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Injuries, struggles in goal behind Union's dismal start

It was arguably the most spirited match in the Union's Major League Soccer history, and their chance for their first trophy went awry when Vincent Nogueira hit the post during second half stoppage time with the score tied at 1.

Union goalkeeper John McCarthy. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports file photo)
Union goalkeeper John McCarthy. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports file photo)Read more

It was arguably the most spirited match in the Union's Major League Soccer history, and their chance for their first trophy went awry when Vincent Nogueira hit the post during second half stoppage time with the score tied at 1.

Some would suggest that the shot that clanged off the post in the championship of the U.S. Open Cup on Sept. 16 at PPL Park was the beginning of what has been a precipitous fall for the Union.

They lost that game, 3-1, in double overtime to the Seattle Sounders, one of the model franchises in MLS.

At the time the Union were very much involved in the MLS playoff race but stumbled to a 1-3-2 record in their final six games.

And now things have spiraled even worse. The Union are 1-7-3, have lost four in a row and are off to their worst start in franchise history dating to 2010.

While it is too easy an explanation to suggest that the Union never recovered from the Open Cup loss, the fact remains that they haven't regained their footing since.

"Obviously that was a tough loss, but that is really not an excuse for us," Union defender Sheanon Williams said. "We just haven't played out best."

As just about a third of the 34-game MLS season is through for the Union, one simple question is being asked: What happened?

As with anything involving a slumping team, there is no single answer. Here are some of the reasons for the decline:

Injuries. The Union's rash of bad luck hit its peak last week when both goalkeepers on the roster, John McCarthy and Andre Blake, were injured minutes apart in practice. McCarthy suffered a concussion and Blake hurt his right knee, requiring meniscus surgery.

The Union have allowed by far the most goals in MLS (21), and an already tenuous goalie situation got worse. They had to sign Brian Sylvestre on a short-term loan and then didn't provide the 22-year-old keeper much support Saturday in a 3-0 loss at Vancouver.

In addition, forward C.J. Sapong suffered a facial fracture and concussion in the opening game, then was effective on his return but is now out after being arrested May 1 on DUI and reckless driving charges.

Other injuries have hurt the team such as a right ankle sprain that forced Nogueira to miss three games.

Rais Mbolhi's struggles. The signing of the Algerian World Cup goalie on July 30 has proved to be the worst transaction in team history. At the time, the Union had a solid if unspectacular goalie in Zac MacMath, and the financial resources seemed to be wasted by bringing in another keeper. (Plus Blake was the first overall selection in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and has played just one MLS game in his two seasons.)

According to a team source, Mbolhi is earning between $450,000 and $500,000, depending on certain guarantees. That is money that could have been spent for other pressing needs, such as a finisher.

Mbolhi played poorly down the stretch last year, giving away two points with a blunder that resulted in a late goal during a 1-1 draw with Chicago.

This season he allowed nine goals in the first five games and coach Jim Curtin told him to leave the team for a while to clear his head. Mbolhi was called back two days before McCarthy and Blake were hurt in practice, but he won't be playing with the team. The Union have made no secret that they are trying to sell him and the international transfer window for some countries opens early next month.

Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz told The Inquirer last week that playing him now would risk injury.

When Mbolhi was signed, it appeared the Union had an embarrassment of riches in goal. Should they have stuck with MacMath, who is on loan to Colorado? It seemed like the most prudent move.

MacMath, who has yet to appear this season in MLS action, started 102 games in his four seasons with the Union.

Subpar seasons for many. This is not an aging team, which makes the decline that much more difficult to comprehend. There are only five players on the roster age 30 or older. Many young players were expected to take the next step but have gone backward.

Two examples are Williams, 25, and midfielder Andrew Wenger, 24. Over the last few years Williams looked like one of the up-and-coming top outside defenders. Wenger provided a major spark with six goals and four assists in 28 games after being acquired early last season from Montreal. This year he has yet to earn a goal or assist in 11 games, 10 starts.

Yet these two are far from the only culprits. Sebastien Le Toux, who had been a double-figure goal scorer in three of his previous four Union seasons, has yet to hit the back of the net. The list goes on and on.

What's the solution? It sounds simplistic, but the Union have just two options - to have their players improve or to bring better ones in.

"We are very active in looking for players and finding a solution to support Jim [Curtin]," Sakiewicz said. "We are 110 percent behind Jim."

Sakiewicz said injuries have been a big problem, but he understands there are other factors in this disappointing start.

"This is not acceptable where we are," he said.

Where they are is a team searching for confidence, the kind that was displayed for much of that Open Cup championship game, the franchise's last glittering moment.

Eleven the Hard Way

The Union are off to their worst start in their six-year history with a 1-7-3 record. Here is the Union's record after 11 games year by year and their final record.

Year   1st 11 games   Final   

2015   1-7-3

2014   1-5-5   10-12-12

2013   4-4-3   12-12-10

2012   3-6-2   10-18-6

2011   6-3-2   11-8-15*

2010   3-7-1   8-15-7

*qualified for MLS playoffs - Marc NarducciEndText