For Pete's Sake

Are Philadelphia Union a title favorite?

Photo: Stephen Speer

On September 15, 2021, Philadelphia Union were in bad shape.

That night, Club America knocked the Blue and Gold out of the Concacaf Champions League without too much fanfare. And a recent run of difficult form had seen the club, reigning holders of the Supporters’ Shield, fall below the red line. If the season ended that day, the Union would have missed the playoffs.

Then, something clicked.

Philly blazed down the stretch run of the regular season, losing only once in their final eleven games and piling up 22 points out of a possible 33 — good enough to finish second in the East, behind runaway leaders New England.

That led to an unforgettable playoff run that included two dramatic home wins against New York and Nashville. Only an unfortunately timed COVID-19 outbreak blocked what seemed like a clear path to an MLS Cup appearance, knocking out eleven players before the Eastern Conference final.

Entering the offseason, the question was whether the Union could manage to keep together the core of the roster that showed itself to be one of the best in MLS.

With that mission seemingly accomplished — and the start of the regular season just over two weeks away — now Union fans have an unfamiliar question to ponder.

Is this team a favorite to win MLS Cup?

Keeping the band together

Going into this unusually short offseason, the task facing Philadelphia sporting director Ernst Tanner was simple but not straightforward: keep the Union’s best players in the fold while making essential upgrades at key positions.

Tanner accomplished that task.

No position has been remade more than striker. The 2021 Union struggled to score goals at an elite rate, finishing just sixth in the East in that category. Kacper Przybylko carried the bulk of the load, but he seemed ill-cast as a solo attacker. Sergio Santos spent too much time nursing injuries. Cory Burke couldn’t find form. Matheus Davo existed, apparently.

So Tanner made the kind of signing Union fans have been begging for since the club was founded, acquiring DP striker Mikael Uhre — reigning Golden Boot holder in the Danish league — for a club-record transfer fee. He financed that move in part by shipping Przybylko, who wanted a new contract, to Chicago Fire for over a million dollars of MLS funny money.

It’s hard to know until we see him on the pitch, but Uhre should be an upgrade over Przybylko. How can you read this breakdown from Danish journalist Toke Møller Theilade and not get excited? Uhre seems like not just a prolific scorer, but an excellent fit for the team and for the city.

Besides Uhre, Tanner brought in 22-year-old Julian Carranza on loan from Miami. Carranza hasn’t set the league on fire over the past two seasons, but he has immense potential and could thrive in the Union’s more stable environment. At the very least, he should push Santos and Burke for playing time in a way that Davo couldn’t manage.

Otherwise, the roster is pretty much intact. That’s a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. Jose Martinez, Kai Wagner, and Jamiro Monteiro have all been linked with moves abroad over the past year, but no deal materialized for them during the January transfer window.

As a result, the Union’s stellar defensive unit — Andre Blake, the back four, and Martinez — remains in place. So does Monteiro, the engine that makes the midfield tick.

Few sides in MLS should be able to match Philly’s first-choice lineup. Fewer still can compete with the bench, which is stocked with hungry, talented Academy graduates. Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, and Jack McGlynn all showed last season that they can play in MLS. Maybe Nathan Harriel, Anton Sorenson, and Brandan Craig can make that jump this year, too. And the Union have remarkable stability both on the field and in the manager’s chair.

The Eastern Conference has no juggernaut. Why can’t it be the Union?

Getting ahead of ourselves

Of course, it’s not hard to imagine things going sideways.

A slow start could put the Union in chase position in the Eastern Conference. That kind of start isn’t unthinkable. If Uhre takes time to settle in, or the club struggles to reset to the 4-4-2 diamond after spending the stretch run in the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, it could lead to early dropped points.

Having a talented roster comes with other possible pitfalls. There are five midfielders who think they should be starting every match — Monteiro, Martinez, Daniel Gazdag, Alejandro Bedoya, and Leon Flach — and presumably only four spots to fit them in. Will manager Jim Curtin be able to keep everyone happy? It’s also possible that the summer transfer window will bring departures for guys like Wagner or Martinez, creating a gap at a critical time of the season.

Nothing is a certainty. That’s why they play the games, rather than awarding the title on paper.

But Union fans should be as optimistic as they’ve ever been entering a new season.

If all goes right, the last domestic match of 2022 — MLS Cup, just weeks before the World Cup kicks off in Qatar — will feature their club.

17 Comments

  1. Have to take into account that there seems to be an unprecedented amount of movement and reloading amongst the other teams as well so kind of hard to compare our chances with so many teams having radical new looks with some crazy big signings happening. But I also never thought I’d see the day we had 2 striker DPs and used 3 DP slots.

    • The thing is, a lot of the other top teams have added players, but they’ve also suffered big losses. New England will miss Tajon Buchanan more than they benefit from Sebastian Lletget. I think NYCFC losing James Sands will also hurt them a lot. Atlanta lost Barco. The Union somehow haven’t lost anyone besides Fontana, who barely contributed last year.

      • Przybylko may have slipped your mind?

      • He did, which is surprising given what a good player he’s been for Philadelphia. But I suppose I forgot him because it feels more of a case of him being forced out because of other striker moves than a case of him leaving when the club wanted him to stay.

    • Spoke too soon. 2 DP spots. 1.15 million for kacper and 440k Jamiero? What am I missing?

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    YES.
    .
    though the missive never changes…
    .
    Just
    Play
    Well.

    • Exactly…
      But add… Just win, take no oppenent for granted.

      If Uhre is who he was in Denmark, by mid-summer we make a run and host MLC Cup 2022, with a win at home, and 14 seasons of watching other franchises win it all.

      Doop!

  3. I thought Miro was finally happy once they found a way to get his family here, but the fact that they are still dealing with visa issues doesn’t bode well. He may want to transfer out midsummer if that doesn’t get resolved. Thankfully we have good cover in midfield.
    .
    Kai’s situation is a little different. I am a little shocked he didn’t move this offseason, but it sounds like teams were lowballing for him. It’s always tough to go from one of the best in the league, but I’m still not convinced Real is ready yet. He did have some nice crosses in the preseason game, but he still plays with some hesitancy that he’s had for the last two years. We’ll have to see how that turns out, because I don’t think Kai will be here past the summer window.
    .
    I love having choices across the board though, and the fact that Blake, Elliot & Glesnes are locking things down in the back again bodes very well for a top finish in the East.

    • Vince Devine says:

      I honestly wouldn’t be upset if Montiero was moved in the summer window. I think we would have a stronger lineup with Paxton and/or McGlynn getting those minutes.

      • Paxton AND McGlynn combined are still a step below Miro as he is the engine and continues to put in so much on both sides of the ball. Paxton will be fighting for minutes with Gazdag and McGlynn seems to be the new Bedoya.

      • Monteiro might move because MLS is a selling league, but while Paxton and/or McGlynn might be better players in a few years, they’re not there yet and I’d be surprised if they get there this year.

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    I don’t want to be the Negadelphian… but this roster is so well built, it’s almost too good. Something has to go wrong, right? This team has had growth every year for the last 4 years, the next logical step is MLS Cup. I am more excited for this season than pretty much every one before this – with maybe the exception of the inaugural year.
    .
    Please prove me wrong and go out and kick some ass.

  5. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Kai not moving seems to dare I say a trend. It seems the biggest moves out of the league aren’t young foreign players but homegrown academy kids. Atlanta and LAFC haven’t exactly sold players like Dallas has that’s for sure.

  6. We should be optimistic. The U retained most of the pieces of what is already a very good team. The new guys don’t have to be best-in-league this season, just better than the players they replaced, which is quite likely. The “kids” are one season better than last year.

    Being a favorite is no guarantee of success, particularly in a 28 team salary cap league. But right here, right now our lads have a great opportunity. Looking forward to seeing what happens.

  7. I’m wondering what the preferred formation will be. Or are the U at a point of playing formation based on your competitors weaknesses. I feel like its 442 or 433. Are the days of the Christmas gone?

  8. You folks are delusional. The Union are patently mediocre.

  9. it’s not what we think, it’s what the players believe and you gotta think after the way things ended last year they think they can win it all. as mentioned above, lot of retooling in other teams. I like our chances but my dark horse pick is inter Miami.

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