Analysis / For Pete's Sake

End of an era?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

From 2019 to 2023, Philadelphia Union were one of the best teams in Major League Soccer.

The club’s roster, expertly constructed by sporting director Ernst Tanner, blended club veterans with shrewd signings from abroad. Augmented around the edges with Homegrown talent from the Academy, the roster matched an intentional style of play: physical and relentless, stifling defense that could spring vicious counterattacks. When the time came to upgrade a spot or move a player for a big fee, the club did not hesitate, and so the team continued to evolve.

Over that five-year stretch, the Union produced a Supporters’ Shield, six playoff wins, a trip to the Eastern Conference final, an Eastern Conference championship, and three appearances in the Concacaf Champions League, including two runs to the semifinals.

Most agonizingly — as no one reading this needs me to remind them — the Union were less than a minute away from their first-ever MLS Cup triumph in 2022.

Now, though, it is fair to wonder whether that era has come to an end.

Saturday’s backbreaking loss to a nine-man Inter Miami side missing the league’s best player, Lionel Messi, marked both a low point in the club’s recent history and the halfway point of the 2024 MLS regular season. The Boys in Blue sit eighth in the East, just within the playoff range — but just four points clear of the conference’s cellar. They’ve won just once this season at Subaru Park, their home that was once an impenetrable fortress and now is more like post-breach Helm’s Deep.

Exacerbating this low point is the news that the club’s star striker, Julian Carranza, has played his last game for the club, with a move to Feyenoord expected to be finalized in the coming days.

It’s worth stepping back and reflecting on two questions — how did the Union get here, and what (if anything) can they do to fix it?

The first question will require the most ink. Let’s jump in.

Regrets? I have a few…

Broadly speaking, there are three inputs to a soccer team’s performance: the roster (assembled by a sporting director), the tactics and man management (helmed by the coach), and the on-field action (produced by the players).

All three groups share some blame for this iteration of the Philadelphia Union. But I think the majority of the fault falls at Ernst Tanner’s feet.

The Union reached their peak by identifying in-their-prime talent that fit the system and could be had for relatively cheap. Kai Wagner, Kacper Przybylko, Jamiro Monteiro, Jakob Glesnes, Jose Martinez, Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, and Mikael Uhre are all examples — though some, of course, are more successful than others.

That pipeline has completely dried up. After adding Carranza and Uhre in the winter of 2022, Tanner has completely whiffed on four straight transfer windows.

  • Summer 2022: Chris Donovan, Jeremy Rafanello, Richard Odada, Abasa Aremeyaw
  • Winter 2022-23: Andres Perea, Joaquin Torres, Damion Lowe
  • Summer 2023: Tai Baribo, Olwethu Makhanya
  • Winter 2023: Oliver Semmle, Markus Anderson, Nick Pariano, Sanders Ngabo, Jamir Berdecio, Isaiah LeFlore


Looking at this mess, a few moves stand out as the real killers. Many will point to Tai Baribo, an international striker brought in from the Austrian Bundesliga who is quite clearly not up to MLS level in the coaching staff’s eyes. (Even without Carranza, he’s fourth or fifth on the striker depth chart, behind Donovan — a nice guy who is the most replacement-level reserve imaginable — and maybe ahead of Anderson, who was most recently playing semi-pro football in Spain.)

But a sneaky-big miss was the move for Andres Perea, an ascending American midfielder with MLS experience. The Union paid real allocation money to get him and gave him a big contract, clearly expecting him to replace aging club captain Alejandro Bedoya sooner rather than later. Instead, Perea lasted barely half a season before leaving on loan, completely frozen out of the team because Curtin didn’t trust his defensive abilities. He’s gone on to be a useful player in a part-time role for NYCFC this season.

Baribo, Perea, and — to a lesser extent — others in these windows were expected to grow into roles with the Union’s first-team, hopefully replacing the current core as they aged out or were flipped for profit. But Tanner missed on pretty much every signing, leaving little fortification for the Union’s core. And he did not act proactively last winter to bring in any in-their-prime options, instead opting to sign what can optimistically be described as a grab-bag of random guys.

There are a few different ways to explain how little this team has changed, but here are three that I’m fond of:

  • The Union have 110 minutes played this season from their outfield players signed in the last two windows. It goes up to 1167 if you go back four windows — about 7.6% of the total outfield minutes available.
  • Two of the sixteen players who’ve played the most this season were signed in the last four windows: Semmle and Lowe.
  • Every single player who started for the Union on April 9, 2022, is still on the team. (Compare how much their opponents that night, the Columbus Crew, have turned over their roster in the meantime — with an MLS Cup triumph to show for it.)

Look, Tanner has a harder job than almost every executive in MLS. Union ownership does not give him enough resources to take big swings — or cushion to miss on a lot of small swings.

But it hasn’t been good enough, and this team — now with too many players who are exiting or well past their prime — is paying the price.

Blame to go around

Tanner isn’t the only reason this season’s been a mess.

Two-time Manager of the Year Jim Curtin has mostly pushed the right buttons over the last five years. But he looks like a man without much in the way of answers right now. The Union’s utter ineptitude with a two-man advantage against Miami suggests that he can’t figure out how to change a game. And teams now come into Subaru Park totally ready for what the Union are going to do. Every team knows the answer to the test, and the Union haven’t been good enough to get over that hump.

(It is also worth wondering how much blame for the transfer misses over the last few years he shares. Curtin is loyal to a fault once you’ve earned his trust — which you could also call “playing favorites” — and it’s clear that the likes of Perea, Baribo, and Torres struggled to earn that trust.)

The players on the field are not exempt from criticism. It’s hard to find any player who’s having a good year, honestly, other than Carranza (and maybe Gazdag, who has 10 goals but is drifting through games too often). Every member of the back line has regressed, as has Jose Martinez. Alejandro Bedoya is giving his all but is asked to do far too much at 37. Uhre remains streaky. Semmle hasn’t convinced.

And, while it’s hard to criticize our Homegrowns, it’s also fair to say that neither Jack McGlynn or Quinn Sullivan have done enough this season. Both needed to take a major step forward if the Union were going to have a good season, and neither has made that jump. McGlynn is good for a few nice passes a game but remains defensively suspect and athletically below par at the No. 8, while Sullivan provides a lot of attacking verve but has had spouts of ineffectiveness and doesn’t seem to have found his best position.

(A longer column could be written about how neither of these players is a real fit for the Union’s system — McGlynn is a deep-lying playmaker and Sullivan is a winger or wide midfielder, both crammed into mismatched roles as a No. 8 or second striker. But this column is already plenty long.)

All in all, this is a team that has lost the defensive bite that made it tough to beat. And it’s hard to see where enough goals will come from without Carranza leading the line.

What comes next?

As I said at the top, it’s not enough to diagnose the problem(s) — the Union are in dire need of solutions.

I do not think that firing either Tanner or Curtin is a salve. Tanner remains a gem of an executive who has had a bad stretch; it’s hard to imagine who could come in and do better on the Union’s budget. And Curtin is a very good coach in MLS; although all managers have an expiration date, it doesn’t seem right to jettison him now unless he’s really lost the locker room.

It would be — quite frankly — ridiculous to adopt owner Jay Sugarman’s recently expressed thesis that the Union must be judicious with their acquisitions so as to not block their precious prospects. With all due respect, Sugarman needs to get a grip. The mythos that the Union’s success is powered by their Homegrowns is not grounded in reality, as Kevin Kinkead recently explained. To have any hope of competing in MLS — and giving prospects a platform to develop! — you need a strong base of senior, prime-age players. And, as much optimism as there may be about prospects like Cavan Sullivan and David Vazquez, we should all be appropriately skeptical about any claims that an unprecedented golden generation will lead the Union to glory.

Can Tanner do anything in the market this summer to turn this season around? Signs point to no. It is very unusual for midseason signings to hit the ground running in MLS. That’s not to say that he should stand pat, though. The Union are in dire need of a midfielder who can play No. 8 (in place of Bedoya) and a striker to replace Carranza. If he can find those players, he should sign them now, even if it might take a full offseason to get them fully embedded.

Does that mean that Tanner should conduct a fire sale? Again, no. There’s reason to think the Union, who have a +3 goal differential and decent xG numbers, are due for some luck regression, combined with players finding their form and/or getting healthy. That said, Tanner should not be precious if a good offer comes in for any of his players, including McGlynn. The Union had a very good selling record for players young and old from 2019 to 2022 — the brothers Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Przybylko, and Monteiro all left at pretty much the peak of their value. That trend hasn’t continued, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Tanner could bring in some cash to make some real moves.

What’s to be done on the pitch? I’d say Curtin should experiment with some tactical tweaks, but we’ve seen more than enough of his preferred alternative (the 5-3-2). My suggestion would be to look for a way to put McGlynn and Sullivan into better positions. Maybe a 2018-era 4-3-3 with Sullivan and Anderson as wingers, Gazdag behind them, and McGlynn paired with Martinez in deep-lying roles? It’ll be hard to break from the 4-4-2 diamond after so long, but the Union are crying out for an option that better suits their personnel and has the potential to discombobulate defenses.

There is still a lot of talent on the Union’s roster. It is not time to write them off yet.

But it’s fair to wonder how long it will be before Philadelphia is back at the top of MLS.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Excellent article. Love when you contribute. For me, this is the most telling info in the whole thing:
    “Every single player who started for the Union on April 9, 2022, is still on the team. (Compare how much their opponents that night, the Columbus Crew, have turned over their roster in the meantime — with an MLS Cup triumph to show for it.)”

  2. Tanner got way too caught up in finding players for the academy and UII and has neglected the first team in the process. Only 5 out of 15 players brought in were even close to being ready to step on an MLS field the day we signed them.
    The Curtin dog-house effect is real at this point. There seems to be (at least?) one player a season who loses their will to play for the Union. (three this year?)
    I do wonder how we keep on ending up with guys who just can’t hack it. How many Wootens, Simpsons, Oravecs, Baribos, etc. do we have to go through to get someone decent for 600k?
    These are three separate thoughts, yet all related. All of which have placed us directly where we are today.
    Great write-up by the way – you cover a lot of bases here.

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      I’ve seen enough from Baribo to think he’s better than he’s been sold. But Jim’s doghouse is real. He’s never going to give him enough of a run to have a shot. Donovan is the favorite and clearly not talented enough to give us anything.

  3. A couple counterpoints.
    Perea was loaned out because Jesus Bueno emerged last season. Unfortunately he’s regressed this season after the sale of Perea.
    Semmle is a clear upgrade over over Bendik.
    Torres on paper looked like a good pickup, however, if one actually watched him play at Montreal…. it’s not surprising that he didn’t work out here in Philly. Also, he was Gazdag’s backup…. he wasn’t going to get a whole lot of playing time to begin with.
    Makhanya is a talented young prospect. He was signed with the future in mind, His signing can’t really be judged for another season or two.
    Baribo is a mystery. Last season, it was understandable we didn’t see much of him. Shows up in August, in preseason form like all Euro players do. Then his home country suffers a terrible terrorist attack and goes to war. As far as this season goes, I find it very difficult to believe how Donovan can be ahead of him on the depth chart.
    IMO, Donovan is a USL-C player, same as Rafanello. As someone who was a walkin college basketball player…. when describing a teammate or fellow player, if the first thing said is “he/she works hard” that’s athlete speak for they are not as talented as everyone else. It’s one thing to be the hardworking walk on basketball player, who’s only job is to show up and practice hard everyday. Plain and simple, the Union (and every MLS team for that matter) needs more at the striker position then simple plays/runs and works hard.
    With Gazdag and Martinez missing, and now Carranza it was very evident Saturday night that McGlynn and Sullivan were pressing and trying to do too much, rather then play within themselves and take what the defense was giving them. Which, to be fair, is something that many young players go through.
    Tanner and the Union were fully prepared, and expecting to have sold Carranza in January. When Carranza’s camp nixed that from happening it completely changed the Union’s course for this season. Tanner has to sell him to Feyenoord now for many reasons. Doing right by the player, doing right for the organization, getting funds to reinvest in the team, etc.
    Your point about not signing players because the Union don’t want to block the pathways for the young players is a tough one to reconcile. A perfect example of this is Bedoya and Sullivan. Quinn has played his best in that RM role in the Union’s 4-4-2. Bedoya, even at the young age of 37, still plays that position at a very high level. That’s essentially blocking Quinn from his best position. The fact Bedoya is still playing that position at a very high level makes it very easy for Curtin to deploy Quinn up top so that he can get his most talented players all on the field when Carranza/Uhre and Gazdag aren’t available. Along these lines, they’re not going to block Cavan from getting minutes. Whether he’s in midfield or up top he’s going to play when he’s ready.
    IMO another issue is that MLS Next Pro is currently not giving the younger and reserve players a challenging enough environment for developing to contribute in MLS. McKenzie, Trusty, McGlynn, Quinn S, BA, PA all played in the USL C prior to moving up to MLS. Same with Corey Burke. Curtin and Tanner hinted at this when they loaned Craig out last season and this season.
    Sidebar: thinking about exploiting market inefficiencies, maybe the Union’s ownership invests in a USL team, say put it in Wilmington, De. Share front offices. Separate rosters, etc. This would give them another place to loan players to get playing time, and also develop players. Take flyers on foreign players and have them play in USL instead of Next Pro. I understand this is a pipe dream, however, it makes some sense. They have the team in Denmark too.
    As for Curtin, I agree he needs to trust his young players a bit more. I would have loved to have seen him put Vazquez in Saturday night being up two men. To me that’s a no lose situation. Sometimes you just need to play the more talented players (hint hint Baribo before Donovan). In the past, the Union haven’t had real difference makers for subs. They do have talent on the bench, some of it is unproven in MLS, there is talent there. Anderson put in a shift in Portland (one of the toughest places to play in MLS), why is he not getting in over Donovan?

    • The BPG Sports connection from Union to Sporting AC might be the path to USL. The basic organizational structure is already established, just need to add that layer. Some sort of joint venture could be arranged, if it’s of any interest to both parties.

      • It’s also dependent upon USL being open to the idea/partnership/group. To me, it would make a lot of sense on multiple fronts. One as a conduit for those players who need time at that level between Next Pro and MLS (i.e. B. Craig) and also another place to sign players and try them out for the Union or to sell on down the line. It can also be used to grow the brand(s) and game in the area.

    • Eric Boyle says:

      Good points. Baffled by Baribo as well. Frankly he had the best chance of the second half, while he was on his back! Donovan seems best at hold up play and coming on to preserve a lead rather than spark a comeback. I was disappointed not to see Anderson on Saturday. Rafanello was clearly struggling Saturday.

      As for difference makers I would point to the Ilsinho days. Granted he was past his prime but could and did make a difference. For a while we had the ubiquitous 60th minute Corey Burke substitution although his effect was more marginal.

  4. Great article. Sums up a lot of feelings/thoughts.


    This club reminds me of the later Andy Reid Eagle’s era where there was a lot of success, but they couldn’t get over the top. Banner and Reid started to think they were smarter than everyone else and bragged about their gold standard salary cap management all the while missing on draft picks and FA signings.


    I’m not really sure where the team goes from here. I would love to see them bring a player or two in now so they have some time to adapt prior to the next season but inaction feels more like the Union way.


    I saw they season ticket prices went up again next year, just like this year. Time to put some of that money back into the first team…

    • It’s going to be interesting to see if they follow through with raising prices for existing STMs. If I were buying my seats new this year the ticket prices they announced earlier this spring would have been a 15% mark-up from what I paid last year. Given the way this year is going, I think they are going to be pushing out a lot of current STMs if they attempt to announce a 15% price increase for existing members too.

  5. I remember going to games and could see most of the UNION logo in the stands across. They need to something to get back to winning ways or it will start looking like that again.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      We have sat below the I since day 1, but if there is a significant price increase next season you may see a couple of new empty seats there.

      • I am seriously considering the same after 10 years. It’s just a shame but I go to watch professional competitive soccer. We didnt get that for many years, got two to three good years then this , very intended, drop off. Angers me just writing this again.

  6. Great article Peter and appreciate the research that went into it. Also, great reply from JayKoz3. I’m always amazed at the thoughtful observations that are posted by staff writers and readers. It keeps me coming back every day.

  7. Great writing Pete!! We have some friends in from out of town and missed the game to pick them up at PHL. Have watched the highlights ( mostly lowlights) and am baffled by the lack of defense in this game. Your points about regression are spot on! And it really is starting to feel like Curtin may have lost the locker room. I have to say it kinda feels like there’s something more than just we’re having a bad season far. I thought the Union looked lost when Bedoya was subbed out. And no one was leading the defense. Everyone up in the attack and you were exposed with no counter attack coverage!! If the beautiful game can be brilliant…. That was brutal!

  8. Excellent article. I’ve been struggling with where to “place the blame”. Has Tanner not gotten the right pieces or has Curtin not had the creativity and in game management (not using substitutions) to enable acceptable backups to stay sharp and do their part? Either one would make the other look bad- so which is the problem? Regardless, I think the biggest factor is actually underperformance (defense) and injury (Blake) that neither Tanner nor Curtin is responsible for

    • Yeah, it’s probably another piece entirely, but Blake’s injury issues this season cut against two big factors in the Union’s recent success: they’ve been remarkably healthy, and Blake has been in his prime and the best shot-stopper in the league. That’s changed this year. With him out of the lineup, everything — especially the defense — looks a lot more ordinary.

  9. Great Article Pete!

    Lots to think about. I was here when they were bad, we’re not back there yet.

    I’ve been here for the good – rapidly dwindling away. Reset seems about right, but I don’t see the ambition from ownership.

    Thanks for calling out the nonsense of acquiring pros that will block the kids from developing.

    I have been harping on a lack of ambition from ownership for months/a couple years. It’s not my money to spend, but please stop whining about how we have to live on a budget. And how your GM has never asked you for big money for a signing. That’s like not asking your parents to stay out past curfew because you already know the answer.

    They talk about adding seats to the stadium. You also need a reason for people to fill those seats. Expanding the seating won’t make them more watchable. And if you need local approval or participation in the expansion, a competitive team is your best argument.

    So Ernst needs a reset, a little more money (please) and more time. This is not a one window fix situation.

    Jim needs to allow himself to be uncomfortable when he sends out a lineup or calls for a sub. The new players aren’t going to earn your trust if they never get an opportunity at meaningful minutes. If you’re not willing to trust the talent you have, NO ONE will get better.

    I love the game and this team. I will keep my tickets (most likely), grit my teeth and root for better. And hang out with my friends and enjoy tailgating in the parking lot.

  10. The Choppet says:

    Fabulous stuff Peter. Valid all the way through. The roster stagnation as far as those who get minutes is obvious. I think in that mix of players we have several who have hit what I like to call the MLS Wall. They have received a decent MLS contract and their prospects for a big transfer or step up have gone by. MLS is now their job and the peak of their career. For some there is still the motivation of remaining in their national team pool and lineup, but for the most part the realization that this is all it’s going to be can zap that extra burst of motivation. New blood is sorely needed.

    • I agree, Choppet. I feel the stagnation comes from a lack of competition which starts with Jim. He has his line up (favorites) and never deviates from it….AT ALL. This causes a whole snowball effect..starters know there spot is secure regardless of performance, so there isn’t that hunger there from these guys to go out and prove anything. The other guys who don’t get any playing time have no motivation to work hard to earn a spot bc they know it’s never gonna come. What comes of that?…a whole team of players who don’t care. No one on the bench can remotely improve bc they do not get a run of games or any minutes at all. Dont understand why Jim’s doghouse is so full. It seems to me he has his “popular club” and if he doesn’t like you enough to be in it, your not.

  11. It’s easy for me to say they’ve given us diminished returns since the Cup Final. You articulate the problems and offer solutions that may or may not work. I don’t need to read it but I enjoy the read. This team needs an overhaul and an investment for the future. This season is done and has been, at least to me, for 2 months. Literally nothing is clicking. I feel sorry for anyone going to these home matches. I’m excited for the next era, whenever it starts.

  12. paulcontinuum22 says:

    Nuke it. Curtin, Sugarman, Tanner, all the dead weight…gone. Start over. Who is out there that can revive this dumpster fire of a team? Is there a Xabi Alonso-type coach here? He did wonders for Leverkeusen.

  13. Union should buy LVU-PA-Rush, obtain a bigger pool of homegrown players.

  14. So….. what I am reading here—between the lines – is —
    —-In Ernst We No Longer Trust.
    GREAT. I never trusted Jay Sugarman. I did trust Earnie Stewart. Thought I trusted Ernst tanner… and now am just spent with them all.
    I could counter your lovely article with 1,000 words of my own but more and more I am uncertain this franchise is worthy of it.
    I have become fatigued. That fucking Gareth Bale header then Daniel Gazdag penalty… took my will to fight.

  15. [this comment has been removed by PSP staff]

  16. John P. O'Donnell says:

    I sometimes think they miss Chris Albright since he left. Also the team trying to go homegrowns with veterans in their prime seems great when you’re winning but when you’re not it’s starts to give the perception to the veterans on the team that their prime will be over before help is signed.
    Plus three for a team that set records and has gone down every year since in performance just sounds like ignoring the obvious.
    It’s time to decide who from the academy the club will build the team around. One thought is that not every player will be sold off but is still a high level player for MLS. Nathan Harriel, Quinn Sullivan & even Jack McGlynn are players that might stay in MLS for their whole career depending on how the league grows. Not everyone will transition to a top five league and at some point in the future you would hope the level will grow for MLS.

  17. Sugarman has already said that the direction is academy players development, so stop complaining about Tanner and Curtin. If funding is not there what do you expect, so sit back and enjoy baby sitting until? This market is not as big as ny, miami, and la etc. and so no Messi is affordable or a Carranza caliber players. Suffered for a decade as sth until
    academy funding was used.

  18. I have got to believe both Curtin and Tanner are totally frustrated by Sugarmans unwillingness or incapacity to spend money on obtaining a quality striker. They all new Caranza was planning to leave. This team has operated on a shoestring with smoke and mirrors roster forever. They need to be creative with attracting a new ownership partnership with someone or this team will never grow the first team. Currently Sugarmans priority is developing Academy players then selling them off and not investing real money on the first team. It’s very sad for Philadelphia Union fans. The Union must aquire a new owner or partnership. Sugarman must show the fans something now. He needs to make a grand gesture and aquire at least a quality Forward and Bedoyas replacement. Phase them in now even if it takes til the end of the season to see promise for next year’s future. The remaining fans need some glimmer of hope.

    • Part of the trouble of the MLS model is with no threat of relegation, an ownership group, while potentially losing money in the short term has (fake) valuations of a club gaining hundreds of millions in value– despite not being good. This is the scarcity model.
      We are screwed. Jay’s value deepens and grows, his commitment remains the same and there is ZERO we can do about it. I’m all for the youth model. I am also all for Playing Well and figuring out how to get a trophy in a showcase and not just a Shield. Though in fairness to Jay— Jim Curtin has had multiple opportunities to do that.
      Welcome to the business plan.

  19. It seems like the other thing that we miss this year is a game-altering sub: Corey Burke, Ilsinho or Conner Casey.
    Lowe and Blake ought to get on the phone and call up their reggae-boy-buddy Michail Antonio. At $4M value and sinking on transfermarkt, he could an impact player for at least 45 every game.
    Maybe have he and Bedoya each play half a game – moving Quinn to compensate for position change.

  20. Here’s a quiz question for the PSP hive mind. Which former Union player won a trophy last weekend?

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