For Pete's Sake

After a long season, the Union fall short of high expectations

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

After the Philadelphia Union’s 2023 season came to an end with a disappointing, controversial defeat to FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference semifinal, manager Jim Curtin spoke with the media.

When asked about the heartbreaking end to the club’s last four seasons, he said:

“This is pro sports. It’s hard to be the champion. I’d sign up to be playing in the big games over being at a club in complete disarray that has no chance to ever compete for anything. There are about 25 of those in our league. I prefer to be where we are. You can lose close games in this sport. The other team gets paid money as well. We lost to the Supporters’ Shield winner in their building. So, it can happen.”

As with so many things in life, Curtin both has a good point and is somewhat missing the point. (Set aside the crack about 25 teams in the league being in disarray, which is pretty clearly an off-the-cuff mistake; twelve different teams in MLS have either made a tournament final or won the Supporters’ Shield over the past four years.)

No doubt the Union’s recent run of success over the past four seasons is extremely impressive.

The Boys in Blue have been the most consistent team in MLS over that stretch. They’ve won the Supporters’ Shield once, made the Eastern Conference final once, and made MLS Cup once. They also have two appearances in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, and clinched a berth in next season’s iteration of the tournament as well.

They are a good team; a very good team. And sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.

But… it’s also hard to look at this series of results and not see why fans are frustrated, which is why Curtin’s comments landed like a lead balloon in some quarters of the fanbase.

Other than that Supporters’ Shield triumph — which came in a strange, truncated season when barely a few thousand fans could watch the matches live — this dominant team has no silverware to show for all their hard work.

Each year, the Union have taken a step forward. In 2020, it was the Shield… followed by a playoff collapse. In 2021, it was the Eastern Conference final… followed by the Covid game. In 2022, it was MLS Cup… which ended in utter heartbreak.

In 2023, that left precious little room for Curtin’s men to improve. It was, as I wrote before the season, “championship or bust.”

The Union fell short of those expectations, lofty though they may be. That’s the price of sustained success; the bar gets higher and higher.

It didn’t help that this season turned out to be a slog. There were just too many matches between the increasingly pointless MLS regular season, the Champions League in March and April, and the Leagues Cup in July and August. Bad weather too often made the in-stadium experience frustrating, while the first season of the Apple TV deal made in-home watching more challenging. Philly never quite hit the heights of last season’s dynamic attack and stingy defense.

And, when the stakes were at their highest, the Union were at their worst.

They had a chance at redemption against LAFC in the Champions League semifinal, but they were played off the park at BMO Stadium.

They had a juicy semifinal against Lionel Messi in front of a rabid home crowd, but they turtled from the minute Curtin chose his starting eleven.

They managed a whopping nine points in their final eight matches, sputtering into the playoffs.

And they lost to Cincinnati in the playoffs, the club built in the Union’s image, in an ending seemingly designed to make Philly’s fans tear their hair out.

Curtin’s right that, all things considered, you’d sign up to be playing in these big matches rather than missing them entirely.

But he’s wrong to not see why, after setting expectations so high, it’s reasonable to think that the Union fell short of their goals this season.

Miscellaneous thoughts
  • I don’t want to dwell too much on the VAR decision at the end of the game. I think the Cincy player is probably offside, but was it “clear and obvious” enough to overturn? In many ways, this is the problem with VAR — it promises scientific accuracy for decisions that are endlessly influenced by subjective factors. Are the decisions it gets right a fair trade for the endless relitigation of every goal, the atmosphere being sucked out of the stadium while a check occurs, the focus on the referees rather than the play of the athletes on the field? I increasingly think that reform is needed.
  • Kai Wagner cost his team dearly through his selfishness and inability to control himself. The Union may still be playing this week if he hadn’t gotten suspended. It should be an easy call for Philadelphia to cut ties with him this offseason.
  • Looking back at my preseason column, a big factor in the Union’s falling short this season has to be the poor offseason moves by Ernst Tanner. Damion Lowe proved to be a big add at center back (even if he too often tempted Curtin into the ugly 3-5-2), but Joaquin Torres was a non-factor and Andres Perea wasn’t even on the team by the end of the season. Midseason pickup Tai Baribo looked well short of requirements, too. Tanner bet that these reinforcements would be enough to bolster a side that otherwise returned the whole starting lineup, but when fixture congestion and injuries hit it wasn’t enough to keep the team afloat.
  • Daniel Gazdag scored four non-penalty goals in 4,045 minutes across all competitions this season. The Union’s goal-scoring numbers look very different if they don’t earn (and Gazdag doesn’t convert) 18 penalties.
  • The offseason looms. Tanner clearly made a mistake in how he told club captain Alejandro Bedoya that he wouldn’t be returning. Will the outcry from the manager and the players cause the sides to find common ground? At a lesser salary and in a lesser role, Bedoya can still be helpful, but he can’t be expected to start 25 MLS games next year. It may be time to cash in on star striker Julian Carranza, who has interest from overseas, but that will require Tanner to absolutely nail his replacement. Will there be other, more unexpected departures? I’m not sure Jack McGlynn did enough this season to earn a knockout offer from Europe, so maybe another half-season in MLS and a likely trip to the Olympics is what he needs. Even assuming Bedoya, Carranza, and McGlynn all stay through the start of the season, Tanner probably needs to add starter-caliber options at left back, central midfield, and striker to keep the team in MLS’s upper echelon and future-proof against their inevitable departures.


  1. Amen to “ And, when the stakes were at their highest, the Union were at their worst”, unfortunately two of the strongest imprints left from this season are LAFC semifinal and Messi game embarrassment which both felt primarily curtins fault. Positive image will be seeing Gazdags bicycle kick live, and his lights out certainty from the spot. If I was curtin id be trying to get on the national team, but that seems (thankfully?) ever more unlikely.
    Thanks for great articles all year!

  2. Thanks for writing your thoughts Pete! I’m not so sure the team will be as exciting next season. I feel like there may be an unexpected departure or 2. Do you think its time to kind of re-tool? Or possibly just play the youth? I don’t follow the U2 or USL. So I really don’t know what there is in the up and coming department. As a fan I was looking forward to a deep playoff run, maybe even a cup game in Chester. But as the season drug out, it sure felt less and less likely. Hopefully Tanner can bounce back from the bad signings. Its tough to get that right every time. Lastly…I think Jim’s post-game remarks border on tone deaf. Everyone wants to play in big games, yes, they also want to win one or two of them. And the team seems to fall short every time. I’ll be keeping tabs here to see whats going on. So glad to have this place! See you all later.

  3. I just think there needs to be a refresh. Not rebuild. Just a refresh. I was so fatigued by the end of the year just watching them. The once vicious and direct diamond midfield had become a “chase and hope” formation as other teams were rarely forced into mistakes, and the 3 ATB formation was defensively solid but was like watching paint dry when it came to excitement.

    Not even counting departures – cause obviously we need a new LB, a new striker if Carranza leaves, etc – I desperately want a big new 8 arrival. A DP level 8. Sometime to really come in and blow us away with his talent and ability to control the midfield.

    Because I’ll be honest, another year of “Bedoya as an 8 until his legs fall off, and Flach/McGlynn at the other 8 depending on whatever” is the least interested and excited I would be going into a new season since we were truly bad. We just need something fresh.

  4. I think Curtin’s comments were primarily intended to deflect any blame from the players. If fans get upset with him for missing the point, that’s fine with him. Because I’m certain he understands your thinking, Pete.

    I am hopeful Bedoya returns, and also hopeful that the training-ground convo story isn’t the whole story. Tanner has never seemed uncaring before, and the way that’s been presented makes him appear so.

    As to transfers, it’s true that he’s had fewer hits since Chris Albright and co. left town, but it’s still a very small sample size for what is essentially gambling. It’s just as likely he hits twice or more this offseason as he hits none. That said, if he does hit none, that would be a big, big problem.

    I also agree about the VAR stuff. I’m more and more off the opinion that, unless it’s wholly automated and much, much faster, it isn’t worth the cost to the flow of play. It’s just changed the nature of the debate over refereeing, rather than solving many problems.

    Finally, I think this season was actually pretty good. The disappointment mostly stems from this version of the Union never getting over the hump, these last few years, rather than anything that happened this season per se. I wanted them to make it happen, and they fell short. Last season’s MLS Cup heartbreak is ten times worse than anything this season gave me. I still feel like they were robbed in that game.

  5. I’ve said it before but anyone who bases their season’s expectations on winning a single elimination tournament is just foolish. There is just too much random chance. It took a lot of magic last year to get the team to the point where they were within seconds of a championship and we saw very early on that the same magic wasn’t there this season (think how many 0-0 draws we saw at home throughout the year). While some may say that “Championships matter”, it’s a really idiotic philosophy in a league with as many teams as MLS has.
    MLS proves it’s a joke by not having automated offsides technology to show whether a player is in an offsides position. Yes, there is judgement as to whether they are affecting the play in some cases but that wasn’t an issue Saturday. But it does reinforce the idea that basis your entire expectations on a single elimination tournament is lunacy.
    Kai cost his team but the same could have been said for the same reasons about Miazga had Cincinnati lost.
    I’m guessing you weren’t in Chester for the Inter Messi game if you think there was a rabid home crowd. The crowd was rabid alright, but the majority was rooting against the Union. Remember what the crowds were like for the rest of Leagues Cup? The number of Union fans was probably less than that since some of the STH realized they could make money by selling their tickets (and some like the people in front of us were already planning to be on vacation and sold their tickets). Given that the cost of tickets through the team was 10x normal for those who hadn’t purchased for all of Leagues Cup, the people willing to pay those prices were the ones rooting for the other team.

    • Andy, I was at the Miami game, as I was for the vast majority of home games this year. I don’t think the majority of the crowd was rooting against the Union; indeed my memory is that the crowd was more pro-Union than I expected. And the atmosphere on the whole was excellent, as you acknowledged.
      I have devoted an enormous amount of my time to this site and this community over the years. After all the time you’ve spent reading the site, I wish you would extend just a tiny bit of charity to me in your reading of my column. Thanks for reading.

      • Peter, was not meaning to attack you there, I just know you had spent several years on the west coast and for some reason thought you were still there. Good to know you are back east and able to attend more Union games.
        I don’t say it often enough but I do appreciate the work that you and the staff do here even if I don’t always agree with your opinions.
        It must have been different in other parts of the stadium but in 127 it seemed like at least a 60/40 split in favor of Messi fans over Union fans (or at least people rooting for Messi that night).

    • I was at the Miami game with a bunch of people who paid a lot more than I for the chance to see Messi. I didn’t think most were rooting against the Union, but they were surely rooting for Messi. The gentlemen sitting next to us were there to see Messi but were just enjoying the game. And didn’t seem to care much about Miami winning. More like they wanted to see Messi do something amazing. They were very nice and we had a great night just talking soccer and even tho the Union lost. It wasn’t like the place was overrun with Miami fans. Some of the Champions league games against Mexican teams were far more outnumbered us.

      • I’m sorry, in my opinion, if you are rooting for Messi to do something great at Subaru Park, you can’t also be rooting for the Union. By definition, only one team can win and everything Messi does that is great is something to make it harder for the Union to win.
        When a former Union player returns, we often cheer him during player introductions, but as soon as the game starts, they are just like any other enemy player.

  6. Nice column, Pete. I agree with your main thesis here: This season was a disappointment. I thought they needed to have at least one more go at MLS Cup, but it was pretty obvious from the team’s form, especially after the limp League’s Cup exit, was going to make that a serious stretch.

    When I think of two of the closest, most heartbreaking moments the Union have come up short, the difference maker has been an opponent with much deeper pockets that can go to the well in a way that is beyond what the Union have to counter. The Open Cup final against Seattle in 2014 – Sigi Schmid was able to call on Obafemi Martins and Gonzalo Pineda for reinforcements. Our subs included Pedro Ribeiro and Danny Cruz. We all know how late, expensive subs factored in last year’s MLS Cup Final…

    I admire the skill with which Tanner has put this team together and – even though I’ve not seen eye to eye with his lineup choice – how Curtin has managed it. But it’s always going to be a tough road when you’re banking on bargains to have career years. I used to believe a better coach would get them over the line. I’m not so sure any more.

    So much depends on getting this off season right, not just in transfers and recruitment, but clearly with repairing whatever damage has been done over the mishandling of Bedoya’s situation. Having your manager say publicly that he disagrees with the decision to move him on with comments like “any other manager in the world can keep his captain” indicates a real problem.

  7. Thanks, Peter! Great review of the year!

    VAR does not only have offside issues; in England there is a lot of discussion today after the VAR decisions (and non-decisions) of fouls in the penalty area of the Fulham-Wolves game. Major VAR changes need to be made. The ‘clear and obvious’ is still too subjective and the whole thing is taking too much time. I won’t be surprised if VAR will be used much less going forward.

    We need a 10 who can play and make things happen. Without one (and with Gazdag playing for us) we will never get over the hump. Also does not help that Uhre is too slow and not productive enough.

    Like to see Bedoya return but not as a starter. Need to have someone younger with the same attitude (Sullivan) at his spot.

    Looking forward to see Brendan Craig. Can’t believe he was loaned out to play but did not see a minute of play…

    Looking forward to next year.

    • Today ridiculous VAR decision in the PSG vs New Castle match. Stu Holden and many others had this to say about the handball decision: That is a shocking penalty decision in the Newcastle PSG match… How can he move his hand from such close proximity and it even hits his body first. IFAB interpretation is boxing referee’s into a corner with VAR… NEVER a PK

  8. Thanks for the column. I agree on almost all of your points. I only quibble with the Wagner comment. Yes, the guy made a mistake, but I think it’s sad that this is all we can see him for now. He is still a person. He’s also the best left back we’ve ever had, and I suspect his ghost is going to haunt that position for many years to come (much like Jordan Harvey’s did). I, for one, am sad to see him go.

  9. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Doesn’t matter if it falls short by a little or a lot, they fell short. And the wounds were self-inflicted, every last one of them. And you can point to Mikael Uhre as the poster boy for what is wrong with the U.
    This team is not ready for prime time and 2024 will be even worse, put together on the ultra cheap and by an academy system that is not geared to win now. Fans have waited 13 years for something different. This season was a failure, a step back. And as long as the front office and manager remain in place, expect sequels and threequels until they get goddamn serious and START SPENDING MONEY TO GET TOP-FLIGHT TALENT TO COME HERE. Until then, time to check out on this dumpster fire of a team.

    • You repeatedly complain about the same things – and they are often diametrically opposing points. You complained about Donovan not being being up to snuff (I agree) but how could the Union expect to beat Cincy with him playing? He came on in injury time. It’s not like he started. (Though when he did, in the LC, it was an unmitigated disaster).
      You complain about the academy system – not geared to “win now.” The whole point of an academy is to build a future pipeline. Do you not grasp that?
      “Ultra-cheap”? The Union were not the second cheapest team despite many people on PSP claiming it to be so. And since when does payroll equal success? Based on your comment and desire, D.C., Toronto, and Chicago must have just had incredibly successful seasons. Not.
      Could the Union spend more? Sure. Ultra-cheap they are not. There are many things they could do better. While I agree the season was a disappointment, it was hardly the dumpster fire you claim it to be.

  10. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. When Torres was introduced to the U faithful at that first game, no one would be arguing that Tanner had hit again. At points early on he was brilliant. One still hopes he can pan out eventually because the ability to wow is there.
    Same with Perea. Just not enough to make a starter.
    Tai Baribo is following the David Gass theorem so far, unless and until proven otherwise. (For the uninitiated, that’s the theory that a player from overseas will not blossom until his second year. Year one is for acclimation.)

  11. Great piece, Peter. Articulates what I’ve been avoiding to delve into as another team in this town wilts in the postseason.

  12. Well written Peter. This is the correct assessment of the season.

  13. John P O'Donnell says:

    I won’t say the season was a total failure because we qualified for CONCACAF Champions Cup. That being said it seemed a little lucky as the third place game against Monterrey wasn’t against the first team.
    So this season is over and next year the Union proceed into the new reality of what MLS is now with league and international play every year with Leagues Cup for every team. The expanded CCC will see a third of the teams in the league with the chance to play over 50 games a year when you add in US Open Cup.
    Thinking this isn’t the reality going forward is just silly as there is just to much revenue to be made with these multiple tournaments. Also come 2025 the beginning of the expanded Club World Cup starts with rumors of 400 million plus in prize money.
    Messi coming to MLS has accelerated the revenue stream and next year might see some changes. I appreciate what Bedoya has done for the franchise but it’s time to move on as this team has possibly reached its ceiling. They need to spend on the roster and his salary in a capped league has to go towards a player that is of his level but younger with the ability to play 40-45 games a year. Sadly for Bedoya, father time won’t let that happen. It’s better to move on to soon, rather than to late.

  14. Peter , Your Article should have been titled ” Fans have Unrealistic Expectations”….. or ” Wake up and Smell the Coffee” … Gave a lot thought on your article and I have come to the conclusion that its time to sell the franchise. The Union can no longer compete for the top prize in the new Apple/ Messi Era of the MLS while Sugarman is the owner

    Lets be real, they cant obtain the players they need to win it all. They cant even afford to pay Kai Wagner 2 million which is way under his market value. They would rather let him walk and experiment with Harriel or Mbaizo playing out of their natural positions. They will let Caranza walk followed by MCGlynn in 2025.

    Sugarman hired Tanner with 1 major goal. Acquire under rated rated players and prospects sign them then then sell them as soon as their market value hits a couple of million. I am sure that Tanner is getting his cut form Sugarman or he would move on. The Union financial management is doing just enough to keep it interesting for the fans and keeping the machine moving along..

  15. Great column, Peter. I think that you pretty much nailed everything. The VAR issue is vexing. However, I do think that it should be implemented differently in elimination matches since the stakes are so much higher than a regular season match. Therefore, I believe that it should be used as a definitive check to a much higher standard (i.e. – was Mosquera (sp?) on or off) than whether it was an obvious error. Draw the lines and show the replay. Aren’t the stakes high enough to warrant that approach?

    One additional thought on Bedoya that I haven’t seen expressed anywhere. Perhaps Tanner realizes that if Bedoya is on the roster and fit, Curtin is always going to pick him at the expense of another player who might be ready for a larger role. So there will always be a natural tension between Tanner (wants to develop younger/undervalued players to either become a key player or sold at a higher value in the future) vs. Curtin (wants to win the next match and has more trust in his vets to do so). Maybe Tanner just thought that if he moves Bedoya on, this will eliminate this dynamic. After all, it’s better to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year too late.

    Thank you for all of your efforts on PSP this season. I really enjoyed your work and look forward to future pieces from you.

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