When the Philadelphia Union started to hit their stride and move up the standings over the summer, I was hesitant to jump on the hype train because it all felt so familiar: poor start, a winning streak in the summer, a stumble down the stretch and a finish somewhere between sixth and eighth place.
That changed for me when they beat New York City FC at home in one of the most attractively complete performances I can remember seeing a Union team put together. The team was winning games like they had at times before, but in a way that rivaled any group of players to ever wear the blue and gold.
This was a pleasant surprise for many of us.
Going into the season, I predicted the team would finish sixth place, make a deep run into the playoffs and at best win one playoff game. But after that NYCFC win in August, it started to look like we had underestimated this particular squad. That they were winning without the contributions of their leading goal scorer from the previous year or one of their two big ticket offseason addition was pretty incredible, especially given how poorly the season started. Heading into October, the Union were not only a shoe-in to make the playoffs, but third place was somehow reachable.
We all know what happened on Decision Day and Halloween three nights later in the Bronx. Added to the bitter disappointment of losing a third U.S. Open Cup final in Houston, the three-game losing streak to end the season was a huge letdown that poured cold water on all of the positive vibes the fanbase was hesitantly starting to allow itself to feel.
In the end, the team finished right back where many of us thought they would: no trophies, no home playoff game and plenty of questions about the head coach’s future, who the No. 10 will be next season and whether chairman and majority owner Jay Sugarman has the ambition or the resources needed to make the Union into a true contender.
Things could certainly be worse for the blue and gold — look at the seasons Chicago, Orlando, San Jose or Colorado had — but any argument that uses point totals, goal differential, road wins or the academy as reasons the season was a success is going to be a weak one. There were positive signs yes, but the bar for success needs to be set higher and those responsible for the team falling short in the only place that matters — on the field in Open Cup finals and playoff games — need to be held accountable.
When the Union were tested in the biggest games of the season, they failed much as previous Union teams have. As I often like to say, good teams find ways to win the important games; mediocre teams do just the opposite and often point the blame at the playing surface or the referees or say things like “we only lost by a goal.”
In a league specifically designed to ensure that every team can be competitive from one season to the next, seeing the Union have successful runs like they did in 2018 is baked in. It’s sustained success across a 34-game season and in the critical games that matters most.
Being told to be happy with the direction of the club nine years into its existence because they almost won a trophy, almost finished in third place and “look at the academy” just isn’t cutting it no matter how many points they earned in the standings or franchise records they broke or set.
Maybe one day we’ll look back and say 2018 was the year that changed the trajectory and set in motion events that eventually led to a trophy coming home to Chester. I have reason to doubt this starting with the chairman and majority owner but if we do, we’ll celebrate then. For now, I’m holding my applause.