Almost two weeks have passed since the controversial and gut-wrenching end to the Philadelphia Union’s 2023 season. With the expanded Concacaf Champions Cup (formerly Concacaf Champions League) beginning play in just nine weeks, there is little time to dwell on this year. A busy 2024 campaign is already fairly close, as Jim Curtin’s side will begin preseason in about a month. With 2024 previews just weeks away, here is the state of the [Philadelphia] Union as the 2023 season closes.
2023 by the Numbers
Philadelphia and LAFC made history this season, both playing 51 games. While Los Angeles will extend that to 53 this weekend, it is still the record for most matches played in a season by any club in league history. It’s no secret that deep runs in cup competitions correlate to stumbles in league play, so all things considered, a home playoff game was immensely impressive for both.
Additionally impressive was the club’s home form, with just two defeats from 27 outings in Chester. A closer look at those two defeats reveals a tight loss to Orlando City with half of the Union lineup away on international duty, and the infamous Leagues’ Cup exit to Messi’s Inter Miami. More concerning was the multiple scoreless draws with D.C., Kansas City, Nashville, and LA. Despite being record-breaking scorers at home in 2022, the Union left points on the table through a lack of clinical finishing this year. Then again, 51 games across four competitions and four countries, and just the two home defeats is an achievement.
Both the attacking and defensive records shattered by the 2022 squad were unrealistic to repeat; however, over a 150 percent increase in league goals allowed was a hard pill to swallow. Surely, compensating for the defensive step back would be an increase in attacking output, but no, the Union managed fifteen fewer tallies than a year ago. In all fairness, being in the top five and ten, respectively, in goals scored and allowed, is very good, but a drop-off on both sides of the scoring spectrum made the 2023 season a much tougher watch for fans.
The Good from 2023
Despite the Union’s failure to lift a piece of silverware, 2023 still presented its fair share of highlights. First and foremost, the Boys in Blue reached the semifinal of both Concacaf Champions League and Leagues’ Cup, with both runs involving wins over Liga MX opponents. Not only did 2023 feature the Union’s first four wins ever against Liga MX sides, but April’s 2-2 draw in Guadalajara was the club’s first positive result on Mexican soil.
August’s string of three knockout victories in Leagues’ Cup was excellent by all accounts. Much of the Union’s fanbase has issues with the abysmal record in “big games,” and while the eventual loss to Miami reflected that pattern, the only way to get better at playing in cagey and conservative knockout games is to, well, win them. Winning back-to-back shootouts certainly instilled some faith in fans who have suffered through the Union’s dreadful history of penalty shootout losses. Regardless of fourth-placed Monterrey having nothing to play for in their defeat at Subaru Park, the Union wrapping up a Concacaf Champions Cup spot as early as possible was a big success, and finishing third out of 39 clubs was an impressive feat.
In an attempt to see if the fanbase agreed with these positive descriptions of the Union’s continental endeavors, I ran a series of deeply scientific tests (X/Twitter polls) where over 80% of the 250 responses deemed both the Champions League and League’s Cup runs successful.
In MLS play, failing to return to the league’s title game immediately appears as a failure. Obviously, the Union failed to replicate the success of last season, but they hit highs reminiscent of it at points. What sticks out to me more than any other point of the season is the entire month of May. The month began with the Union being eliminated from Concacaf Champions League, allowing them to focus on the league campaign entirely. Starting with a one-goal win in Harrison, NJ and ending with a comfortable home victory over Montréal, the Union won six of seven over the course of four weeks. This stretch was absolute dominance, with three wins from three on the road, two of which came after conceding first. This stretch was absolutely elite from Curtin’s side and showed glimpses of the dominance from the 2022 season.
On the personnel front, quite a few squad members excelled in 2023. Jesus Bueno quickly went from a player buried in the reserves to a consistent midfielder in Bedoya’s absence. Kai Wagner, Olivier Mbaizo, and Nate Harriel all excelled, especially when the Union went to a back line of five and gave the outside players much more flexibility. While it eventually lost its magic, the ability to have three solid central defenders was a new luxury for the club, with newcomer Damion Lowe having a very solid first season in blue and gold. Julian Carranza was frustratingly inconsistent but did manage to score an impressive 16 times across MLS and CCL. Daniel Gazdag was unable to replicate his MVP-level dominance from a year ago, but his 22 goals and 11 assists across all competitions ended up just one goal contribution short of last year.
Obviously, the bulk of his scoring came from 12 yards, going 18/18 from the penalty spot. Despite just the four open-play goals, Gazdag’s unprecedented penalty conversion success is responsible for over four additional goals compared to just the average taker.
Perhaps the most successful development is that of the young players in the squad. Quinn Sullivan took limited minutes at an unpreferred position and was fantastic at times. Sullivan’s skill on the ball, attacking danger, and ability to outrun anyone have been proven in MLS Next Pro, but seeing them translate to the top flight was massive. Chris Donovan went from a player who simply looked lost when on the field to a genuine attacking threat late in games. Like Quinn, his ability to score in big moments has been proven with the second team, but it took until the summer of this year to see it translate. Chris’ massive late goals against NYCFC, Querétaro, and New England in the playoffs were the product of his immense development this season. Finally, Jack McGlynn was also exceptional this season. McGlynn’s skill and passing ability have been on display for a while, but his comfort and decision-making at the highest level were what really appeared to develop this season. Being a club that prides itself on the development of talent, the younger players developing at this rate is crucial.
The Bad (and Inherently Chaotic) from 2023
Contrary to popular belief, not every moment of this season was bad. However, failing to win a trophy, or even get to a final, for that matter, was a clear step backward for the Union.
The MLS season as a whole was less than ideal. Finishing in their lowest position in the East since 2018 was disappointing, although just a game or two separated second from sixth.
Regardless, the aforementioned steps back on both the goal-scoring and defensive fronts led to four more defeats than a year ago. Then again, the Eastern Conference was unusually strong this year, and when factoring in two more competitions, more injuries than years past, and extraordinary travel, it’s not hard to see the step back. The previously mentioned series of polls started with the fanbase’s level of satisfaction with the season as a whole. After the club’s failure to lift a trophy and anti-climatic MLS campaign, just under 50 percent of the 600+ responses indicated the season was unsuccessful to a degree.
Undoubtedly, the biggest need heading into 2023 was depth. With every starting player returning from 2022, Ernst Tanner made three in-league moves to try and add depth for the extra matches this year. Andrés Perea featured just a handful of times, playing somewhat well, before finding himself buried on the bench until the summer. Tanner’s ability to get a rather substantial fee in return for Perea’s loan to NYCFC was impressive, and as all signs point to this deal being made permanent, it looks like the Union will break even at a minimum.
Joaquin Torres was brought in for a rather large fee concerning his inconsistency in Montréal, and despite showing early flashes of talent, he failed to find minutes. His absurd assist to Julián Carranza and late goal against Chicago were excellent, but almost every other action of his this season was a disappointment. Regardless, in this week’s end-of-season media availability, Curtin admitted that he failed to get Joaquin the opportunities necessary to succeed. This response came after Torres’ option was picked up for 2024, which was a shock to many.
Simply put, the Union was a couple of smaller moves away from having a roster fully capable of lifting trophies this season, and despite making some moves, a combination of injuries and congestion proved to outweigh the depth brought in.
Although the first few months of the season brought bad spells and tough losses, the final stretch is where salt entered the wounds. Although it looks as if the situations have completely flipped since the loss in Cincinnati, the way Ernst Tanner handled the contract negotiations, or lack thereof, with Alejandro Bedoya and Kai Wagner was atrocious. Tanner has an impressive resume with the club, and shortly after he and Curtin were extended in the summer, there became an apparent rift between fans and the front office. While we are unsure what Kai
Wagner was asking for in terms of compensation, the lack of clarity from both sides, combined with cryptic social media messages, sent fans into a chaotic spiral. It seemed all but certain that Wagner was on his way out after Decision Day, but the last six weeks have contained an investigation, suspension, and somehow a renegotiation. It is unclear how likely Wagner is to stay, but a final answer should be public in the next week.
A mid-October report from The Athletic’s Tom Bogert claimed that Tanner had told club captain, legend, and icon Alejandro Bedoya that he was no longer in the club’s plans after this season. Reports claimed the conversation was just seconds long and involved no reasoning. Despite apparent efforts to re-open extension talks, the way that Alejandro was treated throughout this process is a horrendous look for the club. Curtin has commented in the past about the Union’s commitment to allowing players to have the best opportunities possible. That idea not being accurate for the long-time captain is shocking. In all honesty, it’s much harder to write about the mismanagement of these situations after this week’s news that talks are back open.
As I previously mentioned, Jim Curtin and his staff have very little time off before the 2024 season begins. Next week, the Union will learn their continental fate at the Concacaf Champions Cup Draw. The randomly drawn first-round opponent will be the Union’s first test of 2024, sometime in the beginning of February. Just next month, players will return for preseason, and what will happen before that time is incredibly unclear.
In the coming weeks, we will learn the fate of many key players, the 2024 MLS schedule will be released, and the league will decide on important issues like adding a fourth designated player. No matter what happens in the rest of December, the beginning of 2024 is sure to be busy, and the season will be here in just a couple of weeks.