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This Week in Doop: Draws feeling the same as Losses

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Jun 1, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Jack McGlynn (16) shoots against CF Montreal in the second half at Subaru Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The Mystique is officially dead. RIP Subaru Park Beast Mode, 2019-2024. It’s been a fun run, ended by injuries, complacency, aging players, boneheaded mistakes, stale tactics, and possibly by an otherwise fun new space on the riverfront grounds which should be improving the fan experience but now is gaining steam among hardcore fans as being cursed. Another stretch of three games in eight days has ended with three draws, starting on May 25 at Charlotte FC ending 0-0, Toronto FC 0-0 on Wednesday, and CF Montreal 2-2 on Saturday evening. The first two felt like missed opportunities but still begrudgingly acceptable results given two clean sheets against quality opponents currently above Philadelphia in the standings, but the last one was a gut punch heading into the June FIFA international window that gave away what should have been three easy points. This was the last match at “full strength” for the Union for quite some time heading into a summer of worldwide continental competitions among national teams which will leave the Union shorthanded, missing more than half of their normal starting lineup on and off for the next 2+ months. I would gauge the current mood of the vocal fans as “Philly Ferile”, clamoring for changes ranging from easy no brainers to absolutely bonkers. For a team currently sitting in 8th place in the East at 4-4-8 (20 points), this is not a surprise. The bright side of this is that change is coming, for better or worse. It has to, with so many players about to be absent. Uncharted territory is scary, especially when you’re heading into it trending down. Yet maybe some new blood is exactly what this team needs. 

    Let’s start at the beginning of this recent stretch with Charlotte FC at Bank of America Stadium on May 25. Charlotte (currently 6-6-4 with 22 points in 7th place) is an absolute brick well at home, having shut out their previous three opponents heading into the match with the Union. Watching the way that squad plays at home reminds me of the Union 2 years ago, and the Union played like it themselves for stretches. Part of that is the return to form of Leon Flach, the defensive stalwart who was impressive in that match from a defensive standpoint but not exactly known for his contributions on offense. Flach’s performance since returning from injury has been head scratching at times but the performance in the Charlotte match after the team had a penchant for giving away dumb early goals this season still showed signs for hope. However, the Union just could not get much going on offense. Daniel Gazdag had a good look from the center of the box in the 18th minute that was saved by Charlotte goalie Kristijan Kahlina. Kahlina and Union goalie Oliver Semmle both had fantastic nights, and the highlight of the match was Semmle’s diving save on a shot from Liel Abada from the center of the box in the 88th minute to preserve the double clean sheet and a point on the road for the Union. We all know Union coach Jim Curtin loves clean sheets so he was satisfied with the effort and thought Semmle’s second shutout in a row was something to build on. 

    Two shutouts on the road normally does build momentum coming home for two matches under normal circumstances. Things have been anything but normal for the Union this year, and now that the aura of being unbeatable at home, the nerves seem to build more and more with each match without a W. Toronto FC (7-7-3, 24 points, 5th place) provided a big opportunity for the Union to make a statement and take points from a team above them in the standings. Semmle stayed in form with the lineups appearing to get back to old fashioned Union defensive soccer. A bit of luck from former Juventus superstar Federico Bernardeschi missing what should have been an easy look from close range certainly helped. 

Toronto and every other team the Union have played lately are clearly doing their homework and playing three in the back, clogging up the midfield to smother the Union’s offense. It’s working. The pregame announcement of the late scratch of Julian Carranza due to an ankle injury raised eyebrows with the strange timing and ongoing chatter of a possible July transfer to a European team further hampered the Union and their offensive struggles. Attempts to spark the offense with the late substitutions of Chris Donovan and Tai Baribo for the final 10-15 minutes of the match did nothing as Semmle and Toronto goalie Sean Johnson completed their matching shutouts. After the game Jim Curtin said the team was “Not dangerous enough and not scary enough”, and Jack Elliott pointed out the obvious that “You can’t lose if you don’t concede a goal”, which might be true but you also can’t win if you don’t score any. Daniel Gazdag seemed concerned that the season “has not gone as planned” but also cautiously optimistic. 

    With opportunities to grab points and move up in the standings before the break diminishing fast, the boys in blue painted themselves into a corner setting up a must-win against CF Montreal (4-7-5, 17 points, 13th place) on Saturday June 1. Holding their opponents scoreless in seven consecutive halves dating back to the NYCFC match on May 14 was the bright spot that everybody on the team wanted to build on. Everybody agreed that if you stopped leaking dumb goals and kept the clean sheet, the goals would come. Again, these are fair points under normal circumstances, particularly with a lower quality opponent coming in. While Montreal is in 13th place, they’re only 3 points behind the Union, and with the exception of New England, the Union have played down to all of their lower quality opponents in recent weeks. With all the impending departures for Copa America and the European championships, Curtin switched to a 3-5-2 lineup with Carranza again sitting out to rest the ankle. After noticing the lineup on the official match roster, another name jumped out that makes die-hard fans’ hearts sink: Referee Ted Unkel. I might be fairly new to MLS but there is one common theme across all sports that if you recognize an official’s name, it’s usually because they stink at their job. Some referees call tighter games than others, but some seem to lose control of a match more often than others, especially in fast paced games like soccer, basketball, or hockey. Ted Unkel was the centerpiece of the worst officiated MLS playoff game I’ve ever seen, last season’s Western Conference semifinal match between LAFC and the Seattle Sounders. I asked friends who have been following MLS much longer than me, “Is Ted Unkel the Angel Hernandez of MLS?” Most of them confirmed that I was observing correctly, with one suggesting the name of one other maligned ref that might be worse whose name I don’t remember. Either way, there was noticeable booing from the Subaru Park crowd when Unkel’s name was announced as the lead referee for the match, and my heart sank a bit hoping the match wouldn’t come down to officiating. 

    All optimism was immediately tossed in the compost friendly trash bin after only 50 seconds. Suinsi Ibrahim was left unmarked and fired off a rocket from the center of the pitch over 20 yards out from the goal and past the outstretched arms of Oliver Semmle into the right side of the net, 1-0 Montreal. The boo birds immediately swooped in from the river end. In the 15th minute Jack McGlynn sent in a roller from near the top right corner of the box that made its way into the net but Daniel Gazdag and Olivier Mbaizo were both offside. In the 42nd minute, Ariel Lassiter took down Jose Martinez with an elbow to the face that was initially ruled a yellow card but after VAR reviewed, the card was upgraded to red. Lassiter was done and Montreal was down to 10 men going into halftime clinging onto a 1-0 lead. 

    Maybe the fans could dumpster dive for that hope just like our new friend Raquinho after all? In the 55th minute, Mikael Uhre came on a run up the left side of the box and sent a shot directly at Sebastian Breza but he was not able to hold on. Gazdag ran up to field the rebound but was tripped by Breza in the process, so Gazdag was awarded the PK. The Hungarian Hammer had his one PK miss in the Orlando game, but this time he put it into the right side of the net to level the match at 1-1 in the 56th minute for his 50th career MLS goal. Shortly after the restart in the 58th minute Quinn Sullivan fielded the ball off a defender on the right side of the field and sent a through ball up to Uhre who ran up to the penalty spot and sent a roller into the bottom right of the net. It took 50 seconds for Montreal to kill hope, and in the second half the Union got it back in about three minutes. The Union were back in business…and then, they got Unkeled. 

    In the 63rd minute Jack Elliott challenged Raheem Edwards for a through ball on the left side of the front third and Elliott clipped Edwards in what initially looked like a legitimate challenge for the ball. Unkel immediately brought out a yellow card. Twenty seconds later upon seeing that Edwards was down on the pitch and frantically signaling for medical attention, Unkel then took out the red card and sent off Elliott without even checking with VAR to review if Elliott’s studs were out (they weren’t) or any other intent to injure. Edwards was also stretchered off the field with a laceration on his leg. 

    At the restart at the 66th minute, the free kick came into the scrum in front of the net. Joaquin Sosa headed the ball into the right post, Samuel Piette fielded the rebound and tapped the ball into the left side of the net. Semmle pleaded for a hand ball to no avail, and the match was tied at 2-2 and the stadium was deflated. Although Sullivan and Alejandro Bedoya each got off good shots on target in stoppage time, both were right at Breza to preserve a 2-2 draw in which the Union and their fans were just defeated heading into a summer of uncertainty. 

The postgame was understandably solemn with tinges of frustration, along with Jim Curtin beginning his opening statement with the words that every Union fan was thinking…well at least the ones not laced with profanities. Daniel Gazdag lamented “stupid mistakes” and Mikael Uhre was a bit more pragmatic about the rough night and noted that the talent is there to turn things around, and with the upcoming departures of several players, “It’s a chance for the guys who maybe haven’t played as much to step up and show what they’re made of.”

    There is one thing that sets MLS apart from the other four top sports leagues in the United States, the referee pool report. MLS has a policy where one reporter is designated by a team to submit a short list of questions to the match officials on behalf of all of the reporters and give them the opportunity to respond. Sometimes the response is no response, but sometimes they give a thorough answer. The pool report for the match explained, “A yellow was initially given to Jack Elliott. It was upgraded to a red on the field by Unkel for serious foul play. The decision was made solely by Unkel. There was no VAR involved in the decision making.” The Union have the option to appeal the red card decision with the league to get Elliott’s red card suspension for the next match overturned. It was not immediately clear after the game if the Union were filing an appeal. While the decision itself will be subject of much debate, I will give Unkel (who reportedly was quite pleasant during the pool report exchange) credit. I rarely give officials credit, but Unkel absolutely deserves it for providing this clear explanation. This level of accountability for game officials after controversial or blatantly wrong calls is unheard of in the other “Big Four” leagues. It would be wonderful if they could bring some of that type of accountability to their officials. 

News and Notes:

  • Andre Blake signed a two year contract extension with the Union on May 23 just before the Charlotte game. Blake’s contract is guaranteed for two more seasons (2025-26) with a team option for 2027. His 2024 salary according to the MLSPA Spring Salary Guide is 3rd highest at the goalie position in the league behind Orlando City’s Pedro Gallese and St. Louis City SC’s Roman Bürki
  • Two days after Blake’s extension was announced, it was announced on the Apple broadcast during the Charlotte match that Blake would undergo a minor knee procedure and be out for 4-6 weeks. The Jamaica Football Federation awaits with bated breath to see if their team captain will be available for Copa America starting in three weeks featuring CONCACAF and CONMEBOL (South America) nations. 
  • On May 28 the ownership group Union Sports & Entertainment announced a strategic partnership and investment with Lyngby Boldklub of the Danish Superliga. The team press release stated, “Union Sports & Entertainment has purchased a minority, non-controlling ownership stake in Lyngby in order to expand its technical footprint, collaborate on youth development tactics and strategies and serve as a potential additional vehicle for both Union and Lyngby player and staff advancement. Lyngby’s current ownership will continue to operate the club and make decisions independently…Lyngby Boldklub is a prestigious Danish club, founded in 1921, that has won both Danish championships and cup titles. The club is deeply rooted in the local community and is known for its extensive work with young talents.”
  • The Union return from the FIFA break on June 15 at home against league leading Inter Miami CF at 7:30pm. All matches are streamed on Apple TV+. 

JD Walker is one of the co-founders of Stream Punk Entertainment and has covered the Philadelphia Union, Big East Basketball, and New Jersey high school basketball since 2022. He has a wide-spanning career with experience in a variety of roles inside and outside the world of sports including basketball operations, gameday entertainment, promotions, broadcasting, and finance. He’s a Jersey Shore native sprung from a cage on Highway 9, and loves to geek out on the business and legal side of the games we all love.

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