The season was going to end one way or another yesterday and unfortunately for the Philadelphia Union their close season won’t be kicking off with a parade and all of the trappings that come with winning a major trophy.
Instead the Union will head into the World Cup and winter season having ended up on the wrong side of the best final in league history and an unbelievable season that didn’t deliver the cup they covet most.
There will be plenty of questions too of course since with great notoriety in the modern MLS comes interest overseas and decisions in the front office to be made around how to keep as much of the team intact while sticking to a modest Jay Sugarman budget.
Here are some questions I have. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
How many players won’t be returning in 2023?
We learned this week that Paxten Aaronson to Frankfurt is all but completed so it appears he’ll be the first to exit but Kai Wagner has to be all but gone as well after two off-seasons saying he wants to go to a bigger club and heavy interest being reported abroad.
If Jose Martinez played his last game for the Union, it won’t be one that shows up in the farewell video but a landing spot should he leaves doesn’t seem any clearer now than in the past. Daniel Gazdag had an MVP worthy season so there’s a danger there should the right offer come in but the same can also be said for a lot of guys on the Union roster. Olivier Mbaizo is likely heading to Qatar for the World Cup and if he can see some time on the field it’s hard to imagine the Union won’t bite on any offers that come with Nathan Harriel poised to take over the right back spot full-time if Mbaizo does depart.
The Union won’t be too willing to part with many of their players they’ve signed to extensions but selling and reinvesting is part of the model so at least two leaving on transfers and possibly more would be expected.
How much does Alejandro Bedoya have left in the tank?
Bedoya is signed on for one more year, but as good a year as he had in 2022 there are going to be questions about how much more he has to give in what could be his final year before planning for his Ring of Honor induction ceremony can commence. Nothing would be sweeter than for Bedoya to lift MLS Cup and hang up the boots but there’s going to need to be a clear plan to make sure he’s able to make it that far next year.
Where’s the depth coming from in 2023?
One of the Union’s few weaknesses in 2022 was probably depth.
They were fortunate through much of the year not to have many issues with injuries — especially once Sergio Santos was traded to Cincinnati — but then captain Alejandro Bedoya got hurt and despite flashes from Jack McGlynn showed that he doesn’t completely fit on the right side of the diamond in the way the Union want to play. Cory Burke turned it on after struggling earlier in the year but the strategy of minting younger players by giving them spot minutes off the bench didn’t benefit the younger players or the team for the most part this season.
True squad rotation will have to be more of a feature next season with Concacaf Champions League and the Leagues Cup being added to the plate and that will require a larger roster with more options and more lineup changes game to game based on work load and form instead of health. A mix of experienced reserves and younger players hungry to prove they belong will be a necessity.
What’s Ernst going to pull next?
Ernst Tanner has had the Midas touch both on the international transfer market and with his intra-league deals since his arrival but at some point you have to start to wonder what incentive other MLS teams even have to pick up the phone and also whether the Union’s success won’t draw more attention to some of Tanner’s more off-the-radar work. He’s shown no reason not to trust how he operates but with success being harder to replicate in MLS than maybe any other league in the world it will be interesting to see how he continues to push the envelope.
How will the team capitalize on all of this success?
It’s been a little hard to tell around here with all of the Phillies fever, but the Philadelphia Union are not the team that can barely fill a stadium in Chester anymore. The fact that the parking lots at Subaru Park looked like a regular game day (and took a while to get out of) when fans only had a couple day’s notice that they could watch the final in the stadium shows that this isn’t the same Philadelphia Union fanbase it once was.
Yes, winning has a way of transforming things but the I was here first Negadelphians have been by and large phased out with a fresh crop of hungry and enthusiastic fans who are all about this team. The vibe at Subaru Park last night was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my years following this team; hopefully the front office is already hard at work figuring out ways to leverage that and continue to grow this positive momentum in seasons to come.
Will there be a radio broadcast in 2023?
There’s still a lot of unknowns about the new streaming platform on Apple TV that will carry every MLS game without blackouts but one of the biggest questions here — besides how much it’s going to cost non-season ticket holders who aren’t getting it with their ticket package — is whether fans will be able to listen to familiar voices calling the game instead of whatever MLS broadcast team gets assigned to a particular game.
While I can’t speak for other markets, Philadelphia Union fans have had some of the best in the business — JP Dellacamera is a legend of the game and Danny Higginbotham is a rising star — so one thing that would make the Apple deal even more inviting is if there’s a local radio broadcast that fans can switch to. It’s possible Dellacamera and Higginbotham get picked up for one of the MLS broadcast teams but having dedicated local guys like Dave Leno and Sebastien Le Toux calling games really is key to building and strengthening the local support.
How’s the parking situation going?
This will probably be an ongoing question throughout the close season and into the start of the regular season since work will be starting on the new Sportsplex and fans will be nervous about the timing of everything.
Plans call for new lots to replace all of the spots that will be lost but the whole entry and exit experience hasn’t been great when there wasn’t a huge sports complex sitting next to the stadium so there’s reason for at the very least regular updates on progress.
Can more seats be added to Subaru Park?
The Union set a new Subaru Park attendance record with 19,770 at the NYCFC game and if you scanned through the crowd from a good vantage point like I did you really couldn’t find an empty seat in the house. No major renovations or expansion plans have been announced but I wonder if there are some more minor alterations to the stadium that can be made to try and get that number higher.
For all the hand-wringing for years about getting people to Chester, the success of the team has proven that if they win people will come, to the point now where the size feels likes it hurting the team’s ability to grow. Creative scarcity is good for the brand but only to a point.
What dumb thing is MLS going to do this offseason?
Fortunately it sounds like the talk about changing the playoffs was more just talk than actual movement — if anything the top two teams in the final should show that what they did this year works — but MLS being a league that can’t get out of its own way there’s bound to be some controversy in the offseason or change announced that overcomplicates things for no reason, creates a new acronym (this feels overdue) or just gives fuel to the haters.
Maybe that dumb thing is the fact that the take-a-month-off-in-the-middle-of-the-season-to play-Liga-MX-in-a-tournament-where-the games-are-only-in-the-U.S. Leagues Cup is really going to happen.
Will any staff get poached?
As we saw with Pat Noonan and Chris Albright going to FC Cincinnati and turning things around, it’s smart to not only sign Union players but also recruit from their technical staff and front office. Surely, Jim Curtin won’t be able to keep the whole band together this off-season, will he?
Does investment increase in the team in the off-season?
Things were so positive down in Chester last night, Jay Sugarman was even cheered when his name was announced. The notoriously thrifty owner has seen his very low investment by today’s figures skyrocket in the team with the success of the club and the start of something finally being built on the waterfront even if it is just a bunch of fields. There’s no reason to think he’d sell the team but all of this attention can’t be a bad thing for recruiting more investment into the club.
What questions do you have? Share them in the comments.