A View from Afar / Union

Union playoff loss not a choke, but an afterthought

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union’s season ended the day they won the Supporters’ Shield. Everything else has been postscript and afterthought.

Tuesday’s playoff loss to the New England Revolution wasn’t a choke. The Union had already won the biggest game of the year. And this was a year in which the playoff game, for some reason, wasn’t the biggest.

Now, a letdown? Sure. You obviously hoped for a second trophy.

But it was a loss to a talented New England team that is finally healthy, has one of the best coaches in MLS history, and entered the match with extraordinary momentum after a 95th minute goal won their prior match. They also have DP match-winners, which the Union, for all their strengths, do not. 

Both teams that won their play-in round games knocked off the teams coming off a two-week break, with Toronto losing to Nashville and playing as flatly as the Union did. There’s something to that. As New England goalkeeper Matt Turner put it, the play-in round gave his team an advantage over the Union. They had already gone through a do-or-die match. They had their playoff footing.

The Union had a 16-day layoff. Their star left back was looking ahead to an off-season transfer, and they had just won a round of awards, including coach of the year and putting three players on the league’s Best XI. They had done it despite a late injury to their most valuable player and their target forward going the last 12 matches without scoring from the run of play. They had already played New England five times this year, winning four and drawing once. And their Supporters’ Shield victory was momentous in unprecedented fashion.

This season felt like it was already over for the Union. Part of that is due to the November international break, which MLS has yet to adequately balance with its playoffs. Part was due to the fact that the Union had already achieved everything.

Well, almost everything.

Their season feels in no way diminished by the loss. 

It’s been a bizarre year that’s essentially seen three separate tournaments. Portland won the MLS Is Back tourney. Someone else will win the MLS Cup. (Nashville?!) The Union won the longest tourney, the one for the regular season, and this year, that’s the best of them.

A massive off-season awaits. Starlet Brenden Aaronson departs for Austria, while Kai Wagner appears set to join him. Mark McKenzie will have suitors as well.

The Union have learned that their team construction model works, provided they have the league’s best sporting director (which they do). Their coach has made the leap. And they already have potential (if not like-for-like) replacements for their three big expected departures on the roster.

But we’ve also seen where their model falls short.

This is a team lacking in offensive star power. When playoff time comes, you need a Carles Gil to turn to in those big moments. The Union don’t have one. In fact, they have just one DP, whereas the Revs lineup featured three DP attackers. Union fans should hope team ownership puts money toward changing that, but then you do that every year, so you may be disappointed again.

The Union must build on their strengths while addressing their gaps, or they’ll find their progressive ascent has already peaked.

Fortunately for them, Ernst Tanner has proved a master of the transfer market, and he’ll need to be again. His shopping list should include a playmaking No. 10, a mobile center back (if McKenzie leaves), a reliable center forward, and center midfield depth. That’s a lot, but the Union are losing a lot.

But they’re returning a model that works, full of players that fit snugly into it.

And they’ll return with a trophy from a season no one will ever forget.


  1. Appreciate the article and POV … personally I’m still totally gutted and not as magnanimous. My ‘long form’ post from the other days stands.
    I watched that Toronto match closely —- they showed up to play—- were simply beaten in extra time. That’s an acceptable outcome. Things don’t always go the way one hopes.
    To compare one output with the other output is a disingenuous attempt at trying to rationalize a poor showing simply because the outcomes were the same.

  2. I’m still sour the Union really let a very good opportunity slip past them. While the long layover and the unpredictability of a single-game elimination are contributors, they should have and could have been better prepared and put in an effort that resembled a supporter’s shield winner.

    It was a successful season and I’m really looking forward to Champion’s League play, but the playoff performance was in no way shape or form good enough.

    Also, I know it’s not the Union’s job to advance the game in the Delaware Valley, but the absolute dreck of the rest of the Philadelphia sporting landscape (again) presented an opportunity to gain attention. A deep playoff run would have earned this team fans. It’s too bad.

  3. Once Toronto lost to Nashville, it made me far less annoyed at the Union and far more annoyed at the structure of the playin game.

    • +1 (especially when you look at last year and see that NYCFC also lost on about 16 days rest to a team that had played 4 days earlier).

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