After this Philadelphia Union season, I feel a bit like Rutger Hauer’s character at the end of Blade Runner:
I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe…a 17-year-old score his first professional goal with a bicycle kick. A center back hit a shot so hard it bounced three times off the crossbar before it landed in goal. I’ve seen Jim Curtin—who once drove a group of stranded opposition supporters back to their hotel after a game—call someone an a-hole in a post-game press conference.
Reflecting on the 2021 season, what strikes me most is how it brought together present success and future potential. Coupled with a run to the Concacaf Champions League semi-finals and a trip to the MLS Eastern Conference Finals were moments of pure brilliance from homegrowns at the beginning of their careers. The season’s ending was heartbreaking, but the Union won quite a bit and laid a strong foundation for the future.
Let’s look back at some of the highlights from an incredible 2021 season.
First Concacaf Champions League Win (April 7, 2021)
After winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2020, the Union sold Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie to Europe, and longtime right back Ray Gaddis retired. Among many soccer pundits, expectations were low— “How would they replace two best XI players and the club leader in appearances?” The Union responded by going to the Monster’s Cave in Costa Rica (which, to be fair, was a bit less monstrous without any fans) and beating Deportivo Saprissa 1-0. Not all the questions were answered that first game, but the Union started the season with a milestone victory and got their first taste of the rough-and-tumble nature of international competition. The lingering image: Kai Wagner spinning in the air like a pinwheel after a vicious tackle from Saprissa’s Ricardo Blanco—for which he only received a yellow card. Welcome to CCL!
Kacper Strikes Back (April 27, 2021)
While the Union strikers struggled with their finishing touch in the second half of the season, Kacper Przybyłko was on an absolute roll in the Concacaf Champions League, netting five goals and eventually winning the competition’s golden boot. His finest performance of the tournament came during the Union’s 3-0 win at Atlanta. After scoring two goals in the second half, Przybyłko had the opportunity for a hat trick, but he instead made a smart pass to Anthony Fontana, who put away the tap-in. It was a valuable reminder of how much of a threat Przybyłko can be when he’s in form.
Jim Curtin Calls Gabriel Heinze an A-hole (May 4, 2021)
Jim Curtin is a nice guy. Everybody knows it. When the hosts of The Call-Up podcast gave him a sweatshirt, he wore it to the next game. When he saw a child crying in the stands after one of the Union’s U.S. Open Cup final losses, he sent the kid his own runner-up medal, and promised to swap him for a winner’s medal when the Union won. So if Jim Curtin goes into a press conference and calls you an a-hole, that’s saying something. But after a chippy 1-1 draw at Subaru Park that knocked Atlanta out of the CCL, that’s exactly what happened. Atlanta coach Gabriel Heinze had gotten in Curtin’s face after the game and then refused to shake his hand. Given that Heinze was fired just two months later, it seems like Curtin wasn’t the only one who shared that opinion of the Atlanta coach.
The Glesnes Goal, Redux (June 20, 2021)
If Jakob Glesnes never scored again after his 35-yard free-kick masterpiece at LAFC in 2020, he would still be a legend. That’s how good it was. But this year, he decided to score an even better goal—from open play this time—in the final minutes against Atlanta, turning a 2-1 loss into a miraculous 2-2 draw. His long-distance shot struck the frame of the goal with such force that it pinballed between the crossbar and the ground three times before finally settling in goal. It was a shot that seemed to defy all concepts of time, space, and reality. Please send condolences to Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan, who will likely be having nightmares about it for the rest of his life.
Quinn Sullivan’s Bike (June 26, 2021)
After a few impressive performances as a sub, Quinn Sullivan earned his first start against the Chicago Fire as Alejandro Bedoya recovered from a calf injury. The 17-year-old responded by delivering his very first MLS goal in style—a spectacular bicycle kick that stunned the Fire, the Union, and even himself. The technical, instinctive strike showed why the homegrown is so highly regarded by the Union and so closely watched by clubs in Europe. With that remarkable effort, Sullivan became the Union’s youngest ever goal scorer.
Paxten Aaronson’s First Goal (August 8, 2021)
Paxten Aaronson wasn’t going to let Sullivan be the only 17-year-old to get on the score sheet in his first start. When Aaronson got the call against New England, he took full advantage of the opportunity. Receiving a pass from Jakob Glesnes, he slipped through a crowd at the top of the box, beat the Revs defenders, and hit a left-footed strike into the top corner past Matt Turner. Paxten is following in his older brother Brenden’s footsteps, but he looks to be traveling even more quickly, likely because he’s already seen where the path goes.
Losing the Most Important Game in Club History (September 15, 2021)
After going to the Azteca and getting beat 2-0 by Club América in the CCL semi-finals, the Union needed a miracle to advance. They didn’t get one. They lost 2-0 at home and 4-0 on aggregate. But after a month of lackluster play, they had found their intensity in the loss. They looked like the Union we remembered. They fought. They scrapped. They revived something in them that had been dormant. Curtin said that if the Union played the way they did against Club América for the rest of the MLS season, they’d be in a strong position. Before the game, they had been languishing below the playoff line. After the loss, they went 6-1-4 and finished as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Glesnes Goal, Playoff Edition (November 20, 2021)
The Union’s first-round playoff match against the New York Red Bulls had all the grace and artistry of two five-year-olds windmilling their arms at each other while shouting “If you get hit by my fists, it’s your own fault!” But the Union were saved, once again, by Jakob Glesnes, who chested down a Red Bulls clearance in the 123rd minute and delivered an elegant, curving shot into the top corner of the goal. Subaru Park erupted into a celebration of seismically dangerous proportions, and the Union advanced to the second round of the playoffs with a 2-1 win. Glesnes’s “once-in-a-lifetime” goal tally now stands at three in just two seasons.
Andre Blake Dominates Penalty Shootout (November 28, 2021)
Andre Blake was the best keeper in MLS this year. (Sorry, Matt Turner, but the stats say so! Also, you’re great and please keep making saves for the USMNT.) During the penalty shootout against Nashville in the second round of the playoffs, Blake showed exactly why. He caught Hany Muktar’s penalty kick—not just saved—caught! Then he made an otherworldly stretch to deny Anibal Godoy. Alex Muyl and Walker Zimmerman knew their only chance was the top corners, and both sent their attempts into the River End. The chance of scoring a penalty is, on average, somewhere around 75 percent. Andre Blake took it down to zero.
Ice in His Veins (November 28, 2021)
With the Union’s playoff hopes on the line, 18-year-old Jack McGlynn walked up to the penalty spot, stutter stepped, and buried a PK past Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis. Then he did the “ice in my veins” celebration. In the post-game presser, Jim Curtin said McGlynn had “brass ones.” He had asked for a penalty and then taken it like a pro. Throughout the season, McGlynn went from a solid player with moments of skillful passing to what could be a world-class playmaker. Sullivan, Aaronson, McGlynn, Harriel—these Union youngsters have shown that they’re ready for the big moments.
The 2022 MLS season begins at the end of February, and there will surely be changes to the Union roster. New signings will be brought in, homegrowns will take on more responsibility, and players will be sold or moved. But until then, we can always watch those Glesnes goals on repeat.