In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character has to relive the same day over and over until he figures out a way to "break the loop". In terms of Union games, it really has felt like we're stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, watching the same Union performances over and over again. And since the Union are not winning, that's not good!
I will go into the specifics for Thursdays game against the Chicago Fire now, but not before apologizing for opening old wounds and making you think back to what was one of the more painful moments of the year for the Union faithful.
1. Injuries hurt the Union.
Sebastien Le Toux didn't make it back. Sheanon Williams and Conor Casey were also missing. That meant that Fabinho, Fred and Pedro Ribeiro came into the starting XI. That is a severe drop-off in ability even starting the game, and the quality of substitutes also lowers because of the injuries.
Pedro Ribeiro again looked lost trying to be the lone striker. He isn't comfortable there, and the fact he continues to be played out of position is a worry. Fred had plenty of effort, but there was very little creativity. In the play where he had the best chance of making an impact in the box, he played a pass to the edge of the box to a Chicago player. Fabinho is just not a starting quality MLS player.
In terms of the substitutions, Danny Cruz and Brian Brown coming on was a given. The last sub being Antoine Hoppenot brings back horrible memories of him coming on under John Hackworth. And yet again the substitutes were not good enough quality to get a win, despite the increased effort that Danny Cruz put in. It may be said that Philadelphia have the worst potential attacking subs in the East, as even Chicago were able to bring on a game-changing striker in Robert Earnshaw.
There will be more on some of the substitutions and starting lineup to come, but it would have made a huge difference to the game to be able to either start Casey, Le Toux, and Williams or even bring some of them off the bench.
2. The Union's refusal to play 2 strikers.
At the start of the Curtin run, Sebastien Le Toux was almost playing as a second striker. It was making a big difference, as both Le Toux and Conor Casey got hot, and that's why the Union were on a roll. Since the U.S. Open Cup final both players have struggled for fitness and form. Jim Curtin has also seemingly pulled Le Toux back to the position he was struggling with under John Hackworth.
Thursday was a game where the Union had key players missing, but it was against a team down and out, having almost given up their hopes of making the playoffs. It was at home, and a must win game. Not only did Curtin not start with two strikers, something that may have helped Pedro Ribeiro out, he didn't change it after a very dull, boring and almost resigned first half. The Union didn't look like a team that was playing a must win game, as there was no urgency. The game was needing the injection of intent that changing formation would bring, but that didn't happen until Hoppenot entered the game for Cristian Maidana in the 79th minute.
It isn't just the refusal to play two strikers that is hurting the Union, but the lack of changing tactics to give them an advantage also hurts. The Union never did anything to get in behind the Chicago defense, and it was all too easy for the big defenders to stop any Union chance. Jim Curtin's lack of experience may be showing through, but it is this inability, or even refusal to change things around that is becoming his greatest weakness.
3. The inability to finish.
Pedro Ribeiro's ghastly miss in the USOC was the first really shocking miss we've seen in the recent Union run. Since then, there have been relatively few chances for the Union strikers to score, or miss badly. That changed in the latter stages of Thursdays game.
First up was Cristian Madaina's miss. Maidana had looked out of sorts all game, with misplaced passes and poor corners. Andrew Wenger had one of his few good runs of the game, racing through the Chicago defense, and managed to pick out Maidana in the middle. Instead of putting his foot through the ball for power, or putting it away from the keeper, Maidana tried to be cute and go back to where the keeper came from. Unfortunately for the Union and Maidana that meant he went to the wrong side of the post for a goal kick.
The other bad misses from this game came from the feet of Brian Brown. The first effort came when Andrew Wenger sent him through on goal. From just outside the 6 yard box, he somehow managed to completely screw his effort wide. It was an effort you would expect to see from a defender, not a striker. The second effort was a bit more difficult, as it was a volley. However, it may have been the shot that now holds the record for being the furthest over the bar at a game at PPL park. Instead of going for the difficult finish, he surely should have taken the ball down and tried to set up a better chance either for himself or a teammate.
4. That goal against the Union.
The Union have often had problems recently closing games out. The best teams know exactly how to do that. Take the time off the clock by passing the ball around, then going into the corner. Doing so frustrates teams, and even fans but it is the right thing to do. You have a free-kick in the opposition half and have to go into the corner. Instead, Noguiera got the ball and sent it back to Maurice Edu. That's fair enough, but Edu then went back to Rais M'Bolhi in goal. It's still ok, but starting to be annoying. M'Bolhi should take a touch, look for one of his full-backs (preferably Gaddis) and keep possession.
At that point, I don't really want to think about what happens next. Rais M'Bolhi, our keeper who played in the World Cup didn't show his quality, or experience, or any poise at all. He rushed his kick. While rushing it, he at least made sure it went out for a throw in didn't he? No. He went right up the middle of the field, to Robert Earnshaw. Earnshaw showed his ability by scoring the equalizer. It will go down as one of the worst goalkeeping errors for a team that has had way more than their fair share during their 5-year history.
Again, we go back to thinking "who is to blame". M'Bolhi should certainly get a lot of blame for the mistake. It was terrible, let's not sugar coat it. However, the rest of the team had to do better during the game, and put the game out of reach. The coaching staff had to have a better plan against a very poor team. They didn't. Lastly Nick Sakiewicz (and anyone else making personnel decisions) need to take a lot of blame. They've acquired three starting quality keepers, despite only being able to play 1 at a time. This has caused a very paper thin squad, especially up front. Management publicly stated around the time M'Bolhi and Valdes changes to the striking corps do not need to be made. That is really looking like a stupid quote to give now.
5. Amobi Okugo.
Instead of taking a temporal structure to writing the article, I've went for a bad news first, good news last approach. After the USOC week games, Jim Curtin said that Amobi Okugo wasn't playing because he wasn't good enough to get into the starting lineup. A while back I thought this would happen, hoping I was wrong and when it did happen, I was sad. Unluckily for Ethan White, his injury has given Okugo the chance to come in and reclaim a spot in the team. In my opinion, Okugo showed on Thursday why he should be the captain of the Union.
Amobi was easily the Union's best player on the field. His first real game changing moment came in the 63rd minute. Fabinho lost the ball (again), and Chicago were breaking away. Carlos Valdes slipped, leaving the team very short handed with Raymon Gaddis had to come into the middle to cover. It allowed Chicago to play a ball missing out the entire defense, for an on-rushing Florent Sinama-Pongolle, the ex-Liverpool youth star. It would have been an easy finish if not for Amobi busting a gut getting back, making a great block before clearing the ball out of the box. There have been times where the Union defensive midfielders have given up on such a run earlier in the season, and that didn't happen with Amobi.
In the 88th minute of the game, having been criticized by Curtin the week before, Amobi Okugo managed to get into the box and score. A free kick that went wide to Danny Cruz who crossed the ball into the box. Brian Brown had a delicate back-heel* into the path of the onrushing Okugo to fire in to give the Union the lead. It was a play that as a Chelsea fan, Okugo would have seen Frank Lampard make countless times as one of the best goal-scoring midfielders in English Premier League history. It was a performance that should have saved Jim Curtin's chances of being named full time head coach, and all from someone that it doesn't seem like Curtin rates as a player.
*Sarcasm. Though if Brown intended to do that then he may have a secret talent.
However, instead of the Union sitting two points out of the playoffs, they are four behind Columbus Crew with Toronto FC having a game in hand in 6th place. The playoffs are looking a long-shot now, and it if they miss out it is going to be an interesting off-season. Will the Union go for more attacking talent, or a real left back this winter, or will they try and get a fourth "starting quality goalkeeper?"