The Union have an identity crisis.
When the Philadelphia Union began its first season in 2010 there was no historic culture or style. The organization was brand new and still had to figure out what their signature type of play would be. In the club's sixth season however, there is still no sign of a distinct style of play that has been introduced. Whenever you think about major clubs in the world their style of play immediately comes to mind. Barcelona: Tiki-Taka, Chelsea: Counterattacking, Arsenal: Crisp ball movement, Juventus: Stout defense.
The Philadelphia Union are nowhere close to any of those teams, given the fact that all of those clubs have had many years to perfect their chosen playing style. Nevertheless, teams around MLS have begun to establish unique styles of play, brands of soccer that they can boast as their own. The Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps utilize creative players whose skill on the ball delights fans and baffles defenders. New York City FC has begun to build a possession based model of play, which focuses on keeping the ball and moving the point of attack through short passing. Orlando City has built a squad based off of youth, speed, and energy. As more MLS clubs find their identity it bears asking: What is the Union's identity?
Recently the Union have been playing a brand of soccer which focuses on fast counterattacks that often come from the wings. There is absolutely nothing wrong with building a counterattacking team - it has proven to be a very successful style of play and it even led Chelsea to a Premier League title this year. The issue however is that the Union did not choose to play a counterattacking style, they were instead forced to play that way because the current roster is not capable of holding onto possession for long periods of time. Players like Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux struggle mightily when it comes to keeping the ball, which often leads to turnovers and loss of possession. There is a fine line between knowing how you want to play and being forced to play a certain way, and the Union seem to be on the wrong side of the imaginary line.
If Jim Curtin actually decides to commit to a counterattacking style he will have some good pieces to build around. Teams that rely on counter attacks often give up a lot of possession, which means that a solid pair of center backs is a priority. Curtin already has one center back that would be a good fit in Maurice Edu, who has done an admirable job in putting out fires and breaking up plays from the center of the defense. Edu has a tendency to move forward into the midfield quite a bit, which makes sense because he is usually a defensive midfielder, but if he pushes into the attack another center back will have to stay behind him to make sure that if possession is lost there is defensive cover in the back. This summer the Union splashed the cash on loanee Steven Vitoria. Vitoria has been injured for most of the season, but when he has played he showed a tendency to get pulled out of position and leave gaps in the center of the back line. Having two center backs who are prone to leave their positions is not a recipe for success in any system, let alone one that relinquishes possession for parts of the game. One of them would most likely need to be shipped out to make the system work. Letting Vitoria's loan lapse would be the smart play there.
Curtin already has three wingers who are very good at leading counter attacks. Sebastien Le Toux, Eric Ayuk, and Andrew Wenger are all speedy wingers who can burn opposing defenders and put decent crosses into the box. Wenger has top class speed, but has struggled mightily this season. I don't think Wenger would be the best player to build around for the coming years, but if he can regain the form that he had at the end of last year he would be a valuable piece. Le Toux is probably too old to keep around for the long term, but he currently has a lot to offer on the wing and he would help the team out in the short term. The player who would probably fit this style the best is Eric Ayuk. The young Cameroonian has good speed, impressive skill with the ball at his feet, and has a tendency to make strong runs into the box. Ayuk is still very young and has a lot of weaknesses in his game that he needs to improve on, but he has the potential to be great winger for years to come.
Two more key components of a counterattacking team is a good Number 6 and a strong center forward who can hold up the ball. Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud have both been playing the Number 6 role this year. Lahoud has been injured for much of the season, and while he has been out Carroll has revived his career by disrupting passing lanes, shuttling the ball between the defense and the midfield, and stabilizing the midfield unit by staying in position when the rest of the midfield moves into he attack. Carroll is another good short term piece, but at 34 he is too old to build around. Curtin would probably have to consider getting a younger defensive midfielder to add to the nucleus of the team. Philadelphia already has two strikers who can hold up the ball and win headers in the box in CJ Sapong and Fernando Aristeguieta. Aristeguieta (23) and Sapong (26) are both young enough to be good pieces for the future. They can either be played together in a 4-4-2 or one at a time in a 4-2-3-1. Both players fit into either system very well.
If this season does not end well and the club hires a new coach, he will be tasked with deciding how he wants the team to play. The most important part about creating an identity is obviously to pick the right one for the roster, organization, and fan base. The question of how to play will inevitably lead to the age-old question of whether it is preferable to focus on winning at all costs, or playing an entertaining style that will be more exciting. The obvious answer is that it is preferable to play in an entertaining way and win a lot of games, great teams are able to do both but many times coaches have to choose between functionality and flair. Odds are that each soccer fan will have a different answer to that question but one thing is certain, the Union have to commit to something, or else they will continue to be stuck in the tactical limbo in which they are still mired.
Creating a distinct tactical style in MLS usually takes a few years. It takes time to bring together a core of players that buy into a coach's philosophy and develop the chemistry that is necessary to become an elite team. The problem is that the average lifespan for a coach of the Union is only about two years. The first step that the franchise needs to take is to either stick with Jim Curtin and give him more time, or hire a coach that they are willing to have patience with and give him the necessary resources to bring in the players that he needs. History has shown that continuity is the way to win championships and until the organization finds a coach that they believe in it will be very difficult for the team to find an identity.