Season Reviews

Midseason review: Philadelphia Union

Photo: Barb Colligon

As the Union come off of what is the closest thing to a midseason break, PSP contributors share their thoughts on the season thus far.

Grade Jim Curtin’s performance as a coach this season. 

Adam Cann: D. Took too long to figure out how to build a solid defense. Was he saddled with Steven “The Ent” Vitoria? Sure, but the coach can decide who plays, regardless of price or name. Curtin doesn’t have to say this is a rebuild year, but he could have coached like it: Getting young players minutes, trying a creative system (something he has shied away from since the 4-4-2 vs Colorado blew up like a July 4th firework).

Eli Pearlman-Storch: C+. Injuries have certainly kept Curtin from having the flexibility he would have hoped for and his team has struggled mightily at times, but over the last month and a bit, he has managed to get the best out of CJ Sapong, Chaco Maidana, Sheanon Williams, Fabinho and Brian Carroll. Over the next 5-10 games, Curtin will show whether he’s up to the job now that he is nearing a lineup that is back to full health.

Mike Servedio: C. Has shown the inexperience of a second year head coach. His ability to adjust tactics in game remains reactionary and substitutions often have come too late in matches. The lack of rotation in the squad could come back to haunt the team in the second half of the season, particularly if the injury list remains populated.

Dan Walsh: C. Curtin has had significant roster and injury problems to overcome. He’s done nothing remarkable to do it, but he also hasn’t underachieved either.

Ed Farnsworth: C. Ridiculous officiating has created game-changing moments, not to mention suspensions that, along with a devastating series of injuries, have exposed what we knew was an already thin roster (for which he was provided little resources to strengthen in the offseason), all of which has been further impacted by a needlessly arduous early schedule. For a guy who would be the first to admit he’s on a learning curve that’s an unappetizingly full plate of WTF. Despite all of this, he, and the team, lately seem to be turning a corner.

Jeremy Lane: C. Injuries have played their part, but his unwillingness to give time to young players is puzzling and his substitutions haven’t been optimal.

Peter Andrews: C-. No question he’s had a tough job with injuries and awkward personnel. That being said, I’m persistently annoyed by his conservatism, inflexibility with the XI, lack of creativity or urgency in substitutions, etc.

Kevin Kinkead: Incomplete. The injury situation hasn’t allowed for much flex with the starting lineup and the gameday 18. In second half situations, I think the subs need to come earlier and the game plan needs to have some flexibility.

Who has been the Union’s best player during the first half of the season?

Adam: Chaco Maidana. Play to his strengths and you always have a chance to score.

Eli: Chaco Maidana. If it is good and it is Philadelphia Union, chances are Maidana figured prominently. His ability to find space and provide for his teammates is unparalleled in Union history. Throw in a massive improvement on his defensive work rate and Maidana gets my vote.

Mike: Chaco Maidana. He makes the offense tick. On a team where the defense and goalkeeping has been suspect through the first half, Maidana is the guy constantly involved in creating offense and moving the ball. The Union have not shown a huge amount of creativity in their attack overall, but Maidana is the catalyst when they do.

Dan: Richie Marquez. He’s been reliable, consistent, strong and fast. The Union should lock him up on a long-term deal now.

Ed: Curtin says Edu but I’m torn between Maidana, Nogueira, and Sapong. The qualities the first two bring are self-evident. Sapong has returned twice from long-term absences and made an immediate impact.

Jeremy: Nogueira makes the team go. Without him, the U are terrible; with him, they have a chance.

Peter: Vincent Nogueira. All you have to do is look at the difference between the team when Vince is out there, versus when he’s sidelined with an injury. In a team full of underperformers, there’s one guy who’s giving it all of his considerable talent every game.

Kevin: Maurice Edu. In the midfield, he’s a good two-way general with superb athleticism. At center-back, he’s a MLS All-Star and USMNT candidate. He struggled in the Los Angeles game, but he’s been the best player on the field in a few of the wins and draws.

What should the Union’s midsummer transfer objectives be?

Eli: Offloading Mbolhi is obvious. On the inbound front, it would be awfully nice to find a wide player with some pace who can take part in the possession game. A defensive midfielder wouldn’t hurt either.

Mike: Get out from under the Mbolhi contract first and foremost. Another outright winger would be a useful weapon.

Dan: Sell Rais Mbolhi. Acquire a left back and either a center back or defensive midfielder. Base the latter on where Maurice Edu is going to play the next few years.

Ed: Unloading Mbolhi. Nothing else can happen until that is done and dusted.

Jeremy: Not sure there’s anything left to say after the above—we need a DM and LB, and can’t do anything until Mbolhi is off the books.

Kevin: Sell Rais Mbolhi, sign a defensive midfielder and a left back.

What one change — personnel/tactical/otherwise — would you make if you were in charge?

Eli: If you are on playing wing for the Union, whether you’re a seasoned vet or a youngster, you have to get into the box. The Union’s primary goal creator, Chaco Maidana, is in very good form. So too is their leading scorer, CJ Sapong. Regardless of the service being sent into the box, in order to prove a consistent threat in the final third, the Union need a second, dedicated runner chasing down every cross. Be it Le Toux, Wenger, Ayuk, Pfeffer or McLaughlin. Hell, I’d take Williams, Fabinho or Gaddis flying into the box. Given the number of crosses they belt into the area over 90 minutes, the Union need to do a better job of giving their striker help on every one.

Dan: Shop Maurice Edu around the league to gauge his trade value, with an eye toward recouping at least one quality starter (preferably two) at left back, center back and/or defensive midfield. Don’t necessarily trade him yet, but give yourself some options if it looks like Edu is just so frustrated that this won’t work for him.

Ed: Stop starting Wenger. Maybe coming off the bench and running like a man possessed for the final 20-25 minutes would help him get his mojo back.

Jeremy: I’d give the young wingers, Ayuk and McLaughlin, game time. Wenger needs a kickstart; perhaps coming off the bench is that. Le Toux’s coming back from injury. Why not get the Jimmy and Eric show?

Kevin: Try someone else at left forward.

What have been the best and worst moments for the Union this season?

Eli: For me, CJ Sapong takes both awards. When word of his arrest broke, it was a punch in the gut when the Union seemed like they could least afford another one. But the character and quality he has shown to turn things around and earn his way back into the lineup where he now is scoring goals at a furious clip, is the best story of year for the Union.

Mike: The Open Cup win against DC was big. With the playoffs looking unlikely this season, another strong run in the Open Cup is almost a must to keep any level of excitement around PPL Park. It’s hard to pick just one bad moment. The ones listed here by others capture every one that I can think of though.

Ed: Three best moments: The road win over NYRB, the dominant home win over Columbus, the come-from-behind win over DC United in the US Open Cup. Three worst moments: Mbolhi, the loss at Kansas City, the loss at Columbus.

Peter: The best moments of the Union’s season were two dramatic game winners at PPL Park — Nogueira vs. NYCFC and Pfeffer vs. DCU. Two moments which broke long stretches of futility and sent the fans into raptures. The worst? Unquestionably the collapse in Kansas City tops the list. For my money, though, there weren’t many moments worse than watching a full-strength lineup slog their way to a 0-0 draw with the Rochester Rhinos.

Jeremy: Best—Have we had any of these? Worst—The Mbolhiplosion™, which laid bare the haplessness of this franchise’s front office and is much of the reason the roster we currently see is so thin.

Kevin: Best – Comeback win against D.C. in the U.S. Open Cup. Worst – the benching of Rais Mbolhi and related fallout

Who has been the most pleasant surprise for the Union this season?

Adam: Would have been Marquez if Sapong had not screwed up and come back with a whole new attitude. The guy is on another level of work and productivity right now.

Eli: Since the day he signed with the Union, Sapong has maintained that he is a center forward and that it was was his deployment on the wing at SKC that was responsible for his goal drought. Turns out he was right. Sapong edges Marquez out by a nose for me in this category, as both players have done a lot of excellent work through the first half of 2015.

Mike: Richie Marquez. Has looked extremely comfortable since establishing himself in the side.

Dan: Brian Sylvestre. He’s gone from being a guy who couldn’t win starting jobs in USL PRO (Harrisburg) and NASL (Carolina) to fairly solid starting goalkeeper in MLS.

Ed: Richie Marquez. Quietly bided his time for more than a year and when his opportunity came, he grabbed it. Sapong is a close second.

Peter: Richie Marquez. His calm, assured performances at center back have been revelatory. They also serve as fresh evidence of the staff’s struggles to evaluate players and resources, as both giving regular minutes to Ethan White and acquiring Steven Vitoria seem like poor decisions in retrospect.

Kevin: C.J. Sapong, who was brought in mainly to be a depth piece and fringe starter at CF and both wing positions. If he hadn’t missed three weeks after the arrest, he would probably have a few extra goals to his name.

Jeremy: Richie Marquez. While staff has been saying good things about him since he was drafted, it took a bad injury list to get him game time, and he’s shown he’s a locked-in starter every game. Great athlete, smart player—he’s a real keeper.

Who has been the biggest disappointment for the Union?

Dan: Andrew Wenger. How can it be anyone else? Most disappointing is that his epic funk seems almost entirely mental in nature.

Ed: Wenger. He’s so snakebit it isn’t even funny anymore. Vitoria is a close second. Maybe he was just oversold before his arrival.

Peter: Pretty sure Arsène Wenger could score more goals from the wing for the Union than the Wenger they do have. I’d add Steven Vitoria to this, though — hasn’t shown the high level we hoped for on his signing, and a nagging muscle injury has kept him out for months now.

Kevin: Andrew Wenger. He came a long way last season and was a key contributor for the team in the second half of 2014. He doesn’t look like himself out there and has been given the entirety of the season to play his way back into form.

Jeremy: As others have said, it’s Wenger. He has so many tools, but seems unable to put it all together. If he could, he’d be a beast. If he can’t, well, he’d be like he is now.

Who do you expect to show the biggest improvement in the second half of the season?

Adam: Zach Pfeffer. He has all the skills and he has shown them at every level. Put him in comfortable positions and let him catch up to the rougher MLS game and he will provide creativity and a midfielder in the box.

Eli: Sebastien Le Toux. With CJ Sapong proving his ability to stretch defenses and keep everyone on their toes, Le Toux should thrive on his difficult to track late runs and goal-poaching that have defined his career.

Mike: Sheanon Williams. After an uneven start to the campaign, and actually losing his starting right back spot, Williams has been much improved and shown flashes of his prior good form. It’s unknown what will happen with the Union’s outside back rotation, but in the last five games, Williams has been the most consistent performer in my opinion.

Dan: Andrew Wenger. I mean, he has to, right? Right?

Ed: What Dan said.

Peter: Andre Blake. Somewhat of a forgotten man, sure, but a consistent run-out of games — which he’ll get, as soon as he’s healthy and Sylvestre’s loan expires — should see him improve tremendously. (Especially when you consider that his baseline is, essentially, zero.)

Kevin: Richie Marquez.

Jeremy: I certainly hope that Wenger improves, but I think it’s more likely that Sébastien Le Toux will finish strongly. He has a history of good second halves, and his first half was well below his own standard, so logic dictates a return to the mean for him.

Is Fabinho for real?

Eli: The bar for attacking play up the left flank has been set so low that Fabinho can absolutely prove to be a contributor, by Union standards. However, while he has shown better defensively of late, his all-or-nothing technique at the back has done little to suggest that he’ll ever improve beyond being a defensive liability in tight matches.

Mike: It remains to be seen. It would be great if he was.

Dan: No. He is still just a good backup, albeit one who has been playing more disciplined of late.

Ed: Hell if I know but it’s fun to cheer on a player who looks like he’s turned things around. Long may it last.

Peter: I got a chance to talk to Fabinho after his breakout performance against the Red Bulls, and so I can confirm that he is a real person. (I also feel just a little bad about all the sun-rocket jokes, because he seems like a friendly enough guy.) That being said, Fabinho’s stock is never going to be higher than it is right now, and the Union should cash in before the bubble bursts. As it almost certainly will.

Kevin: He played well during a stretch of 4 to 5 games and does have good quality going forward. Defensively, he’s always been a liability, and that’s kept him from becoming a bonafide LB starter in this league.

Jeremy: Maybe, but even if he maintains this level of performance, the Union still need a younger left-footed LB on the roster moving forward. Maybe Raymond Lee can be that player, but we don’t know

Can this team make the playoffs?

Eli: Why not? MLS has made a laughing stock of the playoff format by allowing 60% of teams to make the postseason, and with this Eastern Conference? Plenty of teams have games in hand on the Union, but they are a 3-4 game winning streak away from making a postseason claim, even if coming in 6th isn’t much of an accomplishment.

Mike: No. I don’t think so. Yes, the MLS allows too many teams in, and with so much parity, anything is possible. But I’ve yet to see the consistency in results and performances that make me believe this team can make it this year.

Ed: No. That six teams now qualify from each conference is ridiculous, but the Union have no margin for error.

Peter: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Kevin: Yes, because the new MLS postseason format is a joke. Finishing in 6th and getting a wildcard game would be nothing to celebrate.

Jeremy: Maybe, but I’m with Kevin—just getting into the playoffs isn’t going to mean this team has solved all it’s problems. It’s understaffed and underfunded, and until at least one of those issues is addressed, it will struggle perpetually.

20 Comments

  1. neck label says:

    Curtin started the season with chaco riding pine. when talking about the managers performance please do not forget that.

    • To be fair, it very well could have been a motivational thing for all we know.
      .
      I remember Curtin defaulting to a “the best players in training” type of answer when asked about that. This year Maidana is covering a lot more ground and putting in more defensive work then last year.
      .
      It could have been Curtin sending a message to Maidana that worked making it very good coaching move.

  2. My mid season report…..’Phew…for a second there I lost myself.’

  3. Enjoyed reading this one, though my biggest surprise is that 4 of 6 didn’t mention a winger as a top priority for the transfer window. With Maidana and Nogueira not major goal threats (though tremendous talents), support for Sapong/Aristeguieta has to come from the wings. Even with a LeToux return to form, there’s just not much of a threat there on the flanks right now, no matter how much I love watching Ayuk.

    My shopping list:
    1) Dynamic winger to add to the attack
    2) CDM or CB (depending on plans for Edu)
    3) Distant third is LB…the current three man FB rotation is much less of an issue than the first two needs

    • +1. We need wingers — especially a left winger — way more than we need anything else! The only way you rank other position as a higher need is if you switch formations so that we don’t have wingers — which, in fact, would be my answer to “What one change would you make?”

  4. notably absent in any of this discussion: Aristeguieta.
    worry anyone?

  5. Dr. Union says:

    I like the idea of shopping Edu I’ve been saying it for a few months, but it has to be considered with the lack of depth on this team. Especially since it is not hidden that Edu would much rather be in the midfield as you see evidence of this in his random runs from the back. He easily can get us 2 players of decent value with money left to buy competent depth. I suggest they trade him to NYCFC for Poku (he isn’t gonna play with Lampard and Pirlo coming in and the kid is 23 and has skill as a stong CDM in this league) and Brovsky/George John if possible (good defenisive depth) and take the cash and buy a winger/CB. However, there could be many more options explored for Edu, but doubt it will happen. Also like the idea of trading Fabi like it was said his value will be no higher then it is now. While he is playing well he is not young and still has defensive liabilities something this team can not afford. By trading Edu, Fabi, and getting rid of the M’bohli disaster this team could have options. Ultimately the key players the union should lock up and start making the spine of the team are Marquez, Nogs, Maidana, and Sapong. A goalie is till needed, but this is something to work with.

    • el pachyderm says:

      But Edu is our Union centerpiece as evidenced by shipping off Okugo then moving him to CB.
      .
      You are certain to note the sarcasm I imagine.

      • The Little Fish says:

        Okugo seems to be getting splinters on Orlando’s bench over the last 8 games. He’s too good to sit the bench for an expansion team, right?

    • I also like the idea of shopping Edu. The only problem with getting rid of him and Fab though is that you’d be creating two new positions of need. That’d be ok if we were one of the big market clubs that attract interest very easily, but we’re not. If we get rid of them both there’s no guarantee we would be able to fill those positions before the end of the trade window. If we unloaded Edu and Fab we’d need to find a starting-quality center back and a starting-quality left back just to break even. This would be on top of a center defensive mid and a left winger, all in one summer transfer window. So while it’s a good idea in theory, I don’t think our front office has the manpower or ability to competently pull off that many trades in that short amount of time.

      • Dr. Union says:

        Well our front office has the quality to do none of these things including make the proper trade. Call it wishful thinking, but while it causes more holes it ultimately is the best option for rebuilding the club. Along with the fact that it gives you money to attract players. I easily see if they made the trade for a CB and CDM when getting rid of Edu you then slot the CB in hopefully starting quality and you let the CDM fight with Carroll for the spot. If you trade Fabi you can have Gaddis or Williams move to the left for the rest of the season even if you don’t get a replacement and you make it priority for next season. I mean it would be no different then we had before this season, when no one wanted Fabi to see the field anyway. Personally I don’t know the actual values of cost of the players but this along with unloading M’bohli contract and trading for lower paid players then Edu leaves the team with a +$400,000 a year or more to at least work with. (I get this number from the fact that someone in the past mentioned a $650k salary for Edu and M’bohli was making at least $250k I heard). Plus with the new agreement in the MLS that gives the Union an additional +$500,000 a year to spend on a player or players. That is plenty of money for a team lacking as much depth as this.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Does Pfeffer have the quickness to beat a solid defender one v one?
    .
    Jimmy McGlaughlin’s cameo + OTs vs Rochester led me to conclude that he is not yet ready to compete physically at the MLS level, much as I like the rest of his game.
    .
    Who is Santiago Dittborn, mentioned as a trialist under Latest Tweets below.

  7. Former Season Ticket Holder says:

    “That being said, Fabinho’s stock is never going to be higher than it is right now, and the Union should cash in before the bubble bursts. As it almost certainly will.”

    I’m sure Jim Curtin has one person who absolutely loves Rocket Man. Or MAYBE that person only told Sak that and Curtin was just taking the bullet for the boss. Nah….

    If only we could get Ribiero for him.

  8. “You Are What Your Record Says You Are” comes to mind. 8th place with many games in hand over the 9th and 10th seated teams. That pretty much sums up how Curtin and this team have done in the first half of the season. With 60% of the teams in MLS making the playoffs (truly is a joke), this team will likely not be one of them.

  9. The Maidana love is well deserved. The guy’s output is on par with the best attacking midfielders in the league, and we have him at a fraction of the cost. He also plays some of the most beautiful weighted passes in the league.
    .
    The biggest priority for the Union is LW. If they can get a serious attacking threat there, this team could be dangerous next season (Sorry, I’m writing this season off). Then lock up Maidana and Nogueira to long-term deals, and we could actually have something to be excited about again.

  10. Articles like these put the consumer in the driver seat-very imtaotrnp.

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