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Forget it, Jake, it’s the Philadelphia Union



Photo by Carl Gulbish

This post originally appeared on American Soccer Analysis

Robert Towne’s Chinatown is considered one of the great movie scripts of all time. The closing line in particular is a classic in subtext. A policeman icing-ly tells Jack Nicholson’s character Jake to “forget it, it’s Chinatown.” What is really being said is that the common man, despite best efforts, is powerless against the evil forces that rule the world. 

And while it goes without saying the Philadelphia Union aren’t remotely evil, their actions confound fans who seem powerless to understand, let alone influence, their activity. 

Before exploring the Union’s offseason subtext, let’s recap a solid 2023 campaign. The Union completed a grueling 51 game schedule and acquitted themselves well in all major competitions. They made three semifinals – Concacaf Champions Cup, Leagues Cup and MLS Eastern Conference – and qualified for this year’s version of the Champions Cup. They came up short in those big matches but showed their top team has enough quality to compete with anyone in the region.

So, the Union are right there. They have a great starting XI but very little in terms of experienced depth. Heading into 2024, that would be an obvious place to start. It didn’t happen. In fact, something else entirely happened.

The Text

At the end of last season’s press conference, Sporting Director Ernst Tanner noted that the Union have the 4th lowest salary budget in the league. He then remarked, “We are constantly outperforming this, and that is something we need to acknowledge and respect.”

The Subtext

While Tanner spun this in a positive light, he let everyone know right away that the salary budget issue is not about to magically disappear. But that still leaves the key question on the table: why is the Union spending so low? Philadelphia is not only one of the largest cities in the country but a massive sports town. Forbes recently ranked them as the 13th most valuable franchise in the league, which hints they must have more going for them financially than most clubs. 

They’ve also been much more of a seller than a buyer. They’ve made nice gains on Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, and Paxton Aaronson over the years and currently have the league’s lowest “highest ever transfer fee paid,” which went for forward Michael Uhre. They’ve taken in a fair amount of fees, and haven’t sent much out.

Financially they seem to be doing just fine. But no one gets to know why they are unwilling to spend on the senior club. I took a crack at trying to rationalize it, but fans are told to acknowledge and respect that this is just part of Union life.

The Text Part 2

In the same presser Tanner spoke about the plan for 2024:

“What makes us strong is basically our player development, and in particular our young players. The next wave of homegrown players is now knocking at our doors, and we need to do our best job with them. That’s what we are going to stick with, and that’s what we’re going to foresee for the next season as well.”

The Subtext Part 2

What Tanner might have otherwise said: Despite an excellent starting squad, an amazing opportunity in the Concacaf Champions Cup, and another grueling schedule, we are not going to materially invest in the squad and add experienced depth.

Fans naively expected the Union to act differently, but Tanner was true to his word. The Union were certainly active this offseason, but what they did was further cement the foundation of a youth movement. It’s startling when you look at the numbers.

Here’s a very fast run down of the new players signed since last July – Olwethu Makhanya (19), Tai Baribo (26), Sanders Ngabo (19), Nick Pariano (20), Isaiah LeFlore (21), Jamir Berdecio (21), Oliver Semmle (25), and Markus Anderson (20).

Hold out Baribo for a second, as he’ll be talked about below. Looking at the remainder of the activity, there’s practically zero top division, first team experience. 

Here is the age distribution of the 15 players who will be competing for starting or bench minutes.

The average age off the bench is now 22.6. That outlier at the age of 30 is Damion Lowe, who was critical to last season’s success and remains the most senior reserve on the team.

Removing Damion, the remaining bench has a total of 284 MLS matches under their belt, or about 20 per player, and almost all of that experience is tied up in five players.

Outside of amassing a strong starting XI, Tanner has since built an extremely young pipeline for the future. It smacks of a long term strategy, which any fan can appreciate, but what about this team now? The starting XI that has the skillset to compete at the highest levels. Shouldn’t there be some short term strategy?

These questions can be asked, but there won’t be an answer.

The Keys to the Season

The Union have one of the strongest top 3’s in league with Michael Uhre, Julian Carranza and Daniel Gazdag. Carranza took a step forward last season, while Gazdag and Uhre took a step back from their 2022 campaigns, which brought the offense down to earth. Goals scored dropped from 72 to 57 between 2022 and 2023. 

The key to the 2024 offense’s success sits with the second oldest bench player Tai Baribo (26). He averaged .45 goals per game in the Austrian Bundesliga, and is paid in excess of $700K per year, but had an odd opening season with the Union. He only saw the pitch five times for a total of 151 minutes and managed a single shot on target. He seemed disconnected from the club and never really integrated. Given the level of investment and the grueling schedule ahead, he’ll need to be a difference maker for the offense to succeed. He is an important, if unknown, commodity.

The lower part of the midfield in the Union’s 4-4-2 diamond formation should continue to be a source of strength. Jose Martinez, Jack McGlynn, and Alejandro Bedoya offer a great mix of youth and experience, and this is where there is some solid, if unspectacular, depth. Leon Flach and Jesus Bueno are the most seasoned reserves, and will get significant minutes throughout the year. Homegrown Quinn Sullivan (19) also stands to get shuttler minutes and has shown an exciting array of skills at a young age. He is clearly one of the “young players” that Tanner was referencing.

The Union’s defense is very good. Just how good they will be will come down to how great Andre Blake performs. During the Union’s terrific 2022 run, the Union allowed just 26 goals, the 2nd lowest per game total in league history. They dramatically outperformed their expected goals allowed of 38, largely on the back of Blake’s best ever post shot expected goals allowed of 10.0. That means he saved 10.0 more goals than an average goalkeeper would have saved. 

In 2023, Blake came back down to earth, but was still great. The team regressed and gave up 41 goals with an expected goals against figure of 44.2. Again, Blake drove that difference with a post shot expected goals against benefit of 4.1. 

Expect the Union defense to be very solid again. But their level of greatness will be determined between the pipes.

Here’s What We Know

The Union have a potentially great offense, a potentially great defense, and a grueling schedule. The concern is they just have two reserves that have proven they can contribute in critical moments – Damion Lowe and Leon Flach. Rather than solve that problem the Union have doubled down on their youth movement, signing six players under 22 years old since July.

Here’s What We Don’t Know

We don’t know why the Union are pushing toward youth when the senior team has the potential to push for trophies. We don’t understand why the owners insist they must have one of the lowest budgets in the league. We are simply told that player development is an important pillar of their strategy, when it’s hard to imagine that any club wouldn’t take that seriously.

At the end of last year, Union players complained about the length of the schedule and called for change. They were clearly tired as the season wound down. Purely conjecture, but the players might have offered a little subtext of their own in those comments. Perhaps that was a message to the ownership group as well: Get us more experience on the roster. We’re tired.

The fans are powerless against the thick cement walls of the old Delaware County Power Plant, now Union headquarters. But perhaps the players are too.

There’s one more line from Chinatown that comes to mind, another one delivered to Jack Nicholson as he tries to unravel the mystery. “You may think you know what we’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.”

And so it goes for the Union faithful as the 2024 season kicks off.

Copyright © 2024 Philadelphia Soccer Now and Brotherly Game

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