Philadelphia Union Year in Review Part 1: Hitting the Ceiling

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Philadelphia Union. Mls
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

2023 was an interesting year for the Philadelphia Union. The expectations were high and for good reason. After falling just short of winning the MLS Cup in 2022, Philly was expected to run it back and win a trophy in 2023. The team’s trajectory over the last five seasons saw them go from winning a first playoff game to being one of the best clubs in the league competing for trophies. 2023 was the year when the team needed to win a trophy to culminate their year-over-year success. They did not achieve that goal, and now it has left all wondering if this Philadelphia Union team has hit their ceiling with how they are constructed and their play on the pitch.

Philadelphia Union
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Has this Union team hit its Ceiling?

The Philadelphia Union has been a team that’s been counted out for most of their existence in MLS. It took 10 seasons for this team to achieve their first playoff win, that was back in 2019. Since then the team has been on an upward trajectory from being overlooked to becoming a perennial contender in MLS.

In 2020 Philly won their first trophy, a Supporters Shield in a shortened season due to the pandemic. They followed that up in 2021 with a run in the Concacaf Champions League (CCL), making the semifinals and in the MLS playoffs falling in the Eastern Conference Final.

The 2021 team was plagued with Covid-19 and came back in 2022 with a vengeance. The team in 2022 broke many records, scoring boatloads of goals while giving up few. However, the team came up agonizingly short that season. Philly lost out on the Supporters Shield due to a win tie-breaker that went the way of LAFC. They then lost the MLS Cup in LA on PKs to that same team.

This past season was supposed to be the year that this team finally got over the hump to win a trophy, but it was clear early on that Philadelphia was different. Little reinforcements of consequence were brought in to help the team, and there was a clear dysfunction in the team at times. They were still one of the top teams in MLS, but they lacked the killer instinct that they needed to have to win a trophy.

2023 came to an end for Philly at the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a tough 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati. The team also fell short in the newly made Leagues Cup having to settle for third place, and failed to get past the semifinals of CCL. It was a year of almost or what could have been. The Union seems to have hit its ceiling, which poses even more questions.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Will Moneyball signings still hit?

The Union have their model in place when it comes to signings. It’s Moneyball or Bust, and the focus is on younger players to come in, develop, and be stars. While this is good on paper and has been one of the reasons for Philly’s success over the last six years now, it has not been the way to win trophies in MLS.

Sporting Director, Ernst Tanner has an amazing track record of singing seldom-known players and having them become breakout stars for Philly. The question heading into 2024 is, can that be enough to still compete for trophies, and win one?

The ultimate goal of the team is to win something, that’s where the bar has been set. Moneyball has proven to be a great way for the Union to find diamonds in the rough, but it has not been the way to win. A change may be needed to create a championship-winning spark.

However, that would mean spending more money, and we all know the club does not like to do so; on top of that, MLS hasn’t changed their roster rules to allow for more “big-money” players to be brought in so there likely will be no change for Philly in regards to their player acquisition.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Can a selective press and mucking up the game lead to trophies?

Philly is a team that does not want the ball. They love to sit back and choose their moment to press their opponent into making mistakes and then try to punish them for those mistakes. It’s a style of play that has suited Philly’s want to be the scrappy underdog. While this is great for their identity as a team, it has hurt them at times.

We have seen some teams sit back against Philly over the last few seasons as if to say: “Come and break us down if you can.” We have seen the Union be unable to do so, they pass the ball laterally and put in hopeful crosses to create attacks. Very rarely has the team been able to use the ball and play pretty soccer.

Because of this, there have been times when Philadelphia looked to muck up the game. They create chaos to try to take advantage of teams getting pulled apart a bit in those moments. It is a decent strategy, but last season this style rattled Philly more than their opponent sometimes. The team’s focus would slip in those heated moments, and the team would drop points from winning or tied positions.

This tactic may need to be looked at by head coach Jim Curtin. I doubt that Philly will abandon this style completely, but the discipline of the team needs to be worked on. All of the players need to be up for the fight if that’s what they’re going to turn the game into. They will need to pounce on the opportunities that are created from that.

In part two of this year in review, we will look at how this team leaned on its young players in 2023 and will likely do so again in 2024.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union