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This Week in Doop: Is this Rock Bottom?

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Jun 22, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Charlotte FC forward Iuri Tavares (38) drives with the ball against Philadelphia Union defender Jakob Glesnes (5) in the second half at Subaru Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

  Everybody that follows the Philadelphia Union has seen this coming from a mile away. We all knew that things would get difficult in June as players left for international tournaments. Most of us saw the Inter Miami game on the schedule as soon as it was released and saw that even with both squads playing at less than full strength, Miami has proven many times this season that they can win without Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The Union…have not proven much of anything except that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In fairness, the results are different than Union fans are used to. That doesn’t mean they’re good of course. The Union managed to somehow find a new way to lose against Inter Miami (2-1) on June 15 at Subaru Park up two men on a “power play” for the last ten minutes of the match and still concede the losing goal. The team followed up with an epic road loss at FC Cincinnati (4-3) on June 19, and returned home with a whimper, falling to Charlotte FC (2-0) at Subaru Park on June 22 to claim a whopping zero points in three games and bringing the Union to lows not seen in over ten years. 

    A rare sunny night at the Chester waterfront grounds set up lovely weather for the Pink Circus coming to town from South Florida, and the crowd which appeared to be roughly 60/40 Union fans to visitors was treated to a rare sight…an early lead! In the 3rd minute Jakob Glesnes sent a beautiful through ball up to Mikael Uhre on a fast break who put his chance from the center of the box into the right side of the net. 

    The Union had additional first half chances at the 13th minute when Quinn Sullivan found an opening through traffic and sent a long range shot that sailed wide left. Alejandro Bedoya had a shot on target in the 33rd minute which Miami goalie Drake Callender clearly got a hand on but instead of awarding the Union a corner kick, the referee did not see Callender’s touch and awarded Miami a goal kick. Bedoya pointed this out to the lead referee and received a yellow card for being right. Oliver Semmle saved two shots on target from Julian Gressel in the 23rd minute and Marcelo Weigandt in the 39th to preserve the shaky 1-0 lead going into the half. 

    Shaky starts to the second half have been one of a few major issues for the Union this season, and it reared its ugly head once again. In the 47th minute Jordi Alba got a through ball on the left side of the box and sent a cross into the pack where Ben Cremaschi tapped over to a wide open Julian Gressel just right of the penalty spot to fire a shot into the right side of the net. There were at least two clear blown defensive assignments on the play leaving Gressel open enough to knot the match at 1-1. Jeremy Rafanello had a good quick look at 51’ from the center of the net which was saved by Callender. The hits kept on coming when Bedoya had to leave the game due to injury in the 53rd minute. Jesus Bueno entered to take Bedoya’s place, then things started getting weird. In the 69th minute Miami’s David Ruiz picked up his second yellow card for a hard foul on Leon Flach, sending off Ruiz and giving the Union a man advantage. Maybe the Union had a bit of luck on their side after all? In the 85th Tomas Aviles was sent off for his second yellow card bringing Miami down to 9 players and giving the Union a two man advantage for the remainder of the match. A Miami injury in stoppage time briefly had them with 8 players on the field. Despite being down two players, Miami still ran a clinic in time wasting and the Union struggled to get any traction as one corner kick failed after another, then in the 4th minute of stoppage time, the unthinkable happened. Jack McGlynn tried to send a pass forward that was intercepted by Yannick Bright who took control and sent a pass to a streaking Leo Afonso who blew past midfield with only Glesnes and Semmle to beat and nobody else within 20 yards. Glesnes whiffed on an attempt to tackle Afonso leaving Semmle all alone with no chance as Afonso planted the game winner into the left side of the net, prompting loud cheers by the contingent of pink clad front runners easily drowning out the stunned silence of Union fans. The silence quickly turned into a torrent of boos upon the final whistle of a loss that somehow managed to hurt much worse than the blowout loss that many expected. Jim Curtin led off his postgame press conference with an apology to fans and sounded like a man just drained and struggling for words after getting absolutely shell shocked.

In Contrast, Kai Wagner had much to say and calmly called out team management for not recognizing what everybody else around the team has seen for a long time: Additional investment in roster depth is badly needed and tossing out homegrown players doesn’t cut it. 

    One bright spot of the match was the play of homegrown Jeremy Rafanello who held Sergio Busquets in check, making a world class player who has lifted countless trophies essentially invisible for this match. To Rafa’s credit, he knows his place and dodged questions asking him to expand on Kai’s inflammatory comments. 

    The Union went out for a midweek road trip hoping to continue their strange dichotomy of success on the road, where despite the struggles at Subaru Park the Union were undefeated on the road but facing FC Cincinnati in TQL Stadium is not an easy task. It’s where the Union’s season ended last year in the Eastern Conference semis. While there isn’t much reason to hope, there’s still a chance…right? They would need to do so without Alejandro Bedoya, whose injury in the Miami game turned out to be a quad injury that will sideline him for 2-3 weeks. Despite those odds making this the match that nearly every Union fan expected to lose, it ended up being the most exciting one of the week, when the Union countered every Cincinnati goal until the literal last minute of the match when they had no more time. 

    The early part of the match looked like the ugliness of the Miami game continued. In the 12th minute Kai Wagner was issued a yellow card for a foul for a questionable challenge on Luca Orellano. Wagner and Jack Elliott both ran up to the referee and started yelling in his face, earning Elliott a card as well for dissent. In the 29th minute Cincinnati broke through when Lucho Acosta sent a cross from the far left past a ball watching Nate Harriel to find Kevin Kelcy in front of the right side of the net to get a head on the ball. Goalie Oliver Semmle did get a hand on it but was too close to the post so the ball just bounced backwards into the net for a 1-0 Cincinnati lead. Philadelphia countered in the 43rd minute when Olivier Mbaizo was at the far right corner of the pitch and sent a cross into the scrum for Mikael Uhre to rise up above the pack and head the ball over to Tai Baribo in front of the net to get his first goal for the Union in his first start for the team to equalize the match 1-1 at halftime. 

    Philadelphia’s biggest issue this season has been conceding goals early in each half. This problem continued in the 47th minute when Jack Elliott bumped Yuya Kubo just enough to send him down in the penalty area to draw a whistle and a penalty kick for Cincinnati. VAR reviewed but the call was upheld putting Acosta on the PK spot in the 49th minute to plunk his shot just right of the center of the net to put Cincinnati up 2-1. The Union countered in the 55th when Wagner sent a corner kick in from the right side that found Jesús Bueno just in front of the left side of the net to put a shot past Roman Celentano to knot the match at 2-2. With the way the Union have played recently, the ability to come right back each time was phenomenal…or at least it would have been if the Union could keep the game level for long. In the 60th Luca Orellano sent the match into full tilt when he chipped a rainbow from near midfield which went over Oliver Semmle’s head into the goal. It was an incredible goal, something you’d find on a national highlight show Top 10, but this was the second time Semmle was the victim of such an embarrassing goal this season. The Union did not have an immediate counter for this one and appeared to be closing out a 3-2 loss when lightning struck a second time just after 90th minute. Jeremy Rafanello sent a cross from the right side over to the box where Wagner rose up for a header from the left side of the box over to Baribo in front of the right side of the net to put in a second goal from nearly the same spot as his first one and level the match again at 3-3. 

The Union appeared ready to improbably steal a point on the road. In the 9th minute of stoppage all the team really needed to do was dribble the ball into a corner and run out the final minute. The way this season is going, not even the easiest things can be taken for granted. Markus Anderson was coming across midfield with Alvas Powell defending him. Quinn Sullivan was wide open on the right side with nothing but grass between him and Celentano in net. Anderson somehow missed Sullivan frantically waving his arms and decided to go left right at Powell and promptly turned over the ball. Powell sent the ball forward to the left side of the field about 30 yards away. As the Union defense clamped down on the ball, the reigning league MVP did exactly what a league MVP does when the defense leaves him unmarked. He streaks through to receive the ball just outside the box, carve through several defenders heading into the box and letting it rip from just inside the 18 and past Semmle again into the bottom left corner of the net to crush the Union in the last minute of the match and send the Union home empty handed. Jim Curtin just sounds more and more deflated after each game. 

    Coming home after a deflating match like the FC Cincinnati loss is normally a morale boost, but the Union’s putrid play at home is pushing fans through the stages of grief, and a quick look at any online space where fans gather shows that we are firmly at the Anger stage. The amount of jokes about arson and a bar outside the stadium show are a bit concerning, really. A game against Charlotte FC and the toughest defense in the league looks a lot like the 2022 almost-champion version of the Union on the hottest day of the year in the Philadelphia area certainly doesn’t help matters. The announcement of the starting XI featuring 18 year old  home grown and Union II starter Andrew Rick making his first team debut just brought some icing on the very melty cake. At least it was rainbow icing for Pride Night at Subaru Park. 

    Charlotte goalie Kristijan Kahlina is one of the best in MLS this year, and after making a save he usually sets up very slowly for goal kicks or clearances when he’s not under pressure. An alert Tai Baribo noticed that in the 4th minute and took advantage, stripping Kahlina of the ball when he was outside of the box and sending a roller towards the net. Defender Adilson Malanda was able to run back and knock the ball away just before it crossed the goal line, narrowly preventing a blooper reel of a goal which would have actually benefited the Union for once. In the 34th minute Nathan Harriel got a shot on target from the top right corner of the box but Kahlina was able to make the diving save. Quinn Sullivan and Jeremy Rafanello both had shots in the closing minutes of the half that sailed over the net leaving the match scoreless at halftime. 

    When a team is as bad at conceding early goals as the Union have been lately, the thoughts when watching a team on pins and needles for the first 5-10 minutes of the half waiting for the shoe to drop, and then maybe breathing a little sigh of relief after passing that 55th minute. So of course in the 56th minute Jere Uronen fielded a pass from Ben Bender in the far left corner just barely inside the end line then found an opening to send a perfectly placed cross over to Patrick Agyemang in front of the net to send a header past Andrew Rick into the top left corner to put Charlotte up 1-0. In the 63rd Liel Abada sent a through ball from around midfield up to Agyemang coming up the right side. Agyemang easily dribbled around Jakob Glesnes near the top right side of the box then sent a fast roller into the bottom right corner of the net to put Charlotte up 2-0. So much for settling in after getting through the first ten minutes. Quinn Sullivan had two shots robbed by Kahlina in the 66th and 67th minutes, then back down the other end in the 70th minute, Brandt Bronico got a shot on target after a failed clearance by the Union but Rick was able to get down to make the save and stop a third goal. 

Another shot from Bronico a few minutes later in the 74th was saved and Charlotte continued to slice through the Union defense at will. The River End has finally seen enough and began a “Sell the Team” chant that briefly took over the stadium before fading, directing fan anger directly at Union club owner Jay Sugarman. The stadium emptied out long before the final whistle of a 2-0 loss that easily could have been 4-0 or 5-0 if not for Andrew Rick making multiple key saves down the stretch to try and minimize the ugliness but the damage is already done. Depression and Acceptance/Apathy are coming down the line fast, and will be showing up in the form of empty blue seats later this summer if things don’t turn around fast. Sad Jimbo had nothing left to do but fall on his sword to try to protect his players. 

News and Notes:

  • Leon Flach made his 100th regular season appearance for the Union against Miami, making him the 17th player in club history to reach that milestone.
  • Jesús Bueno’s goal against Cincinnati was his first in MLS play.
  • With his assist on Baribo’s first goal against Cincinnati, Mikael Uhre became the 9th player in club history to reach 40 points (Goals + Assists) in MLS regular season play. 
  • Andrew Rick and CJ Olney both made their MLS debuts against Charlotte. Rick is the first YSC Academy graduate to start for the club, and the second homegrown in club history to start a match (Matt Freese). 
  • Hungary did not advance to the knockout stage of Euros so Daniel Gazdag should be returning to the club this weekend. 
  • As of June 27, Philadelphia is 4-7-8 for 20 points and sits 11th in the Eastern Conference. They are currently one point behind Atlanta in the final playoff spot but also only two points ahead of last place Chicago. 
  • Next up, The Philadelphia Union travel up north to face CF Montreal at Stade Saputo on Saturday June 29 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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