Since the break for the World Cup a mere two months ago, the Philadelphia Union have turned everything around. From a team that just couldn't get it together earlier in the year to a team that has has lost only once (to FC Dallas on July 4th) since returning from the break - and signed two World Cup veterans in the past week - this is a team that has to be favorites going into the home stretch towards the MLS Playoffs.
Why the Union were so bad
Since almost the start of 2014, the Union made some very puzzling decisions.
- Trading Jeff Parke to D.C. United for Ethan White and United's slot in the Allocation Order. While it was necessary to get that slot in order to get Maurice Edu (more on that in a minute), the Union were left without a veteran center back for the first time in club history, and instead were left with Amobi Okugo and Ethan White as the only players who could play center back for the club. It was three days before the MLS SuperDraft though, so speculation was rife that the Union would use one of its picks to go after a center back (or a striker).
- Trading the Number Two Pick in the SuperDraft to D.C. United for the Number One Pick (and allocation money) to select Goalkeeper Andre Blake. The Union had a decent young MLS starting goalkeeper in Zac MacMath as well as an academy prospect with USMNT aspirations in Zack Steffen. The Union also had a glaring hole at center back and a huge question mark at striker due to Manager John Hackworth's desire to play a 4-3-3 with an aging Conor Casey up top. Everyone was caught off guard when the club traded up in the Draft to get another goalkeeper - especially one like Andre Blake who would certainly be a good starting goalkeeper in MLS some day.
- Using the club's Allocation Ranking to select Maurice Edu. While Edu is certainly a very good player, it was a bit of a shock to see the Union move heaven and earth (as well as fork over Designated Player money) to Edu - a guy who played a total of twelve games with Stoke City and Turkish side Bursaspor since leaving Scotland's Rangers FC in 2012. It was also a bit of a surprise considering the club already had a very good central defensive midfielder in Amobi Okugo.
- Not playing any of the natural center backs. At the start of the season, Austin Berry was selected as the center back to be paired with Amobi Okugo, who would again be shoehorned into playing center back. Berry was serviceable until he got hurt, and then the real crazy began. Instead of utilizing White (who they gave up so much to get), John Hackworth in all of his infinite wisdom decided to start Aaron Wheeler at center back. And that went about as well as you'd expect when you put a forward back into the center back position simply because he's tall. After that, Sheanon Williams wound up at CB from his usual position at right back because why not, Berry and Wheeler were put at CB (and gave up 5 goals to the New England Revolution), and Ethan White still hadn't seen the pitch through the World Cup break.
- John Hackworth's inflexibility. Whether it was his insistence on playing a 4-3-3 (which was really more like a 4-5-1) even when it clearly wasn't working, or his very predictable subs (Hoppenot, Cruz, Fernandes regardless of situation), John Hackworth was the anti-Nowak. But just because you're different than the old boss doesn't mean you're a better boss - just a different boss. One who met the same fate as the old boss, getting axed during the middle of the season.
Why the Union have been so good
The Union's first good decision wasn't firing John Hackworth (although that was a good one).
- Signing Cristian Maidana from Rangers. who? From Rangers... Chile? The questions evaporated the first time we saw Chaco take the pitch. With his silky passing and deadly free kicks, the Union's second DP has been one of the best players in MLS this season.
- Signing Maurice Edu from Stoke. But didn't I say this was a bad move? No. It was puzzling, sure. And giving up so much just to get him was risky. But Mo' has put in an All-Star season and has led the team through some difficult times by being a professional. And the fact that he's on loan means that even if he had turned out to be a bust, he'd be out in next year. The only bad part now is deciding on whether or not he is returning in 2015.
- Signing Vincent Nogueira from Sochaux. Another "Who? From where?" signing, Nogueira has been the Union's best player this season in my opinion all for under DP money. Although he's been sidelined lately with an injury, I feel like him not getting an All-Star nod is an absolute travesty.
- Getting rid of Jack McInerney. You read that right. Jack was reportedly a distraction off of the pitch, and wasn't doing much of anything on it. Although Andrew Wenger hasn't exactly set the world on fire, he also hasn't sulked and pouted when he didn't get the ball.
- Firing John Hackworth. John Hackworth is a nice guy. The kind of guy you want to be neighbors with or have as your co-worker. Unfortunately, he's not the guy you want managing your soccer team. Hackworth will almost certainly return to coaching at some point - and that's a good thing. It's just a shame that the Union was his starter team.
- Conor Casey finding his stride. Is he the same player he was in 2010? No. But he's been good enough to keep the Union in games - and in the playoff hunt. And while the Union may or may not bring someone in to replace Casey, he's been solid over the past couple of months.
- Signing Rais M'Bolhi. Didn't I just say we had too many goalkeepers? Yes I did. But M'Bolhi is a commanding figure who is an immediate upgrade over Zac MacMath (and that's not a knock on Zac). Either Zac or Andre will be traded for a decent player, sold for a good sum of money, or loaned to a club where they can mature or develop - and the other gets to learn from a guy who's played in the last two World Cups.
- Bringing back Carlos Valdes. This one is probably more on his agent screwing things up with San Lorenzo (the club in Argentina where he was loaned to), but regardless he's back in Philadelphia and will be that veteran center back that the club has sorely lacked.
Will this be enough to push the Union into the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, this is a team that will determine the playoff fates of a lot of teams - themselves included.