By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
The Earnie Stewart era in Philadelphia has been marked by change but the Union haven’t quite been able to emerge from their history of mediocrity and underperformance. Change, mediocrity and underperformance - remember those words. They underpin the state of the Union. First let’s take a look at a picture of pure mediocrity - a history of the Union, through the results of their three coaches across seven years.
Union fans might find it hard to swallow that their all-time leading coach in points per game is John Hackworth, but these are not alternative facts. And don’t be fooled by the Union’s 2016 playoff worthy performance because they only slightly raised Jim Curtin’s average by turning in 1.24 points per game. Their playoff run was more a function of the expanded system and a weak east than a team turning the corner. Now let’s dig a little deeper into the tenures.
Curtin has clearly been able to take the Union offense to the next level, but it's come at the expense of the defense. And the results are continued mediocrity, but I also mentioned underperformance, and here is where that comes in.
Anyone who has watched the Union knows that the pressure is on the midfield to the control the game as the team is generally pressing forward. But when the midfield breaks down or other mistakes are made, the defense has been at a disadvantage. Here is a look at the history of the Union in terms of xGD versus actual GD.
The Union have now underperformed expected goals for five straight years to the tune of -37 goals over the term. And the Curtin era is much worse. During his two full seasons in 2015 and 2016 the Union have an expected goal differential compared to actuals of -21. Poor defense is the culprit, responsible for -17 of that score. Why are the Union giving up so many more goals than expected goals suggest they should? It goes beyond bad luck.
The very young Union defense led by Andre Blake, Richie Marquez, and Keegan Rosenberry have been prone to poor marking, as one might expect, but they are also often times the recipients of bad miscues in the midfield leading to fast breaks by the opposition and are forced to play defense in too much space. The reality is the Union give up easier shots than factors might make apparent. Consistently.
Not expecting that Union misfortune to turn around on its own, Earnie Stewart has been the force of change, constantly bringing in new talent to turn the ship. In the middle of last year he brought in Alejandro Bedoya who will replace the beloved Tranquillo Barnetta. This offseason he turned to Leyton Orient striker Jay Simpson to ignite a striker role that CJ Sapong had let die out. He brought in Bosnia-Herzigovina midfielder Haris Medunjanin to replace the sadly departed Vincent Nogueira, and USMNT veteran Oguchi Onyewu to bring depth to a young pool of center backs. Stewart also re-signed veteran forward Charlie Davies as well as a young winger in USMNT capped Fafa Picault. The Union are also hoping to see the return of Designated Player Maurice Edu to the lineup which would be a much needed boost.
Here is what the lineup projects to look like when both Josh Yaro (shoulder) and Maurice Edu are healthy.
This lineup hides what Stewart’s myriad moves has truly delivered, which is easily the Union’s best depth since their inception. With the exception of goalkeeper reserve John McCarthy, the Union go confidently two deep at every position. This would be the Union’s backup XI.
That’s not too bad.
Will the offseason changes be enough to bring the Union out of its history of mediocrity and underperformance? Is depth enough? Only Medunjunin’s skillset easily translates to a high level of MLS quality. Barring a change of course to a more defensive look by the stubborn Curtin (and I hope the -17 underperformance compared with expected goals allowed brings that adjective up from pure editorial), this team will likely struggle to make the playoffs as usual. If certain players like Marquez, Bedoya and Ilson Jr come up bigger than expected this team could battle for a playoff bye. There’s an equally likely chance they languish near the bottom of the table.