Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: No longer the hunted

Photo: Ruairi Rossi

Saturday’s disappointing draw against FC Cincinnati made several things about this Union team clear, in sobering fashion.

The Union are still an excellent team.

But they aren’t the best—not in MLS and not in the Eastern Conference. And with a whole year of Messi coming in 2024, this offseason might be the most important in the organization’s history.

The 3-5-2 was forced

When the lineup was announced, the collective groan from Philly fans was audible. “I thought we were done with this formation!” the Union faithful cried together. And it is absolutely the case that 4-4-2 is, far and away, the Union’s best shape. But, on a night when Alejandro Bedoya was unavailable due to yellow card accumulation, Leon Flach was unavailable due to possibly season-ending injury, and Jesus Bueno was coming back from an injury of his own, there just weren’t the midfield personnel available to play the diamond.

Bueno’s play has been a revelation, and gives the team hope for a Bedoya-less future on the right side, but also underscores how hard it has been to find viable alternatives. What the team wouldn’t give for a Homegrown to mirror Jack McGlynn on the left as an understudy for Bedoya and Bueno. Bedoya’s injury record this season shows that, even if he plays beyond this season, he can’t be the iron man he has been.

The Union need more options for the role if they are to continue using the diamond.

Damion Lowe plays on the edge

And, too often, he goes over it.

The first goal Cincy scored on Saturday coincided with Lowe challenging for the ball high up the field. His tackle was avoided and suddenly FCC was racing at goal with Lowe out of the play and Kai Wagner trying to fill the space Lowe had vacated. The result was a goal from the spot where Lowe should have been standing. (The second goal wasn’t Lowe’s fault, but he did fail to get goal-side of Brandon Vazquez.)

Looking back on the goals allowed by the Union out of the 3-5-2, a pattern emerges—Lowe high up the field, either trying to join in the attack or challenging for a ball well into midfield and the Union scrambling to cover space after the ball turns over or isn’t won.

Part of Lowe’s positional play must be under direction from the coaches, but some of it is just the way Lowe plays. Regardless of the source, Lowe in the the 3-5-2 often creates as many problems as he solves. Because of Jack Elliott’s upcoming suspension, Lowe will partner Jakob Glesnes in, presumably, a four-man back line. It will be instructive to see if the different formation results in a more measured approach from the Jamaican. He has the capacity to be an excellent defender but, when his adventurousness gets the better of him, it puts the team under unnecessary pressure.

The Kai Wagner situation is tough

It has been widely reported that Kai Wagner is out of contract at the end of this season and that he is disappointed by the contract renewal offered by the Union. There are quotes of his floating around saying how he isn’t asking for the world; he just wants to be fairly compensated for what he contributes. He and his family love Philadelphia, but the choice to stay is no longer his. That’s totally fair. Wagner is one of the best left backs in MLS, has been an assist machine for several years, and is an integral part of how the Union play.

He deserves a raise.

For the Union’s part, Ernst Tanner has gone on record as saying he agrees with that sentiment, and the team have offered Wagner more money, but to give Wagner the amount he is looking for, the team would have to break their salary cap. In short, left back, even as important as this one is to the Union and considering how difficult it will be to find a replacement, is not a position Tanner feels comfortable spending big money on.

Both sides of this argument are right, essentially. Tanner has earned a lot of respect for how he has built the Union’s roster, and if he doesn’t think retaining Wagner is worth the money Wagner wants, then it doesn’t make sense to push the boat out. At the same time, Wagner is totally worth spending money on—he’s great at what he does.

Without knowing the exact numbers both sides have offered and asked for, it’s hard to know where the sticking point really is. Is it Jay Sugarman being a spendthrift? Is it MLS’s rules? Is it Tanner playing moneyball when he needs to loosen up? Is it PR from Wagner, who has made no secret in the past about wanting to return to Europe?

No matter what it is, Philly fans can only hope that, assuming Wagner does leave, it is for foreign shores (not including Canada). If he ends up signing with another MLS side, that would be very disappointing and a failure for the Union. If he moves to Europe or some other non-MLS league, then it’s still disappointing, but something much easier to take.

FC Cincinnati are better than the Union

What’s not easy to take is the realization that Cincinnati aren’t just on a heater of a season. Right now, they are a better team than the Union. Saturday’s game felt big for that reason, because it was the last chance the Union would have of playing them at home. Going up 2–0 was the best possible opening gambit, but the defensive poise necessary to keep that lead was absent and left the Union sharing the points and waving official good-bye to catching the Ohioans in the standings.

More than that, though, the draw left bare something that has been lurking below the surface since at least the Leagues Cup loss to Miami. Regardless of results since then, the Union just seem to be missing a spark. That special something has gone away. Whether due to the injuries to midfielders, under-performance from certain players, a lack of confidence from the coaching staff, or something else, the Union just seem like they have never recovered their mojo after losing MLS Cup. It could still be found, but it hasn’t been yet. The Union should not be counted out. MLS Cup is still a viable goal. But the team need to come together once more.

Whether or not they do, and whether or not one wants to label it “rebuilding,” this offseason will be a big one—maybe the biggest.

Messi’s arrival has heralded a time of change in MLS. That is welcome. Changes to MLS’s rules are needed in order for the league to take a step forward. The question will be whether the Union’s model will continue to be viable in a brave new world with fewer restrictions on spending. Replacing the Bedoyas and the Wagners and the Carranzas of the world (Did you forget that Julian Carranza is certainly gone this winter?) is always difficult. But, in a landscape where some ownership groups will spend even more than they have already, it will take some soul-searching on the Union’s ownership’s part if they want to keep up. There are always marginal gains to be exploited and under-explored markets to pioneer—the spend less, spend smarter philosophy need not be abandoned—but spending less is relative.

If Sugarman, Tanner, and co. don’t find the right balance, the Union might find themselves left behind.


  1. I agree with everything here. If I was betting, I would tell fans to expect some worse seasons on the way. The old model has probably been in need of a redesign for a couple seasons. We played above our grade most of that time. Certainly we drove starters into the ground with a middling bench. It was take a few seasons to find the new formula.
    On a side note, if the new playoff format means the Supporters Shield Curse is a thing of the past… I will be none too happy about that.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I don’t think we’ve played above our grade. I actually look at it like we were slightly ahead of the “moneyball” curve. There were always big money teams who out spent everybody with varying degrees of success, but most were successful. I think the Union under Tanner cracked the code quicker than most other teams. Now, with teams like Cincy, who are basically the Union with more money, the league is evolving into more of a must spend more (not a billion but more), whereas you could succeed (Union) without crossing certain thresholds. Now you will be forced to, in order to be successful. The other teams have caught up, and the big spenders are about to take a BIGGER step forward.
      This is what scares me about the Union and their ownership. There should have been talk of expanding Subaru after last season’s run. There shouldn’t be a question of signing Kai to an extension, with a raise. There shouldn’t be talk of hopefully using our 3rd DP slot. We position ourselves to be successful, but it is incredibly obvious there needs to be more money spent on first team players, in order to win trophies. There has been none of that talk.
      I like many of you were around when this team was dog shit. After the first two seasons, the shine wore off, and they were bad. No one wants to go back to 10,000 people in the stadium on a Saturday night. Strike while the iron is hot and keep building this team with investment and spending.

      • I don’t disagree with any of this, but I have to say, I’m not sure how this team can talk about expanding with parking being the way it is. I’m not even sure buying property on which to put more lots would even solve things. It’s a pinch to get in and out of that location. I don’t know what the solution could be short of moving to the city, but that would require way more money than this club has now.

  2. "End the Stream Dave " says:

    We all know the answer to the “viability going forward” question.

    This season was lost in January.

  3. In a rough quick comparison that has no hard data for Miami left back Jordi Alba’s salary because he arrived after May 1st, Kai Wagner is currently the third highest paid left back in MLS behind –presumably — Alba, and for certain Braian Cufre of NYC FC.
    The limit on pay for outside backs to which Ernst Tanner reportedly referred last Friday (thank you, Joe Tansey) seems to be a current reality.
    The central core defenders are Blake, $ 750 K, Elliott, $ 700 K, Glesnes, $ 900 K. Martinez was re-signed/extended earlier this year but after May 1st, so his new salary is not yet public.
    Remember as you look as Glesnes’s number, he won defender of the year and there was interest from other clubs that was fairly concrete.
    Also, remember the lesson of Austin Trusty. The organization will punish you, hard, if you attempt to jump the sequence of who is in line for deal renegotiation. Wagner knows this is his chance for a blockbuster, his last one. He and and his agent are playing chicken with Tanner and the organization.
    And Wagner is an MLS free agent at the end of the season. He has the length of service and the age to qualify. I doubt NYC FC would bid for him. But what about the rest of the league, including San Diego with a sign and loan back for 2024 as a possibility.
    Gonna be interesting.

    • Peanut Gallery says:

      Insightful. Thank you.

    • Under MLS’ current Free Agency rules teams who would want to sign Wagner can only offer him a 15% increase over his 2023 salary compensation. IOW, if it is indeed about money…. He’s either resigning with the Union or heading back to Europe.

  4. the Union lack a spark partly because they are tired, physically and mentally. And Curtin doesn’t rotate because he is trying to maximize his chances to win tonight’s game

    • Curtin doesn’t rotate because the drop off from the Union’s best 11 and their equivalent backups is much more significant than fans would like to admit.

  5. Great article, Jeremey, and great comments! Thanks all for the insight!

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Also – great article. Bring back the podcast, Jeremy!

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