Year after year, since Jim Curtin took over nearly a decade ago, the Philadelphia Union have made measurable, linear progress. Initially, that progress revealed itself in total points or goal differential or trips to the US Open Cup final. But whatever it was, when the season ended, the Union front office and fans (and Curtin) could point to something tangible and say: “See? We were better this year than last.”
The climb was a long one, and along the way, they started checking off a bunch of club firsts. As in, first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs win? Check – got that one in 2019. First trophy? Check – got that one in 2020. First trip to the Concacaf Champions League? Made it to the semis in 2021.
And then, last year… first trip to MLS Cup? Check. And they came oh so close to lifting the damn thing.
So for the team that takes a step forward every year – a team that had won a Supporters’ Shield, and made it to MLS Cup, and made a deep continental run, and made it to Open Cup finals – something had to be next, right? Maybe it wasn’t MLS Cup or the Open Cup; maybe they’d win CCL and get a measure of revenge on LAFC along the way. Or maybe they’d win the inaugural Leagues Cup (they’d accrued more than enough knockout competition experience to be among the favorites). Either of those would look great in the trophy cabinet.
And in both competitions, things went according to script. At least until the semis, anyway, at which point the happy story of triumph turned into a horror show. In CCL play, the Union met LAFC in the semis and uniformly did not find that measure of revenge, instead looking overwhelmed and out-talented, and succumbing meekly by a 4-1 aggregate score over two legs.
It was even worse in Leagues Cup. Yes, they caught Lionel Messi & Co. on an all-time heater, but even so, I never expected a team with this much experience and this many accomplishments to look scared. But that’s what they were, as the moment was too big for them. Andre Blake played maybe his worst game as a pro, but this one was on everybody. And yeah, they’d bounce back with a commanding win over Monterrey in the Third-Place Game, clinching another year of continental play (this time in the Concacaf Champions Cup, which is what the old CCL has been rebranded as). But the memory of that performance at home against Inter Miami is going to stick around for a while.
Anyway, with losses in the semis of CCL and Leagues Cup, and an early exit in the Open Cup, and fewer points in this year’s regular season than last, that left only one door open for tangible progress: win MLS Cup.
If Philly were healthy and whole, they’d have had a pretty good shot. But they weren’t. And so when the final whistle sounded and the scoreboard read 1-0 FC Cincinnati in their Eastern Conference Semifinal, I don’t think many folks were surprised. Cincinnati, even down four starters, were just a better and more talented team.
Philly fans are used to tasting disappointment, but it is a different flavor this year. There’s no “we were better than last season.” It’s just “we weren’t good enough, so we came up short.”
And for this group, given the age of some and the impending offseason exodus for others, the period at the end of that sentence sounds like a window shutting.
Formation & Tactics
The Union remained one of the most direct and vertical teams in MLS. They never shy away from lumping a long ball into the channel for their forwards (always two) to run down and win (or to press the opposing center backs if they can’t win).
The No. 10, who is almost always Dániel Gazdag, functions more as a withdrawn, third forward than any kind of midfield playmaker. And whenever the Union actually got on the ball for chunks of possession, they generated a lot of danger from their wide players – usually Kai Wagner on the left and either Olivier Mbaizo or Nathan Harriel on the right.
Usually this all happened out of a 4-4-2 diamond, but with the addition of Damion Lowe as a third experienced center back this offseason, Philly had the ability to flex into a 3-5-2 for certain matchups or when injury hit. So we saw more of that look this season than in years past, with middling results.
I don’t know if there’s a single result or a certain run of games to point to here. It needs to be said Philadelphia played a lot of soccer – 51 games across all competitions, which works out to a game every five days across four countries for nine months – and doing so to the extent that they could make multiple deep runs in different competitions is impressive as hell.
Given that context, I think it says something that their Round One playoff series win over the New England Revolution was so matter-of-fact. The first 30 minutes of Match 1, in particular, were overwhelming:
Five years ago Philly had never won a playoff game. Now they close out a Best-of-3 series with a dominant win at home and a professional win on the road, but it doesn’t even merit celebration.
This team has come a long way.
The home loss to Miami, with the world watching, was a catastrophe. That was a “players fight each other in the locker room after the whistle” performance.
Harriel played fewer minutes in the regular season this year than last, but more minutes across all competitions and, by midseason, was taking starts away from Mbaizo – a full Cameroonian international who was one of the best attacking fullbacks in MLS last year.
Even with Philly’s emphasis on developing their own talent, I didn’t see this one coming. But Harriel earned it with his dogged two-way play and by being an absolute menace on set pieces.
Before you jump on me for not listing Jack McGlynn here: He had a very good season, but that should not be considered a revelation. I think he did what was expected of him.
Mikael Uhre had 13g/6a in 1633 regular-season minutes last year. This year he had 9g/4a in 2160, and just 11 goals in almost 2900 minutes across all competitions.
He did not play like a DP and started losing playing time by the end of the season.
Tai Baribo, who was brought in midseason as an attacking reinforcement, was supposed to be the guy to take those minutes. But the Israeli international only got onto the field for 152 minutes across all competitions, and didn’t look up to speed for a single second of those.
Five Players to Build Around
- Gazdag (AM): His playmaking leaves much to be desired, but his engine and nose for goal remain.
- José Martínez (DM): Once again one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, and a building block for all of this team’s success.
- Blake (GK): Merely had a good year instead of the other-worldly performances he strung back-to-back in 2021 & ‘22. Still in his prime, and still likely one of the top five ‘keepers in MLS.
- Jack Elliott (CB): Wasn’t quite as good this season as last, but is still in his prime and is still one of the eight or 10 best center backs in MLS.
- Harriel (RB): Tough as nails.
Curtin remains 100% correct about this:
The issue, though, is the Union are starting to flirt with disarray themselves as Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner are very publicly at odds over re-signing certain veterans. Best XI-level left back Kai Wagner, who was suspended for the loss to Cincinnati and the Match 2 win at New England for violating the league’s on-field antidiscrimination policy, has been open about wanting to come back to Philly, and Curtin has encouraged him to speak his mind on that. Longtime captain Ale Bedoya… well, Tanner unceremoniously told him he wouldn’t be back in 2024 during what sources described as “a 15-second conversation in a hallway.”
Here’s what Curtin had to say about that after the Cincy loss:
“I've been on record a million times. Alejandro's bigger than anybody that's ever been at our club, myself included. He's bigger than anybody. He should 100% be back. His talk and his play on the field speaks for itself.”
Add to that the fact only one of Tanner’s signings over the past year (Lowe) earned real minutes – Baribo, as mentioned, barely figured, and the same goes for fellow summer signee Olwethu Makhanya; Joaquín Torres disappeared from the rotation at midseason; Andrés Perea was loaned out to NYCFC – and it does not seem like the manager (who, it needs to be said, just signed a deserved long-term extension) and the CSO are on the same page.
But wait, there’s more! The excellent Julián Carranza seems likely to be sold, and I’d say the same goes for Mbaizo. McGlynn might be a year away, but would anyone be shocked if he was gone this offseason? And there has been reported interest from English teams in 2022 MLS Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes – the only guy who was even more upset about Bedoya’s treatment than Curtin was. Plus, would anyone be shocked if Uhre is moved along given the year he had?
It’s a lot. It might, in fact, be too much. I don’t think true disarray is in their future, but for the first time in a long time, I’m not expecting progress down in Chester.