After a long slumber of form that harkened back to last season, the Union have arisen to become one of the most dangerous teams in MLS.
Maybe it was the heat radiating from manager Jim Curtin’s seat. Maybe it was the noise from the collective gnashing of teeth of Philadelphia’s soccer fan base. Or maybe it was the somehow-magical incantation known as the “Fresh Prince of Chest-Air”. For whatever reason, the Union have awoken and gone from a team who gained two points in their first six matches to a team that’s gained fourteen points in their last six, and are dominating in the process. The snake is awake!
Let’s review: the Union, fresh off of a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011, set out to exceed last year’s results (which would mean winning a playoff match). They went into Vancouver and got a road point to start the season (good). Next, they tied MLS Cup Finalist Toronto, albeit at home (okay, we’ll take it). Then the bottom fell out as they lost four straight matches: in Orlando, in DC, versus Portland, and versus NYC, by an aggregate score of 9-3. Things were nothing short of a dumpster fire with an enormous Union logo on it.
Opinions about how to fix things flew like Danny Califf elbows: change nothing and wait it out, fire Curtin, sell players and start over, fire Earnie, force Sugarman to sell, burn the whole thing down.. you name it. In the end, Curtin made some adjustments: start Gaddis on the right instead of Rosenberry (who was in a sophomore slump), limit Haris Medunjanin’s roaming abilities and have him focus more on shielding the defense, and move Alejandro Bedoya from an unfamiliar role as the 10 to his natural position at the 8, as a box-to-box force to be reckoned with. He was forced into other adjustments due to injury or illness that worked out as well (like starting Fafa Picault on the wing instead of Ilsinho and Oguchi Onyewu in place of Richie Marquez). Sometimes it happens like that.
The turnaround began at home against Montreal, where the Union ran out to a 3-0 lead (and looked dominant in the process) before rescuing a draw from the jaws of victory, 3-3. Having secured a point to at least to stop the bleeding, they went out to LA, played some good defense, and earned a point against the Galaxy with a scoreless draw. This match started a scoreless streak that would last four entire matches as the Union rolled off three straight shutout victories: 3-0 versus the Red Bulls, 4-0 versus DC United, and 2-0 against Houston. When the Union defense (which some have lately taken to calling the “Iron Curtin”) was finally pierced in the sixteenth minute by Colorado, the Union fought back and scored two to win their fourth straight (which is a new franchise record), and that’s where they stand now.
Questions still abound about this Union side. Can Roland Alberg get fit and stay fit? How much do elders Ilsinho and Fabinho have left in the tank? Can C.J. Sapong, a notoriously fast-starter who tends to fall off as the season wears on, keep his run of great form up? Will we ever see the oft-injured Maurice Edu on the pitch in a Union kit again? For now however, it seems like they have the answers they need.
Nothing outside of homefield advantage suggests that moribund Real Salt Lake (whose has lost five of their last six matches) will offer much resistance to a suddenly-deadly Union side, but stranger things have happened. If the Union beat RSL and the Red Bulls draw or lose, the Union would then sit in a playoff position after being way out of one just three weeks ago. The season is unpredictable and as Curtin says, their goal is not to get too high or too low and to just stay on an even keel, and things will work out. It’s a credit to Curtin and Earnie Stewart that they’ve stayed the course and stayed patient while people (including yours truly) insisted that it was time for organizational changes, and were justly rewarded for their patience.
Like the snake who slumbers late then awakens hungry and dangerous, the Union are ready to strike once again.