Commentary / For Pete's Sake / Union

After a stable offseason, it’s championship or bust for the 2023 Union

Photo: Stephen Speer

The 2022 Philadelphia Union were maybe a minute and a half away from winning MLS Cup.

Deep into stoppage time of a thrilling match in Los Angeles, Jack Elliott’s second goal of the afternoon had given the Union a 3-2 lead over ten-man LAFC. A blue-and-gold corner of the stadium bounced up and down, making the only noise in the building. A trophy was on its way to Chester.

But — as we all know — it was not to be.

Gareth bleeping Bale scored the latest goal in a match in MLS history to equalize, and John bleeping McCarthy kept the Union out of the net during the penalty shootout.

The squad collapsed to the turf as black and gold, not blue and gold, celebrated a championship.

In that moment, just under four short months ago, the goal for the 2023 edition of the Union became clear.

Win the club’s first-ever MLS championship.

An offseason of stability

In the immediate aftermath of MLS Cup, I wrote that there would be “players on the move” in the offseason, and that the 2023 roster could look quite different from that of the record-setting 2022 side.

Now, just days before the season kicks off on a frigid evening in Chester against Columbus Crew, we can safely say that prediction did not come to pass.

Sure, some stalwarts and fan favorites moved on. Striker Cory Burke now wears a Red Bull on his shirt, having moved up the New Jersey Turnpike. Homegrown midfielder Paxten Aaronson now plies his trade for Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt. And deep reserves like Matt Freese, Cole Turner, and Abasa Aremeyaw have moved on.

But neither Burke nor Aaronson were essential pieces of the Union’s success in 2022. The two combined for ten starts. Burke played the 13th most minutes on the team (1,177), and Aaronson the 16th most (just 415). And, while Burke made a decent contribution to the scoresheet (seven goals and five assists in the regular season), both he and Aaronson were firmly reserves, behind the attacking hydra of Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, and Mikael Uhre.

Crucially, none of the Union’s most critical players moved on. Gazdag is back, having signed a new long-term contract and assumed the No. 10 shirt. So are Andre Blake, Jakob Glesnes, and Jack Elliott, easily the best defensive core in all of MLS. And the players most rumored for departure — All-Star left back Kai Wagner and dynamic defensive midfielder Jose Martinez — remain in Union colors, at least until another transfer window comes in the summer.

Sporting director Ernst Tanner reinforced the Union’s strong but thin squad with some savvy signings from within MLS. Most intriguing might be Joaquin Torres, who joins from CF Montreal. A creative offensive force who could play on the wing, as a second striker, or as an attacking midfielder, Torres gives manager Jim Curtin depth at three positions and some tactical flexibility to change shape if the Union are chasing a late goal. Andres Perea, brought in from Orlando City, adds range to the midfield, while Damion Lowe provides a reliable third center back and the option of switching to a three-back setup.

The Union came a tiebreaker away from winning the Supporters’ Shield last season. They didn’t lose a single starter in the offseason, and made smart additions to augment the squad.

That stability stands in stark contrast to many of the league’s other top sides. The defending champs, LAFC, lost star forward Chicho Arango, an MVP finalist who’d racked up 30 goals in just under a year and a half in MLS. CF Montreal, who nipped at the Union’s heels all season in the Eastern Conference, shipped dynamic playmaker Djordje Mihailovic to AZ Alkmaar. It’s easier to ask who didn’t leave perennial irritant NYC FC in the winter, with the likes of Maxi Moralez, Heber, and Sean Johnson all off to new pastures.

On paper, no team in MLS is better than the Union.

The road ahead

After a decade largely in the wilderness, Philly has established itself as one of the best clubs in MLS. A Supporters’ Shield and an Eastern Conference Championship now sit in the club’s trophy case, and they’ll soon return to the Concacaf Champions League for the second time in club history.

It’s MLS Cup, though, that represents the pinnacle of success in the league. And it’s what the Union should focus their efforts on this season, even as there may be a temptation to try to fight on all four possible fronts — the league, CCL, the U.S. Open Cup, and the brand-new Leagues Cup.

The most fascinating subplot of the season may be how the Union choose to prioritize these four competitions. Fundamentally, the squad isn’t deep enough to seriously contest all of these tournaments — really, no squad in MLS is.

In the early going, Curtin & co. may try to make a deep run in the Champions League, a tournament that only one MLS club has ever mastered. That strategy won’t be without risk — just ask Seattle, who broke a long playoff streak in the hangover after their CCL title last season.

But, in the end, MLS Cup is what matters most. Anything less than winning it all will be viewed as a disappointment. That might seem like a high bar, but this is a Union team that shredded everything in its path in the second part of 2022, and came just minutes away from lifting the trophy next season.

This team is good enough to do it. And few people around the Power Training Complex would be satisfied with another second-place finish (or worse) in 2023.

Saturday night, whether you’re in the stands at Subaru Park or trying to figure out how to boot up MLS Season Pass on your TV, will be the start of a journey unlike anything before in this club’s history.

It’s championship or bust for the Philadelphia Union.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    Imagine showing this to a fan from 2013. What a world.

  2. John P. O'Donnell says:

    I agree with MLS Cup or bust but is US Open Cup a thing now with the way the schedule is laid out?
    Leagues Cup final August 19
    Union vs. FC Dallas August 20
    US Open Cup semifinal August 23
    DC United vs Union August 26
    You’re looking at if you win four games in seven days plus traveling. That’s brutal and not well thought out.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I have to think they’ll move the regular season games to accommodate, but where? The schedule is already jammed.

    • I think the odds are slim that a team ends up both in the Leagues Cup final (a tournament with 47 teams) and the U.S. Open Cup semifinal. My guess would be that, if that happens, one of the league matches would be moved to a midweek sometime in September.
      The schedule as a whole will definitely test depth like never before — not just in terms of fatigue, but the possibility of injury.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        It still looks like some team/teams might face this. Why schedule games on the 20th & 26th? They should just restart on the 30th for the whole league. It’s almost like someone making the schedule doesn’t look at the big picture.

      • I think they schedule it this way to keep more MLS games happening since many casual MLS fans don’t follow these other competitions. Not everyone are Union bleeders like those of us who visit this site.
        I would bet that their thought process is something like “we have to keep games on the air or people will stop tuning in. Especially as European seasons get rolling, the NFL wraps up preseason, and the MLB rolls towards the postseason.”
        They are competing for eyeballs. While it’s not quite a zero sum game, people only have some many hours to watch games.

  3. Think Torres might be a game changer. Team has more depth and skill than last year. All looks well for a great season

  4. Hosting MLS Cup 2023 in Chester.

    Blake shuts out anyone who shows up.


  5. The problem with MLS Cup or bust is that ultimately it is a series of 3 or 4 one off games. Running into a hot keeper, a bad call or two by a ref, or a bad bounce can knock you out. So one piece of bad luck can ruin the entire season. Even CCL is less random since each round is two games rather than just one.
    While I’d be disappointed if they lose in the postseason, I’ll still be happy if they are able to dominate teams the way they did last season.

    • As I tell my kids’ teams, games aren’t won or lost by one play. The Eagles didn’t lose the Super Bowl because of one bad play. If Hurts hadn’t fumbled, if the refs hadn’t given that phantom pass interference call, if …, if … , if…..
      So long as the Union play like they did last July and blow out the competition we won’t have to worry about the individual plays.

      • Individual games, especially in soccer, can be won based on one or two plays/calls. How big is a questionable penalty call where the replay in inconclusive? Yes, in a 6-0 blowout, one play isn’t that big, but in a closely matched game, individual plays can make all the difference.

        The Eagles lost in a game with over 10 scoring plays over 60 minutes whereas the Union drew in a game with 6 scores over 130 minutes.

    • Chris Gibbons says:


    • This is the truth. Particularly in this sport where scoring can be so low, a fluke can win you a match. And in a one-off final, that’s all it takes. I really want this very likable team to get a reward for their amazing work these past few years. But no trophy or not, still an amazing team I’ll always remember.

  6. FIFA and Don “Grabmoremoney” are totally responsible for the ridiculous schedule this year… Never thinking once about the fans, ever.

    And Ernst has stacked this squad to win for years to come. Goaltending back up might be a need if the draft pick’s development faulters .. and Union 2 has some very interesting back ups for the #1 squad with all the additional games this year.

    Don’t fall into the 2013 trap of doubting anything. This squad is built to win now, and for the next few years. And no matter what, never forget those years from 2010- 2020 when we never thought a year like last year was possible.

    Hosting MLS Cup 2023 in Chester. That’s the goal. The rest will happen naturally. Doop!

    Can’t wait for Sat! Bundle up!

    • How is FIFA responsible? Yes, there are international breaks, but those happen every year (excepting extraordinary circumstances such as in 2020)

  7. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Tannenwald referenced an article from The Athletic about an anonymous GM ragging on the U. Pay wall, but if you cut and paste quick enough, you’ll see the article. This was in response to who do execs think will win the MLS Cup.
    Here goes: “The thing is, they’re not even that f-ing good. It kind of hurts me to pick them. All they do is kick the s- out of you. They’re always ready to play, that’s great, that’s good coaching, all that stuff. But they’re just not great. They have a way of doing things and they’re consistent, but it’s not like the quality is amazing. So it hurts me to pick them, but they’ve kind of earned it.”

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