Last dance? Philadelphia Union begin MLS Cup chase as changes loom


Will 2023 be the year the Philadelphia Union finally go all the way and win MLS Cup presented by Audi?

For head coach Jim Curtin, lifting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on Dec. 9 would be a fitting achievement for a club that’s been the league standard of consistency and excellence in recent years – and a fitting coda for some key players who could depart at season’s end.

“You know, we’ve had a core group of guys that have produced the most points in this league over the last six seasons,” Curtin said on the eve of Saturday’s Round One Best-of-3 opener at home against the New England Revolution (6 pm ET | Apple TV - Free). “ … I’d love to keep the whole entire group together because they still are all contributing in a big way and they’re all winners.”

But with captain Alejandro Bedoya and left back Kai Wagner increasingly unlikely to return in 2024, and the likes of Julián Carranza generating interest from abroad, the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs may be this current iteration of the Union’s final chance at glory.

“This isn’t gonna be the exact same team as when the season starts next year. That’s the reality of our sport,” Curtin admitted.

But rather than lamenting the fleeting nature of soccer, the two-time Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year winner embraces the situation as an incentive for some of his players to try to go out with a bang.

“So yeah, if you wanna call this one The Last Dance or The Last Waltz,” Curtin said. “It’s gonna be a group that I know is together, I know will fight for everything and I know is a tough out.”

By the club’s standards, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference this season with 55 points (15W-9L-10D record) was a bit of a letdown compared to a memorable 2022 campaign that saw the Union break numerous club records and come within a Gareth Bale extra-time header (and ensuing penalty-kick shootout) of winning MLS Cup.

Still, Curtin is quick to remind any doubters that, for now at least, his squad – notably goalkeeper Andre Blake, defender Jakob Glesnes, midfielder José Martínez and Carranza’s attacking partners Dániel Gazdag and Mikael Uhre – remains largely unchanged and as talented as ever.

“Last year we broke every record in the club’s history, we had an extraordinary year. It was a great season. I recognize we didn’t meet those exact expectations this year, but this is still a really good group,” he said. “We’re still a really strong team and one that I think can do something special still.”

For all their recent dominance, Curtin and the Union only have one Supporters’ Shield (from 2020) to show for it. In addition to last year’s MLS Cup heartache, Philly have also failed to capitalize on promising tournament runs – losing in the 2021 and 2023 Concacaf Champions League semifinals to Club América and LAFC, respectively, as well as falling to Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF in this year’s Leagues Cup semifinals.

That could explain the little fanfare surrounding the club as they prepare for another postseason. However, Curtin doesn’t share this lack of enthusiasm one bit.

“We’ve flown a little more under the radar this year and didn’t have the big numbers and the crazy results and the record-breaking goal scoring and goals against type stuff,” Curtin conceded. “I’ll just say this group tends to do well when they are a little bit forgotten.”