Even before the Philadelphia Union season came to an end on a late controversial goal by FC Cincinnati on Saturday night, the letdown that we all felt the 2023 season had become was all too real.
The team that scored goals in bunches for fun and made it all the way to within minutes of winning MLS Cup in 2022 was supposed to “run it back” with mostly the same squad intact but from the disappointment of another Champions League campaign to the grind of the regular season and the utterly pointless expansion of the Leagues Cup the 2023 campaign ending up taking more than it gave.
Where 2022 was all about being a dominate team with attention focused all in one direction, 2023 was the year the combination of MLS overshooting its shot with their new partnership with Apple and a front office smoking too much of their own supply gave way to a slow and miserable letdown that all too appropriately ended with a VAR review amounting to nothing.
From the earliest days of the league’s attempts to put a team in the Philadelphia market, professional soccer here has been an exercise in myth-building. From early overachieving on the field and supporters’ group pats on the back to spells of empty seats, tragic bottom of the barrel team building to the latest iteration of pushing the academy regardless of the makeup of the team as a distraction to a low payroll while trying desperately to convince mostly uninterested sports fans that they are Philly despite their zip code, the Union has always been a bit of a heavy-handed time share sales pitch.
This season the myth was getting people to believe that keeping a team together was enough to navigate a 50-game season and still win MLS Cup. As we saw it play out over 51 games, the answer was a resounding no.
Of course much of the problem of why this season was such a letdown can be directed beyond the frugal ownership group to an office in Manhattan.
Since its founding in 1994, MLS has always been a case of at least we have a league again but over the past year it went from league you feel bad for not being consistently better to league that didn’t even bother to read the CliffsNotes before giving the book report they paid the teacher ahead of time to get an A for.
Take a month off for a cup competition with Mexico but all the games are in the U.S.? You bet! Sign a deal with Apple where Eddie Cue gets a say in how many playoff games you should play? Sure. Best of what now? With no overtime or aggregate scoring? Give teams three weeks off between playoff game? Go for it! Schedule an exhibition game during the playoffs so Messi can be on Apple TV one more time? Why wouldn’t you!?
The gimmicks and the games were all just overkill this season and by the time the Union finally got around to playing their game the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it’s hard to say how many people who attended at least one game at Subaru Park this season even knew they were still playing.
That the Union’s best player wasn’t playing because he directed a racial slur at an opponent earlier in the playoffs and the captain being run out of town for no good reason was playing his last minutes for the team only adds to the angst of how this season will be remembered. So long Kai, so long Ale, so long Julian and Olivier (maybe) and hello Sanders Ngabo and friends?
The early phantom yellow to Damion Lowe – the one offseason acquisition who ended up mattering – and the decisive no call for what looked on the broadcast view as a clearcut offside were just icing on a September birthday cake you forgot was still on top of your refrigerator.
Getting back those two minutes where the Union were MLS Cup champs was something so many of us had hoped would be the story of 2023 but then 2023 actually happened and as the months passed it became all too clear that wasn’t going to be the case. Finding a way to beat FC Cincinnati still felt like a real possibility – after NYCFC won MLS Cup in 2021 everything felt possible – but now that it’s over it’s a respite at last from a long and monotonous slog.
There are so many questions awaiting the team in 2024 and the ways it will try to justify not adding the rumored fourth DP spot if that does in fact happen but one certainty is there will be more Union soccer in 2024 and lots of it. Until then we can enjoy the time off, get caught up on all the things we missed at home going to/watching so many Union games and get ready to hate on whoever wins MLS Cup in a couple weeks.