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Season review: 2021 Philadelphia Union roundtable

Photo credit: Stephen Speer

The specter of a pandemic caused the Philadelphia Union’s 2021 MLS Cup Playoff run to end with a disappointing loss to eventual champions New York City FC. That is likely to be a topic of discussion and even debate in Philadelphia soccer circles for the rest of linear time, with the wellspring of “what if” scenario’s never running dry.

However despite the disappointing ending, there can be no doubt that this was a successful season for the Union. They finished comfortably above the playoff line, they made their first-ever Conference Finals, and they made the best CONCACAF Champions League run of any MLS team, only getting knocked out by a perennial Mexican power house. They won a game in Costa Rica, they got Gabriel Heinze fired, and at no point, even while playing Club América, did they look out of their league.

So as the writers of this Philly Soccer Page gathered for our annual round table to discuss the season that was, we must acknowledge one of our traditional questions is not going to be asked. This was a successful year for the Union, end of discussion.

Which means there’s a lot more time for us to discuss the things that are less certain-

Health and Safety Protocols obviously played a major role in the Union’s exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs. How does that effect your opinion of the result?

Tim Jones: Yes, because the Union would have had a chance to maintain their ability to contest the midfield with fresh legs to the end of the game. But NYC FC is an excellent side with match-winning attacking talent and might have prevailed anyway.

Chris Gibbons: NYC is great and one of the Union’s most difficult matchups. It seems highly unlikely they would have beaten a full-strength Union on the road however.

Jeremy Lane: It made me a temporary Timbers fan. The full-strength Union take that NYC game and maybe MLS Cup.

Peter Andrews: It hurts, obviously — we’ll always wonder what might have been.  But stuff happens in sports, and the result is what it is.  The Union were never going to beat Portland in Portland anyway.  More than anything, it will have a permanent place in Union lore.

Mike Servedio: It’s disappointing to think about what might have been. Philadelphia controlled the game for the better part of an hour before NYC was forced to go to their bench. Have to wonder what a full strength Union side would have been able to do with their regular starting defenders and more choices on the bench.

Paul Catrino Jr.: It certainly sours up an objectively successful season for the Union. Hopefully the league is able to achieve a sense of consistency in 2022 by looking at what did and didn’t work from a scheduling and regulation perspective. Still, the Union fought valiantly in the postseason while showing their weaknesses that need to be addressed to keep them in the conversation for title contention next season.

Thomas Hill: Agreed with Tim and Chris that NYC is great but yo I gotta be honest here and say I don’t think the health and safety issues affected the result much. We got a group of guys that turned in a hell of a performance against a great NYC side. I’m not sure the final result looks much different with a full strength Union side. Both previous games were just as close, and a similar individual mistake to what we saw Sunday could have sent them home in either earlier round. Unlucky for sure.

Jim O’Leary: I don’t entirely agree with Thomas’ assessment that the health and safety didn’t effect the game, but it’s absolutely the case that the Union almost got knocked out several times before they even got to the Conference Final.

Who was the most impressive Union player of 2021?

Tim: They are a tandemThey just extended Jakob Glesnes’ contract, in effect picking up both club options and adding a third guaranteed year. Now they have to keep Jack Elliott from exercising his right to free agency.

Chris: Andre Blake. I have written more than one article questioning his overall contributions to the team, and they were valid questions at the time. Since then, he’s put all concerns to bed, getting better in every facet.

Thomas: Chris has it right, It’s Andre Blake. Sure it may not be the exciting answer to pick the objective best player on the team, but if he keeps playing like a world class keeper, he’ll keep being the most impressive guy in the squad.

Jeremy: Blake and the CBs are both excellent choices, but I’m going Leon Flach, because of the difference between expectations and performance. Kid comes out of nowhere and stabilizes the future of the Union midfield, and (with El Brujo) ensures that no one can play through the middle.

Peter: Jakob Glesnes.  No Union player has ever had quite the flair for the spectacular as the Norwegian centerback.  When you combine his memorable goals with a consistently high defensive level (and never departing the lineup until the final game), there was no one more impressive to me.

Mike: Can’t argue any of the names mentioned already. For me, Blake, Glesnes, and Elliott were really at the heart of much of the success this season.

Paul: What Mike said… This team doesn’t get here without those three in the back.

Jim: For once I don’t feel like it might be personal bias motivating me to give all the credit to the defense.

Looking to next year, what roster changes need to happen?

Tim: To encapsulate other posts either published, pending, or drafted a center back, a striker, and four homegrowns (LB, S, S, ACM). On 12/8 Tannenwald quoted Tanner about pursuing a striker.

Chris: Striker. I’m absolutely in Camp Kacper and think he offers more to the Union than fans give him credit for. However, he doesn’t steal games or points the way that Taty Castellanos does. With a guy like that next to the Muffin atop a 4-4-2, the Boys would maraude through the league.

Jeremy: Ibid.

Thomas: Am I unrealistic in hoping for a DP striker? Probably. Do I think it needs to happen? Also yes. It’s hard to recall a time since Seba graced PPL that the Union have had a consistent and reliable man up top. With one, it’s hard to imagine the Union anywhere other than the Cup final.

Peter: Obviously a striker, but the club will also need at least one more midfielder.  I expect that Jamiro Monteiro has played his last season with the Union and Alejandro Bedoya is aging out.  That’s a lot of minutes to be soaked up by Homegrowns and Jesus Bueno, so one more signing is needed.

Mike: It’s obvious that striker is the biggest need. Ernst Tanner has already mentioned he’s shopping for one. I think it needs to be a #1 striker personally, as the current crop is all a step below the standard necessary for the Union to take their team up another level.

Paul: You need to bring in a striker that can turn a game on its head. It has become painfully clear that Kacper Przybylko is not ready to take the reigns as THE guy for Philadelphia and needs someone to take eyes off of him. Having him as a secondary option with a bonafide talent up top is exactly what this team needs to implement their game plan effectively against anyone they come up against.

Of the players on the roster at the end of the season, who do you think has the potential to make a much larger impact in 2022?

Tim: Nathan Harriel. I expect him to be given the keys to right back. I am guessing – with no evidence whatsoever – that a midseason offer came in for Mbaizo, and Tanner gave him a new contract to keep him sweet for the rest of the season the way he did with McKenzie when Rangers came calling. Otherwise why give the Cameroonian a new deal at that time?

Chris: Jack McGlynn. Honestly, who saw Jack McGlynn coming? When Monteiro gets the transfer he wanted back to Europe, a spot on the left side of the midfield will be open for Baby Ozil to claim. He’ll do it in such a way that the Union will reap the on- and off-field benefits quickly.

Jeremy: Pax10. Similar to what Chris said, if Monteiro leaves, there will be a big hole to fill, and it probably takes more than one player to do it. Aaronson, as he develops physically, will produce more and more.

Thomas: Paxten Aaronson. Kid had some brilliant flashes this year, and I think once he gets more up to speed and familiar with the league, we could be in store for something special.

Peter: As the charter member of the Quinn Sullivan Qrew, I’d love to see him grab a regular role in the rotation.  The youngster has not found his best position, but he has strong instincts and a willingness to try stuff in attack — assets that this team, strong as it is, does not always possess.

Mike: I’d agree again with every name mentioned above. Harriel has a great chance to grab a starting role (he was immense in the game against NYC on his off side). Paxten Aaronson somehow looks more mature than his brother at the same age, which is not said to disparage Brenden, but as pure compliment to Paxten. McGlynn and Sullivan will surely have more of a say in the starting XI week in and week out too.

Paul: Gotta agree with Chris. Fundamentally sound and rising to big moments, McGlynn has a chance to carve out his place in this lineup for years to come; at least until he decides that an extended European vacation is probably worth doing in your 20’s if given the chance.

Jim: It’s a “known” thing in MLS that European players joining mid-season are never fully realized until they get the benefit of a proper pre-season with the team. With that in mind Dániel Gazdag’s disappointing, but not awful, performance after joining the Union six games into the season should mean we can expect an absolute monster of a year from him in 2022.

Is Jim Curtin moving to Cincinnati?

(Editor’s Note: This roundtable happened before Chris Albright flim-flammed us all and hired Pat Noonan to the head coaching role.)

Tim: No. Chris Albright is giving him leverage for a raise.

Chris: Stop.

Jeremy: For vacation? I hear it’s a nice city to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I think Jim’s on the same page.

Jim: I know you’re talking about Curtin but yes, I am. King’s Island is great, but it’s not enough to make me want to live in Ohio.

Peter: Every man has his price.  But I can’t imagine that Cincy will match Curtin’s (or the Union’s).

Mike: No. And I’m not sure how I feel about Albright trying to lure him.

Paul: I will fight you.

Thomas: Am I allowed to swear?


  1. I still want Union management to explain to season ticket holders how COVID protocols were so lax, 11 players got sick all at once… at the most important time in our Club’s history.

    • Google Kevin Kinkead on CRossing Broad and his article about it.
      He did not contact trace, but the international break took Mbaizo to a game in Johannesburg, R of SA to play Malawi (I think it was) and Mbaizo came back sick with the virus according to Kinkead.
      Others were exposed in other ways.
      It was the first problem with a player that I remember since Kacper Przybylko in the early spring / late winter of 2020.

      • We deserve a full explanation how 11 different players ALL tested positive at the same exact time.

        This was NOT 11 random infections. Please.

        Union management is trying to sweep this all under the rug, when protocols were ignored, obviously.

        11 Men Out.

        The NYCFC fix was in.


      • what’s worse is the leagues refusal to postpone the game. Look at what’s happening right now in the other major sports leagues right up until the flyers game tonight. Pitiful.

  2. My 2 cents because no one asked or cares. Agree that Blake and the center backs are what anchored this team and was a foundation for the success seen this year and it was absolutely nauseating seeing them sidelined for the conference finals (though the backup group did a commendable job). I hope Tim is right about right back, I would like to see Mbaizo gone, not sure the Powell news changes that thinking though. I also really like Jack McGlynn however am concerned he won’t fit the style of play the team is going for. I really hope he carves out a role for himself and we see our style of play expand to get the most out of him. As far as Curtin goes, I think Cincy will grab someone else from the Union ranks but that’s just my super expert psychic opinion.

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