By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
It was a tale of three seasons last year for the Philadelphia Union - a 2013 offseason that saw the Union build a dream midfield quickly turned into a start that can only be labeled as the worst of times. The Union’s midfield was tasked with possession oriented play, and while that was successful the team was unable to create enough quality chances in the final third. During one early stretch, the Union actually went 419 minutes without a player scoring a goal. The first tale ended with the firing of John Hackworth and the hiring of Jim Curtin.
The second tale was the best of times. Curtin implemented a counter attacking style of play with forward Conor Casey dropping deep to collect and distribute, and resurrected Sebastian Le Toux’s season by placing him higher up on the wing. The Union flourished. In Curtin’s first twelve games the Union offense was one of the hottest in the league, averaging 1.91 goals scored per game. They inserted themselves into the playoff picture, but more importantly, went on a fantastic run to the U.S. Open Cup Final against Seattle. The Union lost that game in extra time.
The Union never recovered from that loss. Casey and Le Toux were nursing injuries and there was no one in reserve who could take their place. Curtin inexplicably abandoned the counter attacking style that got the team’s confidence back, perhaps to compensate for the lack of forwards. The team finished the season how they started, averaging 1.0 goals scored per game and 0.8 points per game. The Union finished one position out of the playoffs but eight points clear of that goal which seemed attainable at the beginning of the campaign.
What’s changed going into the 2015 season?
The Union made significant strides in bolstering the forward position. They brought in Ligue 1 reserve forward Fernando Aristequieta to lead the attack, as well as high flier CJ Sapong from Sporting Kansas City. They also re-signed Casey. This trio should give the Union a decent threat up top.
The midfield stays largely intact with only the loss of defensive midfielder Amobi Okugo to Orlando City a serious concern. Maurice Edu, now officially transferred to the Union from Stoke City, will team with star Vincent Nogueira, top set up man Cristian Maidana (2nd in the league in key passes p90), and wingers Andrew Wenger and Sebastian Le Toux.
The defense is where things look dicey, especially if Curtin wants to revert back to a compact defensive shape. The Union lost Carlos Valdes to Nacional in Uruguay but replaced him with reserve Benfica centerback Steven Vitoria. Vitoria has only played in seven games in the last season and a half, and how well he pairs up with Ethan White, who himself only played 1,042 minutes last season, will be the key to the Union’s defensive success. The good news is they are surrounded by a solid pair of young fullbacks in Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams.
What the Union do well
Due to their talented midfield the Union are very efficient when it comes to creating and suppressing shots. They ranked just 14th in possession last year but were 8th overall in shots taken and 4th in fewest shots allowed. In fact, they were the best team in the league in shot efficiency when adjusted for possession. Their Total Shots Ratio (54 percent) to Possession (48 percent) ratio was just ahead of the LA Galaxy.
As mentioned earlier, the Union are best when on the counter, as they led the league in goals scored on the counter attack with seven. They are a disciplined bunch from a shot location perspective as well. Sixty percent of the Union's shots came from inside the 18 yard box, good for 3rd highest in the league.
The Union are also exceptional at signing goalkeepers. They had a young goalkeeper in Zac MacMath, who has more starts than any keeper under 24 in MLS history. They then traded up to draft Andre Blake with the first pick of the 2014 SuperDraft, and seven months later signed World Cup Algerian goalkeeper Rais MBolhi to a designated player deal. This embarrassment of riches resulted only in embarrassment for the Union and the eventual loaning of MacMath to Colorado. The Union's 3rd keeper for 2015 is recently signed USL PRO goalkeeper and rookie of the year John McCarthy. After all of the talent acquired, the goalkeeper with the least experience, McCarthy, will play meaningful minutes this season. Both Blake (Jamaica) and M’Bolhi (Algeria) are consistently called-up for duty during the international windows.
What the Union don’t do well
While the Union can limit an opponent’s shots taken, they are susceptible to deplorable breakdowns on those shots. Despite giving up the 4th fewest shots, they were 5th worst in opponents’ finishing rate. Teams scored on 12.6 percent of their shots taken. While the shot locations the Union allowed were worse than average, there was simply too much space allowed for many of the goals scored against them.
On the offensive end of the field, the Union are poor in build-up play and ineffective entering the ball into the box from the center of the field. They were often forced to play the ball wide and led the league in crosses attempted to game. And remember, that is with much lower than average possession.
The big questions to be answered in 2015
Will Curtin try to build a possession oriented team with his strong midfield and new forwards? Or will he revert back to the counter attacking strategy that was so successful for a time last year, and look to protect a new backline that will take time to gel?
Will another season together with the core midfield compensate for integrating new pieces on either end of the pitch? And did the Union do enough this offseason to keep up with the influx of stars in the east?
The Union appear to be yet again on the edge of the playoff picture. Strong performances from newcomers Aristeguieta and Vitoria would prove big for the Union’s chances. On the flip side, if Vitoria and White struggle to anchor the center of the defense, there really is no backup plan or capable backup players.
Optimism is cautious in Unionland as they learned hard lessons last season. The talent upgrades really have only happened on the offensive end of the field, leaving the defense as the big unknown. That’s where the improvement is really needed. No playoff team allowed more than 50 goals last season and the Union allowed 51. If they can improve that number, they’ll make it to the playoffs for the second time in their six year history.