Photo: Earl Gardner
It’s been an alarming fall, from unexpected early season success to a team stumbling towards the final days of the MLS calendar, clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot.
Preseason predictions typically had the Union finishing ninth in a 10-team Eastern Conference, only besting a most impotent Chicago Fire squad coming into the season with a new coach and new system. Through an early combination of inspired play from veterans (Vincent Nogueira, Tranquillo Barnetta, CJ Sapong), outstanding goalkeeping, improved team discipline and organization, new additions outperforming realistic expectations (Chris Pontius, Keegan Rosenberry), and Fabinho sunsetting the sun rocket talk through generally solid play, our team found themselves front running in the conference at the Copa America break. As a result, Philadelphia Union boasted one of the top-scoring lineups in the league, played much more attractive soccer than years past, and had many analysts talking about the Union as one of the top midseason surprises in MLS.
As the calendar turned to September, then October, it sure feels like a heavy dose of the familiar “that’s so Union” vibe has filled the vacancy once occupied by the high hopes I felt in spring and early summer. Nogueira returned unexpectedly to France and Barnetta has announced he will return to Switzerland after the end of the season. Maurice Edu has not played a minute for the Union. The offense has sputtered down the stretch, with Sapong stuck in a rut, and no suitable alternatives (or at least, no trusted ones) to turn to on a bench that appears much thinner than we thought back in March.
If you told me the Union would be playoff team this season back in March, I’d have been ecstatic. But here in October? This may be the most anti-climactic playoff qualification ever. I’ll be there against Red Bulls on Sunday, and I’ll be tuned in on TV for whomever they face in the first round of the playoffs, but it sure feels like the end of the line is near for our beloved Union.
Trusting the process
With expectations tempered now, what is there left for a fan to do?
While early season success clearly moved the goalposts for me and many others, even a sixth place finish and a potential first round playoff exit shouldn’t obscure our view of foundational progress in the past year. The team has a shiny new training facility, and slightly less new, but still shiny training fields on site. While Bethlehem Steel’s roster appeared to be held together by duct tape and string much of the season, the Union’s USL affiliate did allow for Union players to get minutes they otherwise would not have seen, served as rehabilitation minutes for players coming back from injury, and provided meaningful minutes to Union Academy products like Austin Trusty and Derrick Jones.
Then there’s Earnie Stewart. I’m hopeful that with a full offseason to work, the vision for the senior roster becomes that much clearer, and we can truly make the leap to being a contender in 2017 and beyond.
Unlike the NBA, MLS mechanisms, save for the mysterious allocation of incoming superstars exclusively to LA, Seattle, Toronto, and the New York teams, promote parity and allow for an annual changing of the guard with some shrewd management. So maybe the Union catch lightning in a bottle. But in a nod to Sam Hinkie and his tanking tenure with the 76ers, I’m focused on trusting the process.