Photo: Paul Rudderow
It’s time to accept that this is who Philadelphia Union are right now:
They’re good enough to beat bad teams, draw with mediocre teams, and lose to good ones.
The Union have won one game in the last two months and just two in the last three months. Their record since June 1: 2 wins, 4 losses and 8 draws. Their two wins came against two teams in the league’s bottom third in the standings, New England and Chivas USA. Their losses came to the last two MLS Cup champs (Real Salt Lake and Colorado), the Eastern Conference’s first place team (Columbus), and the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps. Only the last should come as a surprise. And they drew everyone else.
The opening season stretch that saw them go 6-3-2 wasn’t dramatically different. They beat the bad teams (Toronto, Vancouver, San Jose) and the teams that were struggling at the time (Houston, Chicago, New York). They lost to three good home teams (Los Angeles, Dallas, and Portland) on the road. They pulled off home draws against the team’s top two teams (Los Angeles, Seattle).
What changed? The schedule
The biggest change has been that their schedule got a whole lot tougher. Some teams they beat early in the season (Houston, Chicago) are improved. The only cupcakes they played the last three months were San Jose and New England, and the Union took four points from those two road games.
The reality is that this is what most expansion teams do in North American sports if they are on a positive course of development. They build a young team, with a core of a few good veteran leaders. They struggle the first season but show signs of life throughout it, tantalizing you with young talent too inexperienced to know how to win at the professional level. If they advance to the middle of the pack in season two, then it’s a terrific step. If they’re among the league’s top third of teams by their fourth season, the franchise is a massive success.
Some clubs exceed this, like baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and MLS’s Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders, all of whom had major success within their first few seasons.
Far more teams fall short, taking many years before winning teams finally emerge. (Examples: MLS’s Toronto FC, baseball’s Seattle Mariners, and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.)
Back to reality: The table doesn’t lie
The Union’s great start made many lose sight of this. Some dreamed of a conference title. Sports Illustrated didn’t follow the team closely enough and just looked at the standings when it named Peter Nowak mid-season coach of the year. For a brief while, it looked like the Union might just match the Sounders, the grand MLS success story.
Now that the Union’s record more appropriately matches their logical growth curve, it’s not time to panic. It’s time to right perceptions.
Carlos Ruiz’s departure didn’t cue this six-match winless streak anymore than Freddy Adu’s arrival did. The Jordan Harvey trade has had far more negative statistical impact. The Union have scored 1.25 goals per game with Ruiz on the roster and 1.2 without him. They’ve surrendered 0.94 goals per game with Harvey and 1.25 without him.
But the biggest impact was a tougher schedule. The table doesn’t lie (once you’ve played enough games, at least), and when it tells us the Union are a mid-tier team, it’s right. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s where a promising young team should be.
Now that they have a weak New England squad coming into town this week, let’s see if the Union stay true to form. If so, it should be a victory.