With a lockout averted and a Champions League draw complete, the Union’s 2021 campaign takes shape

Photo: Paul Rudderow

A quiet offseason mired in uncertainty gained clarity this week for Philadelphia Union, as MLS and the Players’ Union agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement and the 2021 Concacaf Champions League draw took place.

The Union will face off against Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa in the CCL’s Round of 16, a two-legged fixture set to be played between April 6 and 15. That matchup will be followed by the opening of the MLS campaign, which the league announced will begin on April 17.

With training camp expected to begin sometime around the beginning of March, all eyes will be on the Union’s technical staff to see whether any new signings will be made before the start of camp.

A new CBA

At the end of January, the first-ever lockout in MLS history looked to be a real possibility.

As our Steve Holroyd explained back in January, MLS owners had invoked the collective bargaining agreement’s force majeure clause at the end of 2020, seeking to renegotiate the CBA as a result of financial losses incurred because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The league pressed its advantage in negotiations, upsetting many in the players’ union and leading many observers to wonder whether the owners were determined to proceed to a lockout. But the league and the players negotiated through last week and agreed to a new CBA that runs through the 2027 season.

That agreement cleared the way for the 2021 MLS season to kick off, albeit with a delay from the original target date of April 3.

The full schedule is expected to be announced in the next few weeks. It is unclear how much this year’s schedule will look like the 2020 season — which, because of the pandemic, featured only in-conference play and highly regional travel — or like the seasons that preceded it.

Although training camps were tentatively set to open on Feb. 22, it is likely that date will also be pushed back slightly.

Overseas travel

Before the domestic season kicks off, the Union will make their first foray into international competition.

The club earned a spot in this year’s edition of the Concacaf Champions League thanks to the Supporters’ Shield, earned for the best record in MLS last season.

The Union are joined in the round of 16 by qualifying clubs from Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

In Wednesday night’s draw, the Boys in Blue were matched up with Saprissa, a Costa Rican powerhouse. Former Bethlehem Steel FC loanee Walter Cortés is on Saprissa’s roster.

Concacaf hasn’t announced the exact schedule of the two-legged contest, although the matches are expected to take place on April 6-8 and April 13-15. The road leg will be the Union’s first-ever competitive match outside the United States and Canada.

If Philadelphia advances, they’ll play either Atlanta United or Alajuelense, who face off in another U.S.-Costa Rica contest.

Boys in Blue

With the season coming into focus, sharper attention will be paid to the Union’s roster, which has not seen a single addition from outside the organization this offseason.

The offseason has been one of departure and consolidation so far. Star defender Mark McKenzie and midfielder Brenden Aaronson have completed blockbuster moves overseas, leaving two holes in the starting lineup. Union sporting director Ernst Tanner has promoted five players from the Union Academy to the first team, and signed key contributors Kai Wagner and Jose Martinez to contract extensions.

Is this roster enough for the Union to stay near the top of the table, or are there moves up Tanner’s sleeve in the weeks ahead?


  1. In a recent interview with mls italia Ernst T indicated that a foreign signing was not very likely because of difficulty securing work permits due to the plague. Yet, we see almost daily accounts of other MLS clubs signing foreign players. If one of the wicked smaht (that’s a compliment, nothing else) writers here could delve into that I, for one, would appreciated it.

    • This is really worrying. I can’t help but wonder if Tanner was offering an excuse for inaction because he doesn’t want to come out and say ownership is unwilling to foot the bill for a foreign signing.

      It’ll really be a shame, because the club really needs at least a couple more signings for depth, but if Tanner isn’t going to be bringing in someone from overseas, he needs to be hitting the internal market harder.

    • Vince Devine says:

      The inability to sign foreign players stems from no open International Roster spots. He was hoping some current international players would be able to get green cards, but the gov’t hasn’t been processing green card applications. I’m guessing he’s identified players he wants, but has no place on the roster to put them until Elliott, Burke, Mbaizo get green cards and free up a spot.

      • Thanks for the info. If Olivier M is holding up a DP signing ET gets a C-/D for this grading period. That’s not good at all.

      • By my understanding of information over the past several months. Olivier Mbaizo already has a green card.
        Brotherly Game reported that he did Feb 7, 2020, and the MLS website version of the 2020 Philadelphia Union Roster does not list him as occupying an international slot.

  2. Now let’s hope we can all get vaccinated in time for the Union’s first home game.

    • HAHA, that’s a good one Andy. Three million vaccines so far, for a population of over 328 million. Andy, if I get a vaccine before Christmas, I’ll be floored.

      • I share your skepticism that vaccination levels will be significant by opening day in April. But your 3 million datum is way low. As of 2/10, roughly 46 million doses have been administered in the US…


      • BD my 70+ year old parents got the first dose of the vaccine this week. My 90+ year old grandmother can’t get one, even with her 12 children all trying to sign her up. Sorry, I don’t believe Bloomberg’s numbers. I’ll admit that with the other vaccines coming online and with production ramping up, things will get exponentially better. But I don’t think there is any way that it will be good enough to fill Subaru Park on opening day.

  3. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Brendan’s goal yesterday – wow, what a thing of beauty…
    McKenzie’s D has back to back clean sheets…
    Not a bad look so far…
    I assume there are rules about the CCL draw where 2 MLS teams wouldn’t be paired. Would have been nice to get the team from DR or Haiti.

    • The 4 American MLS teams and 4 of 5 LigaMX teams were in one pot drawn against the other 8 teams in the other pot. I was hoping to see them play a Mexican team for the fun and challenge of it but they’d have to at least make the semis for that since Atlanta/2nd Costa Rican team is the other game in their fourth of the bracket. They could have drawn the Canadian team and be facing (probably) Toronto then possibly Atlanta which wouldn’t have been very interesting at all to me.

  4. I’m a bit bummed that Philly is playing a team like Saprissa at a time when we can’t go watch the games. I was really looking forward to a time when I could go to the stadium and see our guys take on a club like Saprissa or America. Just for the experience of it. I hope CCL becomes a common occurrence for this team.

  5. Transfermarkt says that Walter Cortes underwent cruciate ligament surgery — their information did not specify which one — Aug 14, 2020. He would be roughly 8 months into recovery by the time of the second Saprissa SCCL match, so, unfortunately, I doubt he would be available.

  6. I don’t know if the rest of you saw this, but Frankie Amaya requested a trade out of Cincinnati. I wonder if he’s worth kicking the tires on. Would be a great addition to the Union midfield, considering we really need three starters for two spots at CM given the number of games the Union will be playing, and he could be the heir apparent to Bedoya if not moved to a European club for a good transfer fee.

    He might be pricey, but he’s a 20 year old MLS tested midfielder and the Union have to have a decent amount of allocation money at this point.

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