With Discouraging Champions League Exit, Did the Philadelphia Union Reach their Ceiling?
The Union crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday night in what amounted to a totally disheartening performance. After giving up a cheap early goal due to atrocious set piece marking, Olivier Mbaizo took two of the worst yellow cards you’ll ever see and was sent off, leaving his ten remaining teammates to scrape and claw for a goal before running out of juice and suffering a 3-0 loss. That knocked them out of the semifinal on a 4-1 aggregate scoreline.
Here we are then, with another chance at a trophy snuffed out by LAFC, who are just better than the Union right now. They’re kind of like the soccer bogeyman at this point, similar to the Edmonton teams the Flyers faced in the 1980s. There’s no shame in losing to a squad like Los Angeles, but it solidifies the Union’s position as second best in Major League Soccer, arriving once again on the door step but being unable to cross the threshold.
My takeaway from the result is that this era of Union soccer might have crested. The ceiling perhaps has been reached. This team has been up and down through the 2023 season and has some significant concerns that need to be answered, concerns such as:
- Cory Burke’s departure, which ended up being a HUGE deal. The Union play two strikers and their depth beyond Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre is Quinn Sullivan (a young tweener), Chris Donovan (might not be good enough for this level), and Joaquin Torres (not a striker).
- Uhre does not look like half the player he was last year. He oftentimes looks slow, unathletic, and unable to affect the game if he’s not being served balls into space. He’s scored a brace and a hat trick in league games this season, but otherwise has not been impactful.
- Olivier Mbaizo continues to be a big game liability. His sending off in Los Angeles was comical, and he continues to make mistakes at inopportune times. One week he’ll look like the best right fullback in the league, then he’ll turn in a poor performance seven days later.
- Alejandro Bedoya’s fantastic career is winding down. That yellow card he took on Tuesday night really should have been a red, and it would have been if it didn’t happen in the opening stages of a semifinal. Jim Curtin is loyal to his veterans, but you can’t be running Bedoya out there 90 minutes every game. A midfield successor needs to be ready to go.
- Andres Perea appears to have been banished to the broom closet ala Howie Roseman via Chip Kelly. Here’s a young shuttler, acquired in the offseason, who has played relatively well during the time he’s actually been on the field this year.
- Daniel Gazdag has come down to Earth. He’s banging in penalties but his contribution from the run of play leaves something to be desired.
- Ernst Tanner added three bench pieces to the best team in Union history, and most people seemed fine with the idea of running it back, but it’s obvious now that the squad did not get any better in the offseason.
- Curtin is in a contract year. Jay Sugarman is on the record saying ownership wants to get this taken care of, but does Curtin want to stay or go?
- Does summer bring us to the final transfer window in which Kai Wagner, Jose Martinez, and Carranza get you reasonable value? It’s crazy they’ve been able to hang on to all of these guys for as long as they have.
This isn’t even a negative post, if we’re being honest. It is what it is. If you told me five years ago that the Union might bump their head on a ceiling that got them a Supporter’s Shield, two Champions League semifinal appearances, an MLS Cup appearance, an Eastern Conference Final (scuppered by COVID), and myriad individual awards, I would have laughed at you and told you you were batshit fucking crazy. It really is incredible what this team has done over the last half-decade, considering their budget and organizational philosophy.
The thing that really disappoints is that they’ve been so damn close so many times, and they just can’t get over that final hurdle and secure that second trophy, which would solidify this as one of the best Philly sports runs of the last 25 years. We’re probably going to look back at this team like the 2007-2012 Phillies, and think about a lot of amazing times while also believing, deep down, that they were good enough to grab a second piece of hardware and probably fell short in that regard.
It feels like we’re at an inflection point with the Union. They could certainly go on a tear and figure it out and start climbing the table, rejoin the Shield race, and find their 2022 form again. There are still a couple of trophies out there, waiting to be claimed.
That said, I just can’t get this niggling, digging, annoying thought out of my mind, the thought that we may have seen the very best this team has to offer. Hopefully I’m wrong.