It’s time for major changes at Philadelphia Union.
The club is winless since August.
Union head coach Jim Curtin needs to immediately change tactics, lineups and, more importantly, the results if he’s to save his job.
We can debate what those changes should be, but we can probably all agree that a new wrinkle here and there isn’t enough.
And if there’s anything Curtin has demonstrated during his nearly three years as head coach, it’s that he’s slow to change anything, whether it’s formation, starting lineups, tactics, or even substituting players. Once a notion has settled in, it stays with Curtin, ever the stoic, stolid, hard-working center back.
Curtin’s resistance to change has unfortunately defined his coaching career. Either there’s a lack of imagination, adaptability, confidence, or recognition, or he’s just stubborn.
Granted, there is something to be said for consistency, particularly for anyone who remembers Peter Nowak’s mad science experiments and his clear perception of himself as being greater than the team.
But to paraphrase Bruce Arena about Clint Dempsey, Curtin needs to try stuff. Now. Here are some suggestions.
Why did the Union acquire Haris Medunjanin if their highest paid player, Alejandro Bedoya, felt he functioned best as a No. 8 and didn’t feel confident as a No. 10? Did they really think Bedoya was going to be a destroyer No. 8? Didn’t they know that Medunjanin was more a Pirlo No. 6 than a defensive stopper? Is Earnie Stewart just giving Curtin time to fail so he can bring in his own pick for head coach? Those are questions to ask Stewart.
Curtin has to work in the present and figure out a formation that puts his best team out there.
Some say formation matters less than what players actually do. True, but it’s semantics. Formation provides a tangible label and structure to a broad range of responsibilities that can generally be assumed to fit each position.
Here are some options.
- 3-5-2/5-3-2: It’s not yet clear the Union even have two healthy, MLS quality starting center backs, let alone three. Let’s move on.
- 4-4-2: If your wide midfielders aren’t true wide midfielders — Pontius and Ilsinho like to cut inside — then no thanks.
- 4-3-3: Curtin deployed a 4-3-3 with an inverted triangle in the second half against D.C. United, with Derrick Jones sitting behind Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. It was an improvement. Consider it.
- 4-4-2 diamond: The Union have a handful of quality center midfielders, fullbacks best deployed as wingbacks, few true wingers, no real No. 10, and a bunch of second strikers masquerading as miscast outside midfielders or target men. Their highest paid player is a tweener whose best position is as a center midfield shuttler. Jason Kreis might love the Union roster, because a 4-4-2 diamond might fit their personnel.
- Start with the aforementioned inverted triangle midfield (optionally flip Medunjanin into the deeper role and deploy Jones as a shuttler/destroyer).
- Put C.J. Sapong at target forward.
- Choose from among Chris Pontius, Jay Simpson, Fafa Picault, Marcus Epps, Ilsinho and Fabian Herbers to play the free-floating second striker who often starts out wide, a la Fabian Espindola under Kreis for Salt Lake.
- Try Adam Najem at the No. 10 and hope the rookie is as good as advertised.
- Bomb your fullbacks up and down the wings for width and send in Ray Gaddis as a second half replacement for whoever tires first.
- Pray your players take to the formation more quickly than most other clubs.
Had two players in front of Richie Marquez not gotten hurt during his second season, Marquez would not have sniffed the starting lineup under Curtin. Consider that for a moment.
Now consider the following:
- Marcus Epps has yet to feature for the Union after a stellar preseason.
- Adam Najem is impressing for Bethlehem.
- Fafa Picault is riding pine after briefly showing he was quicker than every other Union attacker.
- Jack Elliott fared well in one Union game and even better in a start Sunday for Bethlehem Steel – at defensive midfield.
- Fabinho is still starting for Philadelphia after consistently finding new ways to make spectacular goal-inducing mistakes. He even made the lowlight reel for bad throw-ins two straight weeks.
- Oguchi Onyewu’s immobility has cut out the single best trait that Keegan Rosenberry brings to the team, namely his ability to get up field, contribute to the possession game, and provide width in attack.
- Ilsinho has averaged 1 goal and 1 assist about every 10 games in a 252-game career. That’s about what he’s done for the Union. Don’t expect more at this point.
Some changes need to happen, and they need to be smart. You can’t just overcompensate for a lack of attack by throwing four forwards on the field, as was done in the second half against Portland, and hoping one of them learns to create for others. (Yes, Roland Alberg is a forward and Fabian Herbers probably is too.)
Changes should involve these players.
- Rosenberry needs to play like Rosenberry, not Onyewu’s security blanket.
- If Onyewu can’t produce under those circumstances, then it’s time for Jack Elliott or Ken Tribbett, both of whom look quicker and display superior ball skills.
- Picault and Epps need to get off the bench to show what they can do.
- Najem was widely considered the best player in college soccer less than a year ago. He is 22 – i.e. not a kid. Let’s see whether he’s a No. 10 or No. 8 – or nothing – at this level.
- Fabinho’s time as Philadelphia’s starting left back needs to end. Perhaps he would fare well as a left wingback, as Justin Morrow has for Toronto, with more support behind him, but that isn’t happening in Chester. If Dutch import Giliano Wijnaldum isn’t capable – and early reports aren’t good – then the Union need to find someone who is. It’s been six years since the Union traded away Jordan Harvey, and they haven’t had a good, left-footed left back since.
Expand your horizons
Nobody who follows the Union wants to see Jim Curtin the man leave the club, for various reasons laid out in this publication on numerous occasions. Even his critics are likely rooting for him.
The problem is that you have to balance that with results under Jim Curtin the coach. He remains the youngest coach in MLS after nearly three years on the job and, while it’s not his fault he wasn’t returned to an assistant role after a solid debut as an interim coach, he obviously wasn’t ready when he was thrust into the role of full-time head coach. He has surely learned on the job, but at some point, patience runs out.
If you have MLS Live, watch the Atlanta-Toronto game from the weekend. It was a fantastic chess match that demonstrated how a manager can change a team. Toronto rolled out their 5-3-2 formation, which head coach Greg Vanney enacted last season with extraordinary success, making his club the only one in MLS to regularly depart from a four-man back line. Atlanta played fast, end-to-end, exciting soccer — on the road. Manager Tata Martino adjusted to Toronto’s formation by dropping defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz into the back line and pushing his own fullbacks up in a 3-4-1-2 of sorts.
Good coaches make changes. Curtin has to do the same. He’s almost out of time.