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Union advance in Leagues Cup, but at what cost?



Photo by Carl Gulbish

After being tamed at home by ninth place DC United for the second time this season, the Philadelphia Union needed penalty kicks to advance to the Leagues Cup Round of 16. We should be elated. The Union have exercised their penalty shootout demons. They’ve made it to the next stage of an international competition. There’s one thing missing in this East bracket. Instead of playing the giants from Mexico City, Monterrey or Guadalajara, the Union will play again at home on short rest against—the New York Red Bulls, with a potential meeting against—the New England Revolution. After that, if and only if Miami keeps winning, the Union will move one-step closer to seeing the GOAT at Subaru Park. Cha-ching.

Why be mad about the latest money grab?

From a competitive standpoint, the Leagues Cup, the latest invention in the tradition of trying to prove to non-MLS fans that MLS is a superior product, has become the one-sided waste of time we feared it would become. Only now, the Union are too far along the tracks to turn back. Yet every game forward moves them closer to derailing a season destined for a return to the MLS Cup final.

Aside from putting every Mexican team at a competitive disadvantage, the Leagues Cup adds to an already congested season for the Union, the highest MLS team in the latest Concacaf rankings at number eight. The Union will play their 34th game of the season Monday night, trailing only LAFC, who entered the knockout stages as the MLS Cup winners and dismantled Juarez 7-1 in the Round of 32. Unlike the Union, LAFC began to show signs of fatigue, limping into the Leagues Cup with a 3-5-3 record since their CCL Finals loss to Léon. That stretch included one win over their final six.

The Union were 9-3-2 since the CCL before entering the Leagues Cup, riding an impeccable home form while still sorting out a successful strategy on the road. The Union’s closest rival, FC Cincinnati, has played 30 games and will now have two weeks to prepare for the season’s final push after losing in penalties to Nashville SC. In all likelihood, the Union will enter the postseason after playing 46 games, possibly more if they make the LC quarterfinals.

Twelve MLS regular season games remain for the Union, six of them at home, including a Labor Day weekend Sunday against the Red Bulls. Two of those home games in September will come against FC Cincinnati and LAFC, important games in both the conference race and the Supporters Shield, with a visit to Charlotte FC thrown in because of the league’s monthlong shutdown for three Champions Cup spots.

For a team that thrives on continuity and energy, the Union are playing themselves into unnecessary wear. Jakob Glesnes leads Union players with 2,754 minutes played in all competitions this season. He’s followed by Jack Elliott’s 2,730, Daniel Gazdag’s 2,589, and Julian Carranza’s 2,534. In 2022, including playoffs, Glesnes compiled 3,360 minutes, Elliott 3,162, Gazdag 3,239, and Carranza 2,526. With twelve games remaining, Glesnes could clear 3,834 minutes before the season’s end, assuming he plays every second, which is probable considering the Union will continue fighting for a top seed. That’s an extra eight and a half games compared to last regular season and not including a potential four more squeezed into two weeks should the Union keep winning.

Who does Leagues Cup benefit?

The first soccer game I ever saw on TV was Mexico against Bulgaria in the 1986 World Cup. Imagine the joy of a seven-year-old me parked on my neighbor’s living room carpet, inches from the screen, watching Manuel Negrete’s effortless scissor kick from the top of the box and Pablo Larios sprawling all over the goal to preserve a 2-0 win. I wouldn’t see another game on TV for two or three years, so those were the memories I re-created in my backyard swing set goal, pretending to be Negrete and Larios. As much as we’d like to call Leagues Cup new, fans had been watching Mexican soccer players on TV well before Americans appeared on our screens.

I would have preferred to see the Union play a mixed lineup, like many of the Liga MX teams have done because of the importance of league results and the losing scenario in which they’ve been placed. Play away from home, with extensive travel, and fight for a result. If they win, they’re forced to travel more and fight for another result on short rest. If anything, it’s become a business trip to connect with American-based fans at the start of a new season. It can’t be the way players and coaches envisioned this competition when first presented.

The Union have chosen to take a professional approach and play to win. We expected a heavy rotation, and we’ve rarely seen it. The occasional Harriel for Mbaizo, Sullivan for Uhre is not the wholesale changes where the reserves gain experience and the starters rest. Jesus Bueno has become the biggest beneficiary, logging valuable minutes while captain Alejandro Bedoya and workhorse Leon Flach recover from injuries. Bueno is tied for second in assists throughout the competition with three and scored in the shootout win over D.C., but his defensive contributions alongside countryman Jose Martinez has returned some much needed bite to the Union midfield.

The East bracket of the Round of 16 has seven of eight teams from MLS, the lone MX team being Quéretaro, who the Union ran out of Subaru Park quite easily in the group stage last week. Quéretaro will play New England, three points ahead of the Union in league standings, who will play their 29th game of the season. The Union beat New England 3-0 in May and will travel to Foxborough on the final day of the season October 21, a game that could decide home playoff advantage and a Champions Cup berth.

While the Union plod along against familiar opponents, on the Western side, LAFC will face Real Salt Lake, who edged out CCL champions Léon. Of the remaining Mexican teams, Monterrey (1st), Club América (2nd), Toluca (4th), and Tigres (7th and Liguilla Champion) all finished in the top of the 2023 Clausura. Monterrey and Tigres will square off in Texas while the remaining beasts of Liga MX and LAFC play Tuesday night, which should be the most entertaining evening of the tournament thus far.

Am I saying there shouldn’t be a Leagues Cup? To be the best, teams want to play the best. Any competitor will agree. But holding a separate competition in the middle of a league season only waters down the main event, and the burden has now fallen on fans who’ve already shelled out extra money through a TV package and additional tickets to demonstrate their loyalty. If the attendance Thursday night at Subaru Park was an indication, it seems fans have grown fatigued as well. Essentially, MLS has chosen to dilute its own product at the expense of those who’ve helped sustain it.

But the regular season needed spice, they’ll say. Regular seasons are only boring because we continue to make the games less important.

The Messi-Effect

The timing was perfect. The stars aligned. Enter the world’s greatest player for the league’s worst team. The league has renewed vigor, and flexible timeslots apparently, leaving the rest of us wondering where this attention had been before Messi. Without even playing an MLS game, Messi has vaulted Miami to playoff contenders with a potential best-of-three series that could bring boatloads of revenue to the hosting team not once but twice in a week. It’s great for the league in many ways, great for the country, but a reminder how suddenly the other 28 teams have become the movie extras on the busy sidewalk that get shoved out of the way just before the hero and heroine embrace.

I’m not jealous, but I am bitter. The Union have won more games than any club since 2020 (59), are taking the Leagues Cup seriously (though I wish they wouldn’t), and continue to win despite the impact on their 2023 season. After playing the past six months with simmering retributory drive due to the heartbreak of coming within seconds to lifting the MLS Cup, the Union must maintain the focus for two more months before unleashing their playoff vengeance. But first, they need to get over the speedbump of Leagues Cup without injuries.

That’s show business. That’s the direction this PR machine is heading, where 34 regular season games mean less than they did a year ago. Instead of two months at the end of the season where twelve to thirteen teams in each conference kick the crap out of each other over seven spots (now nine), we’re further reduced to the March Madness argument, where we complain about the teams who didn’t get in the postseason instead of recognizing they had six months to prove themselves and missed their chance.

The Leagues Cup, however, is not a competition to determine the best team in North America but the best team in July, heavily tilted toward MLS. Fans deserve better than a glorified friendly with a trophy.

Greg Oldfield is a teacher, coach, and writer from the Philadelphia area. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Barrelhouse, Maudlin House, Carve, and the Under Review, among others. He also writes for the Florida Cup and Florida Citrus Sports. In 2023, he received an award for Best Column from the United Soccer Coaches for his story "A Philadelphia Soccer Hollywood Story." His work can also be found at

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