Jim Curtin fist bump

An odd fact about the Philadelphia Union's 2022 season: Between the Supporters' Shield race and MLS Cup, they didn't technically lose either. But they leave their historic campaign without a trophy.

The Union finished level on points (67) with LAFC for the Shield, but lost out due to MLS using most wins (21 vs. 19) as its first regular-season standings tiebreaker. Philly had a vastly superior goal difference (+46 to LAFC’s +28), which is typically the first tiebreaker used across the world. 

The club then advanced to their first-ever MLS Cup Final and took the lead deep into stoppage time of extra time – say that three times fast – but couldn't get it over the line against LAFC. Gareth Bale’s legendary header made it 3-3 in the 128th minute at Banc of California Stadium.

Philly lost after penalty kicks. Technically speaking that isn't a loss – it's a draw. The game can be cruel sometimes.

“This season is really hard to top. You can only really top it by winning MLS Cup," sporting director Ernst Tanner said during a press conference Friday. "That’s what we need to go for again.”

The Union had their best-ever season amid their best-ever run over the last half-decade, making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs each year and incrementally improving to be viewed as one of the elite clubs in the league. Along the way, they won the 2020 Supporters' Shield, made the 2021 Concacaf Champions League semifinals and then the 2022 MLS Cup Final.

It was the fourth final under head coach Jim Curtin in which the club fell short. Prior to MLS Cup this year, the Union lost three US Open Cup championship games (2014, 2015 and 2018).

“To do what we did and compete the way we did, I can’t be mad at the guys," Curtin said. "I’m sure the next question is I’ve coached in four finals and I haven’t won one. I’ll ask the question for you guys. 

“… Until you win one, those questions will be in the background. But I’m really proud of the group, they gave everything.”

This year, the Union's stellar defense (league-low 26 goals) was matched by an explosive attack (league-high 72 goals). Their goal difference and goals-against totals were both second-best in MLS's 27-year history.

“Everybody saw what kind of team we had, what kind of mentality we had inside our team," Tanner said. "What we’ve been able to do … you know all the records. I don’t need to speak about that.”

Now, the Union are looking to go again in 2023, challenging the new heights they hit this year and pushing for more.

What's next?

Philadelphia should retain most of their core, but the club is losing some players.

Homegrown attacking midfielder Paxten Aaronson officially completed his transfer to German Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday. The talented 19-year-old would have been a critical squad piece next season, so they'll need to add in that area. Forward Cory Burke, another important squad player, has agreed on a deal with the New York Red Bulls in free agency.

Philly can add from their academy and second team. Top talents from that group include forwards Jose Riasco and Nelson Pierre. There are also homegrowns already in the first team that could get more minutes. Still, mainstays like Mikael Uhre, Julian Carranza, Alejandro Bedoya, Andre Blake, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott and more are under contract for the long term.

Philly are also likely to play more than 50 games in 2023, between the regular season, playoffs, Concacaf Champions League, Open Cup and the first year of a new, expanded Leagues Cup. All teams will need more depth, particularly a group whose style is as physical and demanding as the Union's.

“We need to make additions," Tanner said. "We’re ahead of a very challenging season, playing in four different competitions. Plus players who will be with their national teams, we’ll need a group of 27 of 28 players. You know our numbers right now. We’ll add players.”

Philly could also lose further players, most notably Kai Wagner. The German left back, an MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire honoree in 2022, is heavily linked with a transfer to Europe this winter. Right back Olivier Mbaizo, currently at the World Cup with Cameroon, is another player who could have teams calling. Some other homegrowns – like Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan and Brandan Craig – also have interest abroad, though this winter is probably too early to expect any movement.

For any player that departs, Tanner said the club would react by making further additions than already planned.

“It’s our DNA: We want to develop players and sell them later on," Tanner said. "You saw another successful example with Paxten. It’s our DNA. That’s how we’ll go forward.”

"Believe in young American players"

The Union’s latest significant outbound transfer came this week, when Aaronson officially joined Frankfurt via a deal that sources say is worth $4 million plus add-ons and a big sell-on clause.

He made his MLS debut in 2021 and logged 37 MLS appearances, scoring four goals across 1,006 minutes. Led by Aaronson, the United States won the 2022 U-20 Concacaf Championship and qualified for both the next FIFA U-20 World Cup and Summer Olympics. The youngster won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot for his efforts.

Frankfurt were among numerous clubs interested in signing Aaronson and made him a long-term target. They’re currently fourth in the Bundesliga, and Aaronson will join in the winter, have some months to adapt and hopefully break into the regular first-team rotation next summer.

"The first discussions with Frankfurt started last year," Tanner said. "They came over here to follow him, they know his potential. The fact that he has a brother [Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson] in the Premier League, playing really well, that helps to foresee his future.

“It’s early for him, but at the same time, I’m happy he’s taking the challenge,” Tanner continued. “Frankfurt is a good club, a good place with excellent coaches. He has some time to adapt.”

Aaronson's lack of starts in 2022 isn't because he wasn't ready, but because he was stuck behind MLS MVP candidate and Hungary international Daniel Gazdag. The attacking midfielder had 22g/10a, a phenomenal individual season.

“Paxten works incredibly hard, he’s a little bit unlucky," Tanner said. "If you have a guy in your position who is scoring 20-plus goals, in the discussion for MVP, it’s not easy. Every time [Aaronson] played, he did well. Clubs are focusing on young talent they can develop."

Aaronson becomes the Union's third-most expensive outbound transfer, following his brother Brenden to Austria’s RB Salzburg ($9 million, plus another $5 million-ish as part of a sell-on clause) and Mark McKenzie to Belgium’s KRC Genk ($6 million plus add-ons and a sell-on).

All three transfers occurred in the last two years as Philadelphia have quickly become one of the gold standards in North America for youth development.

“Ernst is too humble to say this, so I’ll add that we’ve reached a point where the environment that Ernst has created, big clubs are camping out to watch us train," Curtin said. "They’re pointing ‘This kid is good. I like this one, I like that one.’ It’s great for the US but it’s also a message to everyone in youth development to believe in young American players.”

Auston Trusty also came through the Union academy before being traded to the Colorado Rapids. He has since been transferred to Europe, where he's excelling in England's Championship for Birmingham City while on loan from Arsenal. Two Union homegrown midfielders are also playing in Italy’s Serie B: Anthony Fontana is with Ascoli Calcio, while Jack de Vries is with Venezia FC.

Wagner, Sullivan, McGlynn, Craig and many more are likely to follow in the coming years.

“There’s good players here," Curtin said, "I think Europe is getting wise to that.”

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