The Sons of Ben disagree with me on Blake’s future, but THEY’RE WRONG!

Offseason signings – 

DP attacking midfielder, DP striker, TAM-level center back, starting goalkeeper, right wing depth, backup left back

The biggest need is a DP #10, assuming they’re married to this 4-2-3-1 formation that never changes. They flirted with Elias Aguilar and Nicolas Martinez in the summer but decided not to sign either one. They need to be in the one million to 1.5 million range for this player and let Najem and Fontana be the cheap backups. You just can’t skimp on a playmaking number ten.

Striker is another story, because you’ve already got Sapong and Jay Simpson eating up $800,000 in this slot, and the Union only play one striker anyway. If you signed a $1,000,000 DP attacker, you’re spending $1.8m on a position where two of the guys are going to be on the bench. It’s a problem area created by the $500,000 Simpson signing. I don’t know what they do here.

If Blake goes, you can find a decent goalkeeper for $150k or $250k. We actually produce decent stoppers in this country, so no need to go the foreign route.

You’ll need another LB to replace Fabinho. Maybe you bring up Matt Real from Bethlehem Steel. If Gaddis goes, Aaron Jones can back up Keegan Rosenberry. I think you can get away with a wing combination of Picault and Herbers in 2018, assuming the former improves his finishing and the latter plays like he did at the tail-end of 2016.

At center back, I’m not sure. I still believe in Yaro or Marquez as a third CB, but a veteran TAM-level guy would be a nice complement to Jack Elliott. Onyewu had a really nice season and proved a lot of doubters wrong, but he’s not the future.

Way too early 2018 depth chart:

striker: new designated player, C.J. Sapong, Jay Simpson

attacking mid: new designated player, Adam Najem, Anthony Fontana

right wing: Fabian Herbers, Marcus Epps, Eric Ayuk

left wing: Fafa Picault, Marcus Epps, Eric Ayuk

DM #8: Alejandro Bedoya, Derrick Jones

DM#6: Haris Medunjanin, Derrick Jones

Left back: Giliano Wijnaldum, Matthew Real

Center back: TAM-level signing, Jack Elliott, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, Auston Trusty

Right back: Keegan Rosenberry, Aaron Jones

Goalkeeper: new signing, John McCarthy, new signing

I wrote this up assuming it’s the same old 4-2-3-1 again. You’d have Sapong backing up the new DP, who is playing in front of the other new DP. Picault and Herbers on the wings with Bedoya and Medunjanin behind them. I don’t know what Derrick Jones does next year, since having both Medunjanin and Bedoya on the roster keeps him on the bench, unless they decide to try that 4-1-4-1 again and flip the triangle. They tried a Jones/Bedoya/Medunjanin trio earlier this year and it didn’t work since Bedoya is not a number 10.

The only other thing I could see is that Bedoya goes back over to right wing and Jones plays next to Medunjanin. They won’t do that, but it’s a way to get Bedoya into better crossing and attacking positions while putting a true #6 on the field and allowing Medunjanin a little more space to roam.

Preferred 2018 lineup assuming no tactical changes:

If you go through the suggestions I listed above, this is what your team looks like next season. They can get into the playoffs as the 5th or 6th seed with this grouping if they don’t whiff on the DP signings.

It’s the same 4-2-3-1 that we’ve always seen, this time pairing Elliott with a veteran CB and improving the #9 and #10 positions.

“Go big or go home” lineup that will never happen: 

It’s a 3-5-2 using Wijnaldum and Rosenberry as wingbacks to amplify their attacking ability and mitigate their defensive liability.

Medunjanin can play the Andrea Pirlo regista role and spray the ball around from deeper positions while Bedoya and a new midfielder play box-to-box roles ala 2013 Juventus. Medunjanin, Bedoya, and the new DP would basically function like a poor man’s trio of Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, and Paul Pogba. Sapong stays on the field with the new DP to get a pair of attackers on the field and justify dedicating that much cap space to the striker position.

Something different, but feasible

If you really can’t find a DP #10, don’t play with a DP #10.

Here you’ve got a 4-1-4-1 with Jones behind Medunjanin and a box-to-box DP midfielder. Bedoya goes over to his natural right wing and Picault is on the left behind a DP striker. You saw them have a little bit of success flipping the triangle later in the season, and something like this could at least be a nice adjustment if Curtin insists on playing with a back four and a single striker for the entirety of 2018.

Anyway, it’s a start. I think the Union created some good offseason momentum by obliterating a pathetic Orlando squad yesterday, so they should drop that press release with the roster moves ASAP and keep the train rolling.

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37 Responses

  1. I will bet you that Esports viewership blows away Soccer viewership in America by 2020…

    Soccer had its chance.

    1. I’ll take that action.

      Remember 10 years ago when watching other people play poker was the future? …it’s not anymore.

      Other than people who pick their nose and eat it, who watches other grown men (or women) play video games?

  2. Pretty much agree with all of this.

    Only thing I would add would be Curtin to the “Go” list. I love a good hype train, so give me Saravese to replace Curtin.

    Didn’t watch enough Steel this year to really know if Real or A.Jones are ready for first team play though.

    1. Problem with Gaddis going, now that I think about it, is that he covered two roles as a backup. If he stays he can play both fullback positions but I don’t know how they would address that otherwise. Usually you just have a d-mid spot cover at right back, then have the right back move to left back.

  3. Nice article. Union ownership screwed the team from the start. The stadium should have been built downtown. And they refuse to invest in talent. They could have signed Nikolic on the cheap.

  4. Kevin. It’s goal DIFFERENCE. Not differential. Difference. D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-C-E. It is the equation of subtracting goals against from goals scored. Saying goal differential makes you sound like a total pleb.

      1. It’s not though, shithead. “Goal differential” isn’t a thing and you’re a sports writer so use the correct terminology.

        1. Goal Differential is still a commonly used phrase when determining tie-breakers and standings, particularly in the English Premier League. You’re probably in the same camp as, “its not sudden-death, its sudden victory”.

        2. Except that you are wrong. Differential is primarily an adjective in the US, but it still can be used as a noun. You’re being pedantic either way… and a shithead.

  5. Kevin, nice read.

    I really despise the MLS. Its making our Senior team terrible, while making the other nations in CONCACAF better.
    I would not be disappointed to see this MLS close shop. Still have the academies, but if a 16/17 year old is a LEGIT talent, he must be sent to Europe, anywhere in Europe to train with other pro’s. Anywhere but the MLS.
    Our young players are told they must go to College first, and then on to pro careers. Other nations, their players are playing proffesionally at 17-18 years old…our players are not really starting pro life until 21/22 years. Too old……Keep the best talent away from the MLS please.

    1. It’s just lazy narrative people that say MLS is making the USMNT worse. It’s absolutely false.

      If MLS closes up shop that would be more detrimental to the national team than missing the World Cup. And the academies would close too, why do you think they would stay open without their clubs?

      And no, our young players aren’t told to go to college. In other sports, yes, but not in soccer. College is still a legitimate option though because the US is so vast and players mature at different times that we need the college system to try and catch the kids that fall through the cracks of the academies.

      If you care about the national team, the best thing you can is support and care about the local leagues.

  6. I’d still like to hear your thoughts on Curtin going away? I don’t know if he is a good or bad coach based on the lack of talent and a direction from ownership. But could someone else have gotten more from this team?? It’s really frustrating knowing that you are out of contention half way through the summer every year!

      1. This. He should have spent more years with the U20s before ever being considered for a head coach position. He was just fast-tracked by a cheap owner.

  7. Really hope the team abandons the 4-2-3-1. Picault and Herbers are nice players but I don’t think anyone would miss them if the Union started trotting out the 3-5-2, which plays to the strengths of the best players (already) on the roster. If Wijnaldum leaves I feel like the Union could find a strong replacement that’s affordable at that position.

  8. Kev – the thing that frustrates me the most right now, along with the ownership’s slow and low investment, is the single striker formation. I want a DP striker as much as anyone, but how the heck can we not have Sapong in the starting 11. Using him of the bench would be such a waste. I’m praying Curtin and Stewart open themselves up to the idea of 2 forwards, otherwise Sapong might become trade-bait if they want to try to upgrade to a legit DP striker. That being said, maybe a stud DP #10 would be enough of an upgrade to push Sapong to even higher production at forward and make that DP striker less of a necessity.
    Everyone seems to think we’re stuck with Simpson. Yeah maybe he has a guaranteed contract for 2018, but would it really be impossible to sell him back to some team in England? Even if it’s just a nominal $1 to get his full contract off our books and on to someone’s else’s hands. Heck convince him he isn’t going to play next year either and maybe he’ll help make the move happen. Sitting on that mess for another year is just….. ugh….a huge leak our scarce resources. And if I hear him say Dunkin Donuts again on the commercial I might scream like a mental patient.
    Also, I know you got that high/low stuff from Earnie. Doesn’t it just seem like a snap reaction to this year’s 3-4 duds who happened to be in that range . Nogueira, Barnetta, and Medujanin were all in that range – the were all very strong signings. It’s really all just about getting a good match of performance for salary regardless of how high or low their wages are.

    1. I think since Earnie has been there they are 1/4 or 25% on the TAM signings, those guys being Haris, Alberg, Ilsinho, and Simpson, so only one of those dudes was a slam dunk

      I don’t think Simpson ever really got a chance ya know? he got injured scoring his first goal,Sapong came in, and then didnt let go of the job

  9. I agree we need 3 solid DP’s but we won’t get them. I’d prefer to get rid of Bedoya honestly if possible in our pretend world. Though I’d venture into another basic formation that seemingly forgotten. The 4-4-2, but an aggressive one using as many high $ players we can’t dump.

    DP Striker + Simpson
    Picault, #10 DP, Medunjanin, Sapong (has wing experience and is a workhorse — maybe flip Pica and Sapong)
    Wijnaldum, DP CB, Elliott, Rosenberry

  10. Kevin, I agree with you on everything except Blake and Simpson.

    We just need to trade Simpson. Period. He never fit the system to begin with, and has never adapted. He won’t be any better next year because Curtin can’t coach him into what he needs.

    Yes we could sell Blake (which I hope we do at some point), but I don’t think we should sell him just to get more $$ right now. We are going to have enough money coming off of the books this offseason to cover getting a couple DP’s and whatever else we need.

    This is going to be all on Ernie over the next few months. We will get to see what his ability to build a team really is. He’s going to have the resources, there is going to be plenty of GAM/TAM floating around, we’re going to have the roster spots available – so there really is no excuse. Even with getting Sugarman to buy some DP’s, Ernie has stated that he has the backing bring someone in if he thinks he’s the right fit. On top of that the Crew have the cheapest DP’s in MLS and they still got to MLS Cup, so the pathway exists.

    Make it happen Ernie. Start by bringing in a new coach.

  11. Wow, the comment section is beautiful here. It’s great to see you still writing a bit on the Union, Kevin! It really was a blow to the Union blogosphere when you moved on from Philly Voice. Your coverage there was excellent!

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