It’s that time of year again where the end of a year marks a time for reflection. The Philadelphia Union’s season ended the latest it ever has in 2021. Before going full offseason mode it’s important to look back at what was this past season. It’s time; 2021 Wrapped – Philadelphia Union.
The 2021 season will forever be defined as an overwhelmingly successful season for Philadelphia. Coming off of a Supporters Shield win in 2020, Philly lost three starters and many predicted a regression. They didn’t have one instead they did something many MLS clubs struggle to do make it far in CCL, high up the standings in the MLS regular season, and make a playoff run in the MLS Cup playoffs. Here’s a look back at the best season in the Philadelphia Union’s history.
Starting off strong
The 2021 season opened almost a month late after a threat of a lockout over MLS’ collective bargaining agreement. This just meant fans had to wonder how this Union team would overcome losing two MLS best XI players in Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson a little longer. The season was finally set to open on April 18th as the 2020 Supporters Shield winning Union went to the 2020 MLS Cup-winning Columbus Crew. However, two weeks before that the Union’s season began as they began their first-ever Concacaf Champions League (CCL) campaign.
The Union beat Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica on April 7, 1-0; they then thumped them 4-0 on the home leg on April 14. Talk about a great way to start the season! Philly then went to Columbus and played to a 0-0 draw to open MLS play. Philly opened their MLS campaign at home against Inter Miami. The Union came out in their new By U blue and yellow lightning kits and unveiled a Supporters Shield banner, but unfortunately lost the match late 2-1. The home loss was the first in the regular season since 2019. Philly had no time to dwell on the loss as they had the quarter-final of CCL.
Just three days after losing at home, the Union went down to Atlanta United and won 3-0 to take a huge advantage in the CCL quarterfinals. Before the return leg, the Union lost another league match at home to NYCFC after a bad red card from Jose Martinez which took the Union out of that game. Once again, Philly bounced back in CCL as they drew Atlanta at home to win on aggregate. The Union made the semifinals of CCL and would play Mexican giants Club America in the semis in August/September. Now that there was a break in CCL play, the Union focused on the league.
Between May 8, and June 26, the Union went on an eight-game unbeaten streak. Wins against Chicago, New York Red Bulls, DC, Portland, and Columbus, and draws against New England, Atlanta, and Chicago pushed the Union up the eastern conference standings. New players were coming in and contributing well. young central midfield signing Leon Flach came in and started right away and proved to be very important. So too was homegrown attacking midfielder Quinn Sullivan who showed his quality scoring some great goals.
Philly took 19 points from their first 11 MLS matches and won three and drew one CCL match. That’s about as strong a start as any team can have early in a season. As the calendar turned to the dog days of summer, the Union started a summer slump.
The dog days of summer
The Union’s summer months were filled with painful results and frustrating play. It didn’t help that the Union were going to be missing some key players as Andre Blake, Cory Burke and Alvas Powell were off with Jamaica at the Gold Cup. While the summer months brought struggles on the field it was a time to integrate a new attacking piece and a new formation. The Union signed Daniel Gazdag just before the summer months. After he was unable to play for his national team Hungary at the European Championships, he came to Philly and started to get integrated into MLS.
Gazdag didn’t shine right away for Philly, but his quality shone through in matches where the Union struggled. In the month of July, the Union only took four points from five matches. At the end of July, and after the poor results, the Union tried shifting from their 4-4-2 diamond formation to a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation. This was to allow Gazdag and Jamiro Monterio to both plays the number 10 position. This was an issue for the Union during their struggles in the summer as Monteiro was visibly upset with the team and then was absent for over a month. Many thought they had seen the last of Jamiro, as the Union continued to slump.
In August Philly got off to an okay start taking four points from two games; however, the slump was not over. Philly lost a game with a heavily rotated squad to New England ahead of leg one of the CCL semifinal. Philly went down to Estadio Azteca and put up a fight, but they didn’t have their best XI, and their issues scoring coupled with mental lapses at crucial times meant Philly was down 2-0 after leg one. The Union had a whole month in between legs, so they had to shift focus back to the league, which didn’t make for a good mental state.
The Union ended August and began September still struggling. They took only four points from four matches ahead of leg two of the CCL semifinals and dropped way below the playoff line. While this was concerning Philly had the second leg of CCL to focus on. On a night where Club America fans outnumbered Union fans in Subaru Park, the Union put up a fight with almost a full roster. Jamiro Monteiro came back to the team ahead of the game and started for Philly. The Union outplayed Club America at points of the match, but a lack of being able to finish doomed them. America scored two more goals beating the Union 4-0 on aggregate.
Through the dog days of summer, Philly took only 13 points from 12 matches and lost both matches in the CCL semifinals. With only 11 matches remaining, the Union knew they needed to go on a run to make the playoffs, but this team never lost their belief in themselves.
A belief filled resurgence
Heading into the final stretch of the regular season, the Union were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. They had just had a rough two months of play and crashed out of the CCL Semifinals. Usually, this is when MLS sides who played in CCL falter the most, citing the struggles of being in international competition while also playing the MLS regular season. That was not the case for this Union team. Team Captain Alejandro Bedoya said after the second leg of Club America that if this Union team plays the way they did in leg two of the CCL semis, that there’s no reason why they couldn’t make the playoffs and make a run for MLS Cup. People shrugged off his comment, but this Union team believed.
The Union started their home stretch with three wins and a draw over teams in playoffs spots or fighting for them. In those matches, Philly’s streaky strikers came alive. Przybylko had three goals and Santos one in those four games. This helped the Union rise up the eastern conference standing quickly. As the calendar changed to October, Philly had to deal with players on international duty yet again, this time for World Cup 2022 qualifiers. This was a big moment for more homegrowns to step up, and two did to steal the spotlight.
Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, and Nathan Harriel took a huge step forward in a match at Cincinnati where all three played phenomenally. Harriel and Aaronson connected on the game-winning goal, and McGlynn was a maestro in the midfield turning over Cincinnati and creating attacks. These homegrowns along with Quinn Sullivan early in the season showed their quality and place on this team in crucial moments. In mid-October the Union hit a miny slide on the road; they gifted Montreal a draw late one and blew a 2-1 lead in Minnesota for a loss. With four matches left the Union was on a knifes edge. Do well in the final four games and make the playoffs as a high seed; do poorly in those matches, and the Union would be a road playoff team or even worse miss out on the playoffs.
Philly started their final stretch against Nashville SC. The two teams were the 2-seed and 3-seed, should there have been a winner in the match it set up a good advantage to keep a high playoff seed. The Union came out and dominated an awkwardly rotated Nashville side. Philly squeaked out a 1-0 win off a penalty converted by Kacper Przybylko, and Philly jumped into the 2-seed. They would not let that spot slip from their grasp in the last three matches of the regular season.
The Union closed out their 2021 MLS regular season with two draws and a win. The final stretch totaling 22 points off of six wins, four draws, and one loss was enough to get them to 54 regular-season points. The point total was the same as Nashville but Philly had more wins on the season securing the 2-seed on MLS’ Decision Day. Philly made it to the playoffs, and they were not content on being a one-and-done team.
The franchises first playoff run
The Union knew that they would face a familiar foe in Round One of the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. The New York Red Bulls were coming to Chester. It was a battle of two teams who want little possession and only want to press and counter each other. The match was an affair with little soccer actually being played. Both teams were intense and playing fast. The match went to extra time after 90 minutes of soccer that could hardly be called that. The Union had a plethora of chances that they couldn’t finish to kill the game off, and at the 120+3 minute center back Jokob Glesnes hit one of his patented bangers to move the Union on to the conference semifinals.
The Union knew their conference semifinal match would be played at home and eventually found out that Nashville SC would be the team coming to Subaru Park. The winner would go on to their first-ever conference final with a chance to make MLS Cup. In this match, Nashville drew first blood as MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar scored a beautiful header. Daniel Gazdag equalized just before halftime and the game was a thrilling 1-1 affair moving forward.
Both Philly and Nashville played the waiting game on substitutions and the match went to extra time tied at 1-1. The teams made changes to try to win it in the final 30 minutes, but they both came up short. They went on to an interesting and mental penalty shootout. Andre Blake was the hero as he made two saves out of four Nashville attempts that missed the mark. For the Union, they only had to shoot three times and Jack Elliot and Jack McGlynn hit the mark sealing the win. Philly was off to the eastern conference finals!
The Union prepared for the eastern conference final, which would be played at home for Philly after NYCFC beat 1-seed New England. Unfortunately, the eastern conference final was marked by COVID-19 as the Union was hit hard. 11 players were out for the match including the starting goalkeeper, three of the starting back four, the captain and on-field leader, and two of the three strikers, as well as other bench options. Despite these issues, the Union still fought and looked like the better side for most of the game.
Philly scored the opening goal in the match but conceded the tying goal 90 seconds after they took the lead. NYCFC brought on a 10-million-dollar striker off their bench, and he capitalized off a Union mistake in the 88th minute to win the match for NYCFC. The Union’s improbable run ended one match shy of playing for the MLS Cup.
Tying a bow on 2021
What this Union team was able to accomplish in 2021 is nothing short of a miraculous sign that Philly is a top team in MLS. They went from winning a Supporters Shield in 2020 to losing two MLS best XI homegrown players, to making a run to the CCL semifinals, and then the franchise’s first MLS Cup Playoffs run falling just shy of playing for an MLS Cup. This is nothing short of an overwhelmingly successful season, and now Philly has to revamp for a 2022 season that is only 79 days away.
It was clear the thing that robbed the Union of winning more silverware in 2021 was mental lapses at critical times, and a lack of consistent finishing in the attack. Ernst Tanner and Jim Curtin are looking to fill those holes this off-season. Tanner is already on the hunt for a high-caliber striker, and the backline is being sured up with contract extensions and possibly another signing.
2022 will be a busy year as the Union will have their normal regular season, as well as the return of the US Open Cup, and their inclusion in the Leagues Cup. The offseason will be a short one ahead of the 2022 season, and we at Philly Sports Network will be following it every step of the way as we prepare for a 2022 season where the Union’s goal will be to win MLS Cup now that they are a top team in MLS.
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Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire