Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Union were at an all-time high.
Legitimately the best day in club history, celebrating their first-ever trophy as they lifted the Supporters' Shield despite being one of the league's smallest spending teams in terms of salary and transfers. It all came on the heels of their historic transfer of academy product Brenden Aaronson to RB Salzburg, rightly praised for the development of the local boy and finances.
The two weeks between games was stuffed with features about The Philly Way, a new standard teams can strive for in MLS. All the while, Andre Blake was named Goalkeeper of the Year, Jim Curtin awarded Coach of the Year then Aaronson and Mark McKenzie voted MLS Best XI.
And all that led up to their most disappointing day of the season, falling 2-0 to the New England Revolution in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Just like that, in a painful, fleeting 90 minutes, their historic season ended. The highs and lows of soccer, further concentrated by the parity of MLS.
"For me," the honest and direct club captain Ale Bedoya began an answer in the post game press conference, "I'm probably going to be thinking about what would have been, what could have been. ... I'm very disappointed. It sucks, I'm distraught, everything."
But even the 33-year-old Bedoya began to look forward.
"To be a championship team, it takes some time," Bedoya said. "Fans are going to hate hearing that. To be elite in the regular season is one thing, we've been improving year-after-year. Now we have to take it to the next level."
Steady, continuous improvement has been the Union's reality for the past few seasons. They're not going to stop striving for more and that continues this offseason, even if it started much earlier than the club and fans expected.
Philadelphia have a few key decisions to navigate this winter to stay in the top tier of MLS clubs.
What's next for the Philadelphia Union?
Let's start with outgoings.
With Aaronson's transfer already sorted, the 20-year-old midfielder will depart for Salzburg soon. The club have long known he wouldn't be around for 2021 but he won't be easy to replace given his importance and value.
He started all 23 games even in the compressed 2020 season, integral not only for his goal contributions but his indefatigable work rate and pressing. He was seventh in MLS in ground covered per 90 minutes and tied for sixth in possession won in the final third. A modern midfielder and often set the club's press.
Aaronson isn't likely to be the only key starter missing.
McKenzie has plenty of interest in Europe and it's expected he'll be gone sooner rather than later. His future is in Europe and the Union aren't going to block him. When the right offers comes, he'll go. It's a reasonable expectation that the multitude of interest will lead to the right offer, just like it did with Aaronson.
The 21-year-old was the last Union player to leave the field after their playoff loss.
Last to leave the field is Mark McKenzie pic.twitter.com/35IBlNiqlH— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) November 25, 2020
Left back Kai Wagner has been linked with a return to Europe as well and the player himself expressed his desire to head to England, Germany or Spain by at least July, if not January. There is plenty of interest in him, too.
Aaronson, Wagner and McKenzie are three essential players to the Union's ethos, not just in their talent but fit in the XI. If all three go as is quite possible, their immediate decisions will chart the course of the club for a few years to come. Atlanta United are a key example of what a few less-than-ideal decisions can do to a trophy-winning team in a flash.
The Union, like Atlanta before, have well earned the benefit of doubt in the transfer market though.
“The job Ernst Tanner and Chris Albright have done piecing together our roster is unbelievable," Curtin said before the playoffs started.
Attacking midfielder Borek Dockal led MLS in assists in 2018, the Union let him go. In stepped Aaronson. Now the club have a trophy and huge payday to show for it. They made the controversial decision to let Haris Medunjanin leave last offseason then he was effectively replaced by Jose Martinez, a player who got a few Best XI votes. The Union also traded homegrown center back Auston Trusty, who had been an every-game starter for more than a year-and-a-half. Philly signed Jakob Glesnes and allowed McKenzie to grow further.
Those moves show a pattern to expect from Philly this offseason: Internal promotion and unheralded additions in the transfer market.
Wagner was plucked out of the German third division. Kacper Przybylko was a free agent after injuries marred his time in the German second tier. Martinez had spent his career in Venezuela. The Union are building a reputation of identifying and developing talent both in and out of their own academy, with Curtin has a key leader in that regard.
Anthony Fontana is a prime candidate to pick up plenty of minutes in midfield in 2021. He had six goals in 501 minutes this year but was blocked by one of the league's best midfield groups for more minutes. He can play either as an attacking midfielder or box-to-box, though Curtin has often said he prefers him closer to goal given his finishing ability. Curtin has also noted that Fontana needs to translate his motor to more defensive actions.
Designated Player Jamiro Monteiro could fill in as the No. 10 in Aaronson's absence, too, while Bedoya turns 34 next April. Combinations in the midfield may be fluid in 2020 unless a key signing (like Martinez did this year and Monteiro in 2019) establishes themselves immediately.
Center back Jack Elliott proved he's able to play defensive mid, while Slovakian youth international Matej Oravec has yet to make his Union debut after signing last winter. Homegrown left back Matt Real filled in admirably whenever Wagner was out, he'll figure into the plans next year as well.
Philadelphia have their infrastructure and club ethos in place. They have the proof of concept after winning the 2020 Supporters' Shield. Now, they intend to complete the cycle with another strong offseason to keep them near the top of the East in 2021.