Shedding the failures of years past

Like a skin that no longer fits them, the Philadelphia Union are shedding their loser label one win at a time.

While we were ensconced in the Flyers’ unlikely run to the playoffs, the Union have been quietly (if you can call playing before a home sellout crowd of 18,681 “quietly”) racking up wins and points and stand in first place in their conference with a record of 4-3-0 after seven weeks. Is this a fluke? What changed? How did we get here?

Earnie Stewart: the man who’s made the biggest difference hasn’t touched a ball during the run of play. Sporting Director and former USMNT player Earnie Stewart has come in and turned the organization on its head by using sports science, analytics, and by creating an air of professionalism that wasn’t there under Nick Sakiewicz. Yes, he’s made smart player decisions (among them signing Ilsinho, bringing Brian Carroll back, and extending CJ Sapong, along with turning over half of the roster from that terrible team), but more important than that is the culture change he brought. If you listen to anyone talk about how things are now and read between the lines, you’ll hear “we didn’t have a lot of structure and direction last year”. That’s no longer a problem.

Competition amongst the team: Part of Earnie’s theory was to build depth and have each position two deep so the players push each other, but also so there’s a natural backup in case of injury or suspension. Already we’ve seen the fruits of this, with Sebastien Le Toux taking Ilsinho’s spot on the right due to a knock the Brazilian picked up, and Josh Yaro taking the place of Ken Tribbett due to Ken’s injury. Third overall pick Keegan Rosenberry took incumbent Ray Gaddis‘s spot at right back in camp. Add in to that the huge year Brian Carroll has had in Maurice Edu‘s stead while Mo heals and what you have is a team where “next man up” is more than a saying, it’s a philosophy and something for which they are well prepared, a necessity in the grueling 34-week MLS season.

The new practice fields and training facility: it sounds like such a small thing, but when you don’t have to practice on the field you play your games on, your game field takes on a different feel, one of greater importance. Add in the fact that they just got a pretty darn nice training facility and what you have is a competitive advantage where a disadvantage once was, and a valuable recruiting tool at that.

Goalkeeper is a strength now: Speaking of advantages where disadvantages once were, Andre Blake has proven his worth time and again, consistently being up for Save of the Week honors and keeping the Union in matches. Could his distribution be better? Sure. But he keeps the ball out of the back of the net; he’s fourth in the league in save percentage and is among the leaders with a 1.00 GAA. He will be in the MLS All-Star game if he keeps this up.

The midfield is stacked: Ilsinho, Swiss national Tranquillo Barnetta, old warrior Chris Pontius (who showed no fear last match despite having his face broken open), club legend Sebastien Le Toux, new addition Roland Alberg, NASL young player of the year Leo Fernandes… there’s skilled, creative players there and plenty of them. This is not the midfield from years ago which was utterly barren of talent.

The players are being used correctly: Manager Jim Curtin is pulling the right strings. It helps that Stewart has gotten him better players, but Curtin still needs to select the squad and pick a first XI, make substitutions, and make tactical decisions. That hasn’t happened since 2011.

CJ Sapong is not of this world: when the Union extended CJ for three years this offseason, it was met with some head scratching. Weren’t the Union going to go after a designated player at striker? All Sapong has done is been a prototypical target forward, landing among the league leaders in drawing fouls, using his strength to hold up play and set others up for chances while scoring four goals himself in this young season. He has people like Taylor Twellman calling for him to be added to the national team as the second target forward the team could so desperately use after Jozy Altidore. He’s done everything asked of him and more, rebounding remarkably from a season last year which saw him break his face, get a DUI, and miss time due to both of them. After the DUI and suspension, he seemed like a changed man on and off the field, playing like a man possessed in the latter half of last season and while making note of his mistakes and displaying humility. We may be watching a very good player maturing before our eyes.

The pieces have been put in place to succeed, but what are those pieces doing to succeed?

They are scoring first, and they’re turning leads into wins: through today, the MLS team who scores first in a match is 49-8-14. Of the 56 total wins in the league so far, 88 percent of them have gone to the team who has scored first. The boys in blue have scored first four times this year and won all four games, which is a vast improvement from last year when they dropped 20 points from games in which they were in a leading position. The points this year’s team has dropped when having a lead? Zero.

They are winning at home: in a league where winning at home is a key to going to the playoffs, they are 3-0-0 at Talen Energy Stadium. One of the team’s focuses was to turn TES into a fortress; so far, they’ve done that.

They are keeping more of the ball and pressing to get it back when they don’t have it: this is not your father’s or even your older brother’s Union team, who sat back and countered. This is a proactive team who actively seeks the ball and attempts to hold it when they get it. Even in their losses, this is evident; the U had 57 percent of the ball in the first half of the Seattle match (in Seattle, no less) and looked to easily be the better side. They’ll win more games than they lose like that.

They are all committed to playing defense: that includes Sapong, Ilsinho, Barnetta or whoever’s at the 10, you name it. One of the problems last year was Chaco Maidana, while brilliant offensively, was a defensive black hole. That’s no longer the case either, especially when Barnetta plays the 10. That space in the midfield is no longer there. Their first goal is always to keep a clean sheet, per Jim Curtin; they’ve done so twice so far this year.

All of this adds up to…

They play like a Philadelphia team should play: they work hard, sweat, bleed, and don’t take anything for granted. Don’t think this is accidental; Jim Curtin grew up in the area and went to Villanova before he played professionally. He knows what works here, not only on the field but with the fans. That style of play goes hand-in-hand with the high press and hard-nosed defense. The team plays like the city they represent, and that hard work pays off every week.

Whether the Union can sustain this success and ride it into the playoffs remains to be seen, but all signs out of Chester appear to be positive. Like a rattlesnake that’s outgrown its former skin, the Union are molting and slowly emerging as winners.

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