Union's 2016 playoff appearance looks like an aberration after barren stretch
For MLS teams attempting to successfully make a transition from cellar-dwellers to perennial playoff qualifiers, momentum is a valuable commodity. It gives fans hope that the team's trajectory is upward while validating the decisions made by the front office and coaching staff.
Alas, for the Philadelphia Union, a once-promising ascent up the Eastern Conference pecking order is now looking more like a rocket ship whose booster fuel is spent.
Back on Aug. 27, the Union defeated Sporting Kansas City 2-0 to improve to 11-9-7. Not exactly Supporters' Shield stuff, but plenty solid, and a clear improvement over the 2015 campaign. Philadelphia hasn't won since. It went winless in its last seven games of the 2016 regular season. The team's work early in the season allowed it to back into the playoffs, where it was then eliminated in the knockout round by Toronto FC. This season, the Union has failed to win in their first five games, losing their past three in a row.
That run has cranked up the Bunsen burner underneath the seat of manager Jim Curtin. To be fair, each season involves different personnel, so the current 13-game winless streak has to be put in context. Curtin, for his part, must keep the team together, so when he speaks of his side's chance creation (tied for fifth in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information, at nine per game) or its ability to limit shots by the opposition (tied for second-fewest at 9.6 per game), he's simply doing what he can to boost the team's confidence.
"If you look at each individual performance, there's actually some really good moments in there," Curtin told ESPN FC via telephone. "The group is focused this week on sticking together. Obviously we need to fine-tune some things in front of goal, and defensively we've made some silly mistakes on some goals. We've got a lot of work to do to dig ourselves out of the hole that we're in. It's not going to be easy, but I know we have a quality team that can bounce back from this."
That said, Union fans also have every right to be worried that the season is already slipping away. Sure, the team has some impressive building blocks in place. Andre Blake is coming off a Goalkeeper of the Year campaign. Chris Pontius' stellar 2016 season earned him the Comeback Player of the Year award and an international call-up. Offseason signing Haris Medunjanin has shown an impressive level of skill on the ball. But the reality is that a mid- to low-budget team such as the Union -- one whose designated players fall on the low end of the spectrum -- essentially starts the season competing for one of the last playoff spots.
That creates an environment in which there is little margin for error. Offseason targets must be captured and then come through when they arrive, especially given the fact that other Eastern Conference sides haven't been idle. That the Union reached the postseason last year speaks to the fact that the organization, led by sporting director Earnie Stewart, made more right decisions than wrong ones. But that hasn't happened to a great enough degree in 2017.
Fafa Picault and Jay Simpson haven't done much to fire up the Union attack, with Picault finding himself out of the 18 entirely for the past two matches. Oguchi Onyewu has brought some needed experience to the back line, but his arrival hasn't coincided with more defensive stability. Five games isn't the biggest sample size, but the Union's nine goals conceded are tied for third-worst in the league.
Injuries have been a factor as well. DP Maurice Edu hasn't played since 2015 and is still not recovered from the broken leg he suffered last October. Add it up and the Union begin to resemble the side they've been for much of their existence, one that doesn't really do much to worry opponents, especially in the respective penalty areas.
As presently constituted, the various pieces don't quite fit together, either, and some players are forced to fill in at positions that don't completely play to their strengths.
Case in point is the situation surrounding Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya remains what he's always been, a linker in midfield who can provide occasional flashes of brilliance while also being conscientious on the defensive side of the ball. But at present, he's being asked to play as a No. 10, which isn't a natural fit for the former Nantes midfielder.
One potential solution is for Roland Alberg to find a way to get on the field more often. The Dutchman's skill isn't in question, as witnessed by his nine goals and three assists in little more than 1,100 minutes last season. Granted, four of his goals came from the penalty spot, but if he were to log, say, 2,500 minutes, you're talking about a player whose combined goal and assist numbers would be in the low 20s. Yet the fact that he came off the bench in 15 of his 28 games in 2016, and in all three of his appearances this season, hint at a player who for whatever reason isn't physically capable of starting on a consistent basis.
Reaching that point would solve some problems for Curtin. Alberg would provide the consistent creative presence the team needs, and Bedoya could shift to either a wing or No. 8 role that is a better fit for his skills.
Getting Edu back would add a bit more of a two-way presence in midfield as well, but Curtin declined to put a timeframe on when the former U.S. international would return.
That leaves Curtin to make do with what he has and hope Stewart can provide him with the needed reinforcements. Otherwise, the Union's playoff appearance last season will be a blip rather than a sign of things to come.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.