Since Major League Soccer returned from the Concacaf Gold Cup break, the Philadelphia Union have not looked like a first-place team.
Jim Curtin’s side hit a low point in its season on Saturday with a 4-0 loss to Real Salt Lake during which disastrous mistakes gifted the home team all of its goals and the Union offense looked like a shell of itself.
“No positives to take away from that one,” Curtin said. “We have to look forward to improving during the week. We’ll obviously watch the film. Actually, we might burn the film.”
With three games coming up against Eastern Conference opposition and teams jockeying for position beneath them, it’s gut-check time for the Union.
“We weren’t up for it in any way, shape or form,” Curtin said. “I could break down the first three goals, but they were almost laughable. We’ll have to pick ourselves up and move on to the next game.”
The warning signs for a horrific performance were imminent in each of the last four games the Union played, starting with the June 26 clash with the New England Revolution.
The Union rescued a point from that match and a home clash with Orlando City last Saturday, while their only win since the resumption of league play came against nine-man Orlando City at Exploria Stadium.
But even in those matches, the team did not play at its highest potential, with the defense looking shaky at best and the attack failing to combine for large stretches.
Saturday’s unraveling was made possible by all of the small failures of the previous four games plus the injury absences of Kai Wagner, who was ruled out with a quad issue after the team arrived in Utah, Jamiro Monteiro and Ilsinho, both of whom are working back to 100%.
Wagner’s absence was apparent on the first RSL goal, when Fabinho failed to communicate with Auston Trusty on the whereabouts of Jefferson Savarino, who then beat Trusty 1-v-1 to slot a shot past Andre Blake.
“We have to forget,” Fabinho said. “For me, I’m gonna have to forget this game today because today we lost our minds sometimes on the field. But we have to forget this game and start thinking about the next game. We know our team is good. Our team can change the bad starts.”
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 14, 2019
Fabinho’s presence in the matchday squad was questionable to say the least since Matt Real shined in his brief appearance a week ago. Instead of travelling with the group, Real played on Wednesday night for USL Championship affiliate Bethlehem Steel.
Trusty’s form has regressed during the stretch as well, while Jack Elliott plays close to best XI level. It might be time for Curtin to call on Mark McKenzie, who has dealt with injuries all season and is now back to full fitness, to play next to Elliott in order to shore up the defensive group.
The third concession was as inexcusable as the first, with Ray Gaddis attempting to fend off an attacker while waiting for Blake to rush out instead of clearing the ball away from danger.
In midfield, Monteiro’s absence is more glaring than any other missing players. Monteiro’s ability to organize the team through his technical ability, pace and defensive skill has sewn together the midfield unit of himself, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya.
In his place, Brenden Aaronson and Marco Fabian have not played well enough. Aaronson’s dip in form comes after an astonishing open to his career that few expected. The Homegrown midfielder wasn’t expected to fill a starting role right off the bat and he is better suited at this point for a role off the bench.
Fabian has played in four games since sitting out with an ankle injury. In his last two contests, Fabian has featured in 132 minutes and scored one goal. Now that his fitness has improved, the Union need Fabian to show more of his skill on the field, with or without Monteiro linking him with the other players in the final third.
The Union have had a gaping hole in their activity in the middle of the field 20-30 yards from goal, and need Fabian needs to start filling that up in order to create a more cohesive attack.
The one thing the Union had going in their favor before Saturday was the form of their strikers, with Kacper Przybylko and Fafa Picault combining for seven goals since the Gold Cup break.
Neither forward was active enough in the final third versus RSL, and Picault was a part of the mishap that led to the second goal due to a miscommunication on the ball between himself and Medunjanin.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 14, 2019
The one positive to come out of Saturday was the form of Andrew Wooten, who struck the back of the net with his first touch in a Union shirt. The goal was disallowed because of a VAR ruling that said the ball was out of play before it was crossed to Wooten, but the finish is still a glimpse into the player the Union are getting.
Now everything has to come together for Saturday’s home game with Chicago, which is a contest that is set up for the Union to win since the Fire are 0-7-3 on the road and are reeling after a home defeat to FC Cincinnati
With games against Chicago, Montreal and D.C. up in the next three weeks, the Union have a chance to re-assert their dominance in first place, but in order to do so, they need to come out with more fire and find a way during the week to fix all of the silly mistakes that have cost them results since June 26.