The east is heating up in the final stretch MLS’ 2017. Now is the time where worth is shown. Teams have been trending up and down for a while now, and there has been a lot of parody in the league, especially in the east. The Union have had spurts of being a good eastern conference team. They have also been utterly pitiful at times. After a very impressive win vs FC Dallas, the Union laid a duck at home. Losing 3-0 to Montreal. This result has many asking the question, Are the Union done?
— Tim Lovenguth (@TGing21) August 18, 2017
Philly’s loss last week, combined with wins from the eastern conference teams competing for a playoff spot, equals a huge drop in playoff probability. The stats shown above are from the SEBA projections, a full look at those stats from Philly Soccer Page can be found here. They may have fans feeling uneasy, and that’s rightfully so. The Union have had many shortcomings this season. This, in a year where the east has shown to be the better of the two conferences could spell doom for the Union.
— Tim Lovenguth (@TGing21) August 18, 2017
The Union inconsistencies have plagued them this season. It seems like everyone who covers the Union has said this. There are times when they look dangerous, and then there’s times where it’s hard to watch them. There problems and inconsistencies lie where their strengths are. They are the same things, which is what makes the Union so frustrating.
There are games where their build-up play is superb, and others where the can’t buy a chance at goal. There’re times where the team is completely healthy, and other times where injuries have crippled the team beyond belief. There have been times (only a few, but still) where the Union have spent on quality signings, and other times where their inability to spend on key players has killed this team. There have been times where player selection/coaching have made this team look great, and other times where. The Union’s frustrations are focused around these four main aspects.
The inconsistent build up play has hurt Philly so much. Looking back to the beginning of last season, the Union had Tranquillo Barnetta running the show at the 10, and Vincent Nogueira starting breaks at the CDM spot. The Union’s attack was great at building from the back with Nog’s, and the attack had that playmaker to create goals in Barnetta. This season the Union tried to do the same thing with Medunjanin at the CDM spot, and Bedoya at the 10. Turns out this wasn’t going to produce the same results. Medunjanin has shown good build up play from the back, but in the final third the Union fail. This created the Union’s early slide and a tough hole to dig out of.
The Union started to dig their way up, thanks creating offense from crosses, and hold up play from CJ Sapong, but their build up play still lacked in the final third. Roland Alberg took over the role of playmaker for the Union, and produced for himself but not for others. Ilsinho has shown glimpses of greatness, but his inability to produce game in and game out hurts the Union. Young Adam Najem has been given a few oppertunities to be the Union’s missing piece, but his youth has kept him out of more games.
The inconsistent build up in the final third has hurt this team badly. Should they continue to fall, the 10 spot should be turned over to Najem to give him experience at the MLS level. Next season there will need to be an upgrade to this spot to truly compete. The Union need their build up play to be successful, right now they are counting on a converted winger to propel them to the playoffs.
Inability to spend on key players:
The Union are in their eighth season. Only once have they spent one million dollars on a player (Alejandro Bedoya). That signing was just last season the clubs seventh season. This is nowhere near good enough to putting a competitive team together. When you look at teams like Atlanta spending million’s on young playmakers to create a lethal attack MLS has never seen. This expansion side has become serious contenders, and helped reshape how teams are building. The Union have fallen behind the times.
Jay Sugarman has not spent a lot on the Union, and that has shown in their play through eight seasons. They have only made the playoffs two out of their seven complete seasons, and are on the verge of missing out in their eighth. The only remedy is for the Union to join the teams that spend on talent, and restructure their role players contracts so they can spend on big money talent.
The Only way Philly can compete in future years is spend money on key players that will move the Union over the hump. It doesn’t have to be as drastic as spending multi-millions on multiple players. It can be spending big money in the are the Union need most, CAM, and spending their normal amount on other role players. That’s the first step to future success.
Jim Curtin coaches a certain way. The Union want to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, and want to build their possession and attack a certain way. When the Union have the ball at the back. They want to split their center backs as wide as both edges of the 18 yard box. The wide backs are meant to push high down the sidelines to create extra attackers and width. The Union’s CDM playmaker, in this case Haris Medunjanin, drops between the center backs to receive the ball to start the move forward. He has outlets in the center backs, but will look to find the eight, nine or 10 in the middle of the field.
Depending on who gets the ball they will either turn to create a chance moving towards goal, or play it wide to the wingers. If central, the play will rely on give and goes and balls in behind the defense for chances. If wide to the wingers, they will look for an early cross, or an overlapping run from the outside back. This is the ideal attack for the Union. It helps them keep their shape, to an extent, while pushing men forward in the attack.
The problem has been let offs in certain areas of this ideal style. The Union continue to play Ray Gaddis who doesn’t do enough moving forward to help their right side. Their number 10 issues have been duly noted. Bedoya as a number eight mainly stays on the right to help with the problems on that wing so Gaddis can hang back. It’s been interesting to see the issues this side has had creating their style of play. Ultimately it falls on the coaching and player selection. Their current play is not good enough to make the playoffs.
The east’s triumphant rise:
— Tim Lovenguth (@TGing21) August 18, 2017
The Eastern conference has become leaps and bounds better than the west. Before, the east was a jumble of teams all close together; either at the top or the bottom. This season, there is distance between the top four teams and the rest. Spots five through 10 are still close together, but on the higher end this season. This has resulted in a lot of teams showing they are better than the Union. How have these teams gotten so good, and distanced themselves from the rest.
Quality players changed the game:
The East has the better players this season. The players who have been here over the past few seasons have elevated their game. The best player in the league is in Toronto. Giovinco may be small but his talent can be measured by his speed, and ability to score from anywhere on the field while taking a free kick. David Villa has lifted NYCFC to a true contender. His goalscoring ability has given him the lead in the golden boot race, and has a lot of people in NYC chanting MVP. Across the state border Bradley Wright-Phillips has the Red Bulls flying high. The British sensation continues to score goals. Other teams have brought in new quality players.
Chicago brought World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger, and USMNT hopeful Dax McCarty to the windy city to solidify their midfield. They also outbid premier league sides to land striker Nemanja Nikolic. He has become a great goal scoring threat they were missing. Atlanta also made a splash in the east creating a young squad of high money/talented players. Their coach Tata Martino has a resume that has Barcelona and the Argentinian national team on it. Their surge into MLS has caused waves. Every team in the east except the Union have added more quality to their side, splashing cash on young talent.
This is the reason the Union are behind they are lacking those quality players that really make a team achieve the next level of success.
$ well spent:
Going along with the quality players is money spent on players. As said before, moneys spent on the right players, makes a team a contender. Money spent on the wrong player, creates a team that struggles. This can be seen this past season.
Atlanta spent large sums on their attacking core. The Union spent a good deal of money, not anywhere near a million, on striker Jay Simpson. The Arsenal product has a knack for scoring goals, but he’s never done it as the loan striker. The Union gambled on a what they wanted to be the next Bradley Wright-Phillips and it backfired. Spending money on evaluated talent can be good or bad, the trick is finding the needles in the large haystack.
The Union haven’t done this, and have suffered. If they end up missing out on the playoffs, the Union will know that part of it was because they spent their money in the wrong place.
Willingness to adapt/change:
Many teams in the east have adapted/changed their style of play completely. Looking back, many teams in the east played to not lose points, now many of the teams play to gain three points. There’s a major difference in these styles of play. One style has players sit back and absorb pressure, and then look to counter. The other style runs at you, takes what you give them, and looks for ways to keep pounding. Which way sounds like the Union, and which sounds like the majority of the rest of the east?
The Union play one way. That way doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to sit back and not go on the front foot, but a majority of the time we’ve seen the Union played to not lose. This is especially true on the road this season. The Union need to play to win, other teams have made that change. That adaptation to the mentality of eastern conference side’s has been the difference this season.
The Union have even showcased this mentality at times in 2017, the problem has been that mentality seems to fade on the road. That coupled with the lack of quality players and money spent in the wrong areas means the Union are far behind the rest of the east. However, they are not out yet; they can still compete if they can conjure up the strength to fight uphill.
The teams the Union are competing with:
The Union are currently sitting in ninth place. They are six points out of the final two playoff spots. They have played more games than three of the five teams they’re competing with for the final playoff spots. to get a better understanding of what the Union are up against. Let’s look at who the Union are competing with.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION, 29 points, 10th place:
New England have 11 games remaining. They have been in the same boat as the Union for most of the season. The Rev’s have a problem defending at times which is the only reason they are behind the Union. Philly took six of the nine points agaisnt New England, giving them an edge in terms of tie breakers. However, New England have two games in hand down the stretch and could overtake the Union.
ORLANDO CITY SC, 30 points, 8th place:
The Lions have 10 matches left in 2017. They had a hot start to their season, and have been quite ever since. Even their addition of Striker Dom Dwyer hasn’t helped them get back above the red line. Orlando won the first meeting against the Union, they play again in the last game of the season. Could that game be for a final playoff spot?
MONTREAL IMPACT, 33 points, 7th place:
The Impact have 11 games left. Montreal started on the lower end, but have caught fire as of late. They are on a three game win streak, and have beaten their last two opponents both by scores of 3-0. They took seven points from the Union this season over three matches! It’ll be very hard for the Union to overtake this side.
ATLANTA UNITED FC, 35 points, 6th place:
Atlanta have 12 matches left this season. Of the teams the Union are competing against this side has the most games in hand. Atlanta have a talented team. They are dangerous, but new to MLS, which could put a damper on their playoff hopes. The Union have yet to play Atlanta. They face each other twice in the weeks to come. Those are important points the Union will need to have to save playoffs hope.
COLUMBUS CREW SC, 35 points 5th, place:
The Crew have nine games left in 2017. They have been an interesting team this season. They have plenty of talent, but sometimes switch off. Recent moves have made their team more complete as they look to hold their place. They split points with the Union in 2017. Union scoring more than Columbus. The Split of points could help the Union when it comes to tie breakers later.
Philadelphia Union’s remaining 2017 schedule:
The Union have a tough remaining schedule. They have only won once on the road this season. Of the Union’s last 10 games, six of them come on the road. A whopping nine of the 10 teams they play are competing in playoff races. Philly will need to play like they have when they were at their best in all of these matches if they want to make the playoffs. Let’s look at the break down of the remaining schedule.
August: @ San Jose, @ Toronto, vs Atlanta:
The Union end August with three matches in eight days. Two of those on the road. Going to San Jose this weekend, the Union look to end their road woes at a time when the really need to. They have had success out west this season, can they add a win to that resume? The have a short turn around going to Toronto midweek. The first place side in the east drew at Philly early in the season, can the Union take down the mighty giants? Then they welcome high-flying Atlanta to town. They will need three points from that match to stay with the east, and get a foot up on the newcomers.
September: @ Minnesota, @ NY Red Bulls, vs Chicago, @ Atlanta:
September could be the crucial month for the Union. It starts with a last trip out west to Minnesota. This game is one they should win, however Minnesota could have one of their revelation games where they play out of their minds. Philly then goes on the road to Red Bull for a huge match. The Union have split points with the Red Bulls in their first two matches. This one’s for all the marbles in the regular season. The Union then welcome Chicago for their first meeting against the fire in 2017. The worts to almost first side has the talent to make a cup run. The Union will need to beat them to keep up in the east. The month ends with a trip to Atlanta. This match is their second to last road game of the season. It will be played in the new Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta. Hopefully the Union end their road woes by that time, and can muster a good result.
October: vs Seattle, @ Chicago, vs Orlando:
The last month of the season is a tough one for Philly. They first welcome Seattle for their only meeting agaisnt the reigning champs. Philly will need to stop their scary attack while also trying to keep the possession arrow favoring the Union. They follow that game up with their final road match at Chicago. By this time Chicago will have clinched a playoff spot and possibly a first round bye. They could use this as a chance to rest their starters and hope their reserves can get points vs Philly. The Union end their 2017 regular season at home vs Orlando. The two teams are close together in the east and will both be battling for the playoffs. It could be a play-in game, so to speak, should they both be fighting for the final spot.
Are the Union done in 2017?
The outlook is bleak. If the Union lose three of their last ten they are as good as done. They also will need to win at least five of their last ten to make the playoffs. So, a lot of ties, and more than two losses in a very difficult stretch, will result in the Union being done in 2017. The end of the Union season also weavers on other eastern conference teams losing ground. So it’s full on scoreboard watching time for the Union as well as needing wins. Only time will tell if the Union can go on an extraordinary run, or take too many L’s and ride out the rest of the season developing young players.
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Follow me on twitter @TGing21 for Soccer Twitter fun! Coming soon: A look back at week 23 of MLS play, A look at the Union’s game vs San Jose, a look at what the Union could possibly do in the off-season to make themselves better in 2018, and A look back at what the Gold Cup win means for USA’s future. Until then, Peace out!
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Philadelphia Union Editor of Soccer Content
A passion for the beautiful game drives me.