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Are the Philadelphia Union broken?



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The Philadelphia Union were supposed to be “running it back” this season with a mostly intact roster from last year’s MLS Cup final run and until Tuesday night the optimism was still pretty high with expectations that another high-scoring affair in Los Angeles would see them through to the Concacaf Champions League final.

That optimism was dealt another crushing defeat with a 3-0 loss that sent the Union crashing out of the competition 4-1 on aggregate.

Though the score line is deceptive – LAFC scored twice on 10-men Philadelphia with less than 10 minutes to go – yet another big-game defeat is sure to draw criticism of head coach Jim Curtin and the approach in a game where they needed to score at least one goal but ended up with none.

Curtin struck a somewhat defensive tone in post-game explaining the loss when asked about the approach in the game, opting to build up LAFC as one of the greatest teams to ever play in MLS.

“If you look at the opponent, it’s probably the best team you could argue in our league history,” Curtin said. “So yes, they beat us but when you are critical of my team please have the caveat we got beat by arguably the best team in our league’s history.”

Bringing up where this LAFC team sits in league history feels more of a deflection than anything else. Regardless of where they fall in that hypothetical discussion, they looked beatable for long stretches in both games and the Union were not able to deliver. The Union’s only goal in the two matches came via a PK on a Kellyn Acosta handball.

Even with Olivier Mbaizo’s second yellow – a deserving question is why he was still on in the second half after picking up the dumb first yellow for pushing a player over – bringing on fresher legs sooner might have made a difference in finding the equalizer and hoping for the best in another penalty shootout.

“I don’t think we were conservative,” Curtin said. “Played with two strikers like we always do. We had chances in the first half we didn’t score them.”

Curtin has said on numerous occasions that MLS has a way of humbling teams and the result Tuesday feels like the latest in a series of humbling experiences for a team that was beating opponents into the ground for fun last year. In 15 games all competitions this season the Union have won just five and after coming up empty handed in CCL now return to league play in 10th place with a U-20 World Cup approaching to deplete their already thin roster even more.

There is still a ton to play for and a lot of season left but there’s also a fair amount of questions to ask. Questions about the roster and why players like Andres Perea and Joaquin Torres aren’t seeing more of the field, questions about the forward depth and whether reinforcements are coming in the summer, questions about the locker room, Curtin’s expiring contract and more.

While it may feel a little bit like the Union are broken and spiraling toward more disappointment this season, the reality is that Champions League has taken a toll and now that’s it’s over they’ll have more opportunities to try to get back to being themselves again. Have they become too predictable at times? Yes. Is the depth the strength many fans were hoping it would be this season? Definitely not, but at the same time it also can’t be an asset if you don’t treat it as one.

Rather than lifting up the opponent – as if we don’t get that enough from the league already and won’t be getting the full-on assault in the weeks to come – maybe a long hard look internally is what this team needs. In other words, just because the car isn’t broken down on the side of the road doesn’t mean it doesn’t need a tune-up.

One of the traits of the Union in the era of success they have been in for several years now has been their ability to bounce back from adversity and disappointment. That and their uncanny ability to prove people wrong.

Maybe the story yet to be written this year is about how this team and its defeated fanbase bounced back and the unpredictable twists and turns it took to finally reach the illusive summit.

Matthew Ralph is the managing editor of Philadelphia Soccer Now / Brotherly Game. He's covered soccer at all levels for many years in the Philadelphia region and has also written for, NPSL, PrepSoccer and other publications. He lives with his wife and two young children in Broomall, Pa., but grew up in South Jersey and is originally from Kansas.

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