The Messi paradox revisited: The Union’s humiliation

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Messi paradox was originally published nearly a month ago and can be found here.

The Philadelphia Union were humiliated on Tuesday night. 

Not just a loss — and it was quite a loss — but a global embarrassment of their own doing in the grandest moment of their own history (MLS Cup matters more, but this game was a bigger stage). 

As prescience goes, the foresight of the Messi Paradox came true. 

But the truth was more terrible than originally feared. 

The paradox

The worst-case scenarios posited by the original Paradox were that the Herons would struggle in Major League Soccer and the world wouldn’t respect the league anyway, or perhaps that Miami would run rampant and prove to the haters how second-rate this domestic competition truly is.

What has come to pass is a version of the latter, but the idea of “worst case scenario” was wildly underestimated.

Not only has Miami found little difficulty since the transfer window opened, but they have also absolutely lambasted all comers, turning a putrid lineup into one that suddenly looks like — ahem — Barcelona. They’ve scored nearly as many goals in the handful of games this month as they did the entirety of the campaign before and, since it seems important to note, are unbeaten and playing for a cup final on the weekend.

Standing between them and said cup final appearance was supposed to be the league’s premier defense — full of All-Stars and the reigning Defender of the Year, its unquestioned best goalkeeper and reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, its reigning Coach of the Year, and the most difficult home crowd who had “one loss in 50-something games,” as Taylor Twellman kept reminding fans.

It didn’t matter one iota.

One thing didn’t go wrong for the home team on the night but, to borrow a phrase from the appropriately melancholy band Radiohead, what went wrong was everything, all of the time. The list of who’s to blame is long but has a few obvious foci.

It started with the manager. A change in formation and a player-specific defensive focus meant the most drilled team in America, the team whom you could absolutely plan for but rarely stop, could he seen constantly wondering what to do.


It followed with his lineup: starters sat on the bench while role players found their way into the eye-opening, jaw-dropping first group — playing a formation the team had never (or hardly) tried in a real match.

So crazy it might work… or utter nonsense. 

Damion Lowe, a quintessential role player for his flashes of good amidst reliably consistent inconsistencies, had a night unlike any other, one where he was partially responsible for three of the four goals conceded, including his unconscionable positioning for Miami’s dagger of a third just before halftime.

Ball-watching, flailing, traffic-coning.

Leon Flach, the one-way marauder who was part of the glue in the team’s 2022 run but is mostly a bench player now, never looked comfortable, constantly worrying about the ghosts behind him while predictably offering nothing going forward.

No teeth, all gums.

Chris Donovan, who put a great chance on frame to his credit, was never going to be the answer and certainly not alone at the top. The Boys left their highest-priced striker on the bench so a first-year pro from Drexel — with merely two starts and 219 league minutes — could get them to a cup final.

No, just no. 

…and the brick wall himself, Andre Blake.

0 saves and four goals conceded on four shots on frame, against 0.74 expected goals.

What is there to say? His showing was among the worst statistical goalkeeping efforts in league history by any objective measure.

Completely and utterly humiliating. 

The end has no end

The Union have a chance to come back from this abject failure in the competition’s third-place game Saturday. There is still a Concacaf Champions Cup berth on the line after all. No one will be watching of course, or certainly nowhere close to the number of folks who were on Tuesday — tickets are going for 5% of what folks paid to see the matchup against Messi, so maybe their fortunes will turn. 

The unfortunate truth may be that there is no coming back from this match. 

The Union are built to win MLS 3.0 and came within an inch of doing so last year. After watching a side that tied for the Shield and was a minute away from the Cup, it’s entirely possible that the home team’s, or even the league’s, entire system is now obsolete. Perhaps the team the Union thought they were chasing, LAFC, aren’t the bogey anymore.

Perhaps the window closed on Tuesday with the whole world looking in… maybe.

It’s certainly not a given, but if it turns out to be so — and would be so Union — then Philadelphia found out the end was neigh on the biggest stage in the most humiliating fashion.


  1. Agreed! Unless Sugarman becomes a Sugar Daddy and starts buying some big time stars to compete in MLS 4.0. Then I think our chance at winning the League may have slipped past us last year with a header from a Welsh Golfer.

  2. We’ll see what happens in the final, but I am pretty certain that Nashville will not look a lot better against this Miami side than we have. And the embarrassment then becomes one for the entire league to deal with. I’ve said here that I get why MLS made this deal. It is selling subscriptions and making money. I don’t fault them for it. However, they did trade away any pretensions of parity they may have had and traded competitive integrity to get Messi and company, letting him have shares of a team, the equipment sponsor (Adidas) and television partner (Apple). If Messi and Co. go on to put the entire league to the sword and capture MLS cup,the critics will sneer, but the league will laugh all the way to the bank.

    I actually can’t get worked up enough to think this is terrible. But as a fan of the Union, it rubs me a little bit the wrong way. Would the league move mountains to help other teams land big stars? I’m pretty certain the league wouldn’t let the Union keep a little extra profit from bobblehead sales to help the team pay for Danny Ings. Yet I suspect they’ll be happy to throw out the rules if they, say, get the chance to bring Griezmann to LA Galaxy.

    I think the Union are going to have to change a bit to keep up, but I don’t think it is that difficult. I think the team has been smart to spend across the pitch, but man, a genuine goal scorer up top would make a big difference.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Great comment. It’s boggling to me how this team (Sugarman mostly I guess) won’t spend for the big name or two and fill out the rest of the roster with “moneyball” signings and academy players. That to me, unless you just go nuclear like (old version) Toronto, Miami or LAFC, is the format to win in MLS. And I feel like this format fits the Union perfectly. They just don’t spend that extra money required. I’m not asking you to spend $20m. I’m asking you to spend $5-$8m correctly – something I have a ton of faith – and Sugarman should too – in Tanner doing.

  3. soccerdad720 says:

    Speaking of a welsh golfer…..hey — PSP….how about you get rid of the picture of the “screaming in ecstasy at the Union’s demise” said Welsh golfer to the right of every story? it’s time. (the “highlights” of the cup final you tube file…it’s stuck on Bale)….

  4. So you’re saying that Inter Miami was Verbal Kint and have now morphed into Keyser Soze?

  5. The Union have not been the league’s premier defense all season. That’s Nashville. Will see if they can do any better. That being said, if the Union keep the other team to less than .75 expected goals, they are going to win a lot more than they will lose. It just happened that Tuesday was the night where Blake shouldn’t have gotten out of bed.
    Was this match on Apple really watched by more people around the world than last year’s MLS Cup? Yes, I’m sure more people in Miami were watching but I’m guessing that fewer people in LA watched. And around the country, more people would watch Fox on a Saturday afternoon than Apple on a Tuesday evening, especially when the first match is a final and the second only a semi. (I certainly didn’t bother to watch any of Miami’s other matches.)
    And is this really the start of MLS 4.0? Or is it a quick blip where these guys come in, temporarily bring some fans, and then leave after a year and a half. Will any of Miami’s new superstars still be in the league in 2025? David Beckham was here for 5.5 seasons and changed the league. Gareth Bale was here for half a season. If I was a betting man, I’d bet the farm that Messi’s stay is much closer to the latter’s and his long term influence similar. He’s a cash grab rather than an influence for long term change (unless it’s to hasten the demise of the league if fans start to realize their teams don’t stand a chance of winning a championship and don’t bother to go to games).

  6. While I’m onboard with the sentiment, I think you’re overstating the impact on how the league or the team is viewed. I think people recognize that the best player in the world ever and his best player friends are necessarily going to make most teams look bad. Just like they did at Barcelona. I think they factor that into their estimation.

  7. That game was terrible, awful, no good very bad. But it was one game and I think we may be… no, almost certainly are… making too much of a very small sample size.

    We got outclassed, but mostly because we got away from who we are, we got awestruck as a city and as a team, we didn’t have our best striker, we got outcoached by a very good coach, soccer is a very stochastic game, and a couple players picked a very bad time to earn 1 ratings.

    If we’re going to move so heavily in conjecture: We may get another crack at Miami before the year’s out, and fear won’t be the predominant player emotion for that one.

    • Chris Gibbons says:


    • …. isn’t that the story which is becoming the one most difficult to swallow? I know for me it is.
      Getting beat by Messi and his Merry Pranksters is one thing… what happened on Tuesday night is totally unacceptable and if it is not totally unacceptable by now- what is acceptable.

      • Both the coach and the players should have been emotionally prepared (by now) to navigate that game.

      • Hopeful that when we look back these are growing pains, and not just growing pains for, you know, the Flyers to win the Stanley Cup in 2038

      • This IS the point here, I agree. There seems to be an assumption in the earlier post that this was a “one off.” Why do we think it will be different the next time we play Miami? I’d argue that getting utterly embarrassed the last time you played Miami is likely to make you more tentative than before, and to make Curtain more afraid than he was the first time. I think there is a bigger problem here that needs to first be addressed before we all move on and try to pretend Tuesday never happened.

  8. Thank you for writing this. Truly.
    It is utterly 100% absolutely fucking true. Every word.
    I am still sick to my stomach. Just like I was ‘In Rainbows’ of Bodysnatchers from November…
    I do not understand~
    ~What it is I’ve done wrong
    Full of holes
    Check for pulse
    Blink your eyes
    One for yes
    Two for no
    Dick Kicked again and again.. ‘has the light gone out for you? Because the light has gone out for me.’

  9. Andy Muenz says:

    Conspiracy theory here. I read that Miami has been invited to the 2024 Copa Libertadores. I’m wondering if there is any possibility that this had been known before the game and someone told the Union to roll over and play dead so Miami would make the finals and allow this to happen. Note that I don’t have a single iota of evidence about this, but it would certainly go a long way to explain the lineup and Blake’s performance.

    • santo bevacqua says:

      Andy, you need some nap time

    • Dave burtt says:

      Isn’t it interesting that the big coach in Argentina (showing my ignorance here cause I don’t t have a name) says “ MLS is a quality league!” Then the invite gets out. There are many levels to this whole MLS Liga MX South American money grab. I feel
      Like the U are the MLB Orioles all through the 90’s and 2000’s and beyond vs the NYY and Red Sox. Don’t have a seat at the table.

  10. Everyone was so hype about how good Messi was going to be for MLS that no one seemed willing to even consider he (along with a few key pals) could potentially make this league look like a bunch of uncoordinated amateurs.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Yup! I totally underestimated how in awe MLS players (and Liga MX ones) would be and completely paralyzed by the prospect of playing vs Messi.

  11. PhilliBear1872 says:

    Wow… what a performance.. from Miami!/?
    – They came out straight from the off and showed us exactly what is wrong with us.. a defence that is completely made up of Lowe and Elliot, that completely lets us down. And let’s not forget Blake, wow how he let us down. He was supposed to be our star man in the sticks and he let everything past him.
    – a forgetful performance that the Union fans have to blame on the defence before we even TRY and get into those misses from the attackers.

    All round a horrid performance that exposes all the areas that need improvements if we want to even attempt at the MLS cup.

    Nonetheless, let’s back our team(?) in this 3rd place game and move on with the cup.


  12. Maybe I’m just being petty but what gets me extra frosted about the whole Messi and Company escapade is the league and its main sponsors are bending over backwards for the same team that just 3 years ago got caught taking 5 DP cookies from the jar when the sign clearly read “3 only.”

  13. Gazdag, who I respect dearly, posted a pic on Instagram of him hugging messi with the caption along the lines of “not the result we wanted, but I got to meet my hero today.” I don’t think I fully realized how awestruck the team outside of el Brujo would be.
    I hate applying the term “genius” to an athlete, but Messi’s goal was genius. Blake checks his positioning over his right shoulder and messi only needed that split second.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *