Week 1 of the 2023 MLS season is in the books, and with its surprising results and dramatic late heroics, it certainly proved to be a memorable one. While it’s difficult to glean too much from a single result, that’s not going to stop me from trying! Here are just a few predictions (some might say overreactions) based on the Philadelphia Union’s 4-1 opening week victory over the Columbus Crew, along with a few reasons why they will and won’t come true.
The Union is winning EVERYTHING this year
The Columbus Crew is a good team. As Jim Curtin pointed out in his post-game press conference, as the season goes on they are going to become a great team. The Union was lucky to get them this early before Wilfried Nancy has a chance to fully implement his system and turn his players into the well-oiled machine we saw from Montreal last season. Even so, we saw the Crew’s potential during the majority of the first half, when they pinned the Union back and were arguably unlucky not to score more than an unfortunate Jakob Glesnes’ own goal.
Then the Union blew them away.
Were they lucky to be awarded two questionable penalties? Absolutely. The argument about whether it’s better to be lucky than good rages on. But the Union was both. Their 14 shots (5 on target) doubled the Crew’s 7 (only 2 on target). Now imagine if Union players had been able to time their runs better to avoid even a few of an astounding 9 offsides calls. That timing should improve as the season goes on.
Subaru Park has been a fortress for the Union, who haven’t lost at home in over a season (their 23 matches unbeaten at home leaves them seven games away from matching the league record for matches unbeaten at home, currently held by the Houston Dynamo with 30). Continuing that trend is an important focus for the team, and will be a vital foundation for any success this season.
Winning multiple trophies in a single season is difficult, even for the best teams. While league seasons usually end with the best team on top, cup competitions are a lot more difficult to predict; luck is a lot more important to a team’s success when progression hinges on only one or two results (depending on whether a knockout round consists of a single game, like last year’s MLS playoffs, or multiple, like the CONCACAF Champions League*).
*The CONCACAF Champions League is a competition that pits top teams from North and Central America against each other for the title of the best team in the region, just like the UEFA Champions League does in Europe. The winner goes on to play in the Club World Cup.
With the US Open Cup back in full swing, and the introduction of the new Leagues Cup interrupting the MLS league season for an entire month from July 21-August 19, every team in MLS is going to be playing more games than they ever have before. For teams like the Union who are also playing in the aforementioned CONCACAF Champions League, winning all competitions would mean playing 50+ games in a single season.
Now, some may be inclined to point out that this number of games is commonplace for the top European sides, who regularly compete in 34-38 league games plus their domestic cups and one of the European continental competitions. The difference lies in the restrictive MLS roster rules. Like other major American sports leagues, MLS teams are limited by a salary cap. There is a myriad of additional rules (such as designated players) that give teams some additional flexibility, but teams are still somewhat limited in how much they can spend on player salaries.
Perhaps even more importantly, teams are only allowed up to 20 “Senior” roster slots, meaning the remainder of their squad must be made up of minimum salary players of varying designations (MLS roster rules are a complicated mess, impossible to truly explain to any rational human being). Some teams, like the Union, have a built-in advantage in this area, because their strong academy allows them to fill these extra slots with quality players.
Why this will happen:
As I just touched on, the Union’s academy has provided the team with quite a few high-quality young players, particularly in recent years. This means that regular contributors, such as Jack McGlynn, don’t count against those 20 precious Senior roster slots. The Union will need their academy kids to step up and prove themselves this season, and I expect them to do so.
This flexibility also allowed the Union to bring in-depth players like “instant sensation” Joaquín Torres, Andrés Perea, and Jamaican international defender Damion Lowe, all of whom would be regular starters on some other teams. Like the academy kids, these players should expect plenty of game time and quite a few starts throughout a packed season. Their quality should ensure we see little to no drop-off from the team when they’re on the field.
Why this won’t happen:
Just look at the Seattle Sounders last season. In becoming the first MLS team to ever win the CONCACAF Champions League, their league form suffered, and even after the continental tournament was over, they were unable to recover their league form and missed the MLS playoffs entirely. While the Union has better depth than Seattle, it is still extremely difficult to manage players through multiple competitions in a season.
As I mentioned before, luck is very important in knockout competitions, and every trophy the Union is competing for, outside of the MLS Supporters Shield, involves knockout rounds. Maintaining their home dominance will be key in minimizing their reliance on luck, but there will still be moments we need the ball to bounce our way, and it seems impossible for it to do so that many times.
Dániel Gazdag and Julián Carranza will battle it out for the MLS Golden Boot
As two of the Union’s highly touted front three, Gazdag and Carranza got off to flying starts on opening day with each player bagging a brace (aka scoring two goals). While Gazdag banished last season’s MLS Cup final penalty kick demons, Carranza was the beneficiary of a stellar Union attacking move and an immaculate assist from debutant Joaquín Torres.
Why this will happen:
The Union’s front three will soon have played over a season together, and their chemistry started off well and has only improved. Just ask D.C. United about their goalscoring potential. Gazdag was close to the Golden Boot last season, just missing out on the award with a goal and assist less than Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar. With this year’s Union team out to prove they can win it all, they’re sure to score a ton of goals once again.
Why this won’t happen:
As mentioned before, competing on multiple fronts will require plenty of squad rotation. The competition this will be most prevalent will almost certainly be the league. This means that both Gazdag and Carranza are likely to see less game time in the league than last season. Is it theoretically possible to score enough goals to win the Golden Boot even with limited game time? Yes. And I wouldn’t put anything past a Union team that seemed to break records every week last year. But is it likely? No.
The Union defense won’t be as solid as last year (but that’s okay)
The Union had one of the best defenses in league history last year. They allowed the second-fewest goals per game of any MLS team in history. Andre Blake won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Jakob Glesnes won MLS Defender of the Year. Kai Wagner was nominated for the same award, and Jack Elliott was arguably better than either one despite missing out on a nomination. Ahead of them is El Brujo, José Martinez, one of, if not the best defensive midfielder in the league. The team could regress on this front and still have the best defense in the league.
Why this will happen:
Once again we go back to the rotation. Last season, our defense mostly stayed consistent game by game, with the only change coming when Olivier Mbaizo lost his spot to Nathan Harriel during a midseason slump in form (only to regain it by the end of the season). With all the games this season, that won’t be the case, and we’ll lose a bit of their vital chemistry at times, and it’s difficult to know whether anyone can come close to Martinez’s play in front of them at the number 6.
Why this won’t happen:
The defensive backups are studs. Nathan Harriel started plenty of games for the Union last season. Matt Real has been getting plenty of praise from Jim Curtin and others for over a year now, despite limited minutes. Newcomer Damion Lowe is a Jamaican international who started 27 regular season games for Inter Miami last season. Leon Flach deputized well for Martinez at times last season, and Andrés Perea could do the same.
Are these predictions outrageous? In some ways. As I said at the beginning, it’s impossible to know how the season will play out, for the Union or any other team. I didn’t even touch on a big thing that could impact all of these predictions: losing players in the summer. I avoided it because frankly, I don’t want to think about it. I want to sit back and enjoy a brand new start and see where the ride takes us. Who knows, maybe I’ll even end up being right about a few things by the end.
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