There were two enormous question marks during Philadelphia Union’s preseason: First, how would the team perform in the new 4-4-2 diamond shape Jim Curtin instituted as he sought the best way to implement Ernst Tanner’s high-pressing, transition-focused philosophy?
And second, what were the implications, both on the pitch and for the Union more broadly, as a club, of the arrival of the biggest signing in club history, Marco Fabian?
The first became a fascinating storyline throughout the season, with Curtin moving between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 between and within matches as he used a deep but idiosyncratic bench — the team’s most effective substitutes, Ilsinho, Fafa Picault, and Sergio Santos, thrived in the 4-2-3-1 — to his advantage. Kacper Przybylko, on the other hand, chased the single-season goals record as a lone striker throughout a long summer stretch in which he was, statistically, one of the best strikers in the league. With Przybylko out, Curtin returned to the diamond in the postseason, leaving the best shape to use in 2020 an open question.
The second question was answered in a way that few envisioned: Despite scoring the club’s first-ever playoff game-winning goal, Fabian never found his feet on the pitch and was not in the starting eleven for either postseason match. From a club philosophy perspective, then, Fabian’s arrival somewhat ironically ended up proving that a well-built, well-coached club can trade blows with the league’s biggest spenders.
Club owner Jay Sugarman was questioned by some when he said, in announcing Tanner’s arrival as Sporting Director, that, “We should not line up with our muskets and men against their muskets and men and see who wins.” The implication to some was that the Union would never have the guns they needed to compete when the big battles came.
Less quoted was what Sugarman said minutes later: “What we need to be is really good at everything we can control and then bring something special, something that puts other teams’ strengths off to one side and lets our strengths shine.”
The Union want to be good at developing talent, playing as a collective unit, and at going non-stop until the final whistle. Those first two were stakes Tanner drove into the ground when he arrived; the third is what happens when Jim Curtin’s Philly-local personality comes out through his team each week.
This year, the team was good at all three more often than not. Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie earned spots in the first eleven, Jack Elliott emerged as one of the better center backs in Major League Soccer, and Matt Freese, Michee Ngalina, Anthony Fontana, and Matt Real all made big steps forward. The defense was not as strong as Jim Curtin would have preferred, but it increasingly became the source of transition moments that became scoring opportunities. Think the first goal against Atlanta at home or the game-winner in Toronto.
They also produced an incredible array of special moments that highlighted the team’s fitness and depth. Players will tell you that the season felt like it truly began when they stunned Dallas with a late comeback, and that the league finally took notice when it became clear that the Ilsinho, Fafa Picault, and Marco Fabian could reliably change matches off the bench.
But the moments these players produced were not the “special” that Sugarman wanted to see. He wanted to see Tanner and Curtin create a style of play that could allow the Union’s roster to come through in big games.
They did — without their leading scorer, and with the team’s only All-Star having the worst game of his superb career, the Union came through.
So how does the club build on this?
Most importantly, Tanner and Chris Albright will look to replicate their success in the transfer market. Kacper Przybylko, Kai Wagner, Jamiro Monteiro, and Aurelien Collin all made major contributions this year, and finding pieces that provide depth in key areas will be essential for 2020.
Second, the club will look to further integrate development and playing style. The current crop of homegrowns — including newly signed Jack De Vries and Cole Turner — came through the academy prior to Tanner’s arrival. As the next set of talent moves through, they will internalize the necessary playing principles and decision-making before they reach the first team, making their transition to MLS easier.
This is how the team moves even closer to Tanner’s ideal — a roster that, collectively, is the superstar.
Now, what are the big questions for the offseason given what the club needs to do to build on 2019’s success?
The first thing fans will look for is a series of moves that retain the depth that was so essential to taking a big step forward this past year. Retaining Ilsinho, finding more support for Kacper Przybylko, and sorting out how to handle the trio of center backs that will look to fight it out for a starting spot in 2020.
Jamiro Monteiro’s future needs clarity, as does Haris Medunjanin’s.
Second, the club will, internally, look to figure out some of the minor issues that cropped up during the season: Falling behind early too often, failing to keep clean sheets, and the occasional road flops where they never got out of first gear.
Last year at this time, it was hard to tell which direction the team was headed. On the surface, Tanner’s style didn’t suit some of the roster’s top players like Medunjanin and Jack Elliott, who thrive in possession-heavy systems. Major changes were expected, but in the end a series of smaller, thoughtful decisions allowed Jim Curtin to put Medunjanin, Elliott, and Ale Bedoya in positions where they could have their best seasons in MLS simultaneously.
This is what fans can put their faith in once again — that whether Marco Fabian stays or goes, and whether another name of his stature arrives, the rest of the offseason will be handled with enough vision to take another step forward.