PSN’s Union Team Awards for the 2023 Season

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Union
Mandatory Credit: Jimmy King

It’s been a week since the Philadelphia Union’s 2023 campaign has come to an end. The bitterness of losing in the 90+4 minute against Cincinnati will sting for a while. However, since there are just about five weeks until the players have to return to prepare for the 2024 season, it’s important to look back on the season that was this year to give it a proper account. Our Philly Sport’s Network Union team has done just that by compiling their awards for the 2023 season.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Jimmy King

Jimmy King

MVP – Daniel Gazdag

Picking an MVP was a little harder than I thought it would be, mostly due to the fact that it feels like there was a bit of decline in a lot of guys’ performance levels this year, and Union’s season as a whole.  But when you break it all down, Daniel Gazdag is probably the most deserving of Union’s MVP in 2023.  Gazdag led the Union with 14 goals and 11 assists in MLS play. 

While 11 of Gazdag’s 14 goals were Penalty Kicks, I almost think that being 100% from the penalty spot helped me make this decision.  Having someone who’s so automatic on PKs is a huge weight off a team’s shoulder.  Not only that, but Gazdag was an important part of moving the attack forward, having the second most Key Passes (40), and the most Accurate Forward Zone Passes (609) on the team.  I wish we saw a bit more from Gazdag in open play his season, but Daniel Gazdag gets the MVP from me this season.  

Breakout Season – Jack McGlynn

Maybe the one positive to having so many games in 2023 was the opportunity it granted a number of Union youngsters to break onto the scene.  Nate Harriel, Jack McGlynn, Jesus Buneo, and Hell – even Chris Donovan took a step forward this year. However, I think the player that’s most deserving of the “Breakout Season” award is Jack McGlynn. 

Starting in 15 of his 27 MLS appearances this season, the 20-year-old USMNT U20 International contributed 2 goals and 2 assists for Union in the regular season and became a shoo-in on the team sheet later in the year with the absence of Leon Flach.  McGlynn is in the top 80 percentile or higher of MLS midfielders in stats such as shot-creating actions, total passes attempted, progressive passes, and progressive carries. 

Not only has McGlynn added more creative influence on this Union team, but he’s proven that he’s becoming easier and easier to trust on the defensive side of the ball with every game.  

Best Signing – Damion Lowe

Well, this one’s easy – It’s Damion Lowe.  But not only because all the other signings for 2023 have yet to bear fruit of any kind, but because Damion Lowe had a pretty solid season overall for the Union.  Starting in 14 of his 17 appearances in MLS play, Damion Lowe was the one and only option off the bench at CB this season for Union, and he consistently brought energy and passion into the squad. 

He did go through a rough patch of form this season, but when he was called on late in the season in Jakob Glesnes’ absence, Damion Lowe was there to step up and put in solid performances.  I’d love to see Damion Lowe stay in Philadelphia next season.  

Biggest Disappointment – Joaquin Torres

Fans were really excited about Joaquin Torres, and he was hyped up by Jim Curtin quite a bit in the pre-season as a threatening option off the bench with the ball at his feet.  Then when he came off the bench in the opening game of the season and whipped out a double spin move and a dazzling assist, everyone believed in what he might have to offer to Philadelphia in 2023.

That belief turned to ashes for Torres who pretty much disappeared for the rest of the season, recording 1 goal and 1 assist in just 13 appearances and 345 minutes for Union.  I’m not sure what Torres’ future holds, but hopefully, it’s somewhere that fits him better than Philadelphia has 

Favorite Moment of the season – Chris Donovan at the death in Leagues Cup

Despite such an up-and-down season, there was a fair number of memorable moments that took place over the 51-game season.  Jose Martinez’s first goal in Orlando…his second one at home against NYCFC…and his 3rd at home against FC Cincinnati (he only scores bangers apparently) were all incredible, and the way the crowd goes nuts when he scores is almost just as memorable as the goals he scores.  But for me, my favorite moment of the season came from Chris Donovan

Yes, Chris Donovan produced my favorite moment of the 2023 season.  His 100th-minute stoppage time winner against Queretaro to send Union through to the Leagues Cup Semifinals was such a great moment.  Not only for Chris – who has received more than enough justified criticism from Union fans – but for the team in its entirety. 

The late game-winner set up a Semi-Final at Subaru Park where Union would host Inter Miami and Lionel Messi, and it may have been one of the most exciting moments of the season.  Until of course…we all know what came next.  

2024 Impactful Player Prediction  – Jesus Bueno

Another category in which I would feel comfortable with a number of different selections, but my prediction for a player to have a big 2024 season is Jesus Bueno.  Jesus really came onto the scene during the Leagues Cup run this season, filling in for an injured Ale Bedoya, and he impressed many people.  Bueno had 2 goals and 4 assists in 1,677 minutes of playing time across all competitions, with all 6 goal contributions coming in the Leagues Cup. 

Compared to other midfielders in MLS, Bueno landed amongst the top 78 percentile or higher in Tackles, Interceptions, Blocks, and Clearances.  He seems like the natural replacement within the squad for Ale Bedoya – whose future is uncertain – and surely brings the defensive side to the diamond, the opposite of a more attacking Jack McGlynn. 

One stat that stood out to me though – which might indicate that Bueno’s game comes with some offensive upside – is that he had the 3rd highest passing percentage of any player that player that had more than 1 appearance.  Most of all, I love the energy and the tenacity that Bueno brings to the lineup.  I’m really excited to see him next season.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Jimmy King

Eric Frysinger

MVP – Andre Blake

Andre Blake has been the best goalkeeper in MLS for quite a while now, and while this wasn’t his best season, one need look no further than how the Union’s defense held up without him to see that he was once again the most valuable player for the team. We all tend to think of his shot-stopping ability thanks to the many seemingly impossible highlight reel saves he’s pulled off. But what can sometimes be overlooked is the impact on the defense that having a keeper like Blake can make.

When defenders have complete confidence in their keeper, they play differently, with more freedom. Hesitation can kill you as a defender, and when you’re worried about the person in net, your attention is split and you’re far more likely to react slower to developing situations. Brick Wall Blake is still the most important player for this Union team.

Breakout Season – Jack McGlynn

It’s incredible how far we’ve come from worrying about Jack McGlynn having to take Alejandro Bedoya‘s place in last year’s MLS Cup final. A year later, he is unquestionably a starter in the best Union lineup. To go along with his wand of a left foot and penchant for picking out a perfect pass, McGlynn has added more defensive awareness and grit to his game- a crucial element for a center midfielder to reach the next level.

I only hope we get to see his continued growth in Philly again next year, as I think another year as a starter will be beneficial for him. That being said, don’t be surprised if he moves on to a European side this January.

Best Signing – Damion Lowe

In a season with far too many games to rely solely on Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott at centerback, new signing Damion Lowe proved a vital piece of the puzzle in helping the team reach two tournament semifinals and the conference semifinals.

Given the quality of the two returning starters at his position, his ability to step in for one or the other without causing a drastic falloff in the defense was both impressive and important.

Biggest Disappointment – The Front Office

Okay, this one is definitely cheating, but I’m doing it anyway. The handling of the Alejandro Bedoya contract renewal situation looked bad when the news first broke and only looked worse as time passed.

Winning the league’s 2023 Impact Award for his “charitable and social impact work,” to quote the team’s website, is icing on the cake for the front office’s decision-making disaster class. If you want me to name a player…you already know who it is, but he won’t be back next season anyway.

Favorite Moment of the Season – Brujo’s Banger

I’m tempted to cheat yet again, but I’ll refrain this time. In a season full of nearly there and almost, it feels a little like there were fewer moments of pure joy and triumph than in recent seasons. But one such moment does stand out: when José Martínez‘s long-range shot hit the back of the net against Orlando, I leaped out of my chair.

The best, most triumphant moments of success come after repeated failed attempts, when you know how long and hard they’ve been worked for. This goal was the epitome of that. (My cheat answer, if you were wondering, is getting to work with this phenomenal group of people at Philly Sports Network to cover all things Philadelphia Union. Which isn’t really a moment at all, but lots of wonderful moments put together- and yes, I know how corny that is).

2024 Impactful Player Prediction – Jesús Bueno

I didn’t want to have a repeat in this list, but I just can’t look past Bueno when thinking about who might have a huge 2024 season.

His trajectory feels a lot like Jack McGlynn’s: a season of impressing while getting more game time than expected, leading into a season of cementing himself as a regular starter and key piece of the lineup. Don’t be surprised to see Bueno week in, and week out in the Union midfield in 2024.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Jimmy King

Paul Frenzel

MVP – Daniel Gazdag

I was between both, Andre Blake and Daniel Gazdag for this answer, as they both were crucial to the success of the team this season. But I personally feel that Daniel Gazdag is the MVP of the team due to a couple of factors. The Hungarian was able to play in 32 of the 34 MLS matches for the Union, scoring 14 goals and 11 assists.

Yes, a majority of his goals were from the penalty spot, but when Gazdag is kicking the penalty, I am not really worried about it going in. He has been automatic from the spot, even claiming the most penalties scored in a single MLS season during the 2023 season. Besides his goal-scoring ability, Gazdag is also able to create for his teammates from the heart of the midfield. He was such an important part of the Union squad this season, and that is why I am awarding him the Union 2023 MVP. 

Breakout Season – Jack McGlynn

Wow, what a season it was by homegrown player Jack McGlynn. The 20-year-old midfielder is now an automatic starter in Jim Curtin’s Starting XI, and the development he had over the 2023 season is exactly why. He has been a crucial part of the diamond in midfield, as his ability to pick out a pass is something that is top-tier.

He also has shown improvement on the defensive side of the field and that is something McGlynn’s development is something that Ernst Tanner and Jim Curtin will love to see, and he will be an even bigger part of the 2024 squad. In my opinion, he has a locked-in spot in the Starting XI for next year, unless he leaves for Europe in the winter (I can only pray he does not).

Best Signing – Damion Lowe

In the offseason leading up to the 2023 season, Union sporting director Ernst Tanner made a couple of moves, but only one stood out of all of them. This signing would be centerback Damion Lowe. The Union acquired Lowe from Inter Miami in exchange for $225,000 in GAM, a 2024 natural first-round pick, and the homegrown priority over Shanyder Borgelin.

This trade ended up being a success for the Union, as Lowe established himself as an important piece of the Union’s defense. When all of Glesnes, Elliott, and himself were healthy, it gave Jim Curtin the flexibility to maneuver between the 4-2-2-2 Diamond formation and the 5-3-2 that we saw the Union use a lot more. His ability to either start for an injured player or even come in to give one of the two center backs rest, was huge for the Union’s success this season. It also helps that he had a fantastic year as well. 

Biggest Disappointment – Joaquin Torres

Boy oh boy, what a season it was for Joaquin Torres. The Union acquired Torres from CF Montreal in the offseason, and he seemed like he was going to end up being the next big super sub off of the Union bench. I even claimed early on that he could possibly be the next Ilsinho for the team (boy was I wrong about that one). In the opening match against Columbus, the midfielder came off the bench did what everyone expected, and played phenomenally.

He did a wonderful double-spin move, which led to a wonderful goal by Julian Carranza. But other than that play, Joaquin Torres did not have a good season at all. He made only 13 appearances all season, contributing one goal and one assist in the opener. Torres did not span out how Tanner and Curtin expected, and it will be curious to see what happens this offseason with the midfielder. 

Favorite Moment of the Season – Brujo’s goal against Orlando City

Without a doubt, Jose Martinez’s banger against Orlando City was my favorite moment of the 2023 season. El Brujo has been shooting and shooting and shooting to get his first MLS goal, and on that June night, the Venezuelan midfielder finally connected.

It was an absolute banger from Martinez, and it was even the game-tying goal to salvage the Union a point down in Orlando. I remember leaping out of my bed and running around my room due to the excitement. It was a moment of thrill and happiness for all supporters and the club and was easily my favorite moment of the 2023 season. 

Prediction for a Big 2024 – Tai Baribo

In a prediction that might come as a surprise for some people, I could see summer signing Tai Baribo as the player who has a big 2024. Yes, Baribo has not played that much since joining the club, and when he did play, it was not that pretty. But it is now the offseason and the striker can concentrate on training and making sure he is ready to be a big and most likely important part of this Union squad for the 2024 season.

Julian Carranza will most likely be on his way to Europe this winter, which means that Baribo will probably be stepping up as the other striker unless Tanner makes a splash in the position. But at the moment, I feel that Baribo will be the replacement for Carranza if he leaves, and I can see a big season coming from him. Daniel Gazdag was able to have a successful season after a rough first year with the club, and Baribo will as well.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Jimmy King

Tim Lovenguth

MVP – Andre Blake

The MVP of the 2023 Philadelphia Union has to go to Andre Blake. Over the last few seasons, Blake has been one of, if not the best goalkeeper in the league for the last five years. All the while the Union has climbed the ranks of MLS.

This season, Philly finally hit a plateau, the attack, midfield, and defense was not better than the 2022 version of this squad. Blake in goal, kept his consistent level of excellence, and is the reason why the team was able to go as far as they did in multiple competitions. With Andre Blake balling out for club and country (Jamaica will be in next summer’s Copa America) we could be talking about him as the team MVP next season too!

Breakout Season – Nathan Harriel

over the course of this long and winding season, there were many players called upon to take big steps to help the team succeed. One of those who really broke out this season was Nathan Harriel. While Harriel did play 1,776 minutes and started 20 matches in 2022, some questioned his role on this team in 2023.

Harriel stepped up, playing 1,939 minutes over 28 matches, and was called upon in the playoffs to play out of position and not only held his own but starred for Philly. With the uncertainty surrounding the Union’s outside back positions for the 2024 season, the club knows that Harriel can be a solidified starter. He has really shown how reliable good defending from a fullback can be; next season should be even more of an improvement!

Best Signing – Damion Lowe

Of all the signings the Philadelphia Union made this past season, Damion Lowe stands out. This is mostly because he actually played a significant role in the team. Lowe played 1,501 minutes totalling 17 starts over 20 games played. At first, it seemed as if manager Jim Curtin was keen on using Lowe to give stalwart center backs Elliot and Glesnes rest. However, as time went on he shifted to using Lowe with Elliot and Glesnes to have a three-back set. This versatility made Lowe an important piece of the puzzle for the Union this year.

While Lowe was brought in to be a depth piece, he played valuable minutes in the playoffs for the injured Jakob Glesnes and could be a part of a strong defensive spine going forward. Low was the best signing for Philly this past year, but that was not considered to be the case as the attacking players that came in were supposed to be the ones providing depth. Nonetheless, Damion Lowe is the signing of the year for Philly, and he will be important over the next few years.

Biggest Disappointment – Hitting their ceiling

When thinking of what the biggest disappointment could be from this past year, there are a lot of places that could be looked at; players, coaches, and the front office. However, that’s not big enough. For me, the biggest disappointment has been Philly hitting their ceiling.

Over the last five years, the Union’s success has grown exponentially. Their next step this year was to play in over 50 games, be competitive in all four of their competitions, and win a trophy. This did not happen. They played in 50 games and made the semifinals in the Concacaf Champions League and Leagues Cup, but fell short of even playing for a trophy, the pinnacle they hit last season.

Now that Philly has plateaued with how they are constructed, there needs to be change in order to go further. They are still one of the best teams in the league, with great coaching, and a great Sporting Director; so what’s next? If they want to get back on the path of upward trajectory, there needs to be more cash infused into the construction of the first team’s roster and their salary… It’s a huge ask, that will probably fall on deaf ears, but it would solve the problem of the biggest disappointment.

Favorite Moment of the Season – Yelling “Don’t shoot” at the top of my lungs in Orlando

Back in June, I was able to travel to my first Union away match since 2017. I attended the Union’s match against Orlando City in a game that would prove to be one of reliance for Philly. But before I got into the match, it was fun to be around the atmosphere of a new soccer stadium for me. My wife and I met other Union fans at a brewery a few blocks away from the stadium and had a good chat with Orlando fans. Walking through a city to get to a stadium was nice as well, even though it was a weeknight there was a buzz surrounding the stadium.

After making the mile walk up the stands to the away fans section, which was partially behind the only scoreboard and replay screen (great setup there Orlando) it was game time. Orlando jumped to a 2-0 before the hour mark and the Union looked done and dusted. Then McGlynn scored a goal off a deflection to get Philly back in the game. While it was just a one-goal game, it looked destined to end in a loss.

That’s when it happened. A ball bounced to a roaring Venezuelan number six. You could see he was lining up for a long-distance effort, while he had teammates open for a pass forward. Before he struck the ball the words escaped my lips: “Don’t shoot, Don’t F’in shoot.” But did Jose “El Brujo” Martinez listen to me? No, he did not. He ripped a shot. To my amazement, the ball did not end up in the Orlando supporters section, it curled wickedly and beautifully into the net. We away fans went absolutely crazy, and then the final whistle blew. The match ended 2-2; a draw that felt like a win.

2024 Impactful Player Prediction – A new DP number 8

The player that I think will make the most impact for the Union next season is someone not even on the roster yet. I feel that Curtin, the team, and the fans will pressure management into spending more on quality difference-makers. For the Union, they need a player who can carry the ball forward to start attacks and get the attack going. This has to be someone who can also get stuck in the midfield.

A new DP midfielder would slot right next to McGlynn and give Philly options of ball-progressing players who can hit on a counterattack. This way the team would not be so one-minded in needing their fullbacks to get high to be the best chance-creator for the team. Who knows if I’ll be right, or if I am just dreaming here, but I think this is the best direction to go for the Union, and if it happens this unknown player will be the most impactful player.

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Mandatory Credit: Jimmy King