Union

They are who we thought they were

Photo: Earl Gardner

Let’s be honest here. The right teams are lined up to make the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs, and Philadelphia Union isn’t one of them.

  • Kansas City and New York are two of the league’s best teams, period.
  • Montreal are holding on for their playoff lives as their best players’ age catches up with them.
  • New England and Chicago have recovered from poor starts to play exciting soccer, thanks to the Revolution’s young attacking cadre and the Mike Magee story, now playing in the Windy City.

Meanwhile, the Union have lost nearly every game they needed to win against the four teams immediately ahead of them in the standings.

Since Mike Magee and Bakary Soumare joined Chicago on May 23-24, the Union have lost seven of the eight games they played against Montreal, New England, Chicago, and Houston. They recorded just one draw, a scoreless home affair against Montreal.

That doesn’t sound like a playoff team.

Philadelphia started the season surprisingly well, weathered a difficult summer stretch thanks in part to opposition red cards, wilted in late summer due partially to suspensions and injuries, broke that streak with an improbable road upset of Kansas City, but came back to earth with a defining road draw in a must-win game against the league’s worst team.

That’s not a bad team. It’s just not a very good team. Playoff teams should be good teams.

In the end, they are who we thought they were: A mid-level team that fights till the end but doesn’t show the midfield quality to compete at the highest level in MLS. Whether that’s because not enough players are good enough or the manager hasn’t properly deployed his midfielders (Danny Cruz, Roger Torres, Kleberson, etc.) is another issue altogether.

But the Union remain a surprisingly resilient bunch, full of character and fight. They still have a shot at the playoffs, deservedly or not. A win over Kansas City on Saturday would earn them a winning record for the year, playoffs or not, and that matters. A win would also be a statement about who this team is, though whether that statement will matter now (reaching the playoffs) or later (intangibly) remains to be seen.

Over time, Union manager John Hackworth has revealed himself as a conservative coach who will occasionally gamble, often when he has no other choice. The recent starts and solid play (through 65 minutes, at least) of Kleberson and Saturday’s shock reemergence of Roger Torres show that.

It begs the question: What will a Hackworth team look like when they’re not content with a draw?

That’s the scenario this Saturday. For the first time as Union manager, Hackworth has no choice but to play for a 90-minute win in a meaningful match.

For the Union to make the playoffs, the following things must all happen:

  1. The Union must beat Kansas City.
  2. New England must lose on the road against Columbus. (A New England draw combined with a Union win would put the Revolution in the playoffs, unless the Union somehow score seven more goals this week than the Revolution.)
  3. Houston must lose or draw on the road against D.C. United. If they draw, Philadelphia would make the playoffs as long as Houston does not score two more goals than the Union score this week.

A draw for the Union is absolutely worthless. They have to play to win. That makes the game worth watching all by itself.

28 Comments

  1. Spot on. They don’t belong in the playoffs. And yet, if the stars somehow align and they make it, I don’t think there’s a team in the East that would look forward to playing the Union in the playoffs. Their knack for dragging other teams down to their level gives them a chance against just about anyone.

    • Well said. Agree. I’m actually kind of excited to see what they look like Saturday. I kind of wonder if it might be the most fun fans will have watching the Union this year.

      • Yeah, given the many irritating disappointments and dissatisfaction with this season I am surprised by how hyped I am about this game. It would be a madhouse if we won and got into the playoffs

  2. Yea. They are what they are. For every red card or snatched point there was points dropped late in games or some wild injustice Hackworth complained about. But it more or less evened out and here we are. We have been in control of our destiny for over a month and we just didn’t get it done.

    I am not hopeful that we’ll see some super crazy offensive line up for the KC game when it counts Hackworth will be who he is and will call on the players he has relied on all year. Maybe we’ll get a result, maybe not.

  3. Do you think they know how to sustain an attacking philosophy? Always felt that an underlying issue is the tactical knowledge and positioning to go after a match . I think we’re going to get opened up by throwing too many numbers down the wings and get countered.

    • Yes, yes, yes. Attacking football needs to be more than just bringing on a striker for a midfielder, or bringing on a fresh striker for a tired striker, or pushing your fullbacks up higher on the flanks. It requires some tactical knowledge and execution and this team has not had it for most of the year.

  4. Alright, so first… I don’t think they come out and attack at all. I think they do *exactly* what they did against KC a few weeks ago and try to grind out a win that way. I would be (pleasantly) surprised to see an attack-minded game plan Saturday afternoon.
    .
    Now, that said… Think back to February. If we were told they would finish with between 46 and 49 points and be guaranteed to not have a losing record (if they lose Saturday they finish at .500), and have two forwards in double-digit goals (along with a mid/forward in double-digit assists and a defender tying the league record for assists) how would we have reacted? Back in Feb, I think we all would’ve called that a successful growth year.
    .
    The problem is that for the first one-third to one-half of the season, they punched above their weight and got some lucky breaks – all the red cards, etc. What we’re experiencing now is really just the regression back to the mean (statistically speaking). I don’t think *anybody* predicted they would break the 50 point barrier this season, and most predictions had them right about where they are.
    .
    The problem is that while they were catching breaks and punching above their weight, our expectations adjusted – and adjusted a lot in some cases. Luck has a way of evening out over the course of a season, though. And, well, they are what we though they were – a young team that’ll go through ups and downs, finish with a better record than last year, and be about mid-table in the East.
    .
    That said, their brand of soccer is boring and isn’t going to inspire anybody who isn’t already a fan to come out and watch. And that’s the reason I think Hackworth needs to go – especially given some of the coaching options that could be available. This team isn’t far from being interesting and dangerous next season. They need a CB that can play and push Okugo up into Carroll’s spot; they need an attacking mid – honestly, I’d love to see Kleberson stay; they need to put Farfan on the right and put Cruz on the bench; and they need a little bit of depth (especially at CB – I don’t want Williams and/or Okugo being my backup CB). That’s not really very many personnel changes. What they need more than that is a coach who will take those pieces and attack more than go into a shell.

    • Well said, especially about our expectations after the 1-3 loss to KC on opening day.

    • Well said. I’m not sure I’m ready to let Hackworth go yet though. He’s made some decent personnel moves (fixed the Adu situation, got Casey and Parke for steals). Brand of soccer is agreeably not fun to watch, but may be the only way that we got to be in playoff contention with the players available.

    • Well said. Particularly your point regarding the Union brand of soccer. It’s difficult to bring in new fans [or keep current fans] when the home side is playing ugly, boring soccer.

    • Well put, John.

    • Southside Johnny says:

      Yes.

    • Agreed, though my irritation level with this team made me get all feisty with “Think back to February”. In Feb, I said they were a 7th place team. My problem (besides drinking to excess and regrettable life choices), is I fall on “Think back to August”. Sitting in third, with the teams above them losing that day, and a beatable NER team on the road. A quick whistle calling back Caseys goal and an accurate one on SLT’s offside and this team literally disintegrated. They’ve never recovered. In Feb and early on we heard about “Philly Tough”. In August, we learned that phrase meant something different. It meant whining. It meant folding. It meant a strategy based solely on being just good enough results in finishing just one spot higher than the “disaster” of 2012 and saying we’re moving in the right direction. It’s not half full, it’s just a glass with some water in it.

  5. What is most telling about not getting it done is that since the 4th of July, the Union have scored more than one goal in a game a grand total of twice, once against Chivas and once against DC United. Two teams that will finish in the bottom three in the league.

    • Yeah, *this* is why I think they need a coaching change. 1-0, 0-0, 1-1 games aren’t exciting to the average fan. Sure, soccer fans can find a 0-0 game thrilling if there’s a lot of back and forth, some great saves, some key defensive stops, etc. To someone watching their first soccer game? boring as hell most of the time.
      .
      Hackworth got them out of the dark Nowakian days. He was even, steady, and sane. The problem is his game plans: tell Danny Cruz to run up the sideline, tell Casey to look for crossed to bang in with his noggin, and tell his defense to be an iron wall. Hackworth did his job by righting the listing ship U.S.S. Union. With that fixed, it’s time for the next captain of the ship.

  6. This is a great article, really makes you think. The problem is as the year went on, the expectations RIGHTFULLY changed. A lot of the problems we realistically had fixed on the team and traded them away (Garfan/Soumare) or didn’t play (Torres/Kleberson).
    .
    Yes day 1, this is probably what we thought may be the final result. But looking back now, knowing what we know, it’s massively disappointing if we don’t make the playoffs.
    .
    Does anyone here think that we should not have done better? Looking back I mean.
    .
    Btw how good would this rotation have been all year?
    Macmath
    Williams, Soumare/Okugo/Parke, Gaddis/Garfan
    Marfan/Letoux, Okugo/Carroll, Kleberson/Torres, Fabinho/Garfan
    Casey/Wheeler, Jack/Hoppenot
    It would have provided coverage and depth at every position, stabilized the defense, made the midfield more potent, and most importantly caused competition everywhere. It’s just maddening to think about.

  7. Also, still posting pictures of the Bearfight FC games?

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    I hate to be the guy who says, “it’s great to have a meaningful game at the end…” especially when this team should / could be better…. but simply put, Saturday is gonna be fun! Unless of course the. Union play a high line, with an offensive formation, and a lineup of all attacking players and get scored on 3 times in the first half cause they are pushing to hard… hmm, I just got real nervous.
    .
    It’s a shame that Hack never figured out how to properly substitute. Unlike the Idiot before him he did a good job bringing stability to the lineup, but then adding nothing as an in-game manager. I honestly wouldn’t be upset if this team replaced Hack as manager. The right hire and a DP CAM would improve this team drastically.
    .
    All in all it was a fun season though and I love having a home town team to root for and watch live. Oh and this site makes my work day go quick! Ha! Thanks guys’

  9. It is fascinating to see how Chicago strengthened their team with just 2 key players midway thru the season and that New England was able to identify 2 young guns who know how to score, while we did nothing like it and paid for it. We get a world class player who is involved in every goal since he was given the chance to show what he can do, but only gets used for the last 3 games…
    .
    This just shows how poor our organization is.

  10. The Chopper says:

    In addition to punching above their weight, the Union benefitted from a run of form from Sebastien LeToux that was simply unsustainable and covered up a myriad of other problems. He had a stretch was just about every service was spot on for about a month and a half. After that, he went back to being a guy miscast as a midfielder.

  11. Appropriate title Dan, they pretty much are exactly what we thought they would be at the beginning of the season: middle of the road, maybe make the playoffs if all things fall into place:
    http://www.phillysoccerpage.net/2013/02/25/eastern-conference-preview/

  12. Should We Be Excited For 2014?

    Yes – We won 12 games!! New record! #doop!
    No – 16 out of 19 teams won at least 11. 12 is not an achievement with MLS’ parity.

    Yes – Zac had a dozen clean sheets! Our back line is one of the better ones!
    No – We’re 11th in Goals Against. 11/19 = mediocre.

    Yes – An up and comer in Jack means we’ve got something to build on.
    No – Blanked 7 times and averaged 1.24 goals per game is not an offense that gets it done.Only 5 MLS teams scored fewer.

    Yes – Draft Picks Baby!!! We got’em!!
    No – Yes, 2 potential top 7 or 8 picks could result in another Jack/Amobi haul. Could also be another Mwanga (remember him?). The 2013 Draft failure stressed the LB issue most of the season.

    Yes – Cap Space! 18.5 gajillion should be freed up. We’re gonna Donald Trump this bitch into the playoffs. Make it rain!!!
    Maybe – The FO has been invisible when it comes to addressing on the field needs. If they don’t use the off season to fix this, then we’ll really understand the pain of MetroStars fans and Tampa Mutiny fans (I’m assuming here) on Nick Sak’s handiwork. Maybe “TBD” is a better view.

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