A View from Afar / Union

The Union’s season ends, but optimism and excitement remain

Photo: Earl Gardner

The greatest season in Philadelphia Union history has ended with neither a bang nor whimper, but rather the spent legs of resilient men who put in a memorable effort that, in the end, fell short.

The Union’s 2-0 playoff loss Thursday night to Atlanta United is without question a disappointment, one that leaves observers asking “what if” questions.

What if striker Kacper Pryzbylko, the league’s fifth leading scorer with 15 goals this year, had been healthy?

What if Alejandro Bedoya hadn’t been playing on a weakened quadricep? (Nobody should believe he wasn’t playing hurt.)

And what if the Union weren’t exhausted?

By the 60th minute, several Union players looked spent, playing just four days after their 120-minute win over the New York Red Bulls. Sergio Santos, whose motor was a huge factor in the Union’s win over New York, ran out of steam shortly after halftime. Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, Ray Gaddis, Jamiro Monteiro, Brenden Aaronson, and even Ilsinho all looked out of gas well before the 90-minute mark.

We can talk tactics and analysis all we want, but breaking this game down is as simple as saying the Union had nothing left.

To beat a good (but not great) Atlanta team on the road, you need your leading scorer, one of the league’s most clinical finishers this year. And you need fresh legs.

The Union spent them in Sunday’s 4-3 comeback win over the Red Bulls, arguably the greatest comeback in MLS playoff history. Never before had an MLS side surrendered three first-half playoff goals and come back to win, and the comeback from two goals down tied the widest margin ever overcome in a playoff game. Had the game ended after 90 minutes, maybe this Union side would have had more gas in the engine for Atlanta.

Instead, Union fans will enter the off-season with the memory of that remarkable win and the follow-up, an exhausted team gutting their way through a difficult match.

Lights on the horizon

This off-season should lack the bitterness of years past after easily the most exciting and enjoyable season in club history.

The Union spent half the season atop the Eastern Conference table before settling into a solid third place. Had Monteiro not gotten hurt on a reckless Sacha Kljestan tackle, Philadelphia might have stayed at the top.

They have a talented roster full of affordable players, and most should be back.

Head coach Jim Curtin did an excellent job, earning a third place finish in the MLS Coach of the Year voting, the second straight year he placed in the top four. He’s still just 40 years old, a toddler in coaching years, and anyone still clamoring for his firing should have their head checked.

Sporting director Ernst Tanner showed remarkable facility in the transfer market after just a few months on the job. He plucked Przybylko, Monteiro, and Kai Wagner from obscurity, and they each were among the top five players at their positions this season. Santos proved a solid contributor when healthy. Even Fabian, though a disappointment much of the season, was a risk worth taking on a one-year contract, and his game-winner against the Red Bulls will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Yes, Tanner has some moves to make this off-season, the most important of which are securing a permanent acquisition of Monteiro, who is on loan, and a replacement No. 10 for Marco Fabian, who likely will not return. They could use an upgrade at right back, and they desperately need quality center midfield depth. Bedoya is 32. Medunjanin will be 35 in March. You can’t ask him to keep playing 3,000 minutes a year. They are the heart of the side, but they need a rest now and again. Tanner has had more than a year on the job to scout plausible player additions, and his track record inclines one to think he can find quality on the transfer market. 

On the whole, this is a side that should leave fans brimming with optimism for what’s to come. We have seen what they can do right now, and they can definitely get better.

The only question is whether club ownership will pony up the money needed to take the next step. If there’s a stick in the mud, that’s it.

Given how fans responded to the team this year, Union ownership should feel confident making the investment in quality players this off-season. The fan response has shown there can be a return on the investment. Give Philly soccer fans a quality product, and they will come out in droves.

Many wondered whether excitement around this team would ever return to the levels we saw in the Union’s first two seasons. The answer is an emphatic yes — and then some. We saw a sold-out stadium, raucous fans, and some of the most entertaining and exciting soccer played anywhere in America.

2019 wasn’t a good year for the Union just because they finished third and won a playoff game.

It’s because this was the year the Union and their fans stopped the slide, changed the paradigm, and showed this club can be a top team in North American soccer.

Soccer is big in Philadelphia again, and there should be more to come.

24 Comments

  1. Great sentiments Dan.
    .
    I truly feel that this season completely reinvigorated a fan base; brought back belief and enthusiasm; raised expectations. These guys showed how team effort – grit, will and fight – can match and frequently overcome “star” power. And the fans came back to watch it.
    .
    I have been a season ticketholder since day 1. My younger daughters (10 and 12) have literally grown up sitting in the stands in Chester. What we felt at Talen over the last 2 months of the season was nothing short of thermonuclear atomic bomb electric – even my kids commented on the difference. That Red Bull win will go down as one of my best sports memories – and I was in the stands for the AI Sixers’ run into the finals and in the cold for the last Phillies’ World Series.
    .
    Last night, there were bars and restaurants in the area packed with FAMILIES of fans on a Thursday night (not just us old guys), watching and cheering for the Union. For an MLS soccer game. On a “school night.”
    .
    I truly feel that this season was the rebound for years of backsliding. Shame on ownership if they don’t build on this.

    • Cheers Andre says:

      Cheers to that sentiment! I’ve been taking my little ones since they could walk. My 2012 is playing with the pre academy. Not the most talented but knows the game better then the other boys. I’m genuinely hoping the Union use this season as a benchmark. Somewhere to build a proper squad. We are a big city ant It’s time for the owners the realize that. I’ve brought on 3 new season ticket holders. Come on you boys in blue!!!!!! Cheers to the U and the fan base! I’m in mediA. Someone set up a nice post season party. I could use a few pints this weekend. La Porta?

  2. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Tanner reload this offseason! He has a full year under his belt of dealing with MLS rules (*cough* international spots), and learning the value of MLS trades, and I’m anticipating some decent movement this year. After being starved in this window in previous years, I think it will be fun!

    • Yes I agree! Very optimistic about the off season for a change! Tanner has found some pretty nice players. Let’s see that happen again!

  3. Per twitter, it looks like Tanner has been trying to get Monteiro permanently however, it sounds like it is not going to happen (Tansey suggesting it is due to Monteiro’s desire to return to Europe, not the cost of a transfer fee which was included in loan deal).
    .
    The focus this offseason has to be on the midfield for sure. As noted, Bedoya is 32 and Medunjanin is 34. I’d also add Ilsinho is 34. All these players have been critical to this team’s success this year and do not have replacements on the roster at the same level. If Monteiro is going back to Europe and Fabian is not resigned…rebuilding the midfield is job #1 for Tanner IMO.
    .
    At striker, Wooten joined the team halfway through the season without a preseason, Santos was adjusting to the league and dealing with injury, Przybylko had a great year, Picault didn’t’ have as good of a year as last but still had moments, and Burke should have his visa issues worked out. At rightback, Gaddis has his flaws but is still solid, RJ Allen is another option and Mbaizo is still growing (tho at 22, it is getting close to the time he needs to break into at least the 18 or Tanner will likely move on).

    • Agree on the midfield being the top priority. Assuming Monteiro leaves, the Union amazingly have no midfielders on their roster between the ages of 20 (Fontana) and 29 (Creavalle). Seems like adding a couple of guys who are in their peak years (i.e., mid 20s) to the midfield would go a long way to help bring the youngsters along and take some pressure off the old guard.

    • Midfielders like Monteiro are not easy to find in MLS. Losing him would be a crushing blow. Imagine if the Union had Dockal instead of Fabian this year. Do they win the title?

      One never knows what may happen. Monteiro may find his options are not what he hopes in the window transfer window. It’s not the best time to switch clubs.

      • Interestingly Dockal is listed in transfermarkt at about the same price they paid for Fabian.
        I’d be willing to take a second spin w him if they could get him early enough to get a real preseason.

  4. Am I disappointed that we don’t get “one more game”? Absolutely.
    .
    Am I disappointed with the team? No. Maybe at moments in the midst of the season, but now…looking back….no, this was a good year to be a Union fan.
    .
    This, however, has to be the bar they aspire to achieve…not the ceiling they cannot break.
    .
    Ok, Tanner…as they say in Philly sports…”Time’s yours”…let’s see what you can do.

  5. more confidence retooling in this offseason than in the past. i’ve no doubt quality will be found to replace the busts and adding depth.

  6. I grew up in Northern New Jersey in the 70’s and early 80’s and used to go to Cosmos games at Giant’s Stadium that featured some of the greatest players whoever lived (Pele, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto…the latter 2 both being World Cup winning captains) and went to 2 NASL Soccer Bowls. I have to say that the atmosphere there could not hold a candle to the atmosphere last Sunday at Talen. Let’s hope management finds a way to hold onto that atmosphere throughout next year.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      I really wish I could’ve been there, but I was privileged enough to attend the regular season Red Bulls and Atlanta matches. Great memories, great season. On to the offseason.

    • Andy, me too. I was just telling a friend about Carlos Alberto’s amazing playoff shootout goal, back in, what was it, 1980???

  7. As Dan Walsh and others have said, it’s critical that Sugerman needs to get the right message from the fan base to build on this year’s progress by investing in a trophy winning team. He has good foundation with the current team to find the few key difference makers that can finally bring home something for the Union fans to celebrate. If he gets the wrong idea to put the team on cruise control for cash, we’ll be still stuck in indefinite limbo.
    *
    New teams like Atlanta, LAFC and NYCFC have already won things like the MLS Cup, USOC, and Supporters’ Shield and have qualified for the CCL. Other teams from smaller markets have made these achievements with a few several times. What we’re celebrating (a playoff win) is taken for granted as a normal and expected thing for them as they’ve set their expectation higher where they need to be—experiencing being a champion team.
    *
    Sugarman also needs to not only keep Bethlehem Steel a fruitful farm team but also get the team back to the Lehigh Valley in the offseason. Since we still haven’t won anything significant yet, the Union has to guard against soccer fans in contested areas like central Jersey, Lehigh Valley and the Poconos region from choosing teams like NYCFC and NYRB given they have offered superior results satisfaction to date.
    *
    The same holds true in areas west and south where DC United is a contested area, and where fans could simply choose more distant teams they like due to their winning ways. Doing some marketing with Reading United can help for westward attention, and more attention needs to be paid for marketing southward.
    *
    Overall, the Union has to market in these contested areas and pick up fans elsewhere that simply like our team, and winning and having celebrity players certainly helps do that. It’s just in everyone’s mutual self-interest for a win-win scenario that Da U becomes what it should…a marquee MLS team.

    • It won’t be easy to get Steel back in Lehigh Valley. The issue is that Goodman stadium doesn’t have lights and so doesn’t meet USL requirements. I don’t know what installing lights would cost, but I think many of us would probably rather see that money spent on Union talent.

      • True Andy, and Cottingham Stadium upgrades in Easton are also on hold as an option. How should Steel be handled in your and others’ views?

      • They have to go back to the Lehigh Valley. Totally agree.

        In fact, I’ll go further and say they have to go back to Bethlehem. Easton is a decent temporary option, but the team is called Bethlehem Steel, not Easton Steel. The region is provincial. It’s silly, but that matters a bit.

        The population center is in Bethlehem and Allentown. That’s where you need to be. Minor league teams do really well in Allentown, and South Bethlehem is 15 minutes away.

        When I lived in Bethlehem, you couldn’t drag me to Philly for anything. Minor league soccer won’t bring people to Chester when major league soccer is there. The team needs to be in a satellite region, and the heart of the Lehigh Valley is perfect.

      • I realize this isn’t in Bethlehem. Even if it is possible, the cost would probably be prohibitive. But every time I drive by, I think the Allentown Fairgrounds could be turned into a fantastic home for the Steel. Plus with the Market they could have a great concession stand.

      • JAH… That’s a great idea, but where would they hold the Demolition Derby during Fair week??

  8. Could Coca-Cola Park successfully work for Steel at least temporarily, the IronPigs’ baseball stadium? We all know from NYCFC’s Yankee Stadium the downsides of that, but the upsides include training players and having a Union practice field for NYCFC matches. Willingness and availability for dual tenancy during the conflicting seasons is of course also an issue.

  9. Scott of Nazareth says:

    I *think* the cost of installing lighting at Goodman Stadium falls somewhere between $150-300,000. That doesn’t include ongoing maintenance or energy costs. I think it might come down to does Lehigh University want it?

    I know their soccer/field hockey area has lights (but its artificial turf and too small for USL) and they have night time events at Stabler Arena, so pretty sure they’re clear of any local ordinances that would prevent night games there.

  10. PRH Continuum says:

    Nice going, U. Toronto beats ATL, Seattle beats LAFC….and we could’ve been hosting MLS Cup if you had just beaten the Five Stripes. Typical Union bad luck. And since it appears to have been censored, once more with feeling. Replace Curtin with Paul Riley. Manager with proven championship pedigree. NWSL 2-time champs w/Carolina.

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