For Pete's Sake

A familiar end

Photo: Paul Rudderow

At the start of the night, when there was still optimism, an enormous tifo loomed over the River End.

“A year like no other, a team like no other,” the message from the Sons of Ben read.

Ninety minutes of soccer later, and you could be forgiven for thinking that only half of that phrase was true.

Much like the Philadelphia Union squads of previous seasons, the 2020 club flamed out on the big stage Tuesday night, dropping their quarterfinal match in the MLS Cup Playoffs in toothless fashion to the New England Revolution.

The Union are now 1-5 in playoff games in their history — 1-8, if you include the three U.S. Open Cup final defeats.

The only difference between those games and this one were the expectations. This iteration of the Union barnstormed through the Eastern Conference en route to a Supporters’ Shield and well-earned recognition in the end-of-season awards. The talk in the town was of a deep playoff run, an MLS Cup hosted at Subaru Park, maybe even the biggest trophy of all.

But it was not to be.

Coming up small

The previous defeats fall largely into two categories: tight-fought tough-luck losses — think the 2014 and 2015 Open Cup finals — and games where the Union didn’t seem to show up at all, like the 2018 Cup Final and playoff loss to NYC FC.

Tuesday night’s game, unfortunately, was the latter.

It’s tough to point to any player on the Union who played well, so widespread was the underperformance.

Some players were actively bad. Jose Martinez, so key to this team all season, had a howler of a first half, totally off the pace. Kai Wagner looked lost at left back. Kacper Przybylko had as ineffectual a stint as a 90-minute striker can have.

Others were invisible. I can’t remember any contributions team leaders Alejandro Bedoya or Ray Gaddis made to the match.

And, perhaps most disappointingly, the team’s decorated Best XI starters didn’t impact the game. Mark McKenzie picked an awful moment for his worst game of the year, losing Adam Buksa on the first goal and getting caught a bit in no-man’s-land on the second. Brenden Aaronson, save for one bouncy cross within the first five minutes, never threatened in his 62 minutes of action. And noble Andre Blake, just recovered from injury, couldn’t stop either of the two Revs goals.

(To be clear, I’m not saying he should have stopped them — but Blake has made saves all season that he had no business making, which didn’t happen on Tuesday night.)

Curtin, too, had his worst game in a long while. His team came out flat from the opening minute and seemingly let frustration get the better of them after the second goal. His second-half swaps, particularly inserting Jack Elliott to play central midfield down two goals, didn’t make much sense and didn’t get the Union any closer to a win.

Some nights, your team just doesn’t have it.

That was Tuesday night for the Union.

The future, short and long

All of a sudden, the offseason is here, sooner than any had hoped.

There is work to be done, even for a team that finished top of the table. Aaronson is off to Salzburg. McKenzie should follow him to Europe this winter. Wagner’s departure, too, looks increasingly imminent. And those are just the likely moves — there are always one or two surprise exits every offseason, and the Union have been in the scouting eye more than they ever have before. Some veterans are on the wrong side of the age curve: Alejandro Bedoya turns 34 in April, Ilsinho just turned 35.

From this, Ernst Tanner must construct a squad that will add continental play to the rigors of the MLS schedule for the first time. Indeed, one of the intrigues of the coming season will be how the Union approach their appearance in the Concacaf Champions League. The money from Aaronson’s transfer fee should help, as would cash from any other sales. But the task is not straightforward. Few things are.

Setting that aside, I wonder how this team will be remembered. There has been no more dominant Union squad, and these men will always be the ones to have brought Philadelphia a first trophy. But the sting of another playoff defeat will hurt for a while, perhaps longer. The absence of roaring crowds all season complicates matters. Few were there to watch the Supporters’ Shield be lifted. Few, too, were there to boo as the final whistle blew.

Like so much else in this year unlike any other, it will be hard to say.

In the short term, though, it is enough to say that two things are true.

That this season was a success, a success beyond anything we — I — could have predicted back in February.

And that the season ended in failure, in a way all too predictable.


  1. Right now, the stink from last night’s effort clouds things, but we’ll look back on this team as having had a very successful season. No doubt in my mind, this is the strongest, most well rounded roster we’ve had, and they frequently played attractive soccer. Lifting that first trophy will always make this particular union team a historic, special one.

  2. November 25, 2020 at 9:59 am
    I was going to clock out for a while to emotionally recover a bit -but have been seeing some content on social media in Union Fandom Land which needs to be addressed and will address it throughout this post mortem –until it’s clear the news has moved on– then set back and await January in ernest to see what comes of Union 2021.
    There are many arguing this season has been a ‘huge success’ —–it is inaccurate—- and too generous and needs to stop.
    Was the 2020 season a success? Absolutely –the team finished top of the table and claimed its first trophy for a franchise which continues to grow and appears to be growing in the right ways.
    Was the 2020 season a terrific and much needed diversion during a bleak time? Absolutely and for that it’s good to be thankful.
    Is it good to recognize this? It is incumbent upon us to recognize this.
    However, to enter the field of play last night—-then throw all that hard work and dogged determination by the side- wasting everything that was accomplished throughout the season— qualifies as failure. It is totally inarguable. Win a game or two —then get beat…fine.
    …Play well against a team you have beaten multiple times and get beat… ultimately… fine.
    Distasteful and a bummer —but acceptable which allows discernment in looking back and feeling the season was ‘hugely successful’ when measuring the many factors.
    To play like that? No… there needs to be accountability.
    I’ve thought a great deal about the manager’s role in this outcome and ultimately feel like the players failed and are to blame 100%.
    He was wary of this potential outcome, maybe underminded himself and —Intentioned it— into existence with his Sports Talk Radio interviews and set the men up psychologically to come out flat which holds him accountable to a degree. I don’t know. Was it right to bench Martinez… I’m not so sure, as he was providing the needed emotional bite even if his game was filled with loose play for 45 minutes…either way Curtin recognized the need to change and abruptly set about it… I’d argue Fontana needed to enter in place of Ilsinho then hold Ilsinho a bit… I’d argue, Jim realized Bedoya was unable to manage the HDM spot and another goal was inevitable under the halftime changes made which means he may have gotten his subs a bit awkwardly. Either way… he saw what we all saw… and made adjustments in search of something resembling the team he had coached all season.
    The players own this 100% — 100%—- They failed– they failed to capitalize on an early zest in their play which had them displaying dominance over New England…- played way too casual with the passing and turnovers— thinking they were the better team because of past outcomes— which for the first 20 minutes they were….and by simply walking on the field– were going to win and when they yielded the goal… bottled up, got tight…. and played like DIMWITS instead of snapping into the present…. using the early goal against to shore up and steel their nerve.
    The season was a success. The season was a failure.
    They Degraded the Accolade last night. They do not deserve a pass simply because they won the Supporters Shield after that effort. That effort single handedly sullied the accomplishments.
    It is okay….. to doubt yet believe.
    It is okay… to be happy yet disappointed.
    It is incumbent to be thankful YET ultimately hold them accountable to missing an enormous opportunity in this arduous journey of displaying the echelon this fanbase goddamn well expects.
    el Pachyderm

  3. I’ve been a “cup half full” Union fan from Day 1. I’ve wanted Curtin canned numerous times. But this year, not this year. So many positives from 2020, so many 1st’s.

    They lost last night. They lost to a team they’ve beatin what, 4 times already this year after of 2 week layoff. Of course they were gonna lose. Of course, they were gonna be flat.

    For me this was no heart breaking loss (i.e. every open cup final), lets look forward to Champions League, the academy, and the euro transfers.

  4. Had homefield advantage for the whole playoffs; could have played the final in Chester. Missing out on that is the most frustrating thing for me. After beating them 5 times I think the players were too overconfident. Curtin was unable to shake that out of their brains. Wish we had played another team. Wish Monteiro had scored in the 5th minute; would then have been such a different game.

  5. Zakary Petroski says:


  6. Not sure I would include the Open Cup finals as playoff losses unless you also include 3-1 in Open Cup semifinals, and 14-6 in earlier rounds.
    I’m hoping that Champions League is a positive for the team next year in that they will have a couple of games under their belt and won’t start the season flat like they’ve done the last couple of years (2-6-3 on opening day historically).
    Unless the Union won out, we were going to be having this discussion at some point. It’s probably better to be having it after losing on the same day that Toronto, a team that has been to 3 of the last 4 MLS Cup finals, had the same thing happen to them.

    • There’s no shame in losing, it’s just the matter in which they lost. If they played their game, were sharp,and really competed, I’d feel better about getting knocked out. Beyond maybe the first ten minutes, I thought they were thoroughly outplayed. That’s the disappointing part. I stand by my earlier comment that the season is still a success, but to put out a complete clunker like that last night stings.

      • Agreed, it stings that something just wasn’t right with the team last night. On the other hand, given that they had won the shield and that the season was a success, I was calmer during the loss than I can ever recall being while at the stadium since it obviously wasn’t meant to be their night.

  7. 2020 was a great season, but I don’t recall them ever beating a bunkering team. There has never even appeared to be a beat-the-bunker plan other than to bring on Ilson.
    You could make a case that as soon as the first goal was scored by the Revs last night, the U would probably lose cause they can’t beat the bunker.
    It will be interesting to see how Ernst addresses this in the off-season. His apparent vision of a field full of very good players with none truly great might have “the bunker” as its weakness.
    It usually takes a moment of either very high creativity or very high skill to do so and my understanding is that he does not want to pay for those types of players.

    • This is a good point. Bruce “please feel free to never look into a camera again” Arena had his team marking well, winning headers and denying space to the Union’s key players. Buchanan just owned his right side.

      I’m baffled by how out of sorts the team was.

    • They did beat FC Cincinnati in Chester (although that game Cinci did less bunkering than normal).
      The bigger issue (if you can call it that) is that they only times the Union trailed and still got a result were against Montreal where Montreal scored early but then went down a man and the Union were able to get 4 power play goals and the game in DC where they gave up 2 quick ones to DC before McKenzie tied it. Fortunately, they rarely trailed in games which is a good way to play.

    • Every great team in the world has been beaten by bunkering teams. The Barcelona Tiki Taka generation was beaten by bunkering. The current meta strategy, gegenpressing, is specifically designed to AVOID the dangers of bunkering by creating chances before the other team can bunker.

      If you expect Ernst to solve bunkering, you will be disappointed because the best team in history with some of the best players of all time could not beat it.

  8. For any Deadheads out there I just discovered the best way to put last night into perspective is to crank up a nice juicy Morning Dew and listen to Jerry belt out “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway” a few times.
    For any non Deadheads, sorry, you’re stuck with the day after blues.

  9. For anyone who hasn’t seen the Union website since the game last night, note that the banner headline reads,

    “2020 has been anything but normal, but one thing we could always count on was the support from you, our family.
    Thank you Union fans for making this a year to remember. Even though it ended sooner than we’d hoped, we stay hungry, and we’ll come back stronger in ’21 for you.”

  10. Old Soccer Coach says:

    My thought is over-simple, but it nags at me.
    All know that teams huddle just before kickoff and that there are cliched exhortations uttered therein..
    One such from my own coaching tenure long, long ago was, “Beat them to the ball!”
    After the first 10-15 minutes, by and large New England beat the Union to the ball.

    • Totally agree! The U hardly touched a second ball. As has been stated numerous times on this site…they were flat,and looking past this game. Not mentality in the here and now! Ok…off to grab a beer and start the Thanksgiving weekend!
      Have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  11. I’m still drained. Too drained to do any reflective analysis of the entire season.
    Personally, I’m at the point where I say…
    “I am a 10 year STH. I got to go to ONE game this season, and it had to…HAD TO…be THAT one?????”
    I haven’t been at a game that woeful since probably the last Open Cup final.
    Hopefully, I’ll be back in the River End next season…Covid permitting. Until then, I eagerly await what Tanner has up his sleeves.

  12. Timothy Herring says:

    “There is work to be done” — and that work is, as I have told you all (twice) before: Owner and manager must go.

  13. As bad as the ending was, the season as a whole was a success. The Union had the best regular season record. They got their first trophy and a champions league birth. They may not be wining the MLS cup, but they did achieve that which in any other league would have given them the title. They sold their first home built player. For good money. They are likely to sell more assets.
    Turnover. Change. Opportunity. The roster, once again, as we should all be expecting will be about 1/4-1/3 changed or somewhat differentiated from this years. How exciting. Is it not? Am I wrong? Understandably we still hurt from the sting of last night. But new stories will be written next year. I’m excited to see what Turner, DeVries and Fontana can bring next season. Maybe Oravec finds himself. Odds on Ernst not finding at least one gem next year? Does he hit on all? No. But enough that they have impacted the team.
    Let’s all be real here. We have something good. I’m not saying this to be an apologist. I’m saying it, because I think we Philadelphia fans have a penchant to search out doom and gloom and ignore the good. In this shit storm reality of Covid, the Union are building a sustainable model, getting value for dollar, and spreading the brand. FIFA has announced new Fair play numbers, and European teams are looking for value. Why shouldn’t they start looking here?
    Look, you can be like Tim up there and hate life. Or you can see what the possibilities are and enjoy the ride. Things haven’t been quite so horrible so far, and it’s truly just getting started. Have a safe and thankful, Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for you all. Even Tim.

    • Timothy Herring says:

      Dear All4U. Please apologize for stating that I “hate life” — I said nor meant no such thing and do not “hate life.” Rather, you and I simply have a different definition for success for this team (and any other team in the MLS). You define success apparently as getting a lot of points, leading a conference, and getting into the playoffs. I on the other hand define success as winning the MLS championship. This team has had well over 10 years to do that now and has failed — while another team, Atlanta, achieved that in only there second year. So, make the comparison then decide: what is broken here and what should we do about it? Thank you for being thankful though.

      • el Pachyderm says:


      • It was meant tongue in cheek. Tone is hard to impart through text. Maybe I should have went with “Debbie downer”. Hindsight.
        You’ve come by at the end of previous seasons to drop your displeasure and leave. I’ve gone at you then to. The grass will always be greener for you Tim. If only enjoying the team was as much fun as poo-pooing it eh?

  14. A little perspective… this league is stupid.

    If this were the EPL… We won THE TITLE and missed out on the FA Cup. Big deal! Who cares? This is the only league in the world that I know of that puts a random tournament trophy above winning the league. Sheesh!

    • Timothy Herring says:

      Semi good point Anton Ego. However, 1) each MLS team does not play all the other teams during the regular season, and 2) given the format of the regular season + the playoffs, teams of course pace themselves accordingly. So, your point would be fully true if 1) each team played all the other teams and 2) the MLS ceased the playoffs.

      • That just shows that this is a stupid league in the fact that the schedule is unbalanced. Yes, this year is different, but there is no reason the league had to expand as much as they have except for greed. Plus, it’s not as if the Union’s schedule was significantly weaker than any other team. As a matter of fact, they played fewer games (5) against teams who didn’t make the playoffs (i.e. the bottom of the league) than any other team who made the playoffs.
        So while you are welcome to try and bring us all down by calling the season a failure, you are flat out wrong. This season was a success. The only thing Anton Ego got wrong is that the FA Cup is the equivalent of the Open Cup while MLS Cup is about the equivalent of the EFL Cup.

  15. Timothy Herring says:

    Hi Andy I completely agree with you that this league is stupid and greedy. The proper play for the league, and more broadly for US Soccer, is to cap the MLS at 20 or so teams and better develop the lower leagues (by adding more teams & $ to those) and then — shudder to think the MLS owners would ever agree to this — institute a promotion/relegation format. This setup would improve the professional ranks overall then in turn improve the MNT, which needs this.

    I am not calling the season a failure by your and Anton’s (and others’) standards. By your definition I agree it was a success. I am merely pointing out that I use a different definition — which the Team/Ownership and you, Anton, and others I think should instead use — i.e. winning the MLS Championship. This is the definition that most pro teams in most sports use. The question is why you, Anton, and many others use your definition? My answer to that is you are either a) satisfied with a lower bar of success or b) spinning/rationalizing the less than supreme overall performance. In the end, I strongly believe that we all share the same two overall goals here: 1) Our local pro team winning the MLS Championship, and 2) our MNT winning a World Cup. What I believe we disagree on are the strategies of achieving those two goals. To date, after nearly a dozen years of the Union and 90 years of FIFA world cups, we have not succeeded in achieving either of those two goals. Thus the questions then become A) do we really want to achieve those two goals or are we just blowing smoke? and B) if we really want to achieve those two goals then what should we change to achieve them?

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