The Philadelphia Union enter the 2023 MLS season as one of the favorites to lift MLS Cup after returning the entire starting XI from the team that just reached the final in November.
The road to next November, and a return to the biggest stage, is a long one, filled with double-edged opportunities – the Union have three other competitions to contend in, or with, depending on what their priorities are.
The Union have been extremely successful by their own or league-wide standards under Jim Curtin, but the only silverware they can claim is a Supporters’ Shield in the 2020 season, impacted by COVID-19. Firstly, I’m not here to relitigate the merit of that Shield, like Bruce Arena wanted to do after the season. The Union beat who were in front of them.
In any other league in the world, finishing at the top of the table after a season IS the achievement worth having. But that’s what makes MLS unique. The Shield is the most impressive accomplishment and counts toward a double if you can pull off what LAFC did last year. For fans though, I suspect most don’t and won’t view it the same way as coming through the playoffs. Call it North American sensibilities.
That leaves the Union with an agonizing record when it comes to every other trophy available. Forget the 2022 MLS Cup final. There’s the 2021 Eastern Conference final against NYCFC with a shorthanded squad that nearly pulled off the unthinkable. That came after a valiant effort against Mexican giant Club América in a Concacaf Champions League semifinal that season.
In 2020, the aforementioned Shield-winning team fell to Arena’s Revolution in the first round of the playoffs. Earlier that season, the Union came up just short against Portland in the MLS is Back tournament in the semifinals. Add in three U.S. Open Cup final defeats in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and well, it’s hard to stomach that there’s just a Shield in the trophy cabinet.
The Union have four chances for non-Shield silverware but choices to make. The team should be fighting for the top seed in the Eastern conference. It quite simply will be impossible to chase that goal and also make deep runs in the U.S. Open Cup, CCL and the new Leagues Cup tournament in August. If the Union pull off a quintuple, I’ll happily eat my words.
Let’s start here. Not every competition is created equal. I have to believe that the Union want to win the MLS Cup first and foremost, followed by the CCL. If the Union won either of those trophies, it would be a crowning achievement for the club. Any trophy is better than no trophy, so winning the other two competitions would be nice, of course, but I think fans would agree that they just don’t carry the same weight.
The top seed matters for home field advantage, and to even chase that while contending in CCL is a daunting task. The Union in 2021 are a great example, who filled in the middle of Shield-level points totals in 2020 and 2022 with the sixth most points in the league in 2021 and a second place finish in the East, 19 points behind the Revolution.
The Union played in six matches in three rounds of the CCL spread over the course of six months, and it took a toll. The team went 3-5 in the eight games directly preceding or following its CCL matches, good for a 1.1 points per game mark, which would have ranked 12th in the East that season. The Union picked up 48 points in their other 26 games, a rate that would have put them at 62 points over the course of the season, which would have been the second best haul overall.
Looking back at the last five years of CCL teams, here are some stats worth noting:
- On average, CCL teams finished with nine fewer points in their campaigns from the previous season when they did not play in the CCL.
- Those same teams finished on average three spots worse in their conference standings than the year before.
- Removing teams who qualified for CCL after seasons outside of the playoffs (some less talented teams that qualified through U.S. Open Cup or Canadian Championship), CCL teams finished with 11 points fewer in their campaigns from the previous season and finished on average four spots worse.
The chart shows the change in points per game and conference standings for 18 teams who finished seventh or better without CCL campaigns in the year before. The two dimensionality of the chart is somewhat unnecessary – the key here is change in points per game, also available below:
Lastly, it generally takes a toll on a squad the further you advance in CCL.
Out of the seven teams to advance to the semifinals or further, six got worse by at least 0.4 points per game (13 points over 34 games), with the only exception being the Red Bulls in 2018.
That Red Bulls team is the only team to win its conference while in a CCL campaign, and they were loaded with Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murrilo in defense, a 19-year old Tyler Adams and a potent Daniel Royer in midfield and the talismanic Bradley Wright-Phillips in attack, who scored 20 goals that season.
The 2021 Union team is the only other team to make the CCL semifinals and finish in the top two in its conference. A handful of other teams have finished in the top two in their conference, but they exited CCL in the round of 16 or quarterfinals.
So, the Union have to be historically elite in 2023, which they are more than capable of being, or make some tradeoffs. I think if the Union advance to the CCL semifinals, they will live with a slight downturn in the standings as long as they are in the playoffs, and ideally still in line to host a first round playoff matchup. If the Union can finish in second while also making a deep CCL run, that would be a massive win. The CCL is front-loaded this year with the first rounds taking place in March, April and May before a final in June, which leaves time over the back half of the season to make a charge up the standings.
I mean this only half-jokingly, but the Union should absolutely heat check the first two games of Leagues Cup against Tijuana and Queretaro, who were two of the bottom three clubs in Liga MX, with a rotated squad and then probably not try to play five knockout games.
Seven games in 29 days isn’t worth it, and it’s a bummer for me to type that sentence out because Leagues Cup is a great format. Now if the Union have some cushioning atop the East, and have already bowed out of CCL and the Open Cup early, they might want to go for it.
One more wrench into all of this is the U-20 World Cup, which will impact a handful of important players for the Union in May and June: Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn and Brandan Craig. That means the squad depth in May, right after three potential rounds of the CCL, will be thin. This is also when the Union’s first two rounds of the U.S. Open Cup would be: the second week of May with the next round in the fourth week of May.
Again, if there were a team capable of making an unprecedented push in this many competitions, it would be the 2023 Union. The starting XI is nearly half-full of players at Best-XI-in-MLS quality, and the Union have MLS starting capability at nearly every position in depth. You have to nitpick and say maybe fourth forward is slightly underwhelming as is third left back (only relevant if Kai Wagner leaves). Jim Curtin said in a press conference already that they are so deep that they can’t tell the difference between the two squads in 11 vs. 11 in training.
That depth is going to be crucial for the Union this season, especially when injuries inevitably complicate things. It will be fascinating to see how the Union navigate March, April and May, and then again how they deal with Leagues Cup in July. Trophy in hand or not, the Union need to make it to September with good health and good enough league position. Ultimately, the biggest games of the season don’t start until the end of October.