Of the many descriptors that could’ve applied to the Union this season, “streaky” might not have leapt to mind in March as most applicable to the club. But 18 games into the 2017 MLS season and the Union have yet to string together three straight games with non-repeating results. Two draws, four losses, two draws, four wins, three losses, two wins, then last Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City — the Union have epitomized MLS’s unique brand of inconsistency.
It’s not abundantly clear where among the bipolar extremes the true identity of this team falls: Are they “eight-game winless streak” bad or “six-game unbeaten streak” good? Is the disastrous start that continues to weigh down the Union’s standing the outlier or the norm?
What is known is that as the league breaks for the Gold Cup at or just beyond the halfway point for all teams, the Union (6-7-5, 23 points) are eighth in the Eastern Conference, five points behind sixth-place Columbus with two games in hand. The Union are also one of five East teams with a positive goal-differential (11 goals better than fifth-placed Orlando City) and the only of nine MLS teams with a positive GD not to occupy a top-four spot in their conference.
The blueprint to getting there is similarly convoluted. Breaking down the Union by positional groupings for midseason grades involves trying to deduce from the extremes, from players that have emerged as starters and players that have faded to the bench, some average.
It’s the same task that the Union must do over the last half of the MLS season if they hope to match last season’s postseason accomplishment.
Goalkeepers >> Count me among those who thought that Andre Blake’s early-season performances left something to be desired. The Jamaican didn’t exactly play like the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, allowing 14 goals on 33 shots on target in the first seven games. Though he wasn’t to blame for the sluggish start, Blake has improved in recent weeks, posting consecutive seven-save outings in losses to Real Salt Lake and New York City FC. His blanking of D.C. United on June 24, stopping a penalty and a stoppage-time header by Lamar Neagle to steal three points, was world-class. John McCarthy proved in Kansas City that he’s a serviceable backup who continues to improve areas of weakness. All-in-all, seven clean sheets this season, the third highest total in MLS, speaks volumes. Grade: B+.
Defense >> Here’s where the give-and-take gets thorny. Yes, Jack Elliott is a massive surprise and has been playing excellent. Yes, Oguchi Onyewu has exceeded expectations in rolling back the years. But Keegan Rosenberry’s regression and Richie Marquez’s fade into oblivion are concerning. Ray Gaddis helped stabilize a backline in crisis and deserves plaudits for his unerring professionalism. Giliano Wijnaldum’s integration was delayed, but he appears to have supplanted Fabinho as the starting left back, a move anticipated sooner rather than later. Josh Yaro isn’t yet fully back from his shoulder injury, so it’s tough to evaluate him. Grade: B-.
Midfield >> The unit is still short on creativity, but the infusion of wing scoring from Fafa Picault has been vital in the group’s evolution. Chris Pontius has still yet to score his first goal, but his physicality in aerial duels and six assists means he hasn’t descended to Andrew Wenger-like depths of drought-induced despair (and U.S. manager Bruce Arena was willing to overlook that in his Gold Cup nod, which says something). Alejandro Bedoya is much better playing in his preferred No. 8 role; he and Haris Medunjanin form a dynamic partnership, and subbing in Derrick Jones entails little drop-off. Jones’ development into a starter is among the first-half highlights. It’s notable that (for whatever their shortcomings might be), the Union have done all this with just 146 combined minutes from Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll, two players who combined to start 46 games last year. There remains a dearth of creativity at the No. 10 spot, though Jim Curtin has sketched out a useful timeshare between Roland Alberg and Ilsinho. That still remains the most likely spot for reinforcement in the summer transfer window if the Union can land a player to take them over the top. Grade: B.
Forwards >> This is another unit where you have to take the good with the bad. The (very) good: CJ Sapong, who has a team-high nine goals and scored seven of the team’s first 11 to keep it afloat when the rest of the team was taking on water. The bad: Jay Simpson is being paid about $500,000 for every goal he’s scored in a Union jersey. He’s been shunted to the bench, in part due to Sapong’s success, and struggled to develop the rhythm that could extricate him from his reserve role. (Plus, Curtin has an abiding devotion to starting Sapong.) Charlie Davies also hasn’t so much as made the bench this season, a minor annoyance had the Union not squandered a first-round pick on him. Grade: C+.
Manager Jim Curtin >> Just two months ago, Curtin was regarded as being on the hot seat, though that was vehemently denied by his superior, Earnie Stewart. Curtin is often criticized for a lack of nuance in his tactics, but he acted decisively in several key alterations. He restored Bedoya to the No. 8, turning Ilsinho inside as a remedy to the mercurial Alberg. That allowed him to give Picault a chance, for which he’s been duly rewarded. Curtin also changed up the defense with Elliott and Gaddis when others faltered. Most of all, he kept the message constant during the team’s early season struggles, insistent that that wasn’t who the Union were. Time will tell how true that proves to be. Grade: B.
First-half MVP >> Sapong.
Best goal of the first half >> Medunjanin vs. Colorado.
Best save of the first half >> Blake PK save on Neagle vs. D.C.
To contact Matthew De George, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.