For Pete's Sake

Half empty or half full?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Five weeks in to the Philadelphia Union’s 2023 campaign, it’s fair to say that things have been below expectations.

Sure, those expectations were sky-high, the natural consequence of returning every starter from a team that set MLS records last season and came a hair’s breadth away from a championship.

But Saturday night’s loss to Orlando City, the Union’s first at home since 2021, greeted with confusion in the stadium by a crowd that had forgotten what it was like to lose, brought Philly below .500 through five matches, with just six points to show for this initial stretch of matches.

Time to panic? Maybe… or maybe not.

Let’s check in with two different perspectives on the start of the season – one “Posidelphian,” one “Negadelphian” – before assessing who has the better case.

Everything is fine!

Look, the Union were never going to win 34 straight games, as much as we might want them to.

In fact, these early-season league matches are mostly an inconvenience while the Union chase continental glory. That part of things is going well: the Boys in Blue made quick work of Alianza (dog on the field notwithstanding) and are set up nicely for the two-legged tie against Atlas. Win that, and they’re either a revenge tour against LAFC or a favorable matchup against Vancouver Whitecaps away from the final.

As for the league, each of the defeats can be explained away:

  • Miami scored two absolute bangers; it’s hard to blame the Union defense for allowing either of those goals.
  • Montreal only won thanks to some weird turf, a self-inflicted wound by Julian Carranza, and some incredible good fortune at the end of the game.
  • Orlando had the benefit of facing a shorthanded Union team that had to use Matt Real off the bench as an attacking substitute.

It’s a long, long season. There are still 29 – twenty-nine! – MLS matches left to play. Better to be peaking at the end of the season than at the beginning. And nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that this group that bulldozed its way through the league last season has suddenly forgotten how to play soccer.

This still could be the best season in team history.

… or is it?

It could be, but the Boys in Blue need to wake the !@)% up if it’s going to be.

Starting a new season with so little turnover should have helped Philly put some space between themselves and the pack early on – but it’s been anything but that.

If we’re being honest, the Union have put together exactly two good halves of soccer: the second half against Columbus and the first half (and change) against Montreal. Otherwise, they’ve been aggressively mediocre, not exactly a joy to watch.

The depth, an area which seemed much-improved to start the season, has failed to impress. Philly’s roster is paper-thin at striker and keeper, and any change to the conventional four-man midfield seems to throw off the whole balance of play.

Sure, Andre Blake will be back from injury soon, but will the lineup be able to cope with another injury or two to a key player?

Maybe the most disturbing thing about the early season has been the defensive vulnerability. The side that allowed the fewest goals per game in league history last year has already conceded eight, including five in the last two games.

On Saturday night, Orlando had the run of the dangerous area on top of the Union’s box, which was a no-go area for opponents all of last season.

If the Union aren’t able to keep their opponents out of the net, especially early in matches, will they be able to get enough goals to win games?

The verdict

For my money, the Posidelphian has it right – with a caveat.

The Negadelphian has a real point about squad depth. In the early part of the season, we would have hoped that the roster would have been able to better cope with rotation. But the second (or third) choice options have often looked like a massive downgrade, and it’s hard to imagine the Union will be able to soar if injuries or outgoing transfers put a dent in the squad as the summer months approach.

But on the whole, the small sample size in the early season isn’t enough to outweigh what we know about the Union: their first XI, when in form, is one of the most impressive groups ever put together in MLS. Last season’s league table is all the proof you need.

When you factor in the schedule (including some godawful weather), the CCL fixtures, injuries, and international absences, it’s no wonder that this team isn’t quite clicking yet.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and a stumble or two out of the starting gate won’t slow down someone who’s ready to go the distance.


  1. An observed difference in roster handling this season is that Leon Flach has not been treated as an iron man.
    A possible explanation is that the are trying to pace him to last a 60 game season.
    Or is there something wrong?
    And remember, the teams they steamrolled they steamrolled in late summer and early fall and they were all low in the table. Once they were down a goal or two they had no hope and it showed.
    Everyone still has hope in March. That makes a difference.

  2. PaulContinuum22 says:

    MLS Soccer’s latest power ranking of the U is 7th:
    “Uhhhhh, do we need to have a talk about the Union? After allowing two goals in the first 10 minutes during their loss to Orlando City this weekend, Philly have three losses on the season. That’s just two fewer than they had the entirety of 2022. Some of that you can chalk up to CCL demands, but not all of it. They haven’t been up to their normal standards so far. Plain and simple.”

    The glass is emptying.

  3. Chris Gibbons says:

    The first time the Union won 4 straight games was 2017. They were not a good team and finished 8th in the east that year, closer on points to the bottom than the top. That hot stretch meant nothing in the otherwise long campaign.

    That the Union lost at home in 2023 for the first time in a while, all the while looking disjointed and weakened, has nothing to do with the otherwise long campaign of progress this team has made (and continues to make). This dry spell has nothing to do with the depth of the well.

  4. Thanks for doing what you do Pete! I’ll chime in as a Posijerseyian. I’ll always be a glass half full guy. That’s just how I was raised. The team has just looked bad. Not at all where we the fans wanted. But its just a blip. The organization as a whole has used a slow and steady approach for improving. No it wasn’t always that way but it is now. I have been, as a lot of other commenters have, a Union fan from before they played their first game. Its the thing I look forward to. Only the Phillies come close. I don’t like the current situation but it is not permanent. Its sport. Its not a guarantee no matter how much we the fans want it to be. I get why people are on edge. Its gonna be ok. And if I’m wrong… I will take the heat. But till then…Come on the U!!

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    I don’t think you can judge anything by Saturday’s game beyond the fact that most of the backups are backups for a reason.
    And by the end, Matt Real was playing center back rather than attacking. It was Jack Elliott who was playing as the second forward.
    Unfortunately, the game still counts and if things go similarly to the last couple of years, they’ll once again find themselves on the road if they make MLS Cup whereas with one or two more points they would be in a position to host.

  6. I agree with Peter’s assessment.

    I have to think that the longer you’ve followed the team, the more likely you are to see today’s Philadelphia Union in a positive light. I started following the team pretty closely the season before the Jim Curtin Era began, so I’ve seen things… Those who predate me have seen even more. Not much of it very positive.

    The major difference today is that I actually trust this squad and the coaching staff to turn things around. There are definitely things to be concerned about, but this organization doesn’t resemble the one that drove so much of its fanbase to The Cliff of Union Despair. I think it will take significantly more to drag me back to that precipice.

  7. pragmatist says:

    “Better to be peaking at the end of the season than at the beginning.”
    Correct. The Shield would be nice, but the Cup is the most important trophy this year. CCL would be fantastic, but MLS Cup is the goal. Find the rhythm in the next month or so, turn losses into draws and draws into wins and everything will be back on pace.
    Let’s reconvene in May and see if they are still in a worrying position. My guess is that the ship will be righted and we’ll be annoyed at the early-season dropped points, but happy with the way they have come back together.

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