To get everyone ready for tonight's match against the Philadelphia Union, we spoke with Brotherly Game's Eugene Rupinski to get his take on the future of the Union, Jim Curtin, and his main takeaways from their first match against Atlanta.
DSS: What moves does Philadelphia have to make in the offseason to get back in the playoffs next year?
BG: The Union are really going to have to evaluate what they are and how they play the game, and that will largely predicate what they will need to do in the offseason. If the club returns to the 4-2-3-1 formation they played for most of the year, then the greatest need is acquiring a superstar number 10. The Union's offense in the 4-2-3-1 is designed to run through that position, however the largely ineffectual Ilsinho and the completely ineffectual Roland Alberg were offering absolutely nothing going forward. It got to the point where head coach Jim Curtin had no choice but to alter his formation, moving instead to a 4-1-4-1 with Warren Creavalle at central defensive midfield in a triangle with Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya playing up the field a bit.
The results have been positive so far, getting a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls and a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire. If it's just a matter of teams being thrown off by this new formation then they'll be back to square one as soon as they're figured out. If this sticks and it works better for the club, I think the focus shifts from looking for a Designated Player level 10 to simply improving the quality of center backs. 35 year old Oguchi Onyewu is the Union's lone solid CB, however it remains to be seen how long he intends to play. Jack Elliott has looked fairly good when paired with the veteran Onyewu, having his name thrust into the conversation for MLS Rookie of the Year. That said, he's looked decent with Richie Marquez and lost at times with Josh Yaro. Marquez disappeared during the season after a fantastic 2016, only re-emerging recently. Yaro has had injury issues limiting his playing time, and unfortunately when he's played he's been prone to making huge mistakes that cost the Union points they can't afford to drop. Whether some or all of these guys mature into the 2018 season will remain to be seen. Bringing in a veteran CB like a Drew Moor (which the Union pursued hard before he signed with Toronto FC) would be a smart play regardless of what happens with the formation.
DSS: Jim Curtin's job security has been called into question throughout the season. Do you think he returns next year?
BG: Yes I think so. Calling for a coach's head is what people do in Philly, so I wouldn't read much into the calls for him to be fired. I think the Union organization has invested in Curtin and his system, and the Front Office seems like they are in it for the long haul with him and honestly, I can't blame them. Having a revolving door at head coach does no one any good. It doesn't allow for a coach to implement a system or flesh out a vision, especially if he's constantly got the threat of an impending dismissal hanging over him.
I also don't think you can fully blame Curtin for a lot of the Union's failings this year. Major League Soccer as a whole improved in quality from the top of the roster to the bottom, yet it seemed like the Union got left behind by everyone (Minnesota United not withstanding). That's not on Curtin, that's on the Union not spending money wisely. You can't expect to win when one of your two DPs are injured for the entire season, your projected 10 comes into camp almost 20 pounds overweight, and your big splurge at striker turns out to be a dud of Jay Simpson's proportions. It's like asking Curtin to win the Daytona 500 in a Toyota Tercel.
DSS: What did you see from the first meeting between the Union and Atlanta that worked to Philadelphia's advantage?
BG: I thought the Union's first half was one of the best they've had in a while, however the Union can't be good for 45 minutes, or 60 minutes, or 89 minutes. They have to be good until that final whistle sounds because anything else has allowed teams to come back and snatch points. Atlanta is too good of a team to not play at your best for every second of the game, especially in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. I think Atlanta will also be looking for a bit of payback. They know they weren't at their best in the first half of that game, and I would be surprised if they didn't come out looking for vengeance. The Union have some momentum after their stunner against Chicago, but they are going to have to do even better if they're going to get another draw with AUFC.