As Philadelphia Union and their fans saw another stoppage time goal consign them to defeat, and did their best to shake off flashbacks to 2022, one of the most prominently expressed feelings was…relief. The 2023 season felt like a decade rather than 10 (or is it 11? Who knows anymore!) months. The Union’s sole reward after a season of doing very well across the ever-growing slate of competitions, but coming just short in all of them, is exhaustion.
Nap time, anyone?
Players, coaches, supporting staff, and fans are all worn out and ready to relax for the offseason, a well-earned rest that lasts a whole- wait, 5 weeks? But the MLS season is still going on for another few weeks. That can’t be right. That would mean very little rest after the most brutally long season the league has ever seen. That was the amount of time between the first and second rounds of the playoffs (it wasn’t, but it sure felt like it)! Okay, 5 weeks it is. Hope everyone can recuperate after 50+ games! Thank goodness the Union got knocked out of the US Open Cup so early.
I’ve seen some argue that the amount of games the Union played this season is pretty typical for the top clubs in Europe, and that is true. But top European clubs aren’t bound by the same roster rules as MLS teams. In the modern era, clubs like Bayern, Manchester City, or Real Madrid have two strong players at every position and the wage budgets that come along with that.
In MLS, that kind of roster construction is nearly impossible, barring a miracle of very strong young players coming through a team’s youth academy and nailing it in the MLS SuperDraft providing quality backups or spot starters. Even the Union struggled to get quality minutes in certain positions from their backups, and they have more depth than some teams in the league, largely courtesy of players brought up from their academy. But there was hardly any debate around who would start in the games that mattered. There just isn’t enough room within the salary cap to bring in 22 quality players. And that means certain players are forced to play more often than they should.
For the Union, some of that exhaustion, particularly mentally, can be traced back to the very beginning of the season and beyond, to the end of last season. As I and others have discussed extensively throughout the season, the way 2022 ended isn’t something you just shrug off and move on from. You could see it in the way the team played early on, and I know I sure felt it within myself. In a strange way, knowing that major roster reconstruction is coming helps with finally moving on from 2022. Unlike this season’s team, next season will see a very changed Union side take the field.
We have also been spoiled by this team for the past several years. Every season has seen noticeable, measurable improvement in the standings and the playoffs. This season was different. The only way to improve would have been to win the whole damn thing. Would we have been satisfied with the way this season ended if we had picked up the CONCACAF Champions League or Leagues Cup trophy along the way? I’m sure the answers would be split.
Obligatory VAR mention
You may have noticed that I have yet to touch on the controversial nature of the goal that ended the season. While many were justifiably furious, I found myself far less enraged than I expected. I may have the Premier League to thank for that. Watching the top league in the world consistently get VAR calls wrong has gone a long way toward numbing me to the injustice of it here stateside. Plus, as an Arsenal fan, Cincinnati’s offsides goal isn’t even the first gut-punch goal I’ve seen allowed in recent months when VAR should have negated it.
What comes next for the Union?
Of course, a short offseason means that roster updates will be coming soon and often. As José Nuñez reported on X (formerly known as Twitter (I hate that every time I see or write it)), decisions on contract options are due December 1, the MLS roster freeze is lifted on December 11, and clubs can engage with players outside their own on December 13. This Union team could look very different sooner than any of us are ready for.
Are we ready to say goodbye to key contributors like captain Alejandro Bedoya, star striker Julián Carranza, a left-back, and maybe even an up-and-coming academy player turned-starter like Jack McGlynn? Ready or not, that time seems to have arrived (and of course, we here at Philly Sports Network will have you covered whenever news drops). With the departures come questions that need good answers if the Union is to have success next season. Who steps into the captain’s armband? Who do we bring in to score goals (and on a related note, what’s the deal with Tai Baribo)? What is our fullback situation going to be?
Despite all the questions, we should at least attempt to shut off and forget about the Union for a little while between the odd bit of offseason news. Players, fans, coaches, and staff all deserve to rest now, as much as possible. Maybe even forget about sports entir- what’s that? The Eagles are playing WHO next week? Tyrese Maxey put up WHAT kind of numbers? The Flyers still exist? No one is forgetting about sports in this town.
Looking ahead, I find myself feeling cautiously optimistic. Knowing how much is changing takes some of the pressure of expectation off, and despite losing Bedoya (unless the team is swayed by the pleas of fans and players alike), I still trust the other leaders to teach any newcomers what being a Union player is all about. The only certainty about the future is that it will be full of surprises. That, and passionate fans. So take all the time you need to recharge that passion. You deserve that. And then get excited. Because you deserve that too. Soccer in Philly will be ready for you when you come back. It’s only 5 agonizingly long weeks away.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union