In 2018, the Philadelphia Union produced their most successful season ever! The problem was that their accomplishment was produced no play wins, or any trophies. When looking back on the Union’s ninth season, accomplishments are overshadowed by disappointing failures.
2018 in Review:
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) October 7, 2018
The Union’s 2018 was a winding road that at times lead to success, but inevitably lead to failure. The Union posted a record that was their best ever at 50 points. They also had the most wins in franchise history. Unfortunately, Philly was only a game over .500, and failed to win the big games in a win-or-go-home format.
The Union successes should be celebrated, but as they move into their 10th season their shortcomings should be put under a microscope now more than ever.
Most Successful Season Ever:
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) November 7, 2018
In 2018, Philadelphia did set a record in their points achieved and games won. They also showed some real promise in terms of player development. Anthony Fontana started games and scored his first MLS goal. Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie became standout defenders for the Union in their first real season with the first team. Those teenage homegrown’s excelled, while other fringe players stepped up to become standouts in 2018.
Cory Burke took advantage of CJ Sapong’s Injury to play as the starting striker. Fafa Picault also took advantage of an injury, as he steeped up big for David Accam. Sapong and Accam were both double-digit scorers in 2017 but their injury’s paved the way for Burke and Picault to take the reins. They both were double digits scorers in 2018.
The reason those two were able to have success was because the Union had a true playmaking number 10. Borek Dockal was the real deal. The Czech was on loan to Philly in 2018, and all he did was score five goals and lead MLS in assists with 18. Philadelphia’s captain Alejandro Bedoya helped solidify the midfield putting in a performance that some deemed worthy of League wide praise. Bedoya was instrumental as a box-to-box midfielder helping create offense and release pressure off of the young defense.
The Union’s 2018 squad helped produce some great moments, but they only could bring so much success. There were some major bright spots in 2018, but unfortunately all of them turned out to be a facade in the grand scheme of things.
Union lose third US Open Cup Final; fail to make splash in MLS Playoffs:
"I’m still proud of the Cup run that we went on. Again, only one team’s gonna be happy & we came up a little bit short tonight. It doesn’t discredit the work that our players put in during this Open Cup run & what they’ve done in the league.” pic.twitter.com/fED3uRj2AV
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) September 27, 2018
In 2018, the Union made another run to the US Open Cup Final. After dismantling Richmond Kickers 5-0, New York Red Bulls 2-1, Orlando City SC 1-0 and Chicago Fire 3-0 The Union were on to the US Open Cup Final against Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo were a lowly team in MLS’ western conference, while the Union were a team in playoff contention in MLS’ eastern conference.
Philly went into the match as favorites, but the Dynamo are a side that is structured to beat teams like the Union. In the match, the Union started off on the front foot, but were hit hard when they conceded possession. Houston scored the opening goal in the fourth minute after they executed a lethal counter attack. The Union were stunned a bit, but tried to come back. As they looked to out possess Houston, the Dynamo dispossessed Philly and countered and scored a second goal. They went into half time up 2-0. As the Union tried to get back into the match in the second half. Houston countered again and added the dagger of a third goal.
The Union fell short of winning that trophy in 2018, and is the third time they lost the final of the US Open Cup in a five-year span. Philadelphia have been compared to the Buffalo Bills of the NFL with losing championship games in such a close number of years. The Union’s failure in the Open Cup translated over to the Union’s MLS playoff push.
At the end of 2018 the Union had a chance to secure a home playoff game, or at least secure a better matchup in the playoffs. They needed decent result against New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. They lost both those matches and had to travel back to NYCFC for their first round of the playoffs. The Union fell short in that match 3-1 ending their 2018 season.
A season that had so much promise, ended with disappointing results. off the field, The Union had a change in sporting director in the midst of the 2018 season.
Earnie Stewart vs Ernst Tanner:
What I want to say is that personality is important but having a good culture is a base which is mandatory for every development. And that is what’s also Jim’s point, and what he’s already created.”
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) October 11, 2018
The Union’s sporting director position was something of a sideshow in 2018. First, Earnie Stewart was entering his third season with the club, his implementation of a style of play was evident. The 4-2-3-1 style was played throughout the entire organization, from the first team, to the academy. Stewart, did not like to let communication about the club leak out, keeping things in-house, and seemed unwilling to let coach Jim Curtin tweak the style of play on the fly in matches.
Halfway through the 2018 season, Stewart was rumored to be a candidate for US Soccer’s Mens General Manager position. In June, the announcement came out that he would be leaving Philadelphia for the GM position with the US Men’s National Team. He stayed with Philadelphia through August, during which time he and the Union front office picked up Haris Medunjanin’s contract for the 2019 season. After Stewart left Philadelphia, the Union hired Ernst Tanner to be the next sporting director.
Tanner’s track record of finding players from around the globe that were considered “diamonds-in-the-rough” and turning them into stars made him a great fit for Philly. Tanner comes to Philly to help implement a culture around the club, and find players that create a good culture at the club. This will change the Union’s style, giving more flexibility for communication from the organization to flow, and giving the coach/team the freedom to make adjustments on the fly in games. This is something that plagued the Union in the past.
As the club enters its 10th season of existence, the choices they make, and the how the team does will show their intentions as they move into the future.
2019 will show the organizations hand after 10 years of existence:
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) September 11, 2018
in 2019, the way the entire Union organization goes about their business will show how they intend to move in their foreseeable future. If the team is committed to just developing strong young players, and bringing in questionable players to be their stars, then this club could see a major decline.
It’s been 10 years, and the Union has done little to move the needle in the over saturated Philadelphia sports arena. If they continue to go about their business as usual, then they will fail to make any sort of noise and the traditional Philly sports fans will continue to not care about the Union.
This of course, comes from the top and trickles down through the organization. Majority owner Jay Sugarman needs to open the pocketbook some more to spend on a star that would help the Union win on the field, while also selling jerseys, and get the casual fans interested in the Union. Who knows if this happens now, but if it doesn’t MLS, and Don Garber, need to step in to pressure Sugarman to find a star that can help out a team in one of the biggest media markets in the country.
A season like 2018 cannot happen again for the Union. Having the most successful season ever, while being one game over 500, and failing to win a playoff match or a championship when given the chance, is not good enough for this team to continue. 2019 is a new year that brings a long season, but if the Union do not pony-up and show they want to compete with every team in the league, then they could be descending into a dark place where teams are dissolved by MLS.
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Peace out Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports