MLS: What now for the Philadelphia Union?

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"We are a very ambitious club and although we are just in our fifth season we expect to win and be in the top tier of MLS. Today we will begin a serious global search for a team manager who will help guide us to our goal of competing to win the MLS Cup. Philadelphia is a major market and we expect that there will be significant interest from a wide variety of qualified candidates."

Those were the words of Philadelphia Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz on June 10, when just three wins from the opening 16 games of the season cost head coach John Hackworth his job.

Next move

Many high-profile names have been floated around since then, including World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, but few accounted for the turnaround that was to be overseen by interim boss Jim Curtin - appointed on the same day.

The Union are now sitting pretty in the play-off places in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, and have qualified for their first major final with the defeat of FC Dallas in the US Open Cup semi-final. The Pennsylvanians have lost only one of Curtin's 11 matches in charge.

Philadelphia have made just a sole appearance in the MLS Cup, and have never qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, but now stand every chance of achieving both in one fell swoop. Business off the field has been relatively successful, too. Colombia international Carlos Valdes has returned from San Lorenzo, complementing the signing of goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi.

To summarise, all is well at PPL Park.


Unfortunately, that makes the decision on what comes next considerably harder. Does Sakiewicz settle for the improvements that Curtin has initiated, or does he bring in a big name that could upset the apple-cart? The game is Blackjack, and the Zulus hold 18. Stick or twist.

At a glance, the obvious choice appears to be retaining the man who has made a success of this previously hopeless campaign. However, it really isn't that simple.

Curtin's outfit may be performing better than under Hackworth, but it's still far from ideal. While the play-offs are a genuine possibility, that is more due to an incredibly weak Conference than the inspired form of the Union. The side have, after all, only triumphed on six occasions this season - a tally matched by Chivas USA, who have the worst record in the West. Philly are 14 points off the pace in the Supporters' Shield race, and have yet to keep a clean sheet since the managerial switch.

Even the cup run has had severe elements of luck, consisting of two extra-time victories against lower-league opposition, the disposal of a hideously out-of-form New England Revolution, and Tuesday night's penalty success in Texas.

Problems ahead

There are many examples in European football of instances where clubs chose to extend the tenures of interim managers, only to quickly regret their decision. Glenn Roeder guided Newcastle United into the UEFA Cup from the bottom half of the Premier League table, while Tottenham Hotspur's Tim Sherwood provided a much-needed steadying influence.

What was lost to many on both occasions was that these squads merely achieved the bare minimum expected of them, inspired by a will to impress a new superior. As results fizzled out, both men took swift exits.

This is the problem now lying before the Zulus board. Will these boosted fortunes continue over years to come, or should they quit will they're ahead?

Your move, Sakiewicz.

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MLS Eastern Conference
Philadelphia Union

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