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De George: What’s wrong with the Union? 3 big problems and a glimmer of hope

CHESTER – The Philadelphia Union did a lot of things Saturday night that they hadn’t been doing in their recent struggles.

They scored first, for just the fourth time in 11 matches. They earned two penalty kicks after just one in the first 10 games. They fired 29 shots, plenty to get a result on home ground.

But they didn’t. All those gifts afforded by a desperate and disjointed Orlando City still weren’t enough in a 3-2 Union loss.

The Union are now 1-3-1 in MLS play in Subaru Park this year and 1-3-3 in all competitions.

To get a grasp on how unprecedented that is, consider that the club was, from late 2021 through the end of 2023, 37-3-15 at home. That’s as many losses in a disastrous two months as had been suffered in more than two years.

The question for coach Jim Curtin and the club, is why. What accounts for the sudden cratering for a team that had been a portrait of consistency over years?

Here are three glaring issues, and one glimmer of hope.

Games are too wide open

The Union are playing games that are too open for their personnel to handle.

In 2024, they average 14.6 shots per game and 4.9 shots on target per game. In isolation, that’s not a bad thing. The Union are seventh in MLS in shots per game and 11th in shots on target.

But the way the Union play, that has meant opening up the game. When the Union are at their best, they’re ruthlessly converting a few big chances. A higher volume of chances by a counterattacking team leaves vulnerabilities for the opponent to counter.

The Union’s shots per game are up over each of the last two years: from a relatively steady 13.0 shots per game in 2023 and 12.9 in ’22. Their shots on target were 3.9 per game in ’23 and 4.9 in ’22. That latter figure is a reflection of unsustainably out-of-this-world finishing that year.

The cost for all those extra chances create is more chances surrendered. The Union allowed opponents 11.4 shots and 3.5 shots on target per game last year. Those figures have risen to 12.1 and 4.5 this year. They allowed 12.6 and 3.6 in 2022.

Combine more shots and regression in goal due to Andre Blake’s injuries, and you get a lot of goals conceded. The Union have allowed multiple goals in each of the last five games. That hasn’t happened since a run of six straight from March 11-April 22, 2017.

This dovetails with …

There’s no second option

The Union are giving up copious chances because they’re not controlling game states. In part, that’s because of conceding first. But it’s also because when they need to create chances. They only know one way to do it, and that way stretches games.

Curtin will often say that the Union don’t care about possession. But opponents have figured out that the way to make life difficult for the Union, especially in Chester, is to sit deep, give them the ball and dare them to break them down, which remains a weakness.

The Union are 20th in MLS in possession … a number they’d probably want to be lower, as they don’t do enough with the ball, sitting 26th in passing percentage. Hence nights like Saturday when Orlando kept the Union out of the middle of the field, baiting them into low percentage crosses. Opponents get away with that because the Union don’t have anyone who can break an opponent down 1-v-1.

They are so far behind the pack that it’s a problem.

The Union are dead last in total dribbles and successful dribbles. They average 3.8 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. League leader Toronto is at 10.2. Vancouver, 28th in the league, is at 5.3. The Union are last in attempted take-ons, successful take-ons and take-on success rate.

While the Union are much better in some key categories than the results indicate — sixth in shot-creating actions per game, fifth in expected goals per 90 — they’ve gotten there by stretching games, which have left them vulnerable at the back.

The roster isn’t good enough

If the Union continue to underperform the numbers (sample size remains small), then the question would be why. And one answer is that the roster is not deep enough.

Ernst Tanner built what once was one of the best rosters in MLS with some all-time scouting coups and trade steals. But he’s failed to add to it. Here are the club’s last four transfer windows:

January ’24: Oliver Semmle, Markus Anderson, Sanders Ngabo, Jamir Bedercio

Summer ’23: Tai Baribo, Olwethu Makhanya

January ’23: Andres Perea, Damion Lowe, Joaquin Torres

Summer ’22: Richard Odada, Abasa Aremeyaw

They’ve netted one regular (Lowe). So when Julian Carranza is suspended, as he was Saturday, the Union have few options.

Or when players go away for international duty, it’s a struggle.

To connect to the second point, the Union tried and failed with Torres to fill the possession-oriented, change-of-pace role vacated by Ilsinho’s retirement. They’ve since apparently given up on that.

There’s been some internal refreshing of the squad.

Jack McGlynn and Jesus Bueno gave midfield a boost last season. Quinn Sullivan’s improvement has done that this year. Maybe David Vazquez or Cavan Sullivan can in the future.

Given the financial outlay on Sullivan and the recent track record, it’s unlikely an impact signing is on the way. But the rest of the league has caught up to a team that hasn’t materially improved since losing the MLS Cup in 2022.

A glimmer of hope

The Union’s struggles, in some ways, are without precedent until before 2018, a period over which the Union have been the best team in points per game. But there is a recent echo.

Last year, while contesting CONCACAF Champions League, the Union started 2-1, then went winless in five games. They answered with wins in seven of eight.

That could happen this year, too. The locker room remains together. The team has been resilient in getting results even while not playing well.

But without big adjustments — formational, personnel — the margins will remain forever thin, as long as the Union’s ownership falls in the bottom quartile for spending power. Breaks may start to go their way. Losses may become draws and the draws wins.

But continuing along the same path won’t change underlying and deeply engrained flaws.

Contact Matthew De George at mdegeorge@delcotimes.com


Source: Berkshire mont

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