How will the 2020 Union be remembered?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

What the absolute hell was the 2020 Philadelphia Union season?

It’s a question that I just cannot seem to find an answer to.

On the one hand, it was a success because of the Shield; on the other, it was a failure because of the playoffs. The Aaronson transfer was a mixed bag, and how do you even begin to quantify a semi-final finish in the MLS is Back Tournament?

It was an odd season for a historically bizarre team, and in some strange way, there’s nothing more Union than winning your first trophy in the middle of a pandemic. But will the pandemic really affect what we think of the Union’s 2020 season? Let’s take a look.

While the Union went an impressive 9-0-0 at home during the regular season, they did it in front of an empty or nearly empty stadium for the entire season. With a perfect 9-0-0 home record in the regular season, you could almost make an argument that the lack of fans had no effect at all on the Union. Almost. Unfortunately, that argument crumbles to pieces when considering the Union’s first round playoff defeat to New England.

The Union looked flat from the jump in their postseason loss to New England, and with so few fans to rally behind, they stayed that way all night. There’s no guarantee that the Union would’ve fed off the crowd’s energy and overcome their slow start, but with fans in the Sube, there’s a great chance that the slow start doesn’t even happen. There’s just something inherently special about a playoff atmosphere. As much as fans notice it, players feel it. Just look at this Flyers start to a playoff game in 2012. There’s no denying that the raucous atmosphere pre-game contributed to an electric start that ultimately turned into a series-clinching win. With a crowd of over 18,000 fans bolstered by their first trophy in history behind them, it’s easy to imagine a similarly electric start for the Union and a dramatically different result at the end of the game.

But if fans’ presence or absence can change a game’s outcome, what else can it dictate? The entire narrative of the season.  

People often make the mistake of thinking that a season is remembered as a sum of its collective parts. It isn’t. Seasons are remembered for a few singular events off the field, and a handful of games, if that. Just think about last year for the Union; what do you remember, every single game that led to the (at the time) best finish in club history? Probably not; you likely remember the home games against Atlanta and Red Bull, Aaronson’s emergence, our playoff win, and maybe a smattering of other, less significant details. 

Those specific games get remembered not primarily for their importance or impact but for their atmosphere and feeling. Why do you think home games are remembered more so than road games? Because of the tangible impact they had on so many people. Sure they may only be soccer games, but there’s just something inexplicably visceral and memorable about screaming at New Yorkers with 18,000 of your closest friends. Even over TV, there’s no denying the difference in feeling between a game with fans and one without. Without fans, matches just feel hollow. They’re simply less memorable, even if it is your club’s best season in history. But despite the success and lack of fans, maybe 2020 really wasn’t that different after all. 

While the world was changing around us quicker than we could keep up with, the Union remained oddly familiar, reminding us all that not everything was different this year. Sure they had their best season in history. However, they were still unmistakably the U. They lost in the late stages of a knockout tournament, Blake was a wall, Illsinho was a super-sub, the squad failed to find a real goalscorer, and to top it all off, they lost in the first round of the playoffs. All things considered, that sounds a lot like 2019, and 2018, and 2017 and… well, you get the point. 

Maybe that’s a cynical way of looking at it. We won the Shield, sold a youth prospect for significant cash, and honestly looked like the best team in the league for most of the season. But the similarities between this season and the last three or four were uncanny. Frankly, it’s odd that the Union’s season felt so familiar. However, despite the connections between this season and others, there’s no denying that winning a trophy makes 2020 decidedly different than any other Union season. 

Sure right now the pain of losing to New England is fresh, and it’s easy to remember the conversations that surrounded Covid, quarantine periods, transfer rumors, and fan attendance, but will those really be the sticking points of 2020? Not at all. 2020 will be remembered for two things, the Shield and Aaronson. Fans will look back and say, “Oh yeah, that was the season during the Pandemic…” but they won’t actually remember the specifics.

And honestly, who would want to?

In a year where so much went right on the pitch, why try and remember anything else?


  1. Vince Devine says:

    They were 9-0-0 AT HOME (you neglected that part)

    There were fans in the stadium for the playoff loss.

    “the Sube”? nobody calls it that.

    2020 did not feel like other years. The U were consistently good all season. Yeah, playoff loss stung, but they were the best team in MLS over the course of an entire season.

    • Good catch re the home results, definitely meant to include that distinction!

      No one may call it that yet… but I’ve got my hopes.

  2. Winning the shield is worth remembering. The Aaronson sale as well (soon, too, I think, the sale of McKenzie) Also, this team emerged as a model for how to build from within and with shrewd, genuinely Moneyball acquisitions. A lot of clubs right now wish they were in the same position as the Union. That’s a novel thing. Unlike years past, I think there is genuinely a lot about which to be optimistic if you’re a Union fan.

  3. If you ask me who the best team was in 2019, I would say LAFC. I know the MLS Cup is the biggest prize, but I tend to remember Supporters Shield winners more.

    I’m going to remember this team for its pressing, Fontana’s goals out of nowhere, Scory Burke’s return to Philadelphia, Mark McKenzie’s emergence as one of the best center backs in MLS, Bedoya, Aaronson and Monteiro’s motors in midfield and the Captain America shield celebration. And of course, the 6-0 whooping of TFC.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is actually a really interesting take. I remember LAFC winning the Shield last year but don’t remember any other Shield winners from years before. I do remember how dominant they were in 2019 and other sides that have been equally so over the years, and that is that imprints in my memory. I don’t recall memories of watching MLS Cup in any meaningful way though.

  4. Obviously, 2020 will be remembered for winning the first trophy.
    However, i think the 2020 team will be remembered based on the performance of the 2021 team. If we play will and do better in the playoffs in 2021, the 2020 team will be seen as part of the rise of the Union to a legit contender. But… If we crap out of the playoffs again in 2021, then I think the 2020 team will be viewed as a blip that took advantage of a crazy year but still underperformed in the playoffs. #thatssounion

  5. The 2020 squad will be remembered for winning the clubs first hardware. It will also be remembered as the best product the club ever put onto the pitch. I also agree with MarkZ above, the legacy of the 2020 squad isn’t really written yet. If they are the beggining of project Tanner/Red Bull, and more success follows the model, than they will be remembered as the beggining of that. If the project falls flat they will probably cement their legacy more, particularly as an anomaly to the cliff………even though some will say we ended the season chillin there anyway……Lolz.

  6. For me, 2020 will be most remembered for the ending of the first system of elite youth player development. It culminated in Brenden Aaronson’s sale, and might in Mark McKenzie’s, were that to happen this offseason.
    BUT that system, which developed MLS players by having them play in USL second division professional soccer and then workin hard for a year, two, or three to reach the next higher plateau, is dead.
    Will what ever emerges as the new stepping stone be as effective teaching the cream of the Academy to become division one pros?
    Clearly the Union sporting brass think so.
    So far there is no a scintilla of evidence. Not one.
    From an outsider’s perspective, the system did not seem to be broken. They fixed it anyway.

    • It almost seems like the league didn’t want USL to become prominent enough to force the earth shattering KABOOM of pro/rel

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