Yes, Philadelphia Union remain a work in progress, and they have shown signs that they are capable of being an elite MLS club.
But at some point, that work needs to translate into wins. Nearly one-fourth of the way through the season, that has happened just once. Once again, the Union failed to capitalize upon an opposition red card in a second half they largely controlled.
So let's take a look at some of what stood out from Saturday's scoreless draw with the Houston Dynamo.
Questioning the substitution patterns
Union manager John Hackworth used just two of his allotted three substitutions Saturday. You could defend that by saying the team was playing well in the second half, and a change may have hurt that.
On the other hand, Houston hadn't gotten off a single shot in the second half with 11 men. It's unlikely that they would have done better with 10 after Kofi Sarkodie was ejected.
So would the Union have been better served by replacing defensive midfielder Brian Carroll with an attacker like Antoine Hoppenot? Hoppenot could have slotted in at left winger, Leo Fernandes could have moved more centrally, and Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira could have held central midfield with fewer Houston attackers to worry about.
Considering how Houston sat back and simply absorbed pressure, 20-20 hindsight would indicate that yes, that was probably a better way to go, even considering Hoppenot's ineffectiveness of late.
But that wasn't only the notable substitution choice by Hackworth. The two substitutions he made seemed preordained before the game.
One paid off. Sebastien Le Toux was very active and effective upon replacing Conor Casey, who slogged through perhaps his most forgettable game as a Union player. Absolutely right call.
The other seemed more dubious. Cristian Maidana was playing very well and not looking particularly fatigued when Hackworth pulled him in the 55th minute for Leo Fernandes. It was the same point at which Hackworth replaced Maidana in two of his last three starts. Fernandes went on to play a fairly steady but unimpressive game most notable for his continued diving.
Cross after cross after cross vs. David Horst's monster game
The Union completed just 2 of 35 crosses on the day, with one successful cross coming off a corner kick and the other immediately after a corner. In other words, the Union didn't connect on a single cross unless most of their team was inside the penalty area. That inefficiency is remarkable.
Equally amazing is that the Union sent in 18 of those crosses after their best aerial threat at forward, Conor Casey, had left the match 63 minutes in.
At what point do you accept that crosses aren't working and try something new?
Pennsylvania native David Horst had a monster aerial game clearing those crosses. Whether the Union's crosses were accurate or not, no Union attacker was beating him in the box.
The Union needed more creative ideas than this.
Maidana tries stuff
It's becoming very clear why Hackworth made each of his big three offseason signings, but the one most gradually coming to fruition is Maidana.
On Saturday, Maidana's creativity was on display. He combined well with Nogueira down the right side, freed himself for crosses with just the scantest of space, and generally just tried stuff, to paraphrase Bruce Arena. He is the creative attacking presence the Union need on the field, and his teammates could learn a bit from his movement off the ball.
When he left the game after 55 minutes, despite not looking particularly fatigued, it took that element out of the game. It's not that Leo Fernandes was particularly bad. He just played a fairly ordinary game.
Maidana needs to show Hackworth his fitness is good enough for him to go 70-plus minutes. The pace of MLS is faster than the Latin American leagues Maidana has played in the last few years, so maybe it's just a matter of time before his stamina gets to where it needs to be. Benny Feilhaber had similar issues last year with Kansas City before peaking at exactly the right time, and now Feilhaber looks like one of the league's best. Maidana has to match that.
Meet the Philadelphia Diving Team
Congratulations, Leo Fernandes. You are continuing a sad tradition begun in 2011 when Freddy Adu joined the Union. You are a diver. And it hurts your team, because the refs already know it.
Fernandes isn't the first, mind you. First there was Adu, who was shameless with his flops. Then there was Antoine Hoppenot, who thankfully seems to have mended his diving ways. And don't forget about former Union man Gabriel Farfan, who would brutalize an opponent on a rough tackle one minute and then take a dive a few minutes later.
The Union's reputation for diving looks so bad that, in a recent game, the fieldside audio caught what appeared to be a referee yelling at Sheanon Williams to get up and stop flopping. That was good, because Williams was flopping.
The Union went 41 matches without winning a penalty before they finally won one last week on a handball in the box. But the streak continues for games without a penalty on a foul.
Philadelphia does not - and will not - get these calls because of their reputation for diving.
So is it time to fire John Hackworth?
No. Stop asking. Seriously. You're smarter than this. (Most of you, at least.)
Hackworth has put together arguably the most talented Union team ever after a ridiculously impressive off-season, and some of you want to fire him after just eight games with that unit? Please.
Yes, their record should be better but isn't due to all those late goals they surrendered. But this team has shown signs of becoming a very good team if given time, with the best possession play ever seen from this team.
No, they're not there yet. But overall, the Union's level of play is pretty much what you should expect from a team with so many new pieces and a back line that has yet to play a single game with four fully fit first choice starters. (No, Austin Berry and Sheanon Williams were not - and probably still are not - fully fit when they started together a week ago.) The attack is still gelling. The defense has to get fit.
Come back and see me in September.
Zac MacMath: 5
MacMath got lucky on two plays: Will Bruin's strike that hit the goalpost, and David Horst's header toward goal that was blocked by his own man, Ricardo Clark. Otherwise, MacMath was where he needed to be. Some say it's better to be lucky than good. MacMath had a bit of both.
Sheanon Williams: 5
Did you know it was possible to go 0 for 12 on crosses? Neither did I. At some point, if those crosses aren't connecting, you have to try something new. That said, Williams got those opportunities because he put himself in position with good runs, and it was his 92nd minute cross that nearly led to a game-winner. Two of his throw-ins nearly led to goals, and he played a solid defensive game.
Amobi Okugo: 8
Okugo put in his usual good defensive shift and nearly scored twice. As usual, his distribution was stellar.
Aaron Wheeler: 5
Wheeler's passing out of the back remains awfully suspect, and the giveaways are mounting up. While he remains a dominant figure in the air and has justified Hackworth's center back experiment, he doesn't look better than Austin Berry did before his injury. He may already be a good backup center back,* but he is not yet ready to start for a playoff team.
Ray Gaddis: 6
Gaddis played his usual good one-on-one defense, and he was steady with the ball. However, he still offers so little going forward at left back due to his weak left foot that most Union attacks come down the right, the predictability of which makes them easier to defend. (43% down the right, 32% down the left.)
Brian Carroll: 6
Carroll completed 58 of 62 passes and had 20 defensive takeaways. No, he didn't offer much going forward and flubbed an ugly 76th minute volley. But he also made plays like in the 96th minute, when he saw a Houston counterattack long before his teammates and positioned himself well to shut it down before it became a danger.
Maurice Edu: 5
Edu looked good at times, maintaining his composure and seldom giving the ball away. But there were also times when he could have asserted himself more and instead disappeared.
Vincent Nogueira: 8
Nogueira completed 96% of his passes. Yes, you read that right. Just two incomplete passes in 55, one of which was a cross. His crossfield switches were again pinpoint, and he combined well with Maidana in attack. He lost possession just five times all game. This isn't a guy making easy passes back to the center backs. This is the playmaker. Right now, he is head and shoulders above everyone on his team.
Cristian Maidana: 6
Maidana looked dangerous throughout his 55 minutes, particularly when he combined with Nogueira. The problem was that he came out after 55, just when a goal seemed to be on the way for the Union. Philadelphia needs more minutes from him.
Andrew Wenger: 5
There were times when Wenger looked really good, like on that pass that should have been an assist to Casey. Then there were times when he blasted should-be game-winners well over the cross bar. That late sequence summarized his game: Good hold-up play, nice pass on the give-and-go, hustle to put himself in position for a winner, and then blast it high.
Conor Casey: 2
Casey had just 23 touches in 63 minutes. Those numbers fit Jack McInerney more than Casey, except Mac would have been making runs behind the defense. One of the big man's worst performances in a Union jersey.
Leo Fernandes: 3
Fernandes was fairly invisible after his entry and proved a marked drop-off from Maidana. He gets docked a point for his shameless dive shortly upon entering the game.
Sebastien Le Toux: 8
Le Toux jacked up the defensive pressure upon his entry and made things difficult for Houston's back line in possession. He also combined well in the attack and nearly created the winner. If he didn't play on a team known for diving, he might have gotten that late penalty call.
Antoine Hoppenot: ?
Oh wait, there was no third substitute? Never mind then!
(Ratings guide: 0: Worst game ever. 1: Almost worst game ever. 2-3: Bad game. 4: A bit below average. 5: Average. 6: Above average. 7: Good. 8: Very good. 9: Great. 10: Hat trick hero.)
Armando Villareal: 5
Yes, Villareal made the right call to book Sarkodie for time wasting. He held the ball for well over 30 seconds.
But you could see by Villareal's delay that he likely forgot that Sarkodie was on a yellow card until a few Union players reminded him. That's laughably sad.
MacMath, Williams, Okugo, Berry, Gaddis, Carroll, Edu, Nogueira, Maidana, Le Toux, Wenger
You could swap Fernandes for Carroll for a more attacking lineup, but until the back line gets fully fit, Carroll probably needs to shield them like he did Saturday.