Assessing Philadelphia Union’s inconsistent 2017 campaign

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This weekend Seattle and Toronto play for the MLS Cup for the second year in a row up in the six. With the 2017 season officially coming to a close, this is the appropriate time to reflect on Philadelphia’s 2017. It’s time to assess the Philadelphia Union’s inconsistent 2017 campaign.

2017 was a total roller coaster ride for the Philadelphia Union. Inconsistent play lead to losing streaks, and also unbeaten streaks. For most of the season, the Union were good at home. They showed enthusiasm and character to play for the win. The Union  only lost when they were totally outclassed on the day. On the road, Philly looked scared to push for a win. They were bunkered in, and focused more on keeping their shape rather than pursuing three points. Let’s take a look at how this unfolded.

Bringing it way back to January, the Union were heading into an off-season where they were trying to build on an outstanding 2016 campaign. Yes the team was held winless after August 27th, 2016, but they made the playoffs and held their own for a while against a tough Toronto side. With expiring contracts and player departures. Earnie Stewart and the rest of the front office knew work had to be done. They did their homework, and brought in some low-budget players to fill what they assessed as their needs.

Offseason Acquisitions:

Giliano Wijnaldum (Via free transfer)
Jay Simpson (Via free transfer)
Oguchi Onyewu (Via free transfer)
Haris Medunjanin (Via transfer from Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Fafa Picault (Via free transfer)
Marcus Epps (Via SuperDraft)
Adam Najem (Via right of refusal traded from NY Red Bulls)
Aaron Jones (Via SuperDraft)
Jack Elliott (Via SuperDraft)
Jake McGuire (Via waivers)
These 10 players helped the Union have something they haven’t had in years; a full competitive roster.

All of these acquisitions helped the team solidify having two-to-three players at each position. On paper it was an upgrade from 2016’s overachieving squad that was too banged up to compete late in the season/in the playoffs. Overall the feeling was good, however there was one glaring hole; the number 10 spot.

When Tranquillo Barnetta decided to go to his hometown club in Switzerland, the Union were left without a number 10 who did everything right for the Union. Barnetta was a player who helped defensively, showed he could make a final pass, knew how to start a break, and was a set piece threat. All those attributes were why he was given the captain’s armband after less than half a season with the team. His loss meant someone had to fill the role. The union wanted that someone to already be on the team, so they experimented throughout the preseason.

Preseason:

Win vs Tampa Bay 1-0 (Preseason match)
Draw vs Montreal 2-2 (Preseason match)
Loss vs DC 3-2 (Preseason match)
Looking back now, getting a Win, draw and tie from three official preseason matches may have been an indication of how the 2017 season would go…

Throughout the preseason, the Union had competitions for every spot. On offense: CJ Sapong and Jay Simpson were duking it out for the one striker spot, while Charlie Davies was trying to push both. Roland Alberg was being pushed for the 10 by Adam Najem and academy kid Anthony Fontana. Fabian Herbers,Chris Pontius and Fafa Picault  were battling for the left-wing. Ilsinho,Marcus Epps and Chris Nanco were the playing for the right-wing.

The central midfield was Alejandro Bedoya at the eight and Haris Medunjanin at the six; Derrick Jones and Warren Creavalle were the back ups for them. Veterans Brian Carroll and Maurice Edu didn’t see much of the field.

Philly’s defense was a mess even in preseason. At right back Rosenberry and Gaddis were fighting for first team minutes, while Aaron Jones pushed both of them. On the left side, Fabinho was trying to fend off the youthful Giliano Wijnaldum. Central defense proved to be a cluster of talented players, but no consistent pairings came from preseason. At right-center back Josh Yaro, Oguchi Onyewu and Ken Tribbett all played some minutes. On the other side, Richie Marquez, Auston Trusty and Jack Elliot played.

At Goalkeeper, the Union had reigning keeper of the year Andre Blake, and back up John McCarthy splitting reps. However, this wa the only position that was locked from the beginning; Andre Blake was the starter, McCarthy the backup.

The preseason brought about Earnie Stewart’s vision of having competitions at every position that wasn’t keeper. However, there was a lack of cohesion amongst the entire team. As the team started to get to know each other, it was evident that positions two-11 had no clear front running starter. This was most evident at the number 10 spot at the beginning of the regular season.

Regular Season:

Early Spring woes:

Draw @ Vancouver 1-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw vs Toronto 2-2 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ Orlando 2-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ DC 2-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss vs Portland 3-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss vs NYCFC 2-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw vs Montreal 3-3 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw @ LA 0-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Early in the season the Union were flat. The team didn’t gel, and the results reflected that. The first eight games set the tone for all of 2017.

At the beginning of 2017 regular season, the Union went to captain Alejandro Bedoya to fill the number 10 role, after Alberg’s inconsistent/overweight preseason. Bedoya moved forward, and  When he showed he didn’t know how to get touches at the 10 the way he could get them at the eight, Roland Alberg came into the 10. When he didn’t help out defensively, and wasn’t scoring goals, then Ilsinho was asked to play the position. The rotation at this position coupled with some major digression from the Union’s young defenders produced the 2017 side that underachieved across the board.

The Sophomore slump was in full swing for the Union’s standouts from 2016. Josh Yaro picked up an injury in preseason and never got back to the way he was the year before. Fabian Herbers looked promising but he was not able to secure a starting spot, and was injured for more than half the season. Keegan Rosenberry went on a rollercoaster ride this past season. Had the starting job, then lost it to Ray Gaddis early in the season. The star rookies were simply not stars for the Union in 2017.

The early spring brought inconsistent play, and many different starting 11’s resulting in just four points from eight games, but after the darkness of night comes the light of day. That’s what the Union saw in the late Spring months!

Upswing in late spring:

Win vs New York 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win @ DC 4-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Houston 2-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Colorado 2-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ Real Salt Lake 1-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ NYCFC 2-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Finding ways to get four straight wins was the bright spot of 2017. However there were still major concerns for the Union.

As the season rolled on the Union looked like a team who wouldn’t win at all. Then they found a way to pull out four straight wins. The upswing started in a 3-0 win against the New York Red Bulls, and a 4-0 win in Philly’s last game against DC in RFK Stadium. These Results were huge at the time and gave fans a glimpse of what this team could be.

CJ Sapong ran rampant and showed he may be the Striker the Union have wanted. Fafa Picault showed his danger on counter attacks, and Oguchi Onyewu showed he was not just a mentor but a contributor for the Union’s defense. The Union then went on to beat Western Conference opponents Houston and Colorado at home. Beating good Western conference teams had many thinking this team could become a contender.

Those thoughts soon left as the Union lost two in a row on the road in games where they were competitive early. Losing at Real Salt Lake rubbed salt in the apparent open wound that was the Union’s psyche. Going to NYCFC getting the lead and blowing it late didn’t help either. The Union entered the Summer months behind others, and they didn’t do much to get themselves out of the whole they dug early.

Early Summer inconsistencies:

Win vs Harrisburg 3-1 (US Open Cup)
Loss vs New York 2-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs DC 1-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ New York 1(5)-1(3) (US Open Cup)
Win vs New England 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw @ Kansas City 1-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw vs Swansea 2-2 (International Friendly)
During the busiest time of the season the Union could find no way to get consistent results across any competition.

With the US Open Cup playing being added to the schedule, and a midsummer international friendly with basement dwellers of the English Premier League Swansea City, the Union entered the busiest time of their season. Having only 16 points from 14 league games Philly had to make up some ground. That coupled with doing well in the US Open Cup, brought promise to the beginning of the summer. However, it ended with utter disappointment.

The US Open Cup is something the club takes very seriously. The Cup runs of 2014 and 2015 came during years where the MLS playoffs were nowhere near their reach. Unfortunately 2017 went the same way as the year before. After beating Harrisburg again in the fourth round of the US Open Cup, The Union fell in Penalties in the round of 16. This past season Philly fell in dramatic fashion to their rivals New York Red Bulls. The pitiful 2017 season became even more dreaded as their MLS play continued to be inconsistent.

Picking up wins here and there, and getting some good a good result in Kansas City was a good rebound from the US Open Cup disappointment, yet it didn’t help the Union move forward in the standings. At this point the Union had a consistent starting 11. To the chagrin of many fans Jim Curtin was unwavering in who he chose as starters. Some players like Sapong, Bedoya, Medunjanin were justified starters. However there were some who did little for the fans to justify their continued play time. This was a recurring theme that persisted through the rest of the season.

Dog-days of Summer:

Loss @ Montreal 2-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @Columbus 1-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Columbus 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ New England 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Dallas 3-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss vs Montreal 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw @ San Jose 2-2 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ Toronto 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw vs Atlanta 2-2 (MLS Regular Season)
The most important stretch of the season ended with three losses and a loan win; realistically ending the Union’s hopes of a playoff chances.

As the Union progressed through the summer months, each game became more and more important. To start the dog days of summer, Philly had four straight games against eastern conference opponents. This stretch turned out to be the most important stretch of the season. Since there was still a chance to move above the red line in July, getting good results would prove this team could contend for the playoffs.

However, the results from those crucial matches doomed the Union; they suffered three road losses and a loan home victory. In the matches that followed that stretch the Union pulled just five points from five games. The dropped points was a direct reflection of the players on the field.

The Union as a collective group during this stretch of the season was inept on offense, and couldn’t defend for 90 minutes against anyone. The coaching choices showed little change, even with the inconsistent play, which was the exact opposite of what the coaching staff did early in the season.That coupled with not bringing in any players over the summer transfer window gave fans no hope in this team in 2017. The Union were all but eliminated, however the season was not yet over.

Fallout in Fall:

Draw @ Minnesota 1-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Draw @ New York 0-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Chicago 3-1 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ Atlanta 3-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Seattle 2-0 (MLS Regular Season)
Loss @ Chicago 3-2 (MLS Regular Season)
Win vs Orlando 6-1 (MLS Regular Season)
The bitter end of the 2017 season showed some positives, and a lot of what if’s.

Transitioning into the actual crunch time of the season, the Union showed that they were not capable of turning the season around. While not being mathematically eliminated, the team showed no determination to fight their way into the playoffs, even with some convincing performances.

The Union were able to dominate in some games at the end of the season. A big win vs Chicago gave fans some hope that they turn into the soccer equivalent of Rockie Balboa. However, that was followed by a deflating three-nothing loss at Atlanta. The Union then went on to shutting out the reigning MLS Champs, losing in true Union fashion on the road to Chicago and then ending the season scoring 6 goals in a rout of Orlando City.

The inconsistencies at the end finally knocked the Union out of playoff contention. A season with so many up’s and downs was over. So what should we take from all this?

Final assessment:

The 2017 Philadelphia Union never lived up to their potential. The play on the field was pitiful at times, and masterful at times. Certain coaching choice of formation, tactics and players were predictable, and easy to exploit. A lack of money given to the front office’s inability, and the inability to add more talent in a time of need, made fans long for the type of money that newcomers Atlanta United have. Any momentum that the club had from the last three years was obliterated.

In 2014 and 2015 the Union made it to the final of the US Open Cup; 2016 brought a playoff berth, and a solid young core. 2017 was the year the Union fell into mediocrity, and it couldn’t come at a worst time. Back in January, this team was a complete side with new players who added depth. The club preached being competitive and building off the playoff run from 2016. They looked like a squad who could compete in the Philly sports landscape. 11 months later, this team is far from competitive. The Eagles are at the top of their division, The Sixers process looks to finally be a playoff side, the Phillies have a plethora of young up-and-comers and the Flyers have had hard times but still have plenty of upside. Where do the Union go from here?

Soccer will never be as popular in Philadelphia when it is the fifth wheel to Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey. It won’t even be in conversation to join these sports unless they can compete, and win back a fan base that is jumping ship at an alarming rate. It’s on to 2018 now. The front office has a lot of work to do rebuilding the team. The coaching staff has a lot of work to do to pick the right personnel for the games, the returning players have a lot of work to do to right the wrongs of the past season. If the problems don’t get fixed, this club could face dissolution.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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