Union

Union have sunk to bottom of MLS standings, but who is to blame?

It's only natural that Union head coach Jim Curtin has had to deal with speculation about his job security. The Union are off to an awful start, sinking to the bottom of MLS with an 0-4-2 record heading into Saturday's game against the Montreal Impact.

Combine that with the team's awful end to the 2016 season, its mostly awful 2015 campaign -- Curtin's first full one in charge -- and the fact that soccer coaches around the world tend to come and go with relative frequency (see: Bradley, Bob), and it all adds up to the chance that Curtin could be in trouble if not for a quick turnaround.

But the bigger question is: Should he be fired? And if he shouldn't, which I'll say up front is my personal opinion, who is most to blame for the Union's woes? 

Unlike in past years, it's harder to find an easy target. From former coach Peter Nowak hazing, chastising and trading popular players away, to former CEO Nick Sakiewicz playing fast and loose with the truth, to high-priced former goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi looking like he wanted to be anywhere but Philly, there have been people cut loose from the organization for very good reasons. Even the affable John Hackworth was responsible for creating his own roster, so his firing when the team struggled in 2014 certainly had merit.

But these days, the Union head coach no longer brings in all of his own players, like Nowak and Hackworth mostly did. And you could say that the deals Curtin did make, along with technical director Chris Albright -- acquiring Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius, among others -- were some of the franchise's better ones.

Which brings us to Earnie Stewart. Hired as the club's sporting director before the 2015 season, the former U.S. national team star was tasked with changing the direction of the franchise. There was little not to like about the move at the time, considering Stewart's front-office success in his native Netherlands, where he utilized a "Moneyball" style to get the most out of his team. And more than a year later, there's still plenty to like about Stewart's intelligence, patience and vision.

But it's also fair to question the makeup of this year's roster and offer an early evaluation of his offseason moves. To start, it's clear that World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin, the marquee acquisition of 2017, will be a talented player in MLS. He already is, and could be a top assist leader with some better finishing. But he's a deep-lying midfielder, a standout passer, someone who plays a similar role as the team's two other most accomplished players (captain Alejandro Bedoya and the injured Maurice Edu), its best homegrown player (Derrick Jones) and two other MLS veterans (Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle).

Meanwhile, while there's a glut in the defensive midfield now that Bedoya has dropped back to his more comfortable position, the attack has been barren for much of the season. C.J. Sapong continues to prove that he can score goals in bunches at times but two of Stewart's biggest foreign imports -- attacking midfielder Roland Alberg and striker Jay Simpson -- have struggled to stay on the field and make an impact while there.

Alberg showed he was capable of big things with one red-hot goal-scoring stretch last season, but the jury is still out on Simpson, a former fourth-division English striker who doesn't appear to offer much of an upgrade over Sapong or Charlie Davies. 

But, of course, big-time strikers cost a lot of money. Which brings us to Jay Sugarman. 

The Union's majority owner has admitted the team won't shell out the same kind of dollars on world-renowned players as other clubs. Instead, he's directed much of his resources toward the franchise's youth development program, a new practice facility and, perhaps down the road, an improved waterfront around the stadium. And anyone that's spoken with him will tell you he's a smart, sharp guy who did the right thing by cutting ties with Sakiewicz and bringing someone of Stewart's pedigree on board.

But at this point, you have to throw some blame at him -- and many fans are -- for not opening the wallet for a premier attacking player. Just look at what's happened to the Chicago Fire since they signed World Cup champ Bastian Schweinsteiger. Or look at how Nicolas Lodeiro led Seattle on a stirring MLS Cup run last year. Look at all the other teams around the league who have a true star on their team (including expansion side Atlanta United, who you can say is already far ahead of the Union) and how much it means that they can rely on that player for a goal, on any day, at any time. 

The Union don't have that. And aside from maybe Carlos Ruiz for a brief spell in 2011 and Barnetta, you can make the argument that they've never really brought in a star attacker from outside the league, typically relying on MLS stalwarts like Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey, Pontius and Sapong to provide the bulk of the offense.

Maybe Alberg will get hot like he did last year. Maybe Simpson will start scoring, too. Maybe Bedoya will emerge as the big-time playmaker the Union hoped. Maybe Keegan Rosenberry and Pontius will shake off slow starts and look more like the players that got them into the U.S. national team camp in January. Maybe Edu will finally get healthy and change the look of the midfield or offer a steadying presence on the backline. Maybe they really do just need to get that first win of the season to relieve the pressure that's hanging over them, like a black cloud, every time they step on the field.

But it's pretty clear that the most obvious fix for a team at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings is to find a true difference-maker in the attacking third. You could even contend that they're simply one player away from quickly charging up the table in a league known for parity and in-season turnarounds.

So if you're the Union, do you try to fill that glaring need, whether it's a high-priced foreign import or even just an underused goal scorer or attacking midfielder from inside MLS? Or do you fire a young, likable coach from Philly who has the respect of players in the locker room, understands this city and the franchise, values youth development, and would leave a big hole in the organization?

You make the call.