Commentary / Union

The Union are barely surviving league play, and that’s okay

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Philadelphia Union have faced a grueling start to their 2021 campaign, barely surviving league play. That’s okay. 

They’ve played eleven matches in roughly seven weeks, dealt with suspensions in MLS and the CCL, and faced a crucial injury in super-sub Ilsinho. It hasn’t been pretty. 

Looking at the statistics, it’d be easy to think the Union have regressed from last year. In league play, they’re down in goals per game by just over one, and they’re still conceding the same amount from 2020. Additionally, they’re passing less accurately and stringing together fewer key passes in the attacking third. Statistics aside, though, the club just look a step slow.

Of particular note is the middle of the park. The midfield has been lacking, routinely turning the ball over and forcing defenders into desperation tackles and tactical fouls to prevent opposition counter-attacks. The center of the field play has led to offensive issues as well. 

Consistently misplaced passes and poor supporting runs often lead to a loss of possession before a real chance can be created. Regardless of the club appearing to have taken a step back on the pitch, their results aren’t all that bad. 

Philadelphia sits third in the Eastern Conference and sixth overall in the table. They have a positive goal differential (+1) and have more wins (three) than losses or ties (two each), something only eight other clubs can say. Additionally, they’ve outperformed any other MLS CCL side, with only Portland cracking the overall top ten (at ten). However, despite the clubs’ favorable position in the standings, fans have quickly criticized the clubs’ early-season performance. 

Looking on social media, it’s easy to find any number of complaints about the Union’s play through the young MLS season. Any goodwill fostered by Champions League results seems forgotten the second the Union squeeze out an uninspired three points against DC United or Chicago. It’s not hard to see the source of frustration. 

The last several seasons have seen the Union improving each year consistently, with supporters becoming accustomed to regular improvement. For years, constant improvement was a marker of success, with fans and pundits alike citing year-by-year improvement as sustained success. However, it’s important to remember that the definition of success changes. 

For Jim Curtain, Philadelphia’s success is no longer measured in internal improvement; success is measured in trophies.

For Philadelphia, this season marks the club’s first time out in a major international competition. While some were quick to applaud the qualification as an accomplishment in and of itself, Curtain and the Union have clearly emphasized their intentions to compete immediately, even if it comes at the cost of MLS results.

“We always want to take three points whenever we step on the field . . . But I will say, our focus and the most important thing is Champions League.” Curtain said after the Union’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of NYCFC last month. 

The quote clearly outlines the Union’s approach to MLS play and emphasizes the survival mode mentality that the club takes into MLS matches when necessary; A mentality that sacrifices short-term, artificial success for tangible, meaningful results. 

Meaningful results like winning playoff games, something the Union has failed to do on every occasion but one. 

While success in the league standings is something the Union has previously strived for and emphasized, now that they’ve won a shield, both supporters and those within the club will have a hard time feeling satisfied with anything less than an MLS cup run future seasons. 

For Philadelphia, moral victories have become a thing of the past, and cup success is critical. For that reason, simply surviving the league is more than acceptable if it opens up more opportunities for silverware.

At the end of the season, no one will remember the 2-0 defeat to NYCFC when it was bookended so perfectly by two of the biggest games (so far) in Union history. No one will care if the club finishes first or second overall if Philly falters in the playoffs. 

Both the club and its supporters have evolved in their definition of success. No longer will an increase in points or improved finishing position be celebrated when the scent of trophies linger so strongly. 

Sure the Union are only surviving for now, but just wait, it’ll be worth it. 


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I think there have been some disappointments in the regular season so far. Not so much the games where they did what they had to do to get the win, but most specifically the red card by Martinez as well as blowing the lead and losing against Miami.
    Everyone should definitely be disappointed with the former because it not only cost potential points against NYCFC, it may end up costing the Union home field in the CCL finals as the other players on the field had to work harder for 75 minutes and were that much less fresh 72 hours later against Atlanta where a win would have gone a long way toward getting home field throughout CCL.
    The other worry I have is that with the CCL semis coming up, they’ve had to reschedule a couple of games to international breaks where they will likely be without some of their key players.
    That being said, I don’t think the shield is realistic this season if Seattle keeps things going the way they have so far.

  2. msg24365 says:

    Typo – I think it’s ELEVEN matches in roughly SEVEN weeks.
    I am not too worried. The fact that they are still integrating several pieces in key places AND have clearly made doing well in Champions League a point of emphasis and STILL are in the top 5 in the East, gives me quiet confidence. They have gotten points from games which, before last season, they would have lost (and found some fan-killing, heartbreaking way to do it).
    Over the past season+, the team has learned how to get results. That is what a good team finds a way to do.
    On a final note, Ilsinho has been marginally relevant for a season and a half. Did not bring much to the table last season at all. Still living off the accomplishments of the year before that. Teams figured out how to neutralize him.

  3. Tim Jones says:

    As the Gazdag signing and cameo in DC, and yesterday’s breaking rumors about Jamaican national team right back Alvas Powell both indicate, the roster for 2021 is still under construction.
    To me, that they have done as well as they have while missing some planned pieces — making no mention of El Brujo the Red of course — is cause for guarded optimism.
    Andy Muenz is spot on about the re-scheduled New England and Cincinnati games. Some usual game-day 18 bench players will have to start, and some Homegrown deep reserves will have to ride the pine. It would be nice if Union 2 were to have a competitive platform on which to be developing those future pine riders.

    • That last sentence is my longer term concern. To me it was penny wise pound foolish to take U2 out of the USL Championship without a quality alternative.
      . . .
      After the USL preseason friendies, it seems they’re lost and at best looking for the occasional pickup and sandlot matches. Even quality amateur teams now have their league commitments.
      . . .
      Does anyone have good info on the story with U2? They simply seem off the radar now.

  4. T.Coolguy says:

    It was clear to me from some of the comments Ernst Tanner made during the offseason, he was willing to sacrifice some points in the table in the early season to have the strongest possible roster by the time the playoffs came around. And honestly, the results have not been that bad. The losses to NYFC and Miami were not good, but even those games were not symptomatic of bigger issues so much as they were Martinez getting his first red in MLS and Higuain having an amazing day.

    We can certainly quibble about little things here and there, but the Union are in pretty decent position with their best new acquisition only having played less than a single half of soccer. We’ll be fine.

  5. Not worried. Never was. I feel the title is click-bait. I know some were worried, but I feel it was misguided if one considers the circumstances of the start of the season. I’d say the Union have done a professional job. Honestly I think they’ve done quite well considering the CL run, injuries, departures and new arrivals.

  6. Seems like there’s plenty of agreement with the article. Winning the Supporters Shield is great but it’s only one of the prizes. Weighing cost/benefit options to maximize the opportunities is smart strategy. Chelsea didn’t win the Premier League but made the FA Cup Final and won the EUFA Champions League. I think their fans are pretty happy with the season as an understatement.

    If the season tanks after the June break or if it’s another ‘one and done’ MLS playoff then I’ll be more concerned, especially if the new players don’t work out. Let’s just hope they get through Portland before they get their well needed rest.

  7. Tim Herring says:

    Thomas, oh Thomas, “just wait, it’ll be worth it” was said 12 years ago about this team and owner.

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