Philadelphia must not let trophies cloud pursuit of progress

Photo: Stephen Speer

It has, undoubtedly, been an incredible run of form for the Philadelphia Union over the last four seasons.

Two first-place conference finishes, a Supporters’ Shield, two continental semi-finals, and a third place finish in Leagues Cup. No team in MLS has had as much recent sustained success as the Union.

And yet, the club has only won one major trophy. For many, the period in which that is acceptable is running out; however, the Union must maintain their course.

In 2018, the Union first broke their points record (48 in 2011) by netting 50 points across the full MLS regular season. While hitting the half-century mark wasn’t inherently impressive on its own, it marked a moment of change for the Union and was something to build on.

The following season saw the Union progress, this time netting 55 points and winning their first-ever playoff game, before losing in the second round. 2020 saw the club win its first major trophy, the Supporters Shield; 2021 saw the club reach the Conference Finals of MLS Cup; and 2022 saw the Union just miss out on the MLS Cup after falling to LAFC. Despite the trends of heartbreak and almost winning, the club made progress, and that progress softened all blows. With the only progress left being the hoisting of MLS Cup, the Union find themselves in a precarious position heading into the 2023 postseason.

In reality, it’s difficult to call MLS Cup a must-win for the Union this season. They don’t look like the giant killers of last season, and the competition in the East has improved drastically. Couple that with the changed playoff format, and while the Union will undoubtedly have a shot at lifting the trophy, it’s hard to feel like it’s do or die the same way it was in 2023. But what does that mean for the Union as an organization?

It’s difficult to say. When you win a championship, repeating is, of course, the goal, but it likely won’t happen. While that may be frustrating or sad in the moment of defeat, it’s a lot easier to forgive because the ultimate goal of a trophy was achieved so recently. However, when a club falls just short of a title, there are no feelings or laureles to fall back on. Progress must somehow be made toward that ultimate goal of a championship despite coming so close the year prior and despite the reality that it’s unlikely to come that close again so soon. For an organization like the Union, who have measurably improved over the last five years, that goal of progress becomes increasingly difficult without lifting a trophy.

Does that make MLS Cup a must-win for the Union? In reality, no.

There are very few circumstances in which winning a league’s ultimate prize should be considered an absolute necessity. The Union have made marked progress over the last five seasons, and it’s critical for those involved with the club, from ownership to supporters to understand that not every year can yield watershed results. The Union’s strategy of fostering youth talent and bringing in players that fit into their system as opposed to flashy signings has paid off and led to the club’s recent success. Putting faith in manager Jim Curtin has allowed him to build something exceptional within the dressing room and helped to solidify Philadelphia as one of the premier places to play in Major League Soccer.

While a failure to capture MLS Cup in 2023 may result in calls for knee-jerk reactions from fans and analysts alike, it’s important to remember how they reached its current level of expected success, through buying into an identity and sticking with it even when some things didn’t go the right way. While the payroll of clubs begins to grow exponentially, and star players and managers are being targeted across the league; the Union must retain their belief that intentional, steady progress will win out. Even if that means not every season has tangible “progress”. For all intents and purposes, the Union cannot do any better than they did in 2022. The club was fantastic, and was ultimately humbled by the pure dumb luck that is sport.

Sometimes, things don’t go your way, and there’s little you can do about it.

Routinely attempting to compare season to season, result to result, is a route to inevitable failure. The Union must prioritize genuine progress and growth over chasing trophies at all costs. Need mention be made of the Flyers shipping off young goalie Sergei Bobrovsky after they failed to win the cup in 2011? That trade can be linked to the steady decline of the organization after their Stanley Cup final loss in 2011. It was a short-sighted decision that cost the club exponentially in the long run.

The Union must avoid the same mistake and maintain the course that has brought them so much success.


  1. We learned 2 years ago that there is a certain amount of dumb luck in a single game elimination tournament, so if you’re going to make that the be all and end all of your satisfaction with the team, you’re usually going to end up being disappointed.
    That being said, if Inter Messi squeaks into the playoffs based on the last two months of the season after being the dregs of the first two thirds, and then steamrolls over everyone to win the cup, then it probably is time to forget about MLS and spend your time in a more fruitful endeavor like watching grass grow, because it clearly means two things. One, MLS is a third rate league where an aging star can go for an easy retirement against mediocre players. Two, Philly isn’t a retirement town. Players like Bedoya, Carroll, and Ilsinho who retire there, play for the team for several years before getting to the point of retirement.

    • I don’t entirely disagree but Miami doesn’t have just an “aging star.” They have a guy in the conversation as the greatest player who ever lived AND two more “aged” generational talents.

      Also, MLS playoffs now have this best of three series for the first round. After wildcard matches, the remaining 8 teams play best of three series. I think it’s nuts, but what are you going to do.

      • Not to mention that “aged star” is likely going to win the FIFA World Player of the Year again….
        Miami also has young stars, and solid players throughout their team. Messi is certainly a difference maker, but they’ve been picking up wins without him since his arrival.

  2. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Maybe this is what it’s going to take; the U’s own Scott Rolen dress-down of Ed Wade.
    Time for a starter to throw Sugarman under the bus and call out his nickel and dime ways. Shout that he’s not committed to winning just like Rolen did with Wade with the Phillies were the dregs of baseball back when. Rolen got traded to St. Louis after his tirade, yes, but people beyond CHester have to realize that Sugarman (and Tanner) are running a ponzi-esque scheme here. This team doesn’t have the depth to get to the final this year, and the only way they will is if you get an owner who SPENDS MONEY to get the top players here. And that ain’t Sugarman. He’s an absentee owner. He makes Connie Mack look like Roman Abramovich. Michael freakin’ Uhre…28 other teams passed on him. But not us. And look where he’s at right now.
    So who’s gonna be the Union player who will blow the lid off Sugarman’s Folly? Who has the stones? Yeah, they could finish 3rd in the East. They could just as easily wind up, say, SIXTH.

  3. Humbled by dumb luck? 0-10 in finals and ccl semis. Even a blind squirrel is supposed to find a nut once in a while, no? Bind, def, and dumb? Was provided depth this year and wasted it not using all subs after waiting way too long to make most. Should be challenging Cincy at the very lease, not fighting for 2nd.
    Comm: not a retirement town? Not sure what photos, and od whom, are handed off to the players when they arrive, but can find another explanation for leaving Bedoya,Caroll,Ilshino out there for a couple years longer than they should have been.

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