Well that was one of the most embarrassing performances ever. Good God. The Union got totally run off the field Tuesday night against Lionel Messi and a Miami team that quite frankly didn’t even play that well and barely shifted into third gear over the course of 90 minutes at Subaru Park. The Union gave up three first half goals, changed tactics in the second half, and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn en route to a 4-1 loss that knocked them out of the Leagues Cup, at home, in the semifinals.

Head coach Jim Curtin got his formation and lineup selection totally wrong, choosing to play an ultra-conservative 5-4-1 while dropping Mikael Uhre to the bench and starting both Chris Donovan and Leon Flach instead. The Union sat back early, showed WAY too much respect to Messi and Miami, then conceded in less than three minutes after Damion Lowe whiffed on a routine sequence and Andre Blake was caught backpedaling and couldn’t get his feet set:

Horrendous, awful, abhorrent, disastrous goal to concede.

To make matters worse, Blake, who was incredibly disappointing on the night, then allowed Messi to score on a two-hopper from 30 yards out:

They did everything wrong on that goal. Midfield split wide open. Center backs out of position, lack of communication, Blake once again backpedaling and not getting his feet set on a shot he saves 999 times out of a thousand. They actually out-shot the visitors 16 to 5 but allowed four goals on those five Miami efforts. The Union defenders were all over the place. Lowe had a terrible game, Jakob Glesnes was pushed too far up the field, the wingbacks may as well have been forwards, and Jose Martinez and Jesus Bueno were bypassed by line-splitting passes time and time again. It was a disgraceful farce of a performance from a team that is so much better than what they showed on Tuesday night.

The worst part is that they did it with plenty of new eyeballs on the product, turning in a result that only furthered the narrative that MLS sucks and Lionel Messi is going to carve up the league with ease. This game was rightfully hyped and the Union put up the resistance of a wet paper bag on their home field. They played scared and were not even close to being ready for the magnitude of the moment. This is a team, mind you, that has played Champions League games in Mexico. They’ve played in MLS Cup. They’ve got internationals who have played in Europe, North America, and South America. These guys are battle tested and have way too much experience to turn in that joke of a first half. They looked like a husk of the hard-working, blue collar team that Union fans have come to enjoy over these past four seasons.

Once again, they reach the big stage and fail on the big stage. And it’s not even that they lost, it’s how they lost that really kills you. If you lose 2-1 on a world class Messi banger, so be it. But they looked like the Bad News Bears out there, a totally unrecognizable squad.

You always put the results on the players, since the coach doesn’t get a single kick of the ball and isn’t even on the field, but Jim Curtin got this one very wrong. The 3-5-2 looked very shaky in recent performances, and he decided to stay with it, play a defensive shell, and concede all possession to Miami. They showed way too much respect to Messi and their passiveness was a crime considering how much of a counter-pressing and transitional engine this team can be. As bad as the players were, they were not put in a viable position to succeed on Tuesday night.

Of course, nobody has done more with less than Curtin over these nine years. He’s taken a nothing franchise, won a trophy, and consistently has a scrappy group of overachievers on the cusp of winning another one, but you do need to look at the arbitrary list of “big games” he’s coached, which looks like this:

  • 2014 USOC final – loss
  • 2015 USOC final – loss
  • 2018 USOC final – loss
  • 2021 Champions League semifinal – loss
  • 2021 MLS semis – loss (COVID game)
  • 2022 MLS Cup – loss
  • 2023 Champions League semifinal – loss
  • 2023 Leagues Cup semifinal – loss

Certainly they needed to win four semifinals to reach those four finals, so Curtin gets all the credit in the world for that. Still, that is a rough record, and you ask yourself how much blame goes to him, vs. the payers, vs. ownership. Are they a semifinal ceiling team? Does Jay Sugarman need to make that extra investment to get the Union over the top? Can multiple things be true at the same time?

To Curtin’s credit, the Union were underdogs in most of these games, and typically have had less talent on the field. They were a home dog to Seattle in 2014 and lost in penalties in 2015. They weren’t as good as Club America and LAFC in the Champions League and MLS Cup. They got wracked by COVID absences in the fugazi 2021 playoff semifinal. But several times they’ve been played off the field entirely, like the 2018 USOC final in Houston, the second leg of this year’s CCL, and Tuesday night against Messi. Those three games? Curtin absolutely deserves the criticism.

It might sound corny or hyperbolic, but I really do think this loss is one of those games that sets the franchise back, and significantly. You build all of this momentum. You reach the semifinal of a cup competition. You get people talking about you in the newspapers and on the radio. You earn some respect and rightfully generate this huge moment for the franchise and then the moment is way too big for you. You come up small, play scared, get utterly embarrassed on the field, and once again exit a tournament in the semifinals. All the work you’ve done to earn that respect and make inroads in the Philadelphia sporting community goes right into the Chester trash incinerator.

We asked the question back in April – did the Union reach their ceiling when they bombed out of the Champions League in Los Angeles? It was a valid question then and remains a valid question now. With Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner both receiving contract extensions, the franchise needs to find a way to break through this ceiling and reach the next level, because they repeatedly reach this ceiling and bump their head on it. They’ve gotten this far playing moneyball, and deserve all of the credit in the world for overachieving, but if they don’t come up with a plan from here, that barrier is going to remain, in perpetuity.

Here’s our bitch session postgame podcast: