Philadelphia Union Vibe Check: Is the Sky Actually Falling?

The Philadelphia Union is in the midst of a five-game winless streak in MLS play. This bad streak started when the club was the final undefeated team in MLS during the 2024 season. The talk around the team was if they could compete for the top of the east and rise up the Supporters’ Shield standings; then Philly went on to lose their next three home matches in a row. This is the first time the club has ever lost three consecutive games at home in a row!

When looking at the vibes of this team through their first 11 matches in MLS play, it’s hard to truly assess how they are doing. On one hand, they have scored the fifth most goals in MLS (21), and on the other hand, they have given up 19 goals and conceded first in seven of their 11 matches. Their record stands at three wins, five draws, and three losses. That’s about as .500 as you can get in MLS.

Philly currently sits in ninth in the eastern conference with just about two-thirds of the season still to go. So let’s take a closer look at the vibes surrounding this team and try to decipher if the sky is falling, or if this is just a poor run of form early in the season.

Union, Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

Is the 2024 Union even any good?

The Philadelphia Union has lived in a period of unprecedented success in MLS. They were on an upward progression for a five-year span between 2018 and 2022. In 2018 Philly was a solid playoff team but failed to win a playoff match. The 2019 season was when the club got its first-ever playoff win. 2020 was the year the Union turned the corner and won their first trophy (Supporters’ Shield.) In 2021 the club made its first run in an international competition making the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2022 the club missed out on winning the Supporters’ Shield due to a wins tiebreaker going the way of LAFC; Philly then would make their first-ever MLS Cup but would fall at LAFC in a PK shootout. Last season was the first year the trajectory didn’t continue in its upward trend as Philly won no trophies, and lost in the second round of the MLS Cup playoffs. So how is this team doing in 2024?

The club has started the season looking like an average-to-bad defensive team, and a halfway decent offensive team. This is a diversion from the club’s identity that has been set over the last six seasons. Philly has been known as a defense-first team, that looks to use a selective counter-press to create its attacking chances.

This season, the Union have major defensive lapses and have let in goals that in years past wouldn’t have been conceded, yet their attack is potent when using the ball. It’s a major switch up from their team makeup and goes against the way that the team likes to play. This version of Philly has a backline that is regressing, a midfield that is full of up-and-coming attack-minded players, and a front three of DP players that are hot and cold.

To me, this shows that the Union is an average team. It does not mean that they can’t move up the standings with some tactical tweaks; however, the tweaks that manager Jim Curtin is making to the squad are minimal and don’t seem to be making the intended impact.

This has brought major frustrations for the players, and the fans alike. As the team continues to tinker with how they’re playing during this current period of bad form, they still have ample opportunities to turn this ship around, but if they can’t then they will surely sink down the standings.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

What is the club’s ambition moving forward?

When looking at the Philadelphia Union off the pitch, it is clear that they are a club looking to expand. The team has made major improvements to the complex near Subaru Park with the creation of the WSFS Training Fields, and the newly opened Union Yards restaurant. They have even reportedly hired consultants to look at expanding the stadium’s capacity as they have sold out the 18,500-seat stadium consistently over the last two seasons.

With all these expansions, possible renovations, and the popularity of the team, there seems to have been some steep price hikes when it comes to season tickets. The rumor before this season started was that Philly had the second-highest new season ticket price for a supporters section (usually the cheapest seat in the house) second only to Miami and their Messi-mania. While these season ticket numbers were never confirmed, many Union fans have voiced their concerns about season ticket increases.

Recent numbers put out by the club just weeks ago showed that a fan wanting to purchase first-time season tickets next year in the supporter’s section (2025 River End season ticket numbers are listed at $680 for the season) may be paying close to a 30% increase from what a new season ticket member paid for the supporter’s section in 2023 ($513 for the season.)

All of this talk about expansion and what fans pay has played into the current vibes around the team as far as the fans are concerned. However, the Union seems to be chugging along with their business model; developing homegrown talent.

The Philadelphia Union ethos is to develop homegrown talent and integrate them into the first team to make up the backbone of their squad. We have seen this with players like Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie leading Philly to the Supporters’ Shield. This current crop of Homegrowns who followed soon after (Jack McGlynn, Nathan Harriel, Quinn Sullivan) are literally the spine from attack to defense in some matches. It seems as though the current crop might be ripe for the picking soon, and with that new homegrown’s are being called upon.

In the last two weeks, Philly signed midfielder David Vazquez, goalkeeper Andrew Rick, and 14-year-old phenom Cavan Sullivan. The future looks bright for these young ballers, but the club itself is floundering a bit. Add in the fan’s discontent with the front office, and it seems like the investment in the team isn’t enough to get over the hump of winning a championship. So what is the ambition of this club moving forward?

The ambition seems to be to rely on the upcoming homegrowns (currently signed and those still to come) to continue to be the backbone of the team. While also using the sales of current homegrowns to buy Moneyball-style signings to fill out the first team with a team that has high upside. The problem with this is that this is not a proven strategy to win a trophy in a full MLS season as of yet. However the message from the team is that they are striving to win a trophy, so the expectation is set at a place that the current business model cannot attain. So does that mean that the sky is falling for the Philadelphia Union?

Union
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Final Vibe Check: The Sky’s not falling just yet, but it could be soon…

Right now, I’d say that the sky is not falling for the Philadelphia Union. They are not playing to their standard of play, and the downturn of some of their mainstay players is concerning, to say the least. However, would anyone be surprised to see this Union team bounce back and go on a good run of form in May and June like we’ve seen in years past?

The team’s current poor form is just a five-match winless streak right now. If it turns into a 7-game, 10-game, 15-game streak, that’s when the sky will truly be falling. We could be on the verge of that, but it is also just as likely that the team is just bang-average this year and fits in the middle of the pack in MLS. This would then start a new downward progression trend. Maybe the club is okay with that as they await Cavan Sullivan and the other uberly talented teenage Union Academy players to rise up to the first team…

Whether or not the Union comes out of this poor run of form or not, one thing seems clear, the talent in this team has plateaued. The projected prospect of success will likely need to be reset for this current team from winning a trophy to fighting for a home-field playoff spot. The sky isn’t falling right now, but the Union is surely falling short of their expectations.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union