Commentary / Union

Was the Charlotte loss a blessing in disguise?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

No need to sugar coat it, last weekend was bad.

Historically bad.

Not only in the context of it ending the Union’s shot at winning the 2022 Supporters Shield, but also in that this result is likely going to be mentioned every time the Union travel to Charlotte.

For eternity.

The first time playing in North Carolina and a not-particularly-good home team thrashed a team that was a Supporters Shield contender and remains an MLS Cup favorite.

Fine. Charlotte can have that. Anyone who’s been a Union fan, or even a general Philadelphia sports fan, long enough knows that in the dark times those flashes of brilliance can mean a lot. And Charlotte is looking at a fair stretch of dark times before they get their act together. So good for them.

But just because it was good for Charlotte (and LAFC) doesn’t mean it was a tragedy for the Union. Because of the unique way CONCACAF Champions League berths are allocated they’d already punched their ticket for continental play, even without winning the Supporters Shield or even the Eastern Conference. Sure they’ve still got to fight to finish the season at the top of the East; but between homefield advantage and facing an opponent with nothing left to play for there’s every reason to believe they can get that that done. In fact, there’s a case to be made that that it’s a good thing.

Get it over with

Eventually, inevitably, the Union were going to blow it. That’s not Negadelphia, that’s just a fundamental truth about sports. There’s a reason why the ’72 Dolphins or ’03/’04 Arsenal teams are remembered for their undefeated seasons, they’re such spectacular outliers.

Granted, the Union weren’t chasing a perfect season. But they hadn’t really had a real boner of a game in 2022. Losses were unfortunate, but never embarrassing before Saturday night. Every loss had a reasonable explanation, and a scoreline that didn’t sting too much.

And then Daniel Ríos happened. He single-handedly doubled the Union’s largest margin of defeat for the season, taking a bite out of the Union’s league-leading goal differential.

It was bound to happen, and perhaps we should be grateful it happened when it did. The inevitable “catastrophe game” could have happened in the playoffs (as it did last season against New York City FC), or worse yet in a final (as it did in the 2014, 2015, and 2018 US Open Cups). But thankfully it didn’t. It happened on the road, during a hurricane, on the next-to-last game of the season. It’s done, it’s out of their system, we don’t have to wonder when it will show up anymore.

Something to prove

Another reason to consider that embarrassing result a blessing in disguise is the calendar realities should the Union hold onto the top of the Eastern Conference. That achievement would earn them a few things, most importantly home field advantage through the Eastern Conference Final. A not insignificant advantage considering the Union’s home record over the past few seasons, made only sweeter by the promise of not having to return to the league-wide embarrassment that is Yankee Stadium.

But it also brings with it a first-round bye. While the six other Eastern Conference playoff teams duke it out the weekend of October 15th, the Union will be resting and recovering, and perparing for the challenges that are to come. Sounds great, right?

Well. This is only the second season for this format of the MLS Cup Playoffs, so there’s not a lot of history to look at. But what history there is isn’t great. Last season the two conference winners (New England and Colorado) both lost in their Conference Semifinals, their first games of the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.

At the time, there was a fair bit of discussion around whether the first-round bye was truly an advantage. The week off certainly gave the teams time to recover, but it also guaranteed they could not carry any regular-season momentum into the postseason. With limited backing data it’s hard to say for certain if that’s true, but it certainly sounds reasonable. Of course, it’s also reasonable to read it as those teams falling victim to the unpredictable nature of single-elimination tournaments.

But if it is about momentum, about staying hungry, the Charlotte result may help to motivate the Union during their bye week. They’ll have played this weekend’s game against Toronto, but with the Canadians having nothing to play for it would be impossible for the match to be a defining moment for the Union’s season. Which means between training, scrimmages, and keeping an eye on the competition through the first round the Union will be thinking about that embarrassing evening in an NFL stadium. And wanting to put something between that night and the end of the 2022 season could be the motivation to keep them sharp.

Or at least that’s what we’ll be telling ourselves.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    There is a HUGE difference between this year’s playoffs and the last couple of years regarding the bye. The last 2 years have also featured an international break before the playoffs started, so the teams with a bye had over 2 weeks off and weren’t able to practice as a unit for part of the time they weren’t playing (along with the travel that comes with international play). Last year it was 23 days between New England’s last regular season game and their playoff game.
    This year, the number one seeds will have either 11 or 14 days off and should be together as a team the whole time. So hopefully, even if the Union do get a bye, they will be able to beat whoever they play next.
    The bad news is that Miami clinched a playoff spot last night so they don’t have as much to play for when they face off against Montreal Sunday afternoon.

  2. I don’t want to sugar-coat it.
    Not yet.
    I want it to seethe in the soul of the Union players. I want it to feed a hunger to score…and score….and score…and punch a hole in the back of the net.
    Then, and only then, when we walk over a demoralized Toronto team, only then should we look back at Charlotte and sugar coat it.

  3. I don’t feel so bad about this season’s losses; I feel worse about some of the awful draws. Turning even two of those league-leading 10 (!) from 1 point to 3 would have given us the Shield. Blah! On to the playoffs, where there won’t be any draws.

    • Ummm….The Revs have 11 draws, FCC has 13 draws and The Crew have 16….out west Dallas, Nashville and RSL have 11 draws each and Portland gas 13 draws.

  4. NOW we can sugar-coat this loss.

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