For Pete's Sake

It could be much worse

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The 2023 season has not been smooth for the Philadelphia Union.

Returning the core of a team that set league records last season and finished minutes away from winning the title, expectations were high from the start. But it’s been a struggle in league play, picking up just eight points from the first eight matches and playing some very uninspiring football along the way.

And the key objective of the early season, a run through the Concacaf Champions League, ended in failure with nemesis LAFC running an out-of-ideas Union side off the park last week in Los Angeles.

With that background it’s understandable that there’s been some frustration in the Union fan base — with the team, the manager, the front office, and the ownership.

That frustration is not invalid. But perspective is healthy. On Monday, two of the Union’s last three opponents — New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire — fired their managers.

Both of those franchises are, frankly, abject disasters — a good reminder of how good we have it in Philadelphia these days.

Bad teams built on bad decisions

This weekend’s 1-0 defeat at the Union’s hands proved to be the last straw for Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber, departing early in his third season with the club.

There aren’t many teams in MLS off to an uglier start than the one in North Jersey. Red Bulls sit firmly at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with just one win through eleven matches.

Watching Saturday night’s game, it wasn’t hard to see why Struber was sacked. New York plays an atrocious style of football, the players resembling the scrambling mice of a mad scientist more than a well-drilled unit. Although they shot the ball a lot, every attempt looked more likely to end up in the second deck than in the back of the net.

Of course Struber probably should have been fired after allowing striker Dante Vanzeir to continue to play in a match after he directed racist language at the San Jose Earthquakes. It’s safe to say that signing Vanzeir as a Designated Player hasn’t worked out for New York.

It’s a similar story over in Chicago where the Fire parted ways with Ezra Hendrickson. They’re a whopping two points ahead of the Red Bulls, sitting in 14th place in the East. Their roster is a mess  as well, with big-money signings like Xherdan Shaqiri and Kacper Przybylko failing to live up to their billing.

Hendrickson may or may not be a good manager, but it’s hard to say he was put in position to succeed. He lasted less than a third of the way into his second season in charge.

There are no shortage of poorly built and managed MLS teams, so more firings may be coming. (Peter Vermes and Greg Vanney, stinking up the joint in Kansas City and Los Angeles, look like logical candidates.)

Against that background, it’s easier to appreciate everything the Union have done over the past five years. Sporting director Ernst Tanner has built an excellent squad with a fraction of the resources of some MLS teams, an excellent blend of foreign signings and Homegrown talent. Manager Jim Curtin has grown as a coach and molded that group into one that, when at its best, can run any team in MLS off the park.

It’s frustrating that the Union’s efforts have too often come up just short of the real prize. And there is plenty to be critical about this season.

But it could be worse. Much, much worse.

Miscellaneous Union thoughts
  • Color me skeptical that Jim Curtin is going to be a candidate for the Fire job. He’s out of contract at the end of the season and used to play for Chicago, sure. But at this point I find it hard to believe that he would want to leave the Union for another MLS side, especially one with as dysfunctional a front office as the Fire. If he leaves, I think it’s for Europe or for U.S. Soccer.
  • That sure was an ugly match on Saturday, huh? Obviously it wasn’t a pretty performance for the Union, who managed just three shots and generated 0.0 xG from non-penalty, non-dead ball situations. And even the penalty was a questionable call. But at this point in the season, it’s totally fine to be okay with the three points and the clean sheet.
  • Julian Carranza, who may be in the shop window over the summer, showed off European-level flopping in picking up the game-winning penalty. The Union are now tied for first in MLS in penalties awarded since the start of 2022 with 14, plus another three in CCL play this season. Is that the result of good underlying process — creating chaos inside the box — or kind of a flukey thing that could bite the Union if it regresses?
  • This is an absolutely brutal road trip that Philly are on right now. A match in every time zone over a span of 12 days, nearly 10,000 miles of travel, wrapping up with a game at altitude in Denver. If there were ever any game to play the reserves, tonight’s clash with Minnesota in the U.S. Open Cup would seem to be one. Alejandro Bedoya has played 812 out of 900 possible minutes in MLS this season; there’s just no reason to use him tonight.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    How many managers have gotten the sack days after losing to ho-hum Jim Curtin and his “not even f$&king good” Philadelphia Union? Is it 6 now? 7? Where’s that genius Gabriel Heinze? Making space on the bench for Struber et al, of course.

    That match was as big a trap game as exists and the team gutted out points. Onward.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      This streak of firings after losses to the Union is something else. I also wonder if it’s a continuation of the disrespect the Union get. That is, if losing to the Union is the last straw, what does that say about what opposing front offices think of the Union? It seems counterfactual. Would losing to LAFC garner the same response? Losing to one of the top teams in the league should not be a firing offense.

  2. santo bevacqua says:

    First of all i like to laud you for using (uninspiring football) in the first paragraph, after all it is important that the sport is football and not soccer. This is a very well written analysis and appraisal of the Union. I agree that the U will not be able to pay Curtin what he potentially will be offered in the market place, and thus the risk of losing him is high. Enjoyed reading this piece.

    • SilverRey says:

      “It was not, in fact, important that the sport be called football instead of soccer”

      • santo bevacqua says:

        why not correct this idiotic description and misnomer of both sports. Get on board its not soccer its played with your feet so its football dont be so thick headed. The PHilly Football Page should rebrand.

      • Let it go dude… your campaign is a dead end.

        Think Metric… no one cares about futball in America, like meter and centimeter.

        Does that help you get past it all?

        Or maybe that the SoCal Union kits means a loss or tie?

        Just funny… all of it to me.

        Hosting MLS Cup 2023 in Chester the focus, the only goal!


  3. SilverRey says:

    We are one point off of where we were at this point last year. The RB game is always going to be chaos, so I’m not pulling too much from it other that 3 points. Do I wish things were clicking better? Yes. We will still rebound though.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    Although the Union are losing more than last season, they are also drawing less. Through 10 games last season, the Union had 19 points (5-4-1) so they are only 5 points behind last year’s pace despite having had an extra 6 CCL games mixed in.
    Last year they had 9 points (1 win, 4 draws) in games 11-15 so theoretically they could get ahead of last year’s pace with wins in their next 5 games.

  5. Evildunk99 says:

    Very well written piece. It could be MUCH worse! Aside from the current struggles of the Fire, they’ve made the playoffs like one time in the past decade or so. Abysmal management there.
    While I am staying level headed because I know what the team is capable of, I do fear that some pieces of the Union core could depart in the summer transfer window and disrupt what they’ve built over the past few years.

  6. There was a time when I wrote many times in these comment sections that I thought the Union needed to let Jim go in order to get further ahead. One of MLS’s playoff format benefits is that managers have a little more breathing room to learn and fail and grow. I think the mix since Tanner joined the club has been pretty close to perfect. Younger and lesser known talent from Europe and youth academy products under a very good man manager, who may be a bit stubborn, but among the league’s best.

    I often wonder how many players like Xherdan Shaquiri, who has played for Pep, Klopp, Mancini etc., can keep their professional focus when they suddenly find themselves playing for an Ezra Hendrickson. Not to let any DP players off the hook for downing tools while collecting MLS dollars, but it must be hard even for the most professional players with that kind of pedigree to be “up for it” every match. Just a thought.

    And yes, it could be much, much worse.

    • santo bevacqua says:

      If Messi makes it to Inter Miami who will manage him? will Messi have any impact on current management of Inter Miami if he plays for them.
      Some players are difficult to manage eg Balotelli

      • Evildunk99 says:

        The rumor as I understand it, is that MLS would collectively pitch-in his playing salary, and he would gain ownership of Miami. On the ownership part, I would image all of Miami’s owners (or the board of directors) would have a say in who the sporting director and coach is. So he would have a vote, but not full discretion if he wanted to be a player/coach/GM.

    • Evildunk99 says:

      Union benefit from the expanded MLS playoff format big time this year, if they in-fact have to go on the road to make it to MLS Cup again… I don’t think they would be intimidated having to go to Cincy, NE, ATL, Nashville. Doesn’t mean they’d get through, but I don’t think they would be all that worried. Plenty of recent evidence of home teams coming up short in the playoffs.
      Our structure from academy to scouting, to front office is amazing… we should be okay in the long-run even if JC decides to go. Our blueprint isn’t going anywhere. Hopefully he sticks around and is able to raise a Cup!

  7. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Why would Curtin sign a new contact now? Financially it would make little sense and if he truly believes in US Soccer, that’s his next move. Just moments ago released an article promoting him for a job with the National team.
    Let’s face it, this story is coming to an end at the end of the season. Tell me why Curtin would stay here if they lost in the playoffs or worst yet the MLS Cup? Once again why would be stay if they won? Other than being comfortable in his home town, his resume is complete and he’s sought after. It was only a few years ago that Cincinnati wanted him and now they have turned around a franchise with management from the Union front office and coaching tree.
    I think the next question should actually be who’s next? In Tanner we trust.

    • I think if Curtin wants to try something else, now is the time. He’s probably gone about as far as he can here. He should have his pick of jobs in MLS. I’ve never heard him speak about European ambitions. It will be interesting to see where he goes. He’s still pretty young. Only thing that concerns me is replacing him. I’m sure Enrst has ideas about that, though.

      • John P O'Donnell says:

        I’ve heard him talk about maybe moving when his kids get out out school but mostly wanting something to do with the National Team.

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