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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Union and slows starts: A dire history

Union manager Jim Curtin has joined some undistinguished
Union coaching company with the slow start to 2015.
(Times Staff/Rick Kauffman)
The Philadelphia Union are struggling. That isn’t in much question, certainly not after last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Toronto FC, which sealed the Union’s worst 10-game start to a season in terms of points.

Some of this alarming trend has already been explained by my colleague Kevin Kinkead in a recent post, but it’s worth digging a little bit deeper to put numbers to the overarching measure of the Union’s futility, which includes just two wins in the last 17 matches.

First off, the Union are 1-6-3 through the first 10 games. How does that compare to previous years? Not well:

2015: 1-6-3, 6 points
2014: 1-4-5, 8 points
2013: 4-3-3, 15 points
2012: 2-6-2, 8 points
2011: 5-3-2, 17 points
2010: 2-7-1, 7 points

The Union aren’t generally quick starters, but this is sluggish even by their standards. There’s a clear delineation between the season in which they made the playoffs (2011), the season in which they contended for the playoffs into the fall (2013) and the rest of the disastrous campaigns.

But the numbers are even grimmer than that. Not only is this the Union’s worst 10-game start to a season; it ties the worst 10-game stretch in franchise history. It joins the run from the April 5, 2014 draw with Chicago to the May 25 loss to L.A. Galaxy as the lowest points total over 10 matches. (That was also a 1-6-3 stretch.) The consideration of 10-game streaks includes ones that bridge the gap between multiple seasons.

Perhaps most alarming for manager Jim Curtin is this: Each of the last two managers of the Union was axed after a slow start. Then again, “slow” is a relative term:

Peter Nowak, 2012: Fired after 11 games, 2-7-2 record, 8 points, 0.72 points per game
John Hackworth, 2014: Fired after 15 games, 3-6-6, 15 points, 0.94 ppg 
Curtin, 2015: Through 10 games, 1-6-3, 6 points, 0.60 ppg

It’s important to stress that each of these situations is vastly, vastly different, and the numbers are no guarantee.

But as they stack up, Curtin needs some wins quickly to catch up to the pace of his predecessors. He needs a win against Vancouver Saturday to better Nowak’s ill-fated past, and it’ll take pretty close to a result in every game (over a very tough schedule) in the next three to improve on Hackworth’s record.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Union-TFC: Lineups and observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Bench: Blake, Marquez, Fabinho, Fred, McLaughlin, Casey, Le Toux

Toronto FC (4-4-2)
Bench: Roberts, Creavalle, Zavaleta, Lovitz, Warner, Moore, Osorio

- Whatever Jim Curtin’s plan was this week was likely scrapped Friday with news that CJ Sapong would be suspended indefinitely after a DUI arrest that requires entering MLS’ Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (SABH) program. Curtin had tipped him to be an option on the win, but instead, the struggling Andrew Wenger will have to struggle through their issues on the field instead of on the bench.

- One absence was expected, the other a later fitness test. But the Union will be without two components of the team’s spine in Vincent Nogueira (ankle) and Steven Vitoria (groin). That leaves Ethan White to return to central defense while Zach Pfeffer pairs Michael Lahoud in midfield. Against Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, that’s a tall, tall task for the Union.

- As anticipated, Chris Konopka gets the nod in the goal for TFC, his first appearance since 2012 … with the Union … against TFC. More on that here. The Union, meanwhile, go with John McCarthy for a fifth straight game. He’s given up eight goals in his first four starts.

- On the bright side, the Union are 6-2-4 all-time vs. Toronto, their last loss coming in May 2012, that game Konopka started. On the downside, they are beat up and in desperate need of a result, and desperation rarely breeds success in PPL Park.

- In addition to Toronto’s Big 3, Greg Vanney goes attacking with Robbie Findley as a winger in the 4-4-2. Union got torn up on the wings last week in Columbus, and even with Sheanon Williams back in the side, Vanney sees an exploitable battle.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Sapong suspended indefinitely after DUI/reckless driving arrest

The Philadelphia Union will be without forward CJ Sapong indefinitely after he was arrested early Friday morning and charged with reckless driving and driving under the influence, requiring that he be assessed by MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program (SABH), per a club release.

Per the rules of that program, Sapong must be cleared by doctors and a league investigation before playing in any games with the club.

“We were alerted to the situation this morning and have been in contact with the league office, law enforcement and C.J.’s family,” Union technical director Chris Albright said in a team statement. “Moving forward, we will continue to work together with the League in following the appropriate procedures. We will have further comment once more information is available.”

The SABH is a long-held program within MLS, though one that’s seldom invoked. It was used in the case of Edson Buddle in 2005 in Columbus, Shalrie Joseph in New England in 2010, Josh Williams in Columbus in 2011 and Philly-area natives Jeff Parke and Jon Conway in New York in 2009.

Parke, Conway and Williams were suspended for performance-enhancing drugs. In those cases, the penalties were set at 10 games and a 10 percent docking of salary at the announcement of entering the program. Sapong’s appears to be more in line with Joseph’s and Buddle’s given the open-ended nature of the announcement.

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An unlikely reunion: Konopka in line to start at PPL Park Saturday

There is goalkeeping news surrounding the Philadelphia Union’s meeting with Toronto FC, and for once, it’s not involving the Union.

While there’s a little intrigue in Philly – Jim Curtin said Wednesday that he’s leaning toward John McCarthy as the starter for a fifth straight game as Andre Blake continues his recovery from knee surgery – it’s the visitors to PPL Park that will have a goalie change, which involves a familiar face.

Toronto manager Greg Vanney said this week that if starter Joe Bendik, who is suffering from a plantar fascia strain in his foot, can’t go, Chris Konopka would be the starter.

Well, Bendik is listed as out on MLS’ injury report, and while a post on TFC’s site has him officially questionable, the team’s probable lineup features Konopka in goal.

If Konopka gets the nod, it’ll be his second MLS appearance in his sixth MLS season. The 2007 SuperDraft pick and native of Toms River, N.J., spent three seasons playing for Irish clubs Bohemians, Sporting Fingal and Waterford United.

Konopka’s last MLS appearance came with the Union May 26, 2012, the final MLS match in Peter Nowak’s reign, against … you guessed it, Toronto. That game, a 1-0 loss at BMO Field, was the first win for Toronto after nine straight losses to start a season that featured just five wins, one of the worst in MLS history. The goal was provided by ill-fated designated player Danny Koevermans, who called time on his career after a litany of injuries. It’s worth taking a look at the lineups, which included the unforgettable left-flank pairing of midfielder Kai Herdling and back Gabe Farfan. Who would’ve imagined Nowak was losing the plot?
Read more »

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Union-Crew postgame: Quotes from Curtin, Carroll on 4-1 loss

Jim Curtin isn't one to mince words. The Union delivered a performance in Saturday's 4-1 loss that earned them no right to sugarcoating. And that's what they got in Curtin's postmatch assessment. Some quotes from Curtin in Columbus:

Jim Curtin

On the match:

I actually thought the first 15 minutes, our guys came out and played very well. From that point on, we got embarrassed for the rest of the first half. We came in at halftime, talked about guys showing more commitment, showing me who wants to be on the field and be with the group. I thought we actually pushed the game a little bit and had a decent second half. But credit to Columbus. They’re a great team. They’re in good form right now, they’re confident and I think they’re a top team in our league.

On what to take from the game:
We’ll look at the tape. We’ll probably have some changes to our XI, that’s for sure. Any time you give up four goals, there’s some issues in the whole group. So we’ll look at it from the forwards all the way back to the goalkeeper and we’ll evaluate everything in between and put the best group on the field to get a result against Toronto.

On how the team will react:
They’re professionals, so they’re embarrassed. We got our asses kicked tonight. It’s unacceptable. We have to get up off the mat, though. We want guys that are going to stick with this thing. I learned a lot about a lot of players tonight, and the guys that stuck with it and pushed and the guys who bailed out. You want to be able to look yourself in the mirror after the game and say that you gave everything. That’s what we talked about before the game, and I think we got a lot of answers especially in the second half, and guys stuck with it.

Brian Carroll
On the match:
I thought the guys kept fighting even though we didn’t start off well and we had to claw ourselves back. Everyone stuck together and kept on working for one another. Shows me we’re still together and we’re ready to pick ourselves up and do better going forward.

On preparing for Toronto:
Really, we’re just looking for a win any way we can get it. Whether that’s making our own luck, whether that’s luck that happens, we’ll take it. We just want to stick together, work hard and do what needs to be done to get a win.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Here, that's not a foul': Aristeguieta on adjusting to MLS's physicality

Fernando Aristeguieta is voicing his opinion
on what it takes to get a foul called in MLS.
The consensus among new arrivals to MLS is that the league’s physicality is among the most difficult aspects of the league to get acclimated to.

Fernando Aristeguieta is not exempt from that adjustment, a process which has forced the Venezuelan forward to recalibrate his definition of a foul.

It’s been fairly obvious to those watching Aristeguieta this season that he’s taken a beating. But he’s still getting used to what constitutes a foul and what the requisite level of punishment is to get a foul called in his favor.

Aristeguieta, near MLS’s lead in more auspicious categories like shots (fourth with 25) and shots on goal (third with 12), is tied for 20th in fouls suffered (15). He’s second on the Union in that category, trailing only the 17 fouls incurred by Maurice Edu. Five of those fouls came in the opener against foul-happy Colorado, including two punished by yellow cards.

It doesn’t help that the on-loan forward has suffered a pair of non-contact/accidental injuries, partially tearing a quad and getting stepped on by Sporting Kansas City’s Ike Opara to fracture his ring finger.

Aristeguieta’s ability to take those injuries in stride shows that he’s a gamer. But stomaching the inconsistencies of MLS refereeing is a more difficult feat.
Read more »

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Union-Revolution: Lineups and pregame observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Sapong-Maidana-Le Toux
Bench: Blake, White, Fabinho, Carroll, Ayuk, Casey, Wenger

New England Revolution (3-5-2)
Bench: Knighton, Tierney, Fagundez, Bunbury, Okoli, Hall, Neumann

- The Union make three changes from Thursday against New York City FC. Eric Ayuk and Andrew Wenger get breaks, while Vincent Nogueira’s right ankle apparently fails its fitness test. In steps CJ Sapong as essentially a wing forward, while Zach Pfeffer slots into central midfield in Nogueira’s stead. Also returning is Cristian Maidana, who’ll operate as the central prong of the midfield triumvirate.

- Fascinating XI from the Revs, who’ll go with a 3-5-2 (on the sheet at least) without Jose Goncalves and with three defensive-minded midfielders. It’s a very attack-minded squad overall, with Charlie Davies and Juan Agudelo pairing up top.

- The Union are going to face a battle trying to get through the Revs, who haven’t conceded a goal in 208 MLS minutes. That starts with making life uncomfortable for Jermaine Jones, who played 45 minutes last week in his return from offseason hernia surgery. The Maidana nod has to be due, in part at least, to Jim Curtin wanting to fill the space behind the forward line and occupy Jones, not letting him freelance and pick off long passes.

- The same duty is incumbent on the Union’s central midfield paring of Michael Lahoud and Pfeffer. Though Lahoud and Nogueira have played well of late, they’ve done so against a fairly flat midfield of NYCFC that is still trying to figure itself out. The Revs, with the interchanging of Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen, are much more dynamic and can hit you from a much wider range of positions and angles.

- This is a big chance for Pfeffer. The debate still rages, even among those that have seen him play since he was a youngster, as to what his best position in the pro ranks is. He seems to bring more steel (and perhaps not enough creativity) to be an elite No. 10, but a deeper lying role that showcases his box-to-box ability may be for him, and this is a chance to show that.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Union-NYCFC: Lineups and prematch observations

UNION (4-2-3-1)
Le Toux
Bench: Blake, Marquez, White, Maidana, Carroll, Casey, Sapong

New York City FC (4-4-2)
Velazquez-Jacobson-Diskerud- Grabavoy
Bench: Meara, Watson-Siriboe, Poku, Ballouchy, Calle, Mullins, Shelton

- The big name missing for the Union is Fernando Aristeguieta, who recovered from a broken finger but suffered a quad injury late in the week. That means the only Union player to score this season won’t take part. That leaves Sebastien Le Toux to lead the line, though with Conor Casey and CJ Sapong waiting on the bench, there are options if the Union can’t get the attack going that they want. This is a game where Jim Curtin has game-changing options (Cristian Maidana, Casey, Sapong) on the bench, and he can't be shy about pulling the trigger.

- Zach Pfeffer’s return to the lineup allows the Union to utilize the 4-2-3-1 again. Vincent Nogueira passes fit, and Michael Lahoud is preferred to Brian Carroll in the holding role, while Eric Ayuk gets another start.

- Sheanon Williams is back from two games out with a hamstring issue, which is good timing since both Fabinho and Raymond Lee are out, leaving Ethan White as the presumed fullback cover. The bigger ripple effect might be that Ray Gaddis and Andrew Wenger get a chance to reestablish chemistry on that left flank. Not having to cover for Fabinho might allow Wenger to get forward more often.

- The focal point for NYCFC is David Villa, and the Spaniard is back after missing time with an adductor injury. He and Adam Nemec give NYCFC a variety of options up top. They can counterattack effectively if the Union pour numbers forward, and Mix Diskerud will be running at the central midfielders when NYCFC is in possession.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

The Union's slow start in three simple stats

There’s no two ways around it: The Philadelphia Union are off to a poor start to the 2015 season, the latest installment of which is a dour 1-0 loss in Chicago. The macro components of the Union’s malaise are easy to pinpoint – things like three games without goals, lax set-piece defending, two straight games with red cards, etc.
Sebastien Le Toux and his fellow Union attackers
are just not hitting the target with shots.
(Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)

Those larger-picture issues are important, but it doesn’t say what the Union can do better to fix them, necessarily. So using the bevy of data available through MLS’ partnership with OPTA Stats, let’s dig a little deeper into what constitutes the slow start. Here are three figures that capture it pretty well:

4 – Saves by Rais M’Bolhi on shots inside the box

The Algerian goalkeeper played in a little tournament you may have heard of last year in Brazil, leading the Fennec Foxes out of the group stage in a historic performance. And while that’s all wonderful, the numbers in MLS are less favorable. He’s 1-3-4 in eight matches with the Union (still too small of a sample size to make a firm determination) having allowed 10 goals on 25 shots on target. This season, M’Bolhi has made four saves on shots inside the box. Two were against Fabian Castillo in the FC Dallas game (while Castillo's best chance hit the crossbar). One was against Jordan Allen and RSL, and one was on Kennedy Igboananike with a smart kick save against Chicago.

For comparison, Houston’s Tyler Deric has made seven saves on shots inside the box this season. Clint Irwin, who hasn’t given up a goal yet for Colorado, has six, including four against the Union on opening night alone. And they make a heck of a lot less than M’Bolhi does. To bring it back to M’Bolhi, he stopped five shots by Germany from inside the box in the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 loss alone.

M’Bolhi isn’t playing poorly and certainly isn’t the biggest issue on this team. But it's about the larger picture. Instead of getting a veteran center back or a competent left back or defensive cover that had played in MLS before, the Union spent that money on M’Bolhi under the assumption that he could steal games for them in situations like, oh I don’t know, being down a man for a half. (Ahem, Irwin.) The spent all that money on him so that he could help the team take the next step in a way Zac MacMath couldn't for three seasons. So far, he's fallen far, far short of expectations.

28.9 – Percentage of Union shots on target
Read more »

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Snow postpones Dallas game

A few inches of spring snow was apparently too much for the Philadelphia Union to handle Friday.

The Union announced Friday afternoon that that evening’s game with FC Dallas would be postponed a day due to the ongoing winter weather advisory in Chester.

The game will be rescheduled for Saturday at 4 p.m. It will be broadcast on Univision Deportes Network and streamed online. The Friday match had been scheduled for national UniMas coverage. No local broadcast will be available.

A club release cited “dangerous traffic conditions” as a primary concern with 2-4 inches of frozen precipitation expected. The Union had weathered eight inches of snow two days before the opener at PPL Park two weeks ago.

“We had every intention to play our match as originally scheduled, but the current weather conditions will challenge the safety of our fans, players, and staff, and they always will be our first priority,” Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz said in a club statement. “With a sunny day in the high 50’s forecasted for tomorrow, we look forward to welcoming everyone to a magnificent setting at PPL Park.”

It’s the second time in Union history that a game has been moved due to snow. Their trip to Colorado in March 2013 was moved back a day due to over a foot of snow in the Rockies.

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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Union-Rapids: Lineups and pregame thoughts for the opener

UNION (4-4-2)
Wenger-Edu-Nogueira-Le Toux
Bench: McCarthy, Fabinho, Marquez, Lahoud, Pfeffer, Maidana, Casey

Colorado Rapids (4-2-3-1) 
Sarvas- Pittinari
Sanchez-Serna- Torres
Bench: Berner, Burch, O’Neill, Alvarez, Cronin, Brown

Rest assured, PPL Park has shed its frosted look since Thursday.
(Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)

- The lingering tactical debate for Jim Curtin this season is whether he’d opt for a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-3-2. For the debut, it’s nominally a 4-4-2, with the potential to morph into a 4-2-4. Cristian Maidana starts on the bench with CJ Sapong operating as a second striker behind Fernando Aristeguieta.

- Out with injury is Danny Cruz (hamstring), meaning we won’t get a repeat of this ugly tackle from Shane O’Neill this season.
Read more »

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Making dollars and sense of Union roster

New Union striker Fernando Aristeguieta, left,
is one of two designated players on the Union's
2015 roster to start the season. (AP file)
Despite a lot of disagreement at the bargaining table, MLS’s 2015 season will begin in a matter of hours Friday. While details of the new collective bargaining agreement have leaked out, there hasn’t been much concrete info on the topography of the new CBA’s budgetary structure, with only figures and dollar amounts trickling out thus far.

In the absence of major alterations, it’s likely that the new arrangement will look a lot like the old one, which is what many MLS clubs were forecasting in the days and weeks before Wednesday’s pact was finalized. Union technical director Chris Albright offered Tuesday that, “Everybody’s got their guesses” about the roster ramifications that will emanate from the new CBA.

Regardless, the Union have a more-or-less finalized roster. In addition to their acquisitions in February, the Union this week announced the signing of Dzenan Catic (though that was actually old news) and came to agreements with trialists Eric Ayuk Mbu and fourth-round SuperDraft pick Raymond Lee. 

Those moves indicate that clubs likely have been given a good idea of how to prepare for the new season. As a guide, let’s utilize last season’s roster rules, which is likely what most clubs have done.

As a reminder, here’s what MLS’s Roster Rules and Regulations say about the composition of a roster:
Read more »

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