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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
The Union’s match against the Chicago Fire on Sunday marked the exact halfway point of the regular MLS season, and it’s given the Union and their fans much to think about. There are plenty of lessons one could take away from everything that’s happened in both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League, but here are the five biggest ones to keep in mind going forward.
1. The young guys need more minutes.
At this point, there’s really no excuse for Jim Curtin to not give his Homegrown players a real chance to make an impact in the current Union squad. Quinn Sullivan has proven time and time again that he’s the creative spark that the Union need to generate some genuinely threatening offense, but he only gets 10-20 minutes off the bench to showcase that. Jack McGlynn has a similar story. Paxten Aaronson could very well be just as talented (and maybe even moreso) as his brother, but hasn’t been handed the opportunity to prove it. Curtin simply can’t be playing the same guys week in and week out and expect a high level of performance every time. The young guys need to have an ample chance to shine, even if it does pose a little bit of a risk. Young Americans are in high demand all over the world, and the Union need to stake their claim in that market. They can’t keep boasting the success of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie forever.
2. The final decision making needs to be dealt with immediately.
Curtin has acknowledged it. It’s painfully obvious in so many games. Despite the constant issue of not being able to finish chances, there doesn’t seem to be much desire to rectify the situation. Offensive heavyweights like Kacper Przybylko and Cory Burke often find themselves having trouble with finding the back of the net when the midfield gets good balls forward. Even with crossing, passing, and touches in the box, the attack seriously struggles. The ability is obviously there, but the discipline and uniformity isn’t. The defense has been doing its best to keep opposition goals to a minimum, but the offense just hasn’t been pulling its weight to pull the Union ahead. Defense may win you titles, but right now, the Union are struggling to win games, and the offense needs to address the problem before their standing in the Eastern Conference really begins to suffer.
3. There needs to be more squad depth.
This problem was always lurking in the background, but it became too evident to ignore when goalkeeper Andre Blake, striker Cory Burke, and defender Alves Powell got called up for international duty this summer. While the trio were away playing for the Jamaican national team, their absence impacted the team hard. Not having Blake in front of the net caused the defense to become noticeably more disorganized and weak, as they appeared to struggle without his vocal leadership and disciplined reading of the game. Without Burke as an option up front, Curtin was left scrambling to figure out which combination of Przybylko, Sergio Santos, and later Daniel Gazdag would be most effective in attack. There weren’t a lot of reliable backup options for Curtin to lean on, mainly having to turn to the rather inexperienced teenagers to fill in the gaps. While the B team guys didn’t exactly blow it, they didn’t blow everyone away either, which leads us into our next point…
4. Transfer window business will be essential in the foreseeable future.
The Union aren’t exactly known for making waves during transfer windows, and while that tide is slowly starting to turn, they haven’t added many new players to the squad in recent years. Curtin has proved himself to be a creature of habit, preferring to employ a certain lineup players as often as possible, but as fans have seen this season, that method isn’t always the best one. While sending out the young Homegrowns is absolutely an option, the weight of a burgeoning MLS team shouldn’t fall on teenage shoulders. The Union are rapidly gaining credibility, more than enough to attract the players they need to go above and beyond in the coming seasons. Couple that with Ernst Tanner’s reputation of being able to sign under-the-radar, but nonetheless spectacular, players, and Philadelphia could easily have a dynasty on their hands in the near future.
5. Consistent intensity is desperately needed.
Unfortunately, the Union don’t have a fire lit under them until they absolutely need it. They won’t start off games with any explosiveness, passively and almost casually moving balls forward, and keeping their game pace languid and relaxed. Then, as the pattern has revealed itself to be, they’ll give up a goal or two, and then the intensity will start to show itself. It’s frustrating to not see the attack work as hard as they should be, especially with the difficulty finishing they’ve been having. Curtin is not a man known for laziness or carelessness, so it’s puzzling as to why his team has been fairly sluggish as of late. Once the Union can walk onto the field, fires blazing and inner tigers roaring, they’ll truly start to strike fear in the hearts of opponents.
All that being said, the season is far from over, and anything can happen with the Union, as well as their opponents. It would be foolish to count anyone out of this title race right now, but it would be equally as, if not egregiously more, foolish to ignore the patterns and indicators revealing themselves at this point in the season.