The Philadelphia Union’s Vibe Check; Are Troubling Times Ahead?

Union, MLS
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

I’ve been following the MLS ever since the whole MLS spending spree bringing in legends of the game like Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Frank Lampard, and all of the others back in the 2010s. While I never paid too much attention to the league outside of the big games and names, I still had a feeling for what each team was like and that’s the reason I eventually became a Philadelphia Union fan.

I’m from a very strong, working-class background and from a city in England that is known for being extremely passionate about where they’re from and the football team that represents that city. I got that exact feeling from Philadelphia and the Union fanbase, it seemed to be one big family of hard-working, down-to-earth people who loved the football team that represented the city of its namesake. 

I’ve been following the Union properly over the past 3 years, and have been covering the team and UII for the past 2 and a bit years. For the first time since I’ve been covering the team, the feeling around the team and club just doesn’t feel right and it hasn’t all season. However, the past few weeks have only heightened that feeling, and feels like there are a number of reasons that could spell worrying times ahead for the team if the front office doesn’t navigate the current situation correctly.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Situation 1: On-Field Performances

The first situation that the Union find themselves in is their on-field performances. The whole season hasn’t gone quite how Union fans or the team would have wanted. Knocked out in key games during their Champions League and Leagues Cup campaigns, including that embarrassing home performance against Inter Miami in the Semi-Finals of the Leagues Cup. Union was also knocked out early on from the US Open Cup, after a shootout loss to Minnesota.

Coming off the back of the heartbreaking loss to LAFC last season, there was one goal for the Union this season and that was to win a trophy. It didn’t really matter which one it was, Union just needed to get to the end of the season and see at least one piece of silverware added from their season’s effort. That hasn’t happened and with how the on-field performances have been this season, it would be a surprise if they manage to go deep in the MLS playoffs, never mind win the entire MLS Cup.

Union made some big-time additions to the team this year, adding depth at every level of the field other than goalkeeper, and this makes it even more disappointing that the team hasn’t managed to add a trophy this season.

I said at the start of the season that the biggest obstacle for Union to hurdle would be themselves. The past 2 seasons have been nothing short of unbelievable for the Union, consistently being one of the best teams in the league, winning the Supporter’s Shield, making MLS Cup finals, and putting on some of the best performances you’ll see a team have. The issue I raised and why I said they would be their own downfalls is because of the almost impossible task of keeping those standards going.

When you had Uhre, Carranza, and Gazdag setting records for being the most prolific trio the MLS has ever seen in one season. Gazdag going on an MVP-level season, the defense and Blake conceding so few goals it broke multiple MLS records, etc, it was always going to be near impossible to keep those standards going, but it was on the team to see how close they could keep the performances to that level and unfortunately, they’ve let it slip too much.

With just 3 wins in their previous 11 MLS games since returning to league action after the break for the Leagues Cup, Philly enters the MLS Playoffs in terrible form and it doesn’t help they just lost to their first-round opponents, New England, in the last game of the MLS regular season.

The players need to pick their performances up and there’s no more time to waste as they head into the playoffs.

Union, MLS
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Situation 2: The Kai Wagner Ordeal

Kai Wagner has been the talk of the town for the past 2 or so years, it’s been a key talking point since the first day I started covering the Union. The whole question back then was when was Kai Wagner leaving? Every transfer window they’d be rumors about it being the time he moved back to Europe, which is what Kai has always wanted and hasn’t been shy to say either.

However, with every passing transfer window, Kai found himself still in a Union jersey and the question about his future started slowly shifting from when he was going to be sold to when he would sign a new contract. As the current season continued, worry kept growing with every passing week that Kai went without signing a new contract, and then the story broke.

The whole situation was blown apart when Kai himself said it looks more and more likely that he will be playing his last Union game this season and moving on to a new team, on a free transfer, when his contract expires in the winter. It was a bombshell, a bombshell that the Union fanbase did not want to ever see. 

Since Kai broke the news, reports were dropping from every major MLS journalist and insider confirming what Kai had said and Union fans were not happy. At pretty much every game since Kai made the announcement, the whole stadium can be heard chanting Kai’s name and the very obvious chant of “Pay Kai Wagner”.

Kai has consistently been one of the best Union players, one of the best defenders in the MLS, and quite simply, one of the best players in the league since his Union career began.

His offensive output is absolutely absurd for a left-back and is a key aspect of how the Union has been so successful in the past few years. Defensively, he has never let the team down and is a great defender who plays his part in the best defense in the MLS over the past few years. However, does that mean the Union should pay him?

As I said, Kai is one of the top players in the entire league and he deserves to be paid accordingly, the issue around it all is how the MLS is set up with the whole DP contracts, and that limits what Ernst and the front office can do going forward.

Union currently has no DP spots remaining, with them using two on Gazdag and Uhre, while they use their extra 3rd slot as a young DP slot for Julian Carranza. This means that if Union wanted to sign Kai to a new deal, which would have to be at DP level, they would need to drop one of the three players above as a DP player so Kai could be signed.

There is the possibility that Philly has to let Julian Carranza leave in the winter, especially since rumors have been around for a while that Philly will lose their star young striker in the winter. However, to pay Kai as their 3rd DP player, they’d have to pay $150,000 and we know the Union likes to work on a tight, small budget.

The other question around every team in the MLS, with how the rules are and league trends go, is you just don’t use a DP spot on a defender, regardless of Kai Wagner’s offensive output. Teams need those all-important DP spots to get the best offensive talent they possibly can so they can compete at a high level. Just look at Union’s 3 DP players, two strikers, and a center attacking midfielder. 

The whole situation is really difficult for everyone involved. You can tell Kai has absolutely loved his time in Philly, and given the chance, I’m sure he’d sign a new contract to stay unless the right opportunity in Europe came along. It’s tough for the team because the players know they’ll be losing a key teammate and a good friend soon, which could be a small reason as to why performances on the field have been poor recently.

It’s tough on the fanbase because Kai is absolutely adored by every Union fan and he’s been one of the best players in Union history. To lose a star player like him, on a free transfer to when it feels like the club isn’t doing everything they can to keep him is going to lead to a very annoyed and frustrated fanbase, which is shown with the chants from the stands at every game.

It is also a very tough situation for the front office, they obviously don’t want to lose a player like Kai, he’s a superstar who plays such an important role in how the team plays and why they’ve been so successful in past years but they’re just restricted by how the MLS operates.

No matter how this situation plays out, I think the only way the Union front office comes out of this without much criticism is if Kai goes to a European team. If Kai ends up at an MLS rival, which is very unlikely, then it’s a complete and utter disaster from Philly and the front office would deserve every bit of criticism they received from that point onwards.

In my opinion, this whole situation is on the MLS and highlights the major issues surrounding the MLS and its future as it tries to continue its growth into being one of the top leagues in the world.

Rule changes need to happen and they’ve needed to happen for quite some time, it’s just a shame that both owners and the MLS board are more interested in rinsing the league dry of every drop of money they can get, rather than securing the bright future the league could have by making changes that managers, players, and fans have been crying out for over the past few years.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Situation 3: Ale Bedoya Treatment

Onto the next situation, one that dropped almost alongside the news about Kai Wagner leaving for free in the winter and which teams have shown interest already. According to sources, The Athletic reported that club legend Ale Bedoya was told his contract wouldn’t be renewed this winter and that he would need to start looking for a new club.

Now, most people expected Bedoya to finish his career as a Philadelphia Union player, he’s one of the biggest legends the club has had since it was born, and on the surface, it may just seem like Bedoya would be retiring, but then you look closer into the report.

The report noted that the conversation between Bedoya and the club, specifically Ernst Tanner, lasted around 20 seconds and was as simple as “We’re not renewing your contract, you’ll need to find a new club”.

If this report is true, and that’s not me accusing anyone of lying or making things up, we all just know how source work can be in sports, then it’s utterly disgraceful and Ernst Tanner should be ashamed of himself. To treat anyone in the club like that would be awful, but to do it to a long-standing legend and a fan favorite in Bedoya is just on another level, and it all just feels wrong and very unlike the Union we all know and fell in love with.

As someone who has been a football fan since the second I was born, and someone who grew up in a different footballing culture over here in Europe, it seems very strange if this treatment of Bedoya is accurate.

Most of the time over here, at most levels of football, if an aging veteran player (who may not even be a club legend) is coming to the end of his contract, the club will usually sit down and have a conversation with them about their next steps. This can include a number of things. 

Maybe the player feels like they have enough in them to be a starter elsewhere at a lower level, maybe the player would like to stay on and accept a lesser role with his current team, some even stay on and the club pays for them to go and do their coaching badges and allows them to be involved with the U18’s or U16’s teams to gain experience.

This doesn’t seem to be the case with Union and their treatment of Ale Bedoya. It seems like they just had no respect whatsoever for a legend of the club and to tell him that he’ll be leaving the club, no matter what he wants to do with his future, is just pure disgusting.

We obviously have no idea about the real specifics of the whole situation around Bedoya and maybe Philly did offer him a lesser role contract and he wasn’t interested, we’ll likely never know. However, to have that report follow the news that Kai Wagner would be leaving for free was just a second gut punch to Union fans after a bit of a down year anyway.

All 3 of these situations have just left everything around Union feeling off and unsettling, which is a new feeling after being such an exciting and fun team to follow and support the past few years. 

There could be really troubling times ahead for Philly and specifically the front office. They have a number of huge decisions and situations to navigate through that could determine how well the team can compete over the next 5 years.

If there’s anyone in the world I trust to navigate through all of this and come out of it unharmed and even on top, it’s Ernst Tanner, Jim Curtin, and the rest of the Union front office. They’ve never really given us any reasons to question them up until these past 2 reports and they’ve always taken the team to the next level on such a small budget and completely different resources compared to most of the other teams in the league.

Maybe the Union completely fail at how they deal with the next few months and the offseason, maybe they absolutely smash it and takes the team to the next level. Maybe they find some other solution like new ownership, although this seems extremely unlikely and would be shocking even if you can make the argument it needs to happen. One thing we can all agree on is we just want the positive and exciting feeling that we all know and love around the club again.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union