In front of 43,860 boisterous fans at Bank of America Stadium, a mistake-ridden performance from the Union and a spectacular four-goal outburst from Charlotte striker Daniel Ríos handed Philadelphia their first loss in seven matches.
"Disappointing performance from our group," head coach Jim Curtin said after the match. "I apologize to the fans that made the trip here and the fans back home that watched. Not a good representation of ourselves."
It was a conspicuous return to earth for the high-flying Union. They were undefeated in their last six matches, winning five, with a combined score of 23-2 in that span. Prior to Saturday, they'd conceded more than two goals just once this season, and have scored four or more themselves in seven matches. The last match in which they conceded four goals was 1,162 days ago – a July 2019 trip to CF Montréal. It was a stunningly uncharacteristic display from the league's best defensive unit.
"As a team, we didn't play well," said Curtin, making no excuses for the loss. "Good teams punish you."
While the Union went into the match with a trophy to play for, Charlotte's season was on the line. The expansion side needed all three points to keep their Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs hopes alive, and they stepped up to the occasion. Ríos entered the match with two goals on the season. He was dominant against a typically lock-down defense, striking four times and elevating the entire team with his holdup play.
"In back-to-back weeks now we've seen what it's like when you try to end a team's season," Curtin said, referencing a 0-0 draw at Atlanta United before the September international break. "You're trying to end a professional team's season. It's very difficult to do... They're going to throw everything at you. Being on the road makes it even that much harder. And we weren't good enough."
Top seed still in play
All is certainly not lost for Curtin's side. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Union still control their playoff destiny. They're undefeated at home, and will secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and a Round One bye in the playoffs with a win over 13th-placed Toronto FC on Decision Day. And crucially, captain Alejandro Bedoya could return against the Reds after missing the last two matches through injury.
With a historically elite defense and a potent attack, Philadelphia remain a favorite for MLS Cup. While they need help from the Timbers Sunday, they're still in contention for the Supporters' Shield. But Saturday was a sobering reminder of how quickly things can change in MLS, and a warning to not take their foot off the gas.
"Tonight was not us. We know that and we're pissed about it," said Curtin. "We have to end the season the right way in front of our fans against Toronto."
"We'll be Portland fans tomorrow," Curtin added.