Philadelphia Union: Dismal road record leaves fans missing playoffs again

(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /

After another season ending without a playoff appearance, Philadelphia Union prep for a pivotal 2018 off-season.

Philadelphia Union fans are forced to wait another long offseason to see the boys in blue and gold play again after another season ended without a playoff win. Finishing with a record of 11-14-9 for the second-straight year, Philadelphia struggled mightily away from home by winning only one of their 17 away matches while earning draws in just six others. Earning a dismal nine points out of a potential 51 away from home just won’t cut it in the MLS.

With that being said, there were a few positives, despite the woes. Forward C.J. Sapong set a new franchise record for single-season goals scored with 16 (old fan favorite Sebastian Le Toux held the record previously with 14 goals). The Union discovered a strong Rookie of the Year candidate in defender Jack Elliot, as he put in solid work on numerous occasions this season, providing key clearances while remaining stable presence for an inconsistent team. And of course, Jamaican international Andre Blake was stellar once again in 2017. Some are whispering around about a potential international transfer, but Philadelphia would be wise to throw all the cash Blake’s way, because he’s that good. Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya look like a solid midfield duo to build around, that is if Medunjanin stays put.

Youth is on Union’s side

Philadelphia can also look forward to a new flock of youngsters sprouting into first team discussions for next year. With USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC finishing a strong season, which included a playoff berth, youth is definitely on Philadelphia’s side. The organization has taken a lot of heat in the past for failing to develop young talent, but I would argue the emergence of players like Auston Trusty, Adam Najem, Anthony Fontana, and Derrick Jones could serve the Union very well as an affordable yet reliable core of depth. Add in the already mentioned Elliot to the mix, and that core grows.

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However, young players currently on the Union roster have perhaps hit a minor bump in the road this year. Keegan Rosenberry has been a no show all year. Rosenberry has been riding the bench behind Ray Gaddis, a move which has many Union fans distraught and looking for answers considering Rosenberry’s All-Star campaign last season.

Head coach Jim Curtin has been continuously pressed regarding Rosenberry’s situation. The second year MLS defender was suspended roughly two weeks ago for tweeting an hour prior to kickoff against the Chicago Fire Sunday, Oct. 15. Maybe Rosenberry simply has trouble grasping the idea that he must outwork and outplay his teammates in training to earn his minutes back.

Curtin expressed his feelings on Rosenberry’s social media activity rather bluntly stating, “A decision that he made, one that he’ll be held accountable for. Unprofessional, and also disrespectful to the guys in the locker room. He’s a great young player that I think will learn from this, but as professionals, we’re held to a standard, and to do that right before kickoff is not something Earnie [Stewart] and I will tolerate.”

Josh Yaro also experienced a sophomore slump of his own this season at center back. Yaro first cracked the match-day 18 in early June and slowly earned his time due to a nagging groin injury suffered by Onyewu. Yaro’s low-point occurred in mid-August when the Union traveled north of the border to Montreal and blew a chance for a much-needed road victory. Yaro committed quite possibly the dumbest play of the Union season in the 95th minute when he kicked the legs out from underneath Shea Salinas awarding a PK opportunity. Union tied 2-2 that night.

Fellow center back Richie Marquez sporadically saw first team minutes this year. He split time between the Union and USL affiliate Steel FC. He did spend a fair amount of time on the bench. His disappearance from the lineup raises concerns like those surrounding Rosenberry.

Warning signs were apparent early on this season

The 2017 Union fan base suffered through eight and a half weeks on winless soccer to start the season after beginning with an underwhelming 0-4-4 record. The clearest signal that the team would struggle this season occurred on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium in late April. The Union jumped out to an early 3-0 lead within the first 39 minutes of the match against Montreal Impact. Montreal would score three unanswered and Philadelphia would successfully blow a 3-0 lead at HOME.

They would not win their first match until May 6 against a one loss New York Red Bulls at home. Sapong netted a hat trick and all was well. The win snapped a 16-game winless streak which dated back to Aug. 27, 2016. Philadelphia had finished the 2016 season on an eight-game winless streak and began 2017 with yet another eight-game winless streak. Doop?

Following the May 6 victory, Philadelphia would win three more to reach a four-game win streak. You could have guessed it though, a road game against Real Salt Lake snapped that streak. Philly wouldn’t win again until the end of June.

A tough July

Mid-July snuck up on the Union quickly and they hit a tough patch in their schedule. Starting on July 15 with an international friendly against Swansea City FC, Philadelphia played five matches in a two-week period, three of which were on the road. Not sure who decided to schedule the friendly against Swansea, but they could not have picked a worse time. During that two-week period, Philadelphia won only one and lost three – not including the 2-2 friendly draw.

August and September came and went, and the Union won just twice during that span as the playoffs were a distant dream, squandered yet again by an under performing club.  October was a pleasant surprise as Philadelphia scored 10 total goals for the month. They won their final two home matches by a combined total of 8-1, tying a record for most home wins in franchise history with 10. Talen Energy Stadium remains a fortress for Philadelphia along the Delaware River.

‘Fan discontent goes in cycles’

I have been told that fans for any giving sports team with go through phases of highs and lows during their time as a supporter. However, this cycle seems to be broken in Philly. Season ticket holders have grown increasingly apathetic towards the Union’s first team product and patience is running thin when discussing youth academy success and development. The outcry has been ringing a similar tune for the past three or four seasons now. Fans are noticing a front office that is unwilling to put forth high dollar investments on talented players, only to rely on band-aid players to simply get by.

Curtin’s seat may be the hottest it’s ever been. Supporters have openly criticized the young manager, even booing loudly on days of games. Curtin understands the criticism and has addressed the team’s shortcomings multiple times.

“We ask them [our players] a lot of times to bring a knife to a gunfight, and they don’t complain. They bring it every day in training. I’d like to personally thank them for everything they did this season,” Curtin said earlier this week. It seems Curtin is sending a clear message here: he needs more talent to compete with a constantly improving league.

Front office must spend

But will Philadelphia’s ownership decide to open the wallets this offseason?

It’s the question that weighs heaviest on the minds of many Union fans. I spoke with roughly 25 dedicated Union fans over the past two weeks. Each fan was asked the same questions, asking them to explain how long they have been season ticket holders and one complaint or frustration they have with the organization.

The top three answers were:

-Fans notice and have grown entirely too frustrated with the front office’s unwillingness to spend during transfer windows.

-Parking down at the stadium has gotten progressively worse – a situation that has been ‘messy’ since the stadium’s construction in 2010.

-Season ticket holders decided not to renew or switched to smaller game packages because they had trouble selling tickets to games they could not attend. The average price on sites like StubHub hit as low as $10 for some.

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2018 is playoffs or bust

If head coach Curtin returns, his squad better make the playoffs. Expect to see the addition of at least two high-dollar transfers this year – the front office will finally learn from their past mistakes and will invest the necessary money needed in the upcoming transfer window. A young group of players remain on the Union roster to fill in the gaps without breaking the budget. Blake returns in net behind a strong and youthful back four. Medunjanin hopefully returns to form a strong central midfield duo with Bedoya. Sapong remains the forward with the goals. The club could benefit from the addition of a creative attacking midfielder and perhaps an upgrade at wing to fix their woes.