Union manager Jim Curtin could have gone into red-meat reactionary mode after his team blew yet another lead in Saturday’s 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls, and there were times when it seemed he might.
But for as often as he walked up to that line, it was in moments when he wasn’t so close to it that he really told the truth.
The Union’s biggest problem right now isn’t their defense, even though they haven’t kept a shutout since their last win on April 9. It’s the fact that the team has scored more than one goal in a game just twice since the start of last month, a stretch of eight contests.
“Some of the earlier games in the year we didn’t play great, and we won. Now we’re playing really good and we’re scraping out ties, and it hurts,” he said. “We’ve only been beat once [in league play], but we’re a really solid, stable team that’s still kind of finding our way to kill off games.”
There were no lack of opportunities to kill off this one. The Union outshot New York, 17-11, with a dominant expected goals advantage of 2.06-1.26. The Red Bulls completed just 150 passes in the game, a number many teams clear in a half when barely trying, and their accuracy rate was just 60%.
And yet …
“You can talk about shape, formation, subs, whatever you want to talk about, but we also recognize that we have to have that killer instinct once you get 1-0 up and the [other] team’s short a man,” Curtin said. “When it was 1-0, you could feel that second goal was coming. I think everybody felt it. We missed three good chances, and then we paid for it, and that’s soccer.”
It’s easy to zoom in on specific lacking moments from Saturday night. One almost-comedic sequence in the 60th minute stands out: The Union had four shots blocked in under 30 seconds, and three of the blocks drew appeals for handballs.
None was whistled, and replays proved all three decisions were right. The first two hit other nearby body parts, and the third came after a Julián Carranza header that was offside.
But what the Union truly missed was bigger than any specific moment. In fact, it stands about 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
Sure, Mikael Uhre has only scored one goal for the Union so far. But he has clearly demonstrated that he has a combination of skill, size, and line-breaking speed that Cory Burke and Sergio Santos each only have parts of.
The Union hope that by Wednesday’s home game against Inter Miami (7:30 p.m., PHL17), Uhre will have recovered enough from the quadriceps injury that has bothered him all season to be on the bench.
He will be needed even more because Carranza won’t be available. Major League Soccer has a rule on intra-league loans — players involved can’t play for their current teams against the teams that loaned them out. So the Union will be down to Santos and Burke as potential starters, and Curtin might have to improvise a formation.
» READ MORE: The Union's streak of blown leads is a problem
On this point, it was notable that Olivier Mbaizo entered the game late with a specific instruction to play higher up the field than a defender would. Curtin said it was a formation change, implying a move to a three-man back line. The change didn’t create a goal, but it nudged open the door for a return of the 4-2-3-1 setup that the Union used to use quite successfully late in games.
That formation was based around Ilsinho’s wizardry on the right wing, with Brenden Aaronson or Santos occupying the left. Mbaizo isn’t Ilsinho, of course, but he can create some off the dribble in that part of the field. Quinn Sullivan or Paxten Aaronson would take the left-sided slot, and while they’re both naturally central players — even more than Brenden Aaronson was — they’re smart enough to play wide for 20 to 30 minutes.
The big issue, though, is up top.
“The striker position’s open,” Curtin said. “I’d say it’s four guys competing for two spots right now.”
Perhaps that is indeed the case right now. But once Uhre returns, it shouldn’t be. He and Carranza have already shown that, and the Union can only hope it won’t be long before they can show it again.