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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, March 7, 2016

Panic in the Frisco! The good and bad of the Union's opener in Dallas

By the doctrine of lowered expectations, the Philadelphia Union’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas contained positives. I mean, what did you expect from a team that had turned over half its roster, handed MLS debuts to six players (Union debuts to seven) and had just two holdovers from last year’s opening-game starting lineup traveling to the team that finished atop the Western Conference in 2015?

That the Union failed to embarrass itself should ring as hollow consolation. But adding to those hope dampeners the absence of the last two players to wear the captain’s armband, and maybe survival without humiliation is a moral victory of sorts. Put another way, at least the Union can still proudly trumpet that they are not the Chicago Fire.

First the positives, even if most reek of damning with faint praise. Andre Blake’s outing was an unqualified success. He was hung out to dry twice, but it would’ve been a four-goal game had the Union had an average keeper in net. He’s been a very busy man for the Union:

Now the qualifiers. Ken Tribbett didn’t look completely out of place of MLS. Ditto Anderson. Keegan Rosenberry decisively passed the Raymond Lee Rookie Right Back Test (patent pending). Ilsinho looked willing and able to contribute in MLS. You can only be so sanguine watching Fabian Castillo do this:

Even the numbers are better. The Union actually won the possession battle with 50.9 percent of the ball, something that occurred just seven times in MLS last year. (The Union were 2-4-1 in those games, the last occurring July 18 at Toronto FC.) Two shots on target – one a sharp-angle header by Anderson off an overcooked corner – aren’t enough of a payoff, but a passing percentage of 69 is passable if not ideal given the circumstances. Consider that last year’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas at PPL Park, marred by Zach Pfeffer’s red card, afforded the Union 46 percent possession.

Every part of Sunday’s affair comes with this push and pull, and nowhere is it more profound than in what could broadly be called the Union’s “style.” It may be too much to expect an injury-diminished team to internalize and acclimate to a drastically novel way of playing in game No. 1. But so much of Sunday felt regressive.

The Union still deployed Brian Carroll as a holding midfielder, essentially a deep-lying double pivot with the ghostly Vincent Nogueira. They still turned to Sebastien Le Toux for a late-game spark and their best goalscoring chance. They still “went with the big ball a little too much today, which is not what we did in the preseason,” according to Chris Pontius, too often bypassing midfield to feed an under-pressure and isolated CJ Sapong too high up the pitch.

Some of those concepts will take time to implement. Take Jim Curtin discussing the fullbacks. While Rosenberry showed some glimmers of attacking promise, Fabinho struggled mightily, a product of Dallas’s attacking pressure wearing out the defense and pinning them back.

“(Our outside back) are good on the ball. They’re comfortable. They can make passes. I think it’s important spacing-wise that they’re in an area of the field that’s a little higher up then they receive it, so Castillo or (Michael) Barrios isn’t the one running at them. They’re ahead of that so they can create man-more situations, 2-vs.1. So being as a starting point a little higher. Part of it also is our center back shaving the confidence to hit the little clipped ball over the wingers.”

Those are issues that may take months to acquire fluency in.

At the end of the day, the pressures seem to be in opposition. It’s a results-oriented business, and Curtin needs to get results, particularly if his seat is as hot as many league-wide pundits believe. But let’s be clear: The Union were highly unlikely to get a result in Dallas, much the same way that they’re very unlikely to return from Columbus with points next week.

This early in the season, in such early days of a comprehensive rebuild, the process warrants attention. The Union want to operate differently than the club’s past milquetoast iterations. Curtin reflected that in his selections Sunday – Leo Fernandes over Le Toux, Rosenberry over Ray Gaddis, Anderson over Richie Marquez.

But on the basis of one game – and it is only one game against one of the MLS’s most daunting opponents – not much beyond the customary carousel of names has changed.

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