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

Monday, October 9, 2017

And so it ends: The elimination of the consistently mediocre Union

Most of the Philadelphia Union players were scattered across the country on a weekend off or away on international duty overseas when the club’s playoff hopes officially died Saturday.

That occurred 100 miles to the north, as the New York Red Bulls topped Vancouver, 3-0, to seal the sixth and final playoff berth in MLS’s Eastern Conference with two weeks of the season left. The Red Bulls, on 46 points, are untouchably ahead of the Union and three other teams stuck on 39, which consigns the Union (10-13-9) to a sixth playoff-free season in eight years.

Consolations are few and far between in a season that, after last year’s (probably ahead-of-schedule) playoff berth, can only be read as a disappointment. The Union cannot set the franchise record for losses in a season, which was once a question; more bizarrely, wins in consecutive games – at playoff-bound Chicago, then at home in the finale to Orlando – can tie the franchise mark for most wins in a season.

Regardless of what transpires, the Union for the seventh straight season will finish with between 10 and 12 wins over a 34-game schedule, a mind-numbing level of mediocrity.

With a win and a draw in the next two games, the Union would actually finish with their third-most productive season ever, even surpassing last year’s playoff season. Or to be more realistic, should the Union lose at Chicago and win at home against a similarly eliminated Orlando City side, they would match their record from last season to the game – 11-14-9 for 42 points.

Here’s where perception counts, both descriptive and prescriptive. The 2016 campaign – which featured that rarity of rarities, a first-place Union side, for multiple weeks and had the Union in playoff position nearly wire-to-wire – felt like a playoff campaign, even if it was dimmed by the slide to the finish line. This season, in which the Union never occupied a playoff position, feels like much more of a failure. Separate eight- and six-game winless streak exacerbate that feeling. At the end, though, they look exactly the same in the standings, a damnation by low standards.

The gulf in perception from 2016 to 2017 hits at a key debate that many anticipated. The Union – with the additions of Giliano Wijnaldum, Haris Medunjanin, Jay Simpson, Fafa Picault and a full preseason for Alejandro Bedoya – improved over last year in absolute terms, with more talent from one to 18 on the bench and one to 29 on the roster. The evidence is in the point total: Against a better and deeper East, the Union could yield the same number of points as last year.

But the question entering the season wasn’t, did the Union improve? It was, did the Union grow sufficiently to keep pace with a more competitive Eastern Conference? Did the club take a big enough step forward from scraping into the sixth and final spot last year to lay a convincing claim to a playoff berth this year?

The answer to that is a resounding no, echoed with two weeks still left to play. The lack of recognition of soccer’s version of the proficiency-vs.-growth debate is yet another example of MLS 1.0 thinking (or whatever version the consensus says is outdated) on the Union’s part. And looking ahead, if the Union end up with an identical record as last season, the club’s higher-ups can’t be entombed by the same old lines of thinking, that this result somehow reflects satisfactory improvement.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mediocre means neither good nor bad. The Union, by definition, aren't mediocre. While they are frequently bad, and arguably have been the worst team in the league over the full span of their existence (barring Chivas), they are never good. Calling them mediocre is rounding way up and should stop.

October 11, 2017 at 10:11 AM 

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