247 days and counting: why Union's winless streak threatens MLS record books

Gideon Nachman
Union coach Jim Curtin remains confident that an upswing is just around the corner. Photograph: Michael Perez/AP

On 27 August 2016, the Philadelphia Union beat Sporting Kansas City 2-0 on a cloudy night in Chester, Pennsylvania. Roland Alberg and Tranquillo Barnetta scored the goals, and goalkeeper Andre Blake kept his sixth clean sheet of the year. The mood around the team was buoyant. The Union, after years of mediocrity, were starting to turn their fortunes around. They had just secured back-to-back victories, and also set a team record for home wins in a season. They were third place in the East, and looking certain to make their first playoff appearance since 2011. Coach Jim Curtin couldn’t stop singing his team’s praises. “This is a very good team,” he said. “We should be shooting for the top of the East … It’s only going to get better.”

In fact, it was only going to get worse. The victory over the Kansas City would be the Union’s last MLS victory in 2016. They were able to sneak into the playoffs on goal differential, where they were promptly eliminated by Toronto. Now, they are without a victory in 2017. Their winless streak stands at 15 regular-season games. The last time the Union got three points, the nation was still cringing over Ryan Lochte’s frat-boy chicancery in Rio, Sia’s Cheap Thrills was the top song on the radio, and Barack Obama was president. What a difference 247 days makes.

Nor does their malaise look likely to end anytime soon. The Union drew 0-0 in LA on Saturday in a dour game that typified the worst of scoreless draws. (The MLS website’s “Four-Minute Highlights” package could only muster up three minutes worth showing.) Philly had two shots on goal, and always looked more cohesive than dangerous. Damningly, the draw with LA was also one of their better performances this season. They have four points from eight games, and are rooted to the bottom of the table. They are tied for the second-worst goal differential in the league, and have scored the fewest goals in the East. They somehow managed to draw with Montreal two weeks ago, even though they led 3-0 after 40 minutes. They are the sole remaining team this season without a win. If Curtin was wondering how high the ceiling was for the 2016 Union, perhaps he should be concerned about how low the floor can be for the 2017 version.

This is not a historically bad team yet, but they’re precipitously close. If Philadelphia continue to pick up points at their current pace, they’ll finish with 17. DC United hold the record for the fewest in a season, with 16 in 2013. The longest winless streak in MLS history is 19 games, which the New York/New Jersey Metrostars accomplished in 1999. (It is also, at 7-25, the worst record in MLS history.) Real Salt Lake managed to go 18 straight without a win in a dire stretch from 2005 to 2006. And the San Jose Earthquakes self-detonated at the tail end of 2014, to finish on the low note of a 16-game winless skid. After that? This current iteration of the Philadelphia Union. The margins are far thinner than they might appear.

When a team suffers this completely and this extensively, the first instinct is to blame the coach. Curtin has been pilloried for being rigid; he refuses to send his teams out in anything but a conventional 4-2-3-1. In today’s MLS — where tireless fullbacks like Seattle’s Joevin Jones and Toronto’s Steven Beitashour overload the wings to create consistent offensive mismatches — Curtin’s teams can look outdated and underpowered, set out to fail from the first whistle. It doesn’t help that their two big summer signings, Haris Medunjanin and Jay Simpson, both look overwhelmed by physical nature of the MLS, out of breath and out of ideas.

Then there’s the question of what to do with club record-signing and captain Alejandro Bedoya. Before that now-fateful victory over Kansas, Curtin was gushing over Bedoya’s impact: “To think he’s in his preseason now is a scary thing … I can’t say enough positives about him.” Flash-forward to the present, and the relationship seems to be much more tepid. Bedoya has looked off-pace and introspective in his time with the Union, a peripheral figure at the edges of a team decline. Curtin has been playing Bedoya as a No10, but conceded that “he and I are in agreement that it isn’t his favorite spot.” Bedoya himself was more blunt in preseason when he said, “I feel more comfortable being a No8.”

This is where Curtin’s tactical rigidity hamstrings the team: trying to shoehorn Bedoya into a formation that doesn’t suit him has left both coach and player dissatisfied. Curtin looks unlikely to change formations, and Bedoya looks unlikely to produce more than the lone goal he’s scored over 18 appearances. Even worse for the man tasked with being the Union’s chief creative force is that he’s yet to register an assist. There’s also the unspoken truth that this Philadelphia freefall dovetails almost perfectly with Bedoya’s arrival. It’s probably more correlation than causation, but with patience for Curtin almost nonexistent, the fans could now start to turn their ire towards Bedoya.

Throughout all of this, Curtin has remained confident that the upswing is just around the corner. He has offered the generic coaching pablums about togetherness and belief. But there’s no denying he looks haggard and pinched. As he said after 10 April’s bitter home loss to the Timbers — when his problems seemed large, rather than insurmountable — “the only way you get out of this is to win a game.” The only question is how long Philadelphia will have to wait to feel that relief.

Assorted thoughts

-- One team that doesn’t need to be lectured about turning around an anemic start is the Seattle Sounders. Last season they rode a never-say-die attitude from the cellar of the Western Conference to the MLS Cup. Some of that same mojo returned Saturday, when they rallied to score three goals in the final 16 minutes to tie New England 3-3. As for the Revs, blowing a 3-0 road lead merely compounded the organization’s woes. News came in earlier this week that yet another downtown Boston stadium plan collapsed. For the foreseeable future, it looks like the Revs faithful are stuck driving out to the suburbs.

-- Sticking with teams that play on the fringes of their cities, on Saturday The Chicago Fire traveled to New Jersey to take on the New York Red Bulls. The game was significant for the return of Dax McCarty, who came back to a place he never wanted to leave. He capped a fine individual performance with a nimble assist, but the Fire were unable to break free from the smothering Red Bull press, and ended up succumbing 2-1. Dax stayed far after the game was over though, and reportedly signed autographs for everyone who asked.

-- In another touching gesture, Sporting Kansas City dedicated a part of their stadium to Michael Yarnevich, a lifelong fan who passed away unexpectedly in 2015. Yarnevich — whose arthritis meant it was painful for him to stand in the supporters’ section for a whole game — used to lean against a nearby steel beam for support. That beam now bears his name. Sporting rose to the occasion to beat RSL 3-0 and solidify their status as a serious contender in the West. It’s notable that, since Philadelphia beat them all those days ago, Kansas City have only lost twice.

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