I long for the days when John Hackworth was coach of the Philadelphia Union. I'm not saying I want him back, but this franchise has gone downhill since he left. I thought the team had reached a low with Hackworth, but there are apparently lower rungs on this ladder.
Don't believe me? During Hackworth's 2014 tenure, when he finally compiled "his team", the Union had 15 points through 16 games. That was a bad enough performance that Hackworth got the axe. During Curtin's last 16 games the Union have collected just 12 points. But this isn't really about results for me. I'm solely focused on the direction of the team.
Hackworth was trying to implement a 4-3-3 formation focused on ball possession. It's a system built on short passes and building up through the midfield. It wasn't quite tiki taka but fans could see the beginning of beautiful football being played. There was a renaissance in the midfield, which was lauded as perhaps the best in MLS. Everyone talked about how good the soccer was as the Union approached the final third. But Hackworth had not been able to solve the lack of delivery into the box. The team couldn't score. He traded Jack McInerney, believing he was not the answer, but was still without his ideal striker. Perhaps that striker would have come in the summer after his firing. The up-tempo attack had also cost the Union on defense as they were often left exposed at the back. But building such a system takes time and the learning pains were evident. Once the team has the system implemented they do have a better chance for overall success. Did I like the Aaron Wheeler at center back experiment? No. It seemed like Hackworth knew his new method would take time, and he was willing to tinker. He clearly underestimated how long the leash would be.
For a brief time the Union were playing beautiful soccer. Frustrating soccer in the end, but moments of beauty could be found at PPL Park.
Those moments are but a distant memory, like a tractor trailer over the Commodore Barry Bridge at kickoff. Curtin has retrenched and built a counterattacking team that prioritizes defensive shape more than possession. The result is more direct and less attractive football. The Union are sending so many long balls up the field they've forgotten how to possess the ball when needed. In Hackworth's final game, a 3-3 draw and collapse at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Union had 58% of possession and completed 84% of their passes. Sure it was a major disappointment, but they were ultimately in control of their destiny. In Curtin's last home match the team had 41% possession and completed 70% of their passes. As the inevitable end approached, they continued to slug the ball into the middle hoping for a good bounce. I don't want to focus on the results of single games but the reality is Hackworth was striving for something much bigger and longer lasting than where Curtin is currently headed.
"But what about that glorious run to the US Open Cup Final?" you say. "That was a great time led by Curtin." Indeed it was. PPL Park has never been more electric than it was during that Final against the Seattle Sounders. But I believe Curtin was operating in a unique bubble of time. He had oriented the team around the counterattack and the opponents had not caught up to the new style. The team also had retained the passing skills to possess the ball when needed, from the very recent days of Hackworth's influnece. As evidenced by the bunkering that went on during the second half of the recent game against the New England Revolution, all of that confidence to possess the ball while maintaining a solid shape defensively is long gone.
If a bunker team can't bunker, what is left to be done?
So I long for the days when the Union tried to bring beautiful soccer to the fans of Philadelphia, even though it was a try replete with heartbreak. Almost a year later that heartbreak still hangs firmly in my chest, and the beauty and the hope of a better day has fluttered away.
Note: Astute readers have pointed out that I used the Open Cup Final in the final 16 games for Curtin and there are no points awarded in tournament elimination games. I did give 0 points for that loss, which technically is incorrect although record-wise the "point" stands. If the 16 games were strictly MLS games then Curtin also has 15 points in his last 16 games.