By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
The Union faithful have been donning their Sherlock Holmes deerstalkers this offseason. They been dealt a small handful of clues to answer some pretty big offseason questions. Was their 2018 season really their best ever? What became of Borek Dockal? What new tactics will new GM Ernst Tanner ask Jim Curtin to employ? How did they actually land their biggest signing ever in Marco Fabian, and what does this all mean for 2019?
So let’s begin our tour to unravel these not-so-elementary mysteries, my dear Dr. Watson….
Columbo was a unique detective TV series because the viewer witnessed the crime at the beginning of the show. The entertainment was in watching Columbo arrive at the answer the viewers already knew. And so we begin with the mystery of the 2018 season. It’s locked in our memory banks, but how should we think about this team?
Last season appeared to be the best season ever for the Philadelphia Union, even if they fell short of their goals. The Union earned a regular season high 50 points and reached their third MLS playoff in nine seasons, only to lose their fourth playoff game in four tries. They also made the US Open Cup Final for the third time in five years, but fell harshly in Houston. Playing in big games is certainly better than not, and that has many believing the Union are on the right path.
If we’re going to play Columbo, we need to look one layer deeper than a franchise record 50 points, a playoff appearance and Open Cup run. The Union tallied an unremarkable goal difference of -1 last year, with a slightly better expected goal difference of +3.9. Here are two charts that plot all of the team results in MLS going back to 2011. One looks at expected goal difference and the other looks at actual goal difference and how they typically translate to points.
The Union were just the fifth team out of seventy-two with a negative goal difference to earn at least 50 points. Granted, they were on the low end of that, but it still highlights their season might have been a tad lucky. Going back a few seasons, we see that the Union have been very consistent from a goal difference and expected goal difference point of view.
Over the last three seasons the Union should have been earning points in the upper 40s. In 2015 they should have been in the lower 40s. Not a lot of change. In fact, Union fans were ready to pronounce them dead after the 2017 season, while expectations are now at a high. Is it justified? There is no doubt the Union improved their ability to possess and create out of the midfield compared to past seasons, it just didn’t translate into significantly better goal production. We have a tendency to look at trends through the lens of a few data points, but when looking at the regular season the Union have basically been the same team for three years running.
Tactics, She Wrote
Next we must analyze the revolving GMs and determine what that means for the Union’s direction. The biggest change to this year’s Union was the departure of Earnie Stewart and the arrival of Ernst Tanner from RB Salzburg. Stewart took the GM job for the U.S. Men’s National Team and Tanner has arrived with a vision of change, but one that has forced the Union faithful to do their best Jessica Fletcher impersonation and figure out exactly what’s going on.
His first press conference made it clear that the years of tactical inflexibility were a thing of the past (and there was much rejoicing!). The Union have trotted out their 4-2-3-1 formation every game for years and it now appears that Stewart was as much to blame as Curtin. Tanner has stated that a new flexible style will be implemented, but he has only offered hints as to what that will look like.
His second clue arrived when he said that Fafa Picault, the Union’s fast and crafty left winger, would play more of a forward position. Whether or not that meant a two striker system was coming was unclear, but it left flexibility for a formation that did not require a classic 10. Borek Dockal, the MLS assist leader in 2018, manned that role for the Union with aplomb, but he was unable to be resigned for 2019 due to contract issues (said another way, too much money required). Would the Union replace him skill for skill or, with a two striker system, would they be looking for more of a central midfielder? Tanner’s comments to the media kept his options open for either type of player.
Next, Tanner offered that he preferred his fullbacks to play more of a wing back position. He also said they will not play with classic wingers. This has fans dreaming of 3-5-2s or 3-4-3s, but the Union have been going with 4-4-2 diamonds in the preseason. Tanner jettisoned solid full back Keegan Rosenberry to Colorado and is betting that Bethlehem Steel and Cameroon youth international product Olivier MBaizo can fill the changed role. He also signed Kai Wagner from the third division in Germany for depth at left back behind homegrown Mathew Real. The dice have been rolled on the wing backs and how they land will begin to establish Tanner’s legacy.
Exactly how the Union will come out tactically will be a significant story for the Union, but until we see it in action it will still be a mystery. After years of skipping over that part of the post game analysis, the fans will have something to actually discuss again.
The PreCrime Unit
If only we had an agency like the one in Minority Report who could solve mysteries before they happen. American Soccer Analysis is working on such AI, but until then we must look at the 2019 season through a glass dimly. The Union ended up replacing Dockal with a similar skillset in Mexican international Marco Fabian. This is a major signing for the club as he raises its profile. Already Fabian was visible at the star studded NBA event between the Lakers and Sixers. The fact that he drew a camera shows that the Union could be poised to earn more mainstream appeal. But of course he’ll need to be the difference maker on the field to move the Union forward, and his overall health is something of a concern after dealing with back issues for the past two seasons.
The Union doubled up offensively with Sergio Santos, a 24 year old striker from the Chilean league. If he can make the transition the Union will have by far their most depth at the attacking end. They retained the services of CJ Sapong, Ilshino, the aforementioned Picault, and rookie ten goal scorer Corey Burke. If you believe that David Accam can return from his injury and regain his lethal form, then the Union have a deep group of known scorers. Of course, without wingers in the formation it could be more of a logjam than true depth.
The Union are still anchored in the middle by veterans Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya with Derrick Jones and Warren Creavalle being the options for the third central position. They should be able to help protect a central defense that can only get better. Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott form a fine young set of three central defenders, and the Union added veteran enemy Aurelien Collin. If the Union do experiment with a back three, all of those players will be in the rotation.
With a strong set of attacking options and an experienced center of the field, the attention turns to the full backs. As I said earlier, this is where Tanner is planting a flag, and where the PreCrime department needs a lot more data for their AI. On the left Wagner and Real are unknown talents, as is Mbaizo on the right. Only veteran Ray Gaddis has a clear value, and oh by the way wingback is not a term to be uttered when defining his skills. If there is a weakness in this year’s Union it will be out wide.
So how have we done, Watson? Our modest clues have lead us to this final scene. The Union have the talent to track again to a point total in the high 40s, and even scratch 50 points. That should be good enough for a playoff appearance. To the upside is the most offensive talent they’ve ever collected To the downside are unknowns at full back. And just for fun, new formations with pressing, two forwards, and wingbacks will at least wake a slumbering fanbase.
If the Union continue with their 4-4-2 diamond formation then this lineup will execute it the best.
The verdict is that the Philadelphia Union should be a fun team to watch this season. Their tactical approach will be unique, and the high pressure system with a young back line is sure to lead to goals scored. It’s unlikely they’ll be pushing the top of the table, but they will be competent and could comfortably make the playoffs. That’s a mystery Union fans would like to see solved again.