For Pete's Sake

No shortage of storylines as “Union West” comes to town

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Try to imagine if, four years ago, a vision appeared to you, and told you the following:

By the end of 2022, Philadelphia Union will have finished in first place in the Eastern Conference two of the last three seasons, putting together some of the most impressive seasons in MLS history on the way.

In fact, the Union will be so impressive that another team — the worst team in MLS! — will rebuild their roster using as many ex-Union players and personnel as possible… and immediately become a dangerous playoff team.

Past-you would be quite perplexed — and not just because, well, visions are pretty unusual. By 2018, the Union franchise had pulled itself up from “laughingstock” to merely “mediocre,” with few citing it as one of the model MLS clubs.

But that vision would have been right.

Because here we are in 2022, with the Union substantial favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in MLS Cup.

And the first opponent standing in their way is a club that has fashioned itself in Philly’s image: FC Cincinnati.

Or “Union West,” if you prefer.

Wooden spoons galore

The Ohio club’s first three years in MLS were nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

Expansion sides tend to struggle, of course, but this was something special. Cincy showed no ability to build or manage a roster, let alone the sort of knowhow that allows really good executives to work within MLS’s byzantine roster moves.

(Like, for example, trading all your draft picks away for a good chunk of allocation money. Ernst Tanner got the better of Cincinnati with that trade, as the expansion team paid $200,000 to select three players who made a whopping seven appearances for them.)

Three months into their first season in 2019, Cincy fired manager Alan Koch after a poor start to the campaign. The second manager, Ron Jans, lasted for just a few months himself before being fired in February 2020 season during an investigation into his use of a racial slur. The third manager, Jaap Stam, got the boot along with general manager Gerard Nijkamp toward the end of the 2021 season.

In each season, Cincy finished last in the league, earning the dubious honor of holding the “wooden spoon” in back-to-back-to-back years. (Okay, technically the Independent Supporters Council didn’t hand out the spoon in 2020, but I think we all agree that their decision-making that year was flawed.)

So how would this laughingstock get back to respectability?

By borrowing what had worked well in Chester.

Union West

First came longtime Union executive Chris Albright. The former player turned technical director who had served as No. 2 to Earnie Stewart and Ernst Tanner, Albright left to become Cincinnati’s general manager.

Next came a coach. After first making a run at Union manager Jim Curtin, Albright settled on the next best thing, hiring veteran assistant Pat Noonan to take over on the touchline.

Union players followed. Already there was veteran midfielder Haris Medunjanin, who settled into an elder statesman role before returning to Europe this summer. But Albright also pried stalwart right back Ray Gaddis out of retirement, shocking fans who thought he would never wear another shirt. Alvas Powell, too, was added to the mix in preseason.

Finally, in the middle of this year’s campaign, Albright traded for striker Sergio Santos, a talented but oft-injured attacker who made 75 appearances for the Union over parts of four seasons.

Although Santos didn’t add much production in the regular season (no goals or assists in just 130 minutes), it was his pressure and pass that created the winner in Cincinnati’s first-ever playoff victory on Saturday.

Causing big brother some trouble

The Union largely ripped teams to shreds in the second half of the 2022 season, particularly at home.

FC Cincinnati was a notable exception.

The two sides first met in June at Subaru Park and battled to a 1-1 draw, with Alejandro Bedoya’s early goal canceled out by a tough finish from USMNT hopeful Brandon Vazquez.

Cincy then dominated the Union in the return fixture at TQL Stadium in August, putting up three goals in the second half en route to a 3-1 win. It was the first time in 2022 the Union conceded more than three goals in a game, and was one of the club’s worst performances of the season. Philly could not keep the attacking group of Vazquez, Brenner, Alvaro Barreal, and Luciano Acosta from tearing through the defense.

This all makes Thursday night’s match even more interesting. No doubt the Union are the better team, especially at home. Cincy leaked goals all season (56, more than twice the Union’s mark) and had to weather up-and-down form to finish fifth in the East.

But the visitors will not be afraid. They know this opponent well — Noonan, in particular, will be keen to show his tactical mettle on the big stage. And they’re coming off a good win against a Red Bulls team that shares stylistic similarities with Philly, while the Union have been on a bye. (The last playoff bye the Union had ended… very poorly.)

Whatever the result, though, it’s a mark of how far the Union have come that other clubs now look to them as a model franchise, as a talent pipeline on and off the pitch that can turn a laughingstock into a playoff team in just one season.

What a difference a few years has made in Chester.


  1. Not gonna lie, seeing the Phillies get hot at the right time and the Braves and Dodgers flop has me terrified of this matchup.

    Seems unavoidable that Bedoya is out and I have no confidence in Jack’s ability to play on the right. Assuming Cinci follows the Union playbook of picking at an opponent’s weakness, we know they’ll go after Jack and Mbaizo all night.

    Do we think Jim switches things up at all?

    • No need to switch things up. You go against Cincy playing your game in your house. That should be more than enough to get it done. What we need is that same relentless attack we ran on Toronto to close out the season. Get in and score. Despite the history and the fact that Cincy has a manager who best knows our strengths and weaknesses, Union is a much better team. It has no business losing to Cincy at Subaru Park.

      • But from their warmup onward, Toronto’s body language said they were not interested.
        FC Cincinnati will be interested.

      • I’m not saying we should expect a repeat 4-0, however, Cincy is not a team that keeps clean sheets. We should be able to hold them and find at least two goals. I like a 2-0 in at home. I can’t contemplate losing to this team. Would be beyond disappointing.

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    This is a fascinating and terrifying match up, but I find it hard to believe this group won’t be amped up after how the playoffs ended last year. It still feels like a low-scoring affair, but leaning toward the U.

  3. Let’s put a little context around our prior engagements.
    The first meeting, a 1-1 draw on June 18, came at the tail end of the Union’s run of draws in the Spring. Since that game, the Union only drew 2 more games through the end of the regular season. But including that game, they drew 7 of the prior 9 games.
    At our second meeting, a 3-1 loss in early August, the Union clearly weren’t up for it. It was a shocking result, given that the U had begun a tear of ripping teams to pieces and putting up heavy results. But it began a period where the Union lost 3 of the last 6 road games, two of which (and the 1 draw against Atlanta) where on turf fields.
    But… since the start of July and that draw with Cincy the Union have won 9 straight home games. During this record-breaking run, they have failed to score 4 or more goals ONLY TWICE.

    • That’s a very fair point about the turnaround in home form. But I’d also point out that most of those home wins were against non-playoff teams. There was a tight win over NYC and a big win over Orlando. The other seven victories were D.C., N.E., Houston, Chicago, Colorado, Atlanta, and Toronto. That’s the bottom 5 teams in the East and no. 10 and 13 in the West.
      I think the Union are a great team and the way they hammered these opponents was very impressive. But I also don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect those performances to carry over against Cincy.

      • Cliff of Union despair creeping in there. Hold strong, Pete!

      • There are no bad teams in the playoffs and, as another pointed out, only small margins can make or break a game. Road games are what they are in MLS, but our home form hopefully carries the day.

  4. To me it’s a travesty that Noonan is not a finalist for Coach of the Year.

  5. The Chopper says:

    Yes, it’s a scary matchup, but one the Union will handle if they are truly a Cup worthy side.

    Thrilled for the early success of Albright, who is a genuinely good guy and whose value in helping Tanner learn the in and outs of the insanely complex MLS financial shell game cannot be overstated. Happy for Noonan as well for making the most of a well deserved opportunity. And no one here has a bad word to say about Ray.

    All that being said, I hope they have a long, sad flight home on Friday morning.

    • The only thing I can remember about Albright when he was playing for us was coming in late in a game and immediately getting a red card. Like immediately.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Bedoya’s (apparent) absence puts a strain on this game and makes the Union have to play a little smarter than I think they would normally have to. They are the better team and at home, they should win. With Bedoya still in, I feel like they could just grip and rip (for lack of a better term) and go all out. In this case, they need to be a little more composed and make sure they get the first goal. Cincy is not great defensively and the Union should be able to take advantage of that.
    That being said, with the way the season ended last year – combined with the regular season they had this year – I truly don’t think my psyche can handle Gaddis or Santos having a meaningful impact on this game, and it resulting in a loss for the Union. To put it lightly, I would be rather upset by that.

  7. FCdelcofella says:

    The only game I didn’t watch last weekend was the Cincy vs Red Bull game. I was at my kids game. I’m not worried at all about the other teams. NYFC and Montreal are very bland. They both have decent D but very mediocre O. I don’t get the fear about Cincinnati but I’ve been let down before by Philly teams. Hopefully this group will man up and play to their potential.

  8. Attended NYRB vs FCC game with friends from Cincy.

    IF we are not agressive, like score very early and often… FCC can lock down anyone with 5 across the back, and out last us. Lots of individual talent on FCC.

    But remember, like opponents used to do to us… derail and conquer. FCC uses similar tactics to the ‘old’ Union when we had limited cohesion as a squad, nor a real scoring triad like we do now.

    Albright, Noonan, Gattis, Powell, Santos… would like nothing more than to embarrass us at home. Stop that madness immediately with a quick few goals.

    Acosta was a HUGE pest against NYRB without any answers from the Pink Cows… He always has been. But as the true catalyst for FCC, he must be shut down in Chester.

    Mr. Martinez… DO NOT allow Acosta to get under your skin, and make his time in Chester just miserable! That shuts down Brenner and the rest. Pink Cows had no answers.

    3-1, Union move on to host Montreal Oct 30 in Chester!

    GO L-A-G… bury LAFC and we host MLS Cup in Chester, Nov 5th.


  9. SubPar Playoff Performance says:

    Hard to expect a win here. Not just that you have not succeeded previously, but they know you inside and out and have already demonstrated their formula against Curtin works.

    Worst matchup possible.

    Best team you have ever had likely wins nothing again.

  10. FCC knows us like no other team, but the math of a loss just doesn’t make any sense here.
    I don’t see us giving away more than one goal at home.
    And even if it takes 120 minutes, I don’t see us scoring less than 2 at home.

  11. Though FCC knows Union, Curtain & Co. also have two matches to analyze and learn from. No surprises here.
    I expect Union to knock FCC out, just like NE knocked Union out of the playoffs after struggling against them during the regular season.

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