For Pete's Sake / Union

Same isn’t so bad for Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

A new Major League Soccer season dawned at Subaru Park on Saturday afternoon.

A new season means a fresh crop of players and a clean slate on which to write a new story.

But Saturday’s new story looked… a lot like the old for Philadelphia Union.

There was a difficult error from the club’s right back leading to a key goal. A lack of consistent dangerous attack in the run of play. And a point earned by a goal from one of the club’s long-tenured attackers.

You’d be forgiven for looking at the pitch and thinking it was still 2021.

Continuity isn’t a bad thing

To be clear, that the new-look Union weren’t really new at all isn’t a criticism of the result, a 1-1 draw against an entertaining Minnesota United side, or of Ernst Tanner’s offseason machinations.

It’s good, in fact, for your roster to reach the level where minor year-over-year upgrades are all that are needed, rather than radical reconstructive surgery. Past Union sides looked new each opening day, with a shiny new No. 10 imported (usually right before the season started) or with newbies at key positions up and down the roster.

This year’s Union don’t really have that problem. The core of one of the best defenses over the past few years returns intact — few, if any, teams in MLS can boast any unit that matches up with Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, and Andre Blake. So does the No. 10, Daniel Gazdag, finally refreshed after a long, long season. Even the biggest departure, Jamiro Monteiro, left a hole quickly filled by a player who made 39 starts in all competitions in 2021, Leon Flach.

And the shiniest new toy of the Union’s offseason, Danish striker Mikael Uhre, wasn’t ready to be taken out of the box. Visa hell in February had left him overseas and unable to join the club for preseason. He’s here now, and was introduced to a raucous ovation to Subaru Park when the match started, but it will take him a bit of time to be fully ready to go.

Room to grow

So what the home faithful saw on Saturday was more like an iteration of the 2021 side than anything innovative, save for the insertion of industrious-but-ineffective attacker Julian Carranza up top.

The performance, too, looked a bit familiar. An early error by right back Olivier Mbaizo — eerily similar to the mistake that led to NYC’s winner in the last match at the stadium — led to an opener from Minnesota. Philly regained level terms not from the run of play, but from a recycled set piece, excellent service from Jakob Glesnes finding Cory Burke’s big head for a thumping finish.

Sounds a lot like 2021 to me.

But that’s not a bad thing, at all — the 2021 Union were inches away from a first-ever appearance in MLS Cup! And Saturday’s game, played after a somewhat abbreviated preseason, had all the hallmarks of a team still getting its sea legs under it.

The season is a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s a sense that the Union now have the kind of foundation that can support something spectacular.

It wasn’t hard to look at the pitch on Saturday and imagine Mikael Uhre adding some lethality to a team that has everything but a consistent scoring threat.

When that happens, it’ll feel like this year’s Union are really something new.

Odds and ends
  • The play on the field wasn’t anything spectacular, but the atmosphere at Subaru Park was first-rate. The Union traditionally don’t draw well in the early part of the season, and a late-February opener would have explained widespread empty seats. But the crowd — which approached 17,500 — was into the match from beginning to end, even as the wind whipped off the Delaware River. Not bad for the Union’s first proper home opener in nearly three years. Last season’s deep playoff run may have sparked some real converts.
  • Kudos to the Sons of Ben for their prematch tifo — a display of the previous kits in Union history — and for replacing the usual River End banners with two large Ukrainian flags.
  • Originally, this column was going to be all about Olivier Mbaizo. But Jeremy covered pretty much everything I was going to say in his match analysis, so I won’t tread familiar ground. Mbaizo is still a league-average player, the best right back on the roster, and a key piece of the team’s play in the attacking third. He can’t keep making these glaring errors, though, or Curtin will have no choice but to give Nathan Harriel a longer look.
  • I liked what I saw from Minnesota overall. Not sure if they’re a serious cup contender in a deep Western Conference, but Emanuel Reynoso is a hell of a player and Robin Lod’s finish on their goal was quality.


  1. Tim Jones says:

    I would posit a theory about Mbaizo.
    The evidence of last season and now this suggests to me that the quality of his play drops when he goes off to be part of Cameroon’s national team.

  2. M’baizo was a bit of disappointment. But he has kinda been up and down from the beginning. Its been tough to see at times and something that we all hope will be addressed in the short term! My hope is that hes working on consistently with the coaching staff and that its not regression.

  3. Give it up, guys. International roster spot should be used to replace Mbaizo. He’s not good enough, has never been good enough, and will never be good enough. Depressing that Curtin got rid of Rosenberry and Trusty who have proven their worth elsewhere, and he keeps trotting out Mbaizo (and Flach, though that’s another story…)

  4. Color and ESPN thoroughly non-plussed.
    MLS ranking: 7. “With all the talk of Philadelphia’s new DP strikers elevating them this season, Cory Burke scoring the Union’s lone goal this weekend is kind of funny. I should note one of those strikers, Mikael Uhre, wasn’t even available for this one, but still. Like a little funny. There’s not much to say other than that. The Union played like the Union — a first game of the season version — against a good Minnesota team and nearly came out with a win.”
    ESPN rank: 12. “The Union squeaked out a point at home, where they only tied three times the entirety of 2021..but Philly, as it does often, weathered the storm. Philadelphia plays Montreal and San Jose next, looking (and favored) to take full points from each.”

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