Inside Doop: New season, same old problems for Union


Inside Doop: New season, same old problems for Union

Over the past few months, the Union have talked a lot about beginning a new chapter in 2016. But in their first game of the season, they suffered from some of the same problems that hurt them during the franchise’s first six years of existence.

What went wrong in their 2-0 setback to FC Dallas on Sunday? Was it just a matter of going on the road for a brutally tough opener? Can they find a way to get points on the road next week? We’ll examine it all in the first Inside Doop of the year: 

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The first thought everyone had tuning into the contest was likely similar: “Well, this is an interesting lineup.” Head coach Jim Curtin made a few surprising calls, most notably starting three defenders with zero MLS games between them in Ken Tribbett, Keegan Rosenberry and Anderson. That’s a tough assignment for those guys considering their MLS debuts came against what Curtin would later call one of the league’s best front fours. Perhaps, predictably, they struggled at times to slow down the Dallas attack — although, it should be noted, that it was left back Fabinho (now the veteran of the backline) who made some of the biggest mistakes that led to the Dallas goals.

2. As the inexperienced backline continues to gel, goalkeeper Andre Blake will be called upon to perhaps carry a bigger load early in the season. He certainly rose to the occasion Sunday, making eight saves (two off the franchise record he set himself last year), including a few diving ones. As always, it was a bit of an adventure watching Blake scramble off his line and distribute the ball forward (he seemed to have some trouble controlling his punts because of the wind) but those are things the young ’keeper should get more comfortable with as he gains more MLS experience.

3. Ilsinho, the team’s new Brazilian midfielder, showed some of the quality that made him one of the team’s top offseason targets, at one point splitting a pair of FC Dallas defenders to get into the box. But, overall, it was a mostly tough day for the Union attack, which managed to put only two shots on target. Perhaps even harder for Philly fans to swallow is the fact that Andrew Wenger and Cristian Maidana — the two midfielders the team traded in the offseason — both started and scored for Houston in the Dynamo’s 3-3 draw with New England. Like the backline, the attacking unit that features newcomers Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Roland Alberg (who surprisingly didn’t get the start), as well as Leo Fernandes (who spent all of last season on loan with the New York Cosmos) will probably need some time to figure out each other’s tendencies.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. One of the biggest reasons why Curtin had to field such an inexperienced MLS lineup in the opener is because arguably his two best players — Maurice Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta — were out with injuries. Edu has been progressing slower than the team had hoped, suffering a stress reaction as he recovered from sports hernia surgery in October. Barnetta’s injury (tendinitis in his knee) appears less serious and he might be able to return soon to provide a punch in the central attacking midfield spot. Curtin knows he can’t rush those two back and believes his team has better depth to overcome those losses. Still, it’s a tough situation starting a season without two veterans who can provide stability and help the first-year MLS players grow. 

2. Curtin revealed after the game that Richie Marquez dealt with a little bit of a hamstring issue during the preseason and, as he did, the coach began to like the center back pairing of Anderson and Tribbett. This seems like a tough break for Marquez, who was one of the team’s few bright spots in 2015 and looked poised to evolve into a leader of the backline this season. Will Curtin opt to move Marquez back into the role in which he thrived last year? Or, given that he doesn’t like to shake things up on the backline, will he give Tribbett and Anderson more time to grow together? (Meanwhile, Josh Yaro, who many people thought was the best player in this year’s draft, appears to be fourth on the center back depth chart as he adjusts to the pro game.)

3. The schedule-makers were certainly not kind to the Union, who will follow up their game vs. FC Dallas (one of the top contenders to win the MLS Cup this season) with a trip to face the Columbus Crew (a team that made it to the MLS Cup last season). And the Union traditionally struggle in Columbus, having lost there twice last season, including an ugly 4-1 loss on April 25. Can Philly slow down the Crew and escape with a point? It would certainly be understandable if they do not but, given that their last two seasons were doomed by poor starts, the Union would really like to avoid an 0-2-0 start going into their home opener the following week. 

Stat of the week
Despite getting dominated in most offensive categories, the Union actually won the possession battle vs. FC Dallas (50.9 percent to 49.1 percent).

Quote of the week
“I think we are in a better spot than we were last year.” — Jim Curtin after the 2-0 loss

Player of the week
Andre Blake easily gets the nod, showing off the impressive athleticism and shot-stopping ability that once made him the top overall pick in the draft.

Union add attack power in Brazilian forward Sergio Santos

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Union add attack power in Brazilian forward Sergio Santos

Sporting director Ernst Tanner and the Union made their first big splash of the offseason on Friday by signing 24-year-old Brazilian forward Sergio Santos. 

Santos was acquired for a $500,000 transfer fee from Chilean Primera Division club Audax Italiano and was signed using Targeted Allocation Money. The length of the deal was not disclosed. 

“Sergio is a young forward with potential and we are pleased to complete his signing,” Tanner said in the team’s official release. “When we met with him in Chile, it became apparent that he is a good fit for our club both as a player and as a person.”

The move is intriguing for multiple reasons. The 6-foot center forward is the first impact addition from new sporting director Ernst Tanner, whose goal for the offseason was to make the Union a more offensive-oriented team with a potential two-forward setup. 

Secondly, Santos, who had nine goals in 16 matches for Audex last season, joins a busy Union attack corps that features Cory Burke, C.J. Sapong, David Accam and Fafa Picault. If only two of those five can play at any given time in Tanner’s formation, the team could look to ship someone out. 

Attacking pieces Jay Simpson, Fabian Herber and Marcus Epps were not retained for the 2019 season.

“We have observed rapid improvement and development at Audax,” Tanner said, “and believe he is ready for this next step. We next look forward to integrating him as quickly as possible with the team at the start of preseason.”

Union sign manager Jim Curtin to contract extension

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Union sign manager Jim Curtin to contract extension

Change is in the air for the Union, but not where you’d expect. 

The Union on Monday extended head coach Jim Curtin's contract for the 2019 season. Terms of the one-year deal were not disclosed.

“We’re continuing our collaboration,” sporting director Ernst Tanner said at the Union’s end-of-season press conference. “If the collaboration is going well, we’ll continue it.”

Maligned by Philadelphia fans, Curtin, who was out of contract following the season, landed fourth in MLS Coach of the Year voting and is coming off a record season for the Union, earning a franchise record 15 wins and the team’s third-ever playoff berth — its second in three seasons.

“I do understand the microscope in Philadelphia shines a little tougher,” Curtin said. “That comes with the territory of coaching in Philadelphia. There’s going to be scrutiny. I’m happy to be here, this club means a ton to me. Philadelphia is where I’m from and I look forward to 2019.” 

With Tanner taking putting his stamp on the club, Curtin could have easily been a casualty of new management. However, the Philly-native did enough to convince the new boss he’s worthy. 

“Jim led us to the playoffs for the second time in a three-year period,” Tanner said. “His relationship with the players is very good. He's an expert in developing young players, which will be a clear focus in the future.”

While Curtin is remaining, Tanner does want to see some change, especially in terms of the team’s on-field flexibility, aggressiveness and unpredictability. The manager's ability to accomplish Tanner's goals could determine his future beyond 2019.

"We need to make it a little bit more inconvenient to play us,” Tanner said. “I feel we are a little too easy to reckon, especially when everyone ahead of us knows we’re playing in a 4-2-3-1."

Though Curtin is sticking with the team, a number of long-time players and former prospects won’t be. On Monday, the club announced that it has declined contract options on defenders Richie Marquez and Josh Yaro, along with midfielders Marcus Epps, Fabian Herbers and Adam Najem. High-priced forward Jay Simpson and third-string goalkeeper Jake McGuire were also cut loose. 

MLS assist leader Borek Dockal saw his loan expire from Chinese club Henan Jianye. The full purchase price on the 30-year-old’s contract could be too rich for the Union, who are expected to be in the market for a new No. 10 if they can’t retain the playmaker.

"There's a possibility to bring him back but it's not in our hands," Tanner said. "Borek told us about his situation and wish to return to Europe, something we need to respect. If there's a chance to bring him back, we'll do it."

Backup goalkeeper John McCarthy, Warren Creavalle and Ray Gaddis are all out of contract, but all three have had discussions with the team. The Union specifically announced it is working on a new contract with veteran left back Fabinho.

“We’re going to scout now,” Tanner said.