Another week closer to the end of the MLS regular season, another game without getting a win for the Philadelphia Union as D.C. United extended their lead atop the East standings with a 1-0 win. Like other recent performances, it was a poor one for the Union, with no real clear cut chance created. What were the turning points of the game?
1. Jim Curtin being found out and unable to change things.
When a new coach takes over, you often get a bump in performance. This can be due to the players being happy the previous coach is gone, the new coach having superior tactical ability, or the new coach setting a team out with a style that is unknown and unprepared for. You could certainly say that all 3 reasons are responsible for the Union having a great 2-3 months under Jim Curtin.
However, in the last few games there has been evidence that other teams have figured out how to play against the Union. If you sit back and refuse to be hit on the counter attack, then Philadelphia struggle to create chances to score. They tend to rely on set-pieces and Sheanon Williams long throw, and when that isn't working well the Union will be unable to score, and have now been blanked in two straight important league games. It isn't quite as bad as Burnley's 10 hours of "DOOP" free play, but it is a trend that was there under Hackworth, and is coming back into play.
Jim Curtin is going to have to figure out how to get goals when his team isn't relying on counter-attacks. That usually means taking more risks, even playing with two strikers and a different formation. When the Curtin reign started, he was playing with four "forwards" who rotated in and out of their positions, causing trouble for opposing defenses. Even that has seemingly changed, and the play is similar to what we saw under Hackworth.
2. Sebastien Le Toux's injury.
It was innocuous. Sebastien Le Toux tried to block a pass, and landed awkwardly on his ankle. At first I saw that Le Toux was down hurt, and didn't think anything of it as he often picks up knocks where he stays down for a bit. However, when you see the replay, you clearly see the ankle buckle, and an MRI being scheduled is never a good sign.
Going forward, it is a big loss to the Union if Seba is out. He tends to be the on-field influence that gets the team going, with his all out hustle style. His speed and non-stop running are vital for the Union's tactics to work. If the ankle injury is going to keep him out for 2-3 weeks, that includes the three vital home games against Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City. The injury therefore may not just be a game-changing injury for this game, but could signal the end of the Union's playoff push.
As for this game, obviously an early injury is going to be a problem irrespective of who is injured. The Union lost their talisman goalscorer and had to use on one of the potential substitutes early in the game (Danny Cruz) before they are primed to make an impact against tired defenders. The injury was something that made the game far easier for D.C. United than the Union would have liked.
3. Forwards and midfielders being on the wrong page.
When things are going well, teammates tend to know exactly where each other will be. At this point in the season, there's no excuse for being as out of sync as the Union were on Saturday. The best example of this was early in the second half, when Andrew Wenger got past his defender and had an open Conor Casey to pick out. As he probably should, Casey sat back for a cut back and easy finish. Wenger decided that Casey was going to keep his run going towards the goal, and played it across goal for nobody.
There were numerous times during the game that a Union attack ended because of such decisions. Going back to the tactical difference of playing counter-attack soccer and having to play a more possession based attack this inability to understand what your team-mate is going to do with the ball is much more of an issue playing possession soccer as in the counter-attack passes are much more frequently played in front of teammates.
4. Defenders falling asleep at the wrong times.
Early in the season, the Philadelphia Union defense tended to fall asleep and give up goals. The same thing happened on Saturday, when Sheanon Williams didn't notice the wide open Luis Silva. Silva got his head onto a cross from Chris Korb and flicked a header inside the far corner. Goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi had no chance to make a save, and just like happened with Zac MacMath in goal earlier in the season, the defense let him down. It was 1-0 DC, and they could sit back and let the Union struggle to create. In this case, Sheanon has to be right on the shoulder of the striker, ready to clear the ball if it came anywhere near Silva.
Later in the game, there were also other chances for D.C. due to Union players falling asleep. A long clearance from Bill Hamid found Fabian Espindola racing in. Both central defenders were asleep to allow Espindola in behind them, and M'Bolhi was stuck standing on his line, meaning when he did race out he was nowhere near being able to get to the ball. Luckily for the Union, Carlos Valdes managed to get back on the line, and make two great clearances while his central defensive partner for the day Maurice Edu jogged back.
When you add in those two clearances, as well as United being unable to control the ball or make the right pass on second half breakaways, the scoreline could have been much more than the 1-0 loss the Union received.
5. Wanting three starting quality goalkeepers instead of striking depth.
While not really a game changing moment, the season changing moment may be the decision to sign a third "starting quality goalkeeper" instead of beefing up the Union striking corps. At the time, we were told by Curtin that we didn't need another striker. I assume he was happy with Brian Brown, Antoine Hoppenot, Aaron Wheeler and Pedro Ribeiro as backup for the aging and probably hurting Conor Casey. However, that is turning out to be false faith in the backups, and even worse it looks like Casey has ran out of gas having probably been pushed too hard in the last few months. The Union need striking options, and those I had listed simply are not good enough at the position. That's okay though - Sakiewicz still has the best backup goalkeepers in MLS.
Coming up for the Union is three home games that the Union simply have to win. Against a resurgent Columbus and the always dangerous Sporting Kansas City that isn't an easy task. Let's hope that Jim Curtin finds a way of turning the season back around in the Union's favor.