Early 2023 hiccup shows how good the Union have been

Photo Marjorie Elzey

Philadelphia Union’s 3-0 Concacaf Champions League semifinal second-leg defeat to Los Angeles FC on the road was a continuation of an occasionally out-of-sorts season for the Union so far. But it was also, in some ways, an indication of how good the Union have been in recent seasons.

Competing at such a high level for MLS Cups, Supporters’ Shields, and the CCL, requires a team like the Union to be very good most of the time. Maybe some teams can cruise along in third gear and still pick up points, still pick up wins, but the Union need to be at the peak of their powers on a more regular basis if it is to challenge for honors.

It’s a testament to the way the club is run and how the squad has been assembled and coached that they are in such a position to be competing to play in a CCL final.

These are not excuses and the club itself would not want to use any. The Union’s performance in the away leg against LAFC wasn’t good, and performances this season haven’t lived up to the previous high standards the club has set itself. Work needs to be done to recover those levels, but the recent MLS game against Toronto shows that the more familiar Union might not be too far away.

This latest game against LAFC is a low point, but most MLS teams would have struggled similarly against this Western Conference powerhouse that the Union were arguably better than last season — and only lost out to in the MLS Cup final on penalties.

On top of all this, LAFC is not only bidding for Champions League glory, they are bidding to become widely recognized as the best team in the history of Major League Soccer. One of the best teams ever in American soccer.

That they can potentially reach such heights having only played its first season just over five years ago is one of the quirks of American soccer, but they are nevertheless on this successful course.

And that the Union has been in a position to challenge such a team is the reason Jim Curtin won Coach of the Year last season and the reason the club is regularly cited as an example to follow in MLS.

What happens when something within such a well-run setup goes slightly wrong? Against most MLS teams it might not be noticeable. Indeed, the Union still have good underlying metrics this season, boasting the joint highest xG in the Eastern Conference alongside Union-lite — FC Cincinnati. Again, the Union that fans know and love is not too far away.

However, against a team like LAFC, any off days, any slight flaws in the system, will be exposed.

One of the compliments you can give LAFC is that its squad can often appear as if it is free from MLS roster restrictions — the kind of freedom that is needed to compete at a continental level. It has quality and depth and, in some cases, quality depth. Not in an Inter Miami or LA Galaxy way, but in a savvy, well-run, well-organized, still-within-the-rules kind of way. Like the Union but with more money.

For example, one of the MLS players most coveted by European sides is José Cifuentes, but the Ecuadorian midfielder has only started half of LAFC’s games this season. Not due to lack of availability, but due to manager choice and the performance of new signing ​​Timothy Tillman.

There are also elements of the Union within LAFC, not just in their savvy recruitment but also in their style, such as high pressing and direct play when needed. They will even, like the Union, sometimes shun possession in favor of surprise, direct, devastating attacks. Both teams average 46% possession in MLS so far this season.

But LAFC has extra things in its armory, too, and it is arguably the team in MLS that most resembles a top European side. Add the set-piece threat, something the Union know all too well, and LAFC can be difficult to stop.

There are some indications that the Union of now are not far away from the Union of last year, but it was much too far away from that to defeat LAFC.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff James.
    Union are be’twixting right now.
    You can see the quality is still obvious but there seems to be a dulling of their senses.
    Almost as though they are in a dissociative fugue at times. I really think the trauma of that November 4th loss last season has not been totally processed.
    It hasn’t for me. We have moved on — are stabilized and functioning, but there is still something off deep down and it is keeping them (me) from functioning optimally.
    Hell Howie Roseman was on the morning show this week and I happened to catch it and he is still ‘traumatized’ by the loss to Kansas City- you could hear it in his voice and reticence to even discuss the topic with John and John.
    There is still Open Cup and that is winnable. There is this wild midseason tournament upcoming. Then from there just focus on being optimal by Fall.
    We seem to have arrived squarely on the doorstep of needing some kind of trophy –which is not the Supports Shield– to validate this run of form and level of commitment from the franchise these past few years.
    The fans need it.
    Jim needs it.
    Alejandro needs it.
    In order to be considered one of the top franchises in MLS (and process past failures) … the next step needs to be taken.

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