I have been putting off doing a season recap for the Philadelphia Union because quite frankly I am ready to move on. 2017 was not the Union’s worst year by record, but it was tough watching a club that was filled with so much promise at the end of 2016 have a year like this. But I can only procrastinate for so long. Let’s rip the bandage off and see what is festering beneath.
How did the 2017 season go?
2017 was supposed to be a season that finally saw the Union shed the mantle of being a perennial loser and step into being a club that was a perennial playoff contender. Instead, the Union regressed to the bad old days of being a doormat and saw apathy set in with a large section of the fan base.
What we learned
You can not win in today’s MLS on the cheap, especially when many of your high-dollar players don’t play well or don’t play at all.
Game that best summarized the season
The 3-0 defeat to Atlanta United in Atlanta. Atlanta is what the Union could have been had MLS done their due diligence in Philadelphia and found an ownership group with the resources and sports business acumen of Arthur Blank. Atlanta spends big but smart and has generated a legitimate buzz around the team in the region. The Union don’t spend and there is zero buzz around the team. The contrast could not be more stark.
What went right
Derrick Jones, Adam Najem, and Marcus Epps got meaningful minutes in MLS. Haris Medunjanin turned out to be one of the better midfielders in MLS, and Alejandro Bedoya started playing as well as anyone once he was put into his natural position. Andre Blake was in top form all season (when he wasn’t injured), and CJ Sapong had a fantastic season.
What went wrong
Everything else. The Union didn’t win in their first eight games and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in eight seasons. There was a void at the 10 thanks to ineffectual seasons by Roland Alberg (a natural 10) and Ilsinho (not a natural 10), Chris Pontius and Keegan Rosenberry regressed, Giliano Wijnaldum didn’t pan out, Maurice Edu (again) didn’t play a minute for the Union, and Jay Simpson was a complete bust.
Oguchi Onyewu coming out of retirement and being a solid cog in the Union’s defense. His imposing physical presence added grit to a unit that sorely needed it, and his tutelage helped propel Jack Elliott into the Rookie of the Year conversation.
Unexpectedly awesome performance
CJ Sapong has had good years, but 2017 was special. On a team that didn’t offer him much in the way of offensive support, he was able to set the club’s single season goal scoring record.
Player who fell short of expectations
After a 2016 season that saw him lose the Rookie of the Year award to Seattle Sounders golden boy Jordan Morris, Keegan Rosenberry had a terrible 2017. After playing every regular season minute in 2017, he wound up only making 14 appearances and was suspended for the final game for a violation of the team’s social media policy.
What needs to change for 2018
A lot. The dead wood on this team has to be let go. The Union’s biggest problem has always been the platinum paperweights, they have to get the most out of every salary dollar spent - especially if they’re not going to spend big bucks on Designated Players. The Union also need to decide if they’re actually going to play the youth they’ve invested in and tout as the future of the club, or if they’re going to continue to sit them behind players who aren’t performing well but make more money.
Coach grade - D
I’ll start this by saying I like Jim Curtin, and I think he has what it takes to be a great coach. But at the end of the day, he’s the one that has to take responsibility for where the Union are in the table. The decision to never deviate from the 4-2-3-1 formation made the Union predictable - especially with the deficiencies at the 10 spot, which are so critical to that system working. There were a lot of teachable moments in 2017.
I cannot however in good conscience give an F grade, because the tactics and formation are only as good as the players in it. Is it really Curtin’s fault when a player comes into camp overweight or doesn’t give his all when given a chance? Is it Curtin’s fault when he has to match up against Josef Martínez and Miguel Almirón with Ilsinho and Roland Alberg? Curtin was told to win the Daytona 500 while driving a Dodge Neon.
Overall team grade - F
This was as dismal a season as there ever has been for the Union. The deficiencies of the team were laid bare, exposed for all to see. The Union need to take this offseason and evaluate the entire organization from the ground up. There simply can not be another season like 2017. The product on the field regressed, and that was reflected in the dwindling attendance.
Ownership has to step up and spend where it’s needed. The technical staff has to do a better job with scouting players. The coaching staff has to be better with adapting tactically to situations. The players have to step up, be professional, and play to the level that is expected of them. No one is solely to blame, but everyone shoulders some of this load.
We are entering dangerous territory. I can not see how the club can afford to continue to charge the sixth-highest price in MLS for season tickets while putting a sub-par product on the field and expect fans to return. The club has to rebuild on a lot of fronts. It’s going to be a lot of work, and they’ll have to answer a lot of hard questions not only from outsiders like us (media and fans), but perhaps most importantly from themselves.