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The Brief History Of A Union Divided (Short)


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“We were figuring things out in the early years. People forget that the whole MLS had been running for a decade without us, we couldn’t just jump in and expect to be winning titles.”
Corey Taverley, former Philadelphia Union owner.

For the first 10 years of their existence, the Philadelphia Union were little more than an irrelevance. Apologies to any Sons of Ben watching, but it’s true. After a huge grassroots push to get a team into Major League Soccer, most fans across the US barely noticed that they’d succeeded.

That may seem harsh, but look at the record with me here. Year one, notoriously tough as an expansion team we’re only talking 2010 here, so there’s less of an establishment to go up against. Kristof Przewalski is the surprise choice as head coach, they bring in a former USMNT player in Chris Hattersley to lead the front office, and yet the roster they put together wins just eight of their 30 matches, finishing second-bottom of the Eastern Conference ahead of the truly terrible DC United. It isn’t a great start, but they’ve got to get better, right?

Right, and so they did. Credit to Hattersley – Juan Agrado took the starting goalkeeper spot for a solid year before moving back to Europe, Bobby Tims was a good steal from Columbus, and at the time Erick DeGrant was one of US soccer’s bright young things – nobody knew how that would turn out. With the league expanding further the U played 34 games in 2011 and ended up 11 wins, eight draws and 15 losses, enough for 3rd in the East and their first-ever postseason appearance. Where they promptly lost to a Dc United side who would go on to lose the MLS Cup to the LA Galaxy. But hey, they had something to build on, a platform. Didn’t they?

Well, no. A bust in the Superdraft and a marquee signing of largely injured Malian defender Cedric Toure spelled doom for Przewalski, and by the summer he was gone, and two weeks later Hattersley took the fall too. It took just a day for owner Corey Taverley to install Enrique Valenzuela to the front office, but the Mexican’s pick for head coach was hardly inspiring. Jeff Johnson had been a championship-winning coach at college level, but the Union defence had been poor under his leadership, and so promotion to the top job always looked a little desperate.

Johnson got two years, and neither was worth writing home about. In his first, with the early season wasted under the Przewalski/Hattersley combo, Philly limped home 8th in the East, a full 17 points off the playoffs and the fifth-worst team in all of MLS. With a full season to work with, 2013 was marginally better – and I mean marginally. The Union found 12 wins instead of 10, finished 7th in the conference rather than 8th, and moved up one spot in the Supporters’ Shield standings. They had only existed for four years as an MLS franchise, and already they seemed stagnant.

Another poor start in 2014 saw Valenzuela axe Johnson with the Union bottom of their conference, and another losing season looked inevitable. It was – Greg Tanner stopped the rot as best he could, but 6th in the Eastern Conference was no great achievement. More notable was a run to the Open Cup final, but an extra-time defeat to Seattle ended any hopes of silverware.

The next year got worse. A measly 10 wins from 34 was beaten for ineptitude only by Chicago in the East and Colorado in the West, their 18th place finish the worst in franchise history. Remarkably, thanks largely to the goals of Frenchman forward Alphonse Laurens, the Union reached back-to-back finals in the Open Cup for another shot at success. Needless to say, it was not to be – Laurens scored again to take the game to penalties, and Kansas City took the title in sudden death. The run probably saved Tanner his job, but they still came up short.

Without wanting to brush over the many and varied highlights of the second half of the decade – there was another Open Cup silver medal in 2018 and well, that’s it – Philly’s record was terrible. 6th place and defeat in the wildcard game in 2016, bottom of the East the following year, brushed swiftly out of the wildcard round in 2018 by DC United, and then back to mediocrity with a 12-win season that finally spelled the end for Diego Valenzuela and Greg Tanner.
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So I've been spending a good chunk of lockdown so far gripped by 'The Last Dance' and watching various SB Nation videos on US sporting dynasties. And of course, I wanted to run something related on FM - so here it is! This is run with fake names by someone who doesn't fully understand MLS, so you'll have to forgive the inaccuracies. Let's call it 'artistic licence'...

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Another SB Nation viewer, I see. :D

The intro does read like one of those videos, and knowing how versatile your writing is, I've no doubt the rest of it will be a joy to read.

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Love this start. The last dance was a great watch and sb nation is a massive part of my YouTube watching as I live basketball and they have some great videos

Looking forward to the rest of this story

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Thanks for the support guys, glad to have you along for the ride! Jon Bois was my gateway to SB Nation, but in recent weeks I've been watching a lot of their material. I may not fully understand the US sporting landscape, but I can appreciate good storytelling. hopefully my knowledge gaps are covered sufficiently in this one...
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“A lot of people just lost interest in the team – we certainly saw our numbers go down. You couldn’t blame them either, we weren’t ever close to winning anything” –

Simon Lyness, former chairman of the Sons of Ben supporters group.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, despite only making it to the postseason once in six seasons and failing to win a single playoff game, that deadly duo managed to retain their positions within the franchise for more than half a decade. Why? How? Aren’t there rules against that sort of thing?

Perhaps there should be, but there’s nothing in the MLS rule book – believe me, I’ve checked. The simple, somewhat depressing fact is that Taverley, and indeed the whole organisation, just seemed to give up. In the 10 years since they joined MLS in 2010, Philadelphia were one of just two sides – the equally poor Chicago Fire being the other – never to have made it to even their conference final. But at least the Fire had history – they won the title in their first ever season, and have four Open Cups to their name. Philly? A couple of silver medals, and nothing else.

Not only were the team pathetic and the owner uncaring, the fans were deserting. Subaru Park can hold as many as 18,500 navy and gold fans, but those numbers hadn’t been seen in Chester since the middle of the decade. By the time they narrowly avoided finishing bottom of the East in 2019, the Union were lucky if they managed a gate of 14,000 for a home game. Given the concurrent success of the NFL’s Eagles, regular playoff contention of the NHL’s Flyers and constantly changing fortunes of the NBA’s 76ers, along with the raucous faithful persisting with MLB’s Phillies, it was little surprise to see the local sporting public turn their attentions elsewhere.

Eventually, Taverley had to act, and after the 2019 season came to another end without a postseason for the Union, Valenzuela and Tanner were gone – the former fired, the latter’s contract not renewed. They left behind a demoralised team with few star names and an ever-shrinking fanbase, with hardcore supporters wondering whether the owners cared about the team as much as they did. When the next front office hire was announced, the questions did not go away.

Todd Linneman arrived in Philadelphia completely unproven at professional level. He had never played the game at any reasonable level, but as head of the soccer programme at Stanford – his own alma mata, where he was an economics major – he led the Cardinal to an unprecedented Division I three-peat alongside head coach Drew Keller. He was a quick talker, blunt but with a rhetorical flourish, and quickly earned himself a reputation as somebody with a ruthless side. When learning of Linneman’s background, most expected him to install his old running mate Keller as head coach of the Union, but he elected to look elsewhere – when asked why, he simply stated that ‘Drew is a great fit for Stanford, but I don’t think he has the experience for MLS,’ rather conveniently ignoring his own lack of pro credentials.

Instead, Linneman moved swiftly to appoint Luke O’Brien, an Irishman who had been an assistant coach at Dundalk in his homeland for no fewer than five domestic championships. A disciplinarian, O’Brien was renowned for his exacting standards and inflexible approach to conduct, leading to a number of players falling swiftly out of favour. His did not seem an approach that would work well within the confines of the MLS structural regulations, but nevertheless he was Linneman’s man.

Before the playoffs even ended, there were fireworks. Philly’s top scorer of the past two seasons, Tyler Ryan, was traded away to Portland for goalkeeper Logan Kupiec and two draft picks, while Turkish playmaker Orhan Ayyuk was sold to Trabzonspor in his homeland. Jamal Beaton, a starting full-back for much of the Tanner era, was jettisoned to San Jose for midfielder Brock Henshaw and another pick, and within a week of his appointment Linneman had shifted out three starters in exchange for a squad player and three draft picks, two in the first round. The new man was looking to rebuild, and it was very apparent that he was looking to the SuperDraft to do so.

Which in itself was a surprise, because for several years by now the SuperDraft had been fading into insignificance thanks to the growth of the US academy system, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t any value in the occasion. Of course, that didn’t stop Linneman swapping out one of their three first round picks for an extra Designated Player slot from Portland on the eve of the draft, but with the other two he took young midfielder Anthonie Williams out of his old Stanford stomping ground and left-back Karlo Grazini from UCLA. He did very little in waivers, taking only Toronto’s aging, Australian midfield battler David Vincent on a single-year deal, before then making use of the extra DP spot and pull the trigger in one-cap Brazil striker Victor from Gremio in his homeland. Victor was probably the biggest name to pull on a Philadelphia jersey at this point, and would immediately become the focal point of the Union’s offence.

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“Todd was a nightmare to work with, he’d never tell me anything. I’d turn up for training, three guys would be saying their goodbyes and another two doing introductions. Still, you trusted him – the man knew what he was doing.”

Luke O’Brien, Head Coach 2020-21

Philadelphia opened the 2020 season with back-to-back losses on the road, going down to Orlando City and the Red Bulls. However, with O’Brien beginning to get to grips with Linneman’s squad and setting his team up in a combative 4-4-2 formation, the points began to roll in. A run of four home games in six saw the side put together a perfect April in which they conceded just a single goal, and the Sons of Bell rejoiced at a 4-1 thrashing of DC United. A loss to the Sounders iced the streak, but their battling style and refusal to give up saw the Union in the dizzy heights of 2nd place in the East at the halfway point of the season, and with fans dreaming of a return to the playoffs.

An injury to starting goalkeeper Kupiec in early summer – allegedly at a 4th of July party – saw the team slump to start the second half of the season, but with Kupiec’s return game four straight victories, the highlight a 3-0 road win at the Galaxy, who were runaway leaders in the West. This time it was Victor who went down hurt, injuring his knee in a home game against New England, but a shift in system to a 4-5-1 allowed Philly to grind out more points in the closing weeks and wind up 4th in the East with 16 wins. That meant the best year since the Union debuted in 2010, and a first round playoff at home to Toronto.

Given that Philly had never won a playoff game before, and the mere prospect of knockout football brought a three-year-high attendance to Subaru Park at a shade over 18,000, and O’Brien’s men did not disappoint. David Vincent picked the perfect time to score his first and only goal for the team with a vicious shot from 25 yards at the end of the first half, and a late breakaway goal from Victor sealed the win to make franchise history. Top seeds NYCFC promptly crushed Philadelphia dreams with a comfortable 3-1 win in New York, but it almost didn’t matter. Linneman and O’Brien had taken them to the playoffs and won a match. No-one in Philadelphia had done that before.

The Union finally had something to build on, and while New York would go on to lose the MLS Cup to the Sounders, Linneman got to work trying to build on the first positive season at Subaru Park for years. Vincent retired to be replaced by newly-crowned MLS champion playmaker Chris MacIntyre on a big contract from Seattle. The only draft prospect brought in was Serbian wingman Darko Beljic, but the big deal in Pennsylvania came in defence, Linneman dealing two future first round picks and reserve forward Joe Barkley to Atlanta in exchange for USMNT centre-back Leon Browne. A preseason trip to Costa Rica yielded three victories and no injuries, and the evolving Union looked stronger than they ever hard. Which was not saying a lot, but you know what I mean.

So of course, Philly won just two of their first 10 games in 2021, Beljic suffered knee ligament damage that brought a premature end to his season, and afterwards Linneman pulled the trigger. Despite a best season in franchise history, the steely Irishman was paid to leave town, and into his place came Phil Brazier, former head coach at both the Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes, and by far the most decorated coach in Philly’s brief history. They had to pay to get their man, but get him they did.

The two-time MLS champion immediately got to work, and by creating a more relaxed atmosphere around Subaru Park than the iron-fisted O’Brien, who by all accounts doubled down when results turned sour, lifted the mood in Chester. A more adventurous playing style brought about three wins on the spin to kickstart their season, and heading into the stretch Philly remained in playoff contention. Two losses in consecutive weeks almost ended their season, but in a final-day matchup on the road in Montreal, two second-half goals from Victor and MacIntyre secured the win which nudged them ahead of DC and into the first round of the playoffs. That’s right, playoffs in Philadelphia for the second year running. Something that had never been done before.

Sneaking into the playoffs meant a road trip to Eastern Conference runners-up Atlanta, where few gave them much hope. But this is Phil Brazier’s Union we’re talking about, and very little about them ever made any sense. Despite being dominated for the whole 90 minutes, they shut out the highest scorers in the MLS to take them into extra time, where Leon Browne headed in a corner kick with just two minutes remain in a huge upset victory.

That win meant a Conference semi-final at hated rivals DC United, and the travelling Philly fans made their voices heard in the capital. A penalty strike from Victor cancelled out the go-ahead goal from the hosts, and with a quarter of an hour to go their Brazilian talisman did it again, scoring the decisive goal with a flying header from the penalty spot. For the first time ever, Philadelphia were in a Conference final, and reality was beginning to get a bit strange.

NYCFC had brushed Philly aside in the previous season, and the top sides in the East found themselves between the Union and the MLS Cup match once again. On the road for the third successive playoff game, a tired Philly handed New York two early goals on defensive errors to put themselves on the back foot, and even the indefatigable Victor’s third goal in two matches couldn’t turn things around in another game. The Boys in Blue claimed the MLS Cup with a win over Houston, and the Linneman/Brazier axis set about preparing for another assault on the postseason in 2022. Three trips to the playoffs in a row, and Philadelphia’s status as the most pointless team in Major League Soccer would have to be over.

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“I knew nothing about the team and I’d never been to the United States. Everybody told me to wait another year in Argentina and then to go to Europe. But Todd made me believe it was my best move, so I took it. I’m glad I listened”
Ezequiel Barrios, MLS single-season record goalscorer.

That assault would be dealt a huge blow almost immediately however, as star striker Victor handed in a transfer request before departing for the offseason. He’d had a good run, he told Linneman, but he wanted either one last attempt at Europe or a return to his homeland. The GM played hardball with potential suitors, and in the end Philadelphia received a club record fee from Spanish outfit Deportivo in exchange for their prize asset. A petition to retire his number 19 jersey gained some traction in a move which highlighted the small-time mentality still possessed by some Philly fans, but in the end it was simply transferred to the returning Beljic in preparation for the new season.

Another winger in Luke Jennings was the draft-day headline-grabber, but again the real business was conducted by Linneman away from the conference call. Replacing a Brazilian up front was an Argentinian – Ezequiel Barrios, a 22-year-old prospect stolen away from the giants of Boca Juniors. Replacing an aging star with a rising one was a calculated gamble, but the other big move in Philadelphia brought in a far more destructive player. Anchoring the Union midfield would be Brad Cunningham, another USMNT star coming in from Houston for allocation funds, a couple of future picks and Jamaican reserve goalkeeper Chris Marcus in a deal which also took Swedish defender Jonas Lindstrom to Philly. Linneman’s dealing was becoming notorious, and once again the Union line-up looked stronger than the previous year.

With Brazier at the helm and Barrios off to a blistering start, Phily exploded with six straight wins out of the gate, including a 2-0 road takedown of MLS champions NYCFC on the road. Colorado of all sides were the team to snap the streak, but Barrios continued to find the net at almost a goal a game, and with Browne and Cunningham down the spine of the team, opposing sides were finding it increasingly difficult to breach the defence.

Midway through the year, not only were Philly looking very good to claim another playoff spot, but they were duelling it out with Atlanta for the Eastern Conference title – an honour they had never previously gotten anywhere near. The two went head-to-head at Subaru Park towards the back end of August, and in classic Union fashion they ended up both winning and losing. Darko Beljic took the points for Philadelphia on a 27th minute goal, but a late challenge from Atlanta’s Jens Hoffman handed Barrios a busted ankle which would put him out of action until just a couple of weeks before the playoffs.

Regardless, Brazier guided the team through the rest of the schedule pretty smoothly, leading the Union to 19 wins from their 34 regular season games. That proved to be the key number – one more than Atlanta, and enough to take the East by a single point. A first ever conference title, a first ever number one seed for the playoffs, a first time with home advantage in the conference semi-final. 2022 was an historic year for the Union, and the business end of the season hadn’t even started.

In the first round of the Eastern Conference, second seeds Atlanta saw off 7th place Orlando to set up a semi-final against reigning champions NYCFC, who beat out cross-town rivals Red Bulls on penalties after a scoreless draw. In the other game, a Chicago edged out the Impact in Montreal to set up a semi-final at Subaru Park.

What would once have been a game between two mediocre teams was now one between two franchises with genuine championship aspirations, and the quality on display was high. Going into the final 10 minutes the match was locked at two goals apiece and extra time beckoned – step forward Ezequiel Barrios, who blasted in a decisive third for the Union and booked a place in the conference final. There they would meet not Atlanta as expected, but New York City, looking to defend their MLS Cup title after upsetting the seedings in another penalty win on the road.

Two 120-minute games in succession took their toll on the reigning champions, and another Philadelphia late show earned them the win. This time Barrios turned provider, putting in the pass for replacement winger Jennings to open the scoring and then shooting a free kick which the New York goalkeeper could only push into the path of Brock Henshaw, who swept obligingly home. After the 13th time of asking, Philly were going to the MLS Cup Final.

On the other side of the field were the LA Galaxy, the single most successful team in MLS history. Chris Pryce’s side had worked their way back to the top after a couple of poor years by their own high standards, and most people had the Galaxy and their roster of star names down as favourites. A 12th-minute free-kick from Marc Castellanos put LA a goal to the good early on, and many expected little more than a comfortable win against the first-time finalists.

Enter Ezequiel Barrios. Again. After 28 minutes, he dribbled past two men before sidefooting in the equaliser. In the 52nd, he tapped in a low cross from Beljic to put his side ahead, and with seven minutes left on the clock he collected a long ball out of the Union defence after an LA corner, sprinted clear of a desperate defence, and chipped Brad Hannigan to seal a hat-trick for himself and the MLS Cup for Philadelphia. Just three years after Linneman’s arrival, he had brought glory to the Union. Phil Brazier had needed less than two seasons, Barrios just one. The holy trinity, as the Sons of Ben reverently referred to them, would be the ones to lead Philly into a dazzling future. Their grim and miserable past was now well and truly behind them.

So of course, the offseason brought chaos. With one year left on his contract, NYCFC made a double-your-money approach for head coach Brazier, and it led to a now infamous six-hour meeting with Linneman. Quite what went on in that room has been the subject of plenty of speculation, but Brazier walked out at the end of the day with a one-year extension, his salary boosted, and New York told in no uncertain terms by Linneman where to stick their money. The Union had kept their man, but the relationship between the two key men never seemed quite the same after that fateful Tuesday.

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“There’s been enough said about that meeting, I’m not going to cover old ground. I respect Todd, he’s very good at his job, but we aren’t best buddies. It didn’t matter – the results speak for themselves.”
Phil Brazier, Head Coach 2021-23

If that wasn’t enough, Barrios was a wanted man. After setting the all-time MLS record for goals in a single season, the Argentine forward had caught the attention of some of Europe’s historic giants. Rumours swirled around – Milan, Madrid, perhaps even the EPL. In the end, despite Linneman’s efforts to keep him at Subaru Park, it was Valencia that won the fight for the young striker’s signature in an MLS record $33m deal, with potential bonus payments taking the total fee as high as $40m. They had lost their goalscoring sensation, but their new transfer budget meant they were the team to look out for in the upcoming transfer window.

Linneman got to work. Some of the Barrios bounty went to German side Wolfsburg to repatriate USMNT forward Jay Harper in a direct replacement, while Dutchman Robin van der Linde came in on a free transfer to share the striking burden. Another US international in Deyvon Campbell was brought in from FC Dallas to take the starting berth at right-back, while Olympic bronze medallist Johnson Olabare was signed for next to nothing from Nigerian club Kano Pillars as the new starting goalkeeper. Finally, on the last day of the transfer window, Linneman boosted Brazier’s roster by three – promoting academy prospect Jesus Mendez into the seniors, trading future draft picks and allocation money for Toronto left-back CJ Myers, and then announcing the big one – 29-year-old England international midfielder Ollie Brookes. Still a regular for his country, Brookes had fallen out of favour at Chelsea, lost his place to other international stars, and been coaxed to Philly with the biggest contract in franchise history. It was a huge coup for the Union, and not just in the prestige that came with having an England starter on the team. Brookes was perhaps starting to come down off the peak of his career, but he was still the best box-to-box man in MLS by some distance.

When league play got underway, Philadelphia were one of the favourites – along with Atlanta and New York City in the East, and the Galaxy and Sounders from the West. To even be in the picture was something new, but to live up expectations was unheard of. A rapid start saw them top of the East after matchday six, and with Brookes pulling the strings in midfield along with MacIntyre they were creating more goalscoring chances than ever. Neither Harper nor van der Linde was as prolific as the departed Barrios, but it didn’t matter – if they missed a chance, they knew they’d get another before too long.

Top of the conference and flying, all was well in Philadelphia. So of course, with seven games to go in the regular season and after a franchise record 6-0 home win over Vancouver, Phil Brazier announced to a shocked press corps that he would be leaving after the postseason. Little over six months after signing a contract extension in Linneman’s office, the star coach had agreed a move to Europe. English Championship club Reading had identified Brazier as the man to try and take them back to the EPL, and at 58 years old he felt he couldn’t turn them down – another shot in England might not come along. Linneman fumed silently in the next seat as Brazier took questions – he would barely speak to his coach for the rest of the year, such was his sense of betrayal – and rather than planning a playoff campaign, he had instead to recruit a head coach to replace the best in Union history.

Back on the field, Brazier’s upcoming departure made very little difference to the results. A couple of draws in the run-in put the record in brief doubt, but a return to form in the closing weeks saw the Union rack up a MLS record 25 wins and 78 points, clinching top spot in the Eastern Conference and their first ever Supporter’s Shield in the process. A bye in the first week of the playoffs allowed them to be fully rested and ready to go in the semi-final against DC United, and an early Jay Harper penalty put them on the way. Mendez scored a second after half time, Brock Henshaw came off the bench to add a third late on, and another conference final beckoned for the new stars of MLS.

Atlanta were back, this time having had to do things the hard way from 6th seed, but once again they were no match for Brazier’s free-scoring side. Even the go-ahead goal from star forward Miguel Santamaria couldn’t panic the reigning champs, and two goals in six minutes either side of the break from van der Linde and centre-back Lindstrom had the Union back in the box seat. Santamaria won Atlanta a penalty in the dying moments, but a clutch flying save from Jackson Olabare preserved the lead for Philly, and they held on to the final whistle for a place in their second MLS Cup final in as many seasons.

The visitors to Subaru Park in the 2022 final were not the Galaxy or Sounders as had been expected, but the West’s 5th seeded FC Dallas, who had taken extra time to beat Portland in the first round and penalties to upset the top-seeded Sounders in the conference semis. In the final, they came up against Houston, who had toppled the Galaxy in another shock, and found a last-minute goal from Trey Mendies to make it to the showpiece. Nobody had seen them as MLS Cup contenders, they hadn’t been expected to get to the final, and very few gave them a chance against the record-breaking Union.

The majority were right. Dallas were shot after taking every game to the death, Philadelphia had played one playoff round fewer, their confidence was high after such a strong regular season, and they were determined to send the departing Brazier out on a high. Just seven minutes in, Ollie Brookes sent Darko Beljic away for the opening goal, Harper headed in the second after half an hour, and in added time at the end of the half, left-back CJ Myers saw his speculative shot squirm through a crowded penalty box and in for 3-0. The game was over, and we were only halfway done.

No team had ever won an MLS Cup by more than two goals, but that was all about to change. With a dejected Dallas unable to get anything going on offence, a comfortable Philly side toyed with them in the second half as their fans celebrated in the stands, and in the 73rd minute Brookes added the best goal of the game to his earlier assist, arcing a shot into the top corner from nearly 30 yards to rub salt into the Dallas wounds. 4-0 was the biggest win in MLS Cup history, Brazier left the field on the shoulders of his players, and Philadelphia became just the fourth team in MLS history to win back-to-back championships. From one of the worst teams in the league, they were now one of the most successful, and they didn’t look like they were about to stop any time soon.

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“Everything changes in that offseason. We’d been used to a friendly old man running the franchise. Nobody knew much about TLA, but nobody liked ‘em much.”
Simon Lyness

And from a business point of view, the club had never been more valuable. Which was probably why, just days after Brazier left, Corey Taverley announced the sale of the franchise to TLA Sports, a holding company whose man in Philadelphia would be the hard-nosed Hal Berryhill. Whereas Taverley had been content to let Linneman run the sporting side of the operation, Berryhill made it clear from the outset that TLA had no room for sentiment. The Union were first and foremost a business, and a return would be expected on their investment.

Now he couldn’t just fire Linneman – with the head coach moving on, it would be PR suicide to fire the front office lynchpin – but he could hamstring him. Linneman had a deal all but done with Guillermo Diaz, head coach of Liga MX club Pumas, but Berryhill vetoed the appointment at the 11th hour in a move which infuriated Linneman. The reasoning was that the American champions should have an American coach, but it left his GM scrambling for a replacement having been working for weeks on the assumption that Diaz’ arrival was imminent. It was not the best of starts.

Linneman recovered the situation with the acquisition of two-time USL champion coach Mike Shields from North Carolina FC, widely regarded as one of the best up-and-coming tactical brains in American soccer, but the feud with Berryhill had only just begun. Sporting logic dictates that you use a position of strength to strengthen further – what the new owners did at Philadelphia can only be described as asset-stripping.

First to go was Darko Beljic, the one-time draftee sold to Partizan in his native Serbia at the first sign of their interest. Next was Chris MacIntyre, Brazier’s starting midfielder sold to Scottish giants Rangers despite Shields identifying him as a key player. Van der Linde, after just a single season, went back home to Heerenveen, while two-year draftee Luke Jennings was out the door the moment it looked like another side would shell out for him, the winger moving across the States to Portland and the Timbers. Four key cogs in the Union machine had been ripped away by Berryhill’s money-grabbing, and Linneman was left to pick up the pieces for his new head coach.

Despite their coffers being swelled by the transfer fees of three European clubs, despite having only spent around half of the Barrios money from a year ago, and despite being comfortably under the salary cap, Berryhill handed his GM his smallest transfer pot yet. Despite leading the two-time champions, Linneman was forced to scramble for signings.

To fill the void left by Beljic and Jennings on the wings, he headed to the European loan market. For the 2023 campaign, Philadelphia gained the services of another American in Germany, Mainz’ Marcus Greene, and Arsenal’s Portuguese youngster Ricardo Costa free of charge – bound to please the new owners. A hard bargain with the Galaxy saw future draft picks and an academy full-back head to LA in exchange for striker Luis Valdes, and Linneman was still yet to spend a cent. In a fairly clear middle finger to the ownership, he held a press conference to announce his final free signing – promising Colorado talent Jon Weston – before allowing his marquee signing, Houston Dynamo’s USMNT midfielder and MacIntyre replacement Tom Brannigan, to slide largely under the radar. Somehow the Union had pulled together a squad, and after one of the most turbulent offseasons in recent memory, the two-time champions were something like ready to go again.

With their championship-winning defence still intact, shutting other teams out was not a problem for Philly, but given that 60% of their key attackers – Greene on the right wing, Costa on the left, and Valdes up front – were still settling in, it’s hardly surprising that goals were harder to come by than in the record-breaking season of 2022, or the Barrios year before that. Three tied games in their first five – two scoreless – was not the blistering start fans had come to expect at Subaru Park, nor was it title-winning form.

Then Ollie Brookes went down injured, and after 10 games Shields’ side had a record of three wins, one loss and six draws. Not terrible, but not good enough to lead the East, which was the position they were accustomed to. Brookes returned, Harper found some form in the opposing penalty area and things began to stabilise, but trouble never seemed too far away.

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Around midseason, rumours began to fly that TLA were not happy with Shields and his style of management, and that the new owners would rather see a more exciting product on the field. Now, some of the new coach’s substitutions had been a little unorthodox, but the play on the field was similar to that of Brazier – the new man had just been handed an inferior group of players, some of whom barely knew each other.

Four wins on the bounce soon quietened the murmurs, but even at this stage it was clear that the Union were not winning the East for the second year straight. In fact, it was all New York up at the top of the Conference, NYCFC and the Red Bulls locking down one and two, with Philly just behind Atlanta to sit 4th. A home win over Atlanta jumped them ahead in the standings, defeat to the Revolution in Boston sent them down again, and inconsistent form was the order of the day through to the end of the year. On the final day of the regular season, Jackson Olabare gave up a tame goal to hand Columbus a share of the points, and Philadelphia slipped down to 5th, meaning a long trip to Montreal for a first round playoff with the Impact.

But playoff Philly were a different beast altogether, and in their best game of the whole season, they blew the Impact away in their own back yard, Harper firing in a hat-trick in a 5-1 blowout. The top-seeded Red Bulls waited in New York, loan duo Marcus Greene and Ricardo Costa combined for two goals inside 20 minutes, and despite an Alex Pereira strike in the second half, the home side were unable to find the game-tying goal. That meant another Eastern Conference final, and yet another meeting with Atlanta United to determine the East’s representative in the MLS Cup game.

Given that Philadelphia had largely stumbled into the postseason at the end of a chaotic year, to even see them in the divisional showdown was quite something. When Atlanta’s Tai Owens headed in from a free kick in the first half, it looked for all the world like the home team were finally about to one over on the side who had denied them so often in recent years. However, Tom Brannigan came up clutch in the final five minutes to even the scores, neither team could break through in extra time, and so the 2023 Eastern Conference would be settled in a penalty shootout.

Atlanta took the first shot and found the net, as they did with their second, third and fourth attempts. With the Union under pressure at every turn, every man – Harper, Brookes, Costa and Brannigan – all held their nerve, squaring the game up in every round. With the final kick before the official start of sudden death, Jackson Olabare clung on to a weak effort from Esteban Gutierrez, giving loan winger Marcus Greene the chance to send his team to a third MLS Cup final in a row. The Mainz forward stepped forward, sent Andrei Rudnevs the wrong way, silenced more than 70,000 fans in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and put Philadelphia one game away from an historic three-peat.

Stop and think about that for a minute. Philadelphia Union, three-time MLS champions? The first team ever to three-peat? After that offseason? The only team that could still stop them were the Seattle Sounders, who had just denied the Galaxy another shot at the championship in a 4-3 extra time thriller, and would have home field advantage at CenturyLink Field. Through 20 minutes, the two sides remained level. At half time the MLS Cup remained scoreless, and it remained far too close to call.

With 20 minutes to go, Seattle worked the ball into the Philadelphia box and managed to find a way past Olabare – only for the goal to be called offside. Just two minutes later, Ricardo Costa broke down the right, fired in a low cross, and substitute Luis Valdes connected with a volley that flew past the Atlanta goalkeeper and put the Union 1-0 up. The remaining 20 minutes ticked by slowly for the visiting fans, but with Shields pulling his team back into a defensive shape it was almost impossible for the home side to create anything. At the referee’s whistle, the score had not changed. Philadelphia Union – yes, that Philadelphia Union, had claimed the first three-peat in MLS history.

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“Corey Taverley was a good businessman who knew little about soccer, so he let the soccer guys do their thing. Hal Berryman is a bad businessman who knows nothing about soccer, and tried to do both at the same time. He ruined that team for the sake of a quick buck.”
Todd Linneman, General Manager 2020-25

In most sports, three championships is a dynasty, the start of something special. Some of the great American sports teams through history failed to achieve a three-peat, while those that have are given a special place in the nation’s sporting pantheon. It’s a mark of greatness, a sign of a franchise ready to challenge year after year for the championship. So surely Philadelphia’s reign of glory was only just getting started?

About that. Berryhill and TLA, it seems, had other ideas. First, the ownership refused to sanction an improved contract for starting striker Jay Harper, and not only did the USMNT forward hold out and leave to free agency, he ended up signing a deal with Atlanta United, arguably Philly’s biggest rivals at the top of the Eastern Conference. Secondly, despite Arsenal agreeing to extend Ricardo Costa’s loan deal, Berryhill decided he didn’t want to club relying too heavily on temporary deals – despite extending Marcus Greene’s deal on the same terms.

Even with Harper leaving, the biggest damage was yet to come. Italian club Sampdoria came in for starting goalkeeper Olabare, Phil Brazier’s EPL newcomers Reading made an offer to take Ollie Brookes back home, and starting midfield anchor Brad Cunningham requested a transfer after seeing his team dismantled around him. Berryhill was all too happy to oblige, finding him a new home in China with Beijing Guo’an, and Linneman had his work cut out to even give Shields a full squad to work with, let alone defend a championship title.

Cunningham’s anchor slot was the priority, and the GM needed to think outside the box to fill the hole. Long-time backup full-back Karlo Grazini went to Toronto for a remarkable three draft picks, two of which Linneman flipped to Dallas with some token allocation money for David Brennan. Logan Kupiec’s path to the first team was secured after two deals for Olabare replacements fell through due to contract squabbles, but the front office couldn’t allow the Union to go into the season with such a thin roster.

So the budget that did exist was spent, much to the chagrin of the TLA ownership. Grant LeBarron was brought back from German club Leipzig to start ahead of Jesus Mendez on the left wing, the Galaxy were convinced to part with midfielder Daniel Brackspear, and then Linneman… well, he did Linneman things.

Remember Ezequiel Barrios? The Argentine striker who tore up the MLS record books in his one year in Philadelphia, only to leave in a monster deal to Valencia? Well, he set Spain alight as well, and Manchester United signed him up in an even bigger transfer. Only to sit him on the bench for six months, barely give him any minutes, and put him on the transfer list for an outrageous fee.

Linneman couldn’t afford that, but he could put in an audacious bid to bring Barrios back to Philly on loan for the season. When United accepted the deal, he knew even Berryhill couldn’t stand in the way of one of the Union’s favourite sons, even if United subsidising his wages would still make him comfortably the best-paid player on the team. Barrios needed quite a bit of convincing – after all, he was leaving one of world football’s biggest teams in the prime of his career for a second stint in MLS – but somehow Linneman pulled off the deal of the year. The free signing of Kai Richardson as midfield backup went entirely under the radar – with Barrios on board, even a weakened Philadelphia were a threat.

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With Kupiec now starting between the posts, the Union defence was not as strong as it previously had been, but the constant threat of Barrios balanced things out. Despite sitting on a bench in Manchester for six months he remained sharp, and seven goals in his first seven games ensured Philly kept pace with the top teams in the East. Even when sides were able to mark him out of a game, the space freed up allowed Greene and LeBarron to run riot, often making up for a shaky defence at the other end.

Midway through the season, Philadelphia encapsulated themselves in a microcosm. First up, a 5-0 home win over the Red Bulls with Barrios running riot. The next week, a 3-1 defeat on the road at lowly Colorado. A week later, Barrios opened the scoring with a solo run and finish in New England, and then disaster struck. The Argentine went up for a header for Leo Munez, fell awkwardly, and then screamed in pain as the defender came down on his leg. Barrios needed oxygen as he was stretchered off the field, and the diagnosis was as bad as it looked. His leg was broken, surgery was required, and Barrios was quickly sent back to Manchester for treatment, his loan deal cut short by the horrific injury. The Union went on to lose the game 2-1, and there is no doubt the injury took a toll on the players’ mentality.

The hangover continued, and Philadelphia slipped down the Eastern Conference table. While Luis Valdes did his best to try and fill Barrios’ boots, contributing with some key goals, but the midfield was simply not as strong as it had been in previous years in the absence of Brookes and Cunningham, and other teams took advantage. Atlanta took the top seeding by six points from New York City, surprise package Chicago edged the third spot ahead of Montreal, and Philadelphia limped home in 5th place, just a couple of points ahead of the Red Bulls with Toronto claiming the final playoff berth. The defending champions did not look the all-powerful force they had once been.

Their lowly seeding put them on the road in the first round of the playoffs, across the border against the Impact in Montreal. Perhaps a little too keen for the upset, perhaps sensing weakness in their opponents, Canada international Zachary Mills took just 25 minutes to earn a second yellow card for his overzealous tackling, and Philadelphia had the upper hand. When a goal finally game, deep into the second half, it came from an unlikely source, reserve defender John Weston heading in just his third career goal from a Brackspear corner, and the 10-man Impact couldn’t find a way back. They’d needed a numerical advantage and a set-play to get through, but get through is exactly what Philly had done, and their impressive play-off record rolled on.

Atlanta were next on ticket in the conference semis, an almost inevitable matchup given their record of contesting the division almost every year. This time there would be no heroic victory, no helping hand from the hosts, no fairytale fourth championship. Yusuf Sissoko grabbed a goal in each half, Deyvon Campbell limped off in the second half with a pulled hamstring, and in time added on at the end of what would be his last game for the Union, Marcus Greene was sent off for kicking out at Tai Owens. Atlanta fought and beat Chicago to claim the East, then beat a resurgent San Jose to claim the MLS Cup - Philly’s time at the top was over.

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“Hal Berryhill made me the scapegoat for the first year we blew the playoffs, and I couldn’t wait to get out. To be honest, I’m not sure why I ever agreed to come back.”
Logan Kupiec, goalkeeper 2020-24, 27-29

The fallout was almost instant. Greene’s loan deal expired without renewal, and he headed back to Germany. Kupiec, the goalkeeper who took the blame for much of a poor season, demanded a transfer and ended up in his ancestral Poland, taking the starting position at Lechia Gdansk. Long-serving midfielder Brock Henshaw wound down his contract and ended up at Chicago via waivers, and then the star of the Philly defence, USMNT centre-back Leon Browne left to join up with his old coach Phil Brazier in Reading. That left a huge number of holes for Linneman to fill, not to mention another head coaching vacancy…

You heard that right – Linneman needed to make yet another head coaching hire after Mike Shields decided that the TLA circus was too much for him to deal with, and walked away to take the bench for the Columbus Crew. With the rebuilding job becoming an increasingly unattractive job given Berryhill’s continual selling off of the club’s biggest talents, and so Charleston Battery’s Rudy King was the man drafted into the hotseat. A respected coach for sure, but not of the calibre of Phil Brazier or even the departed Shields. Still, Linneman had filled one gap.

Goalkeeper was undoubtedly the priority, and the GM came up big on this one. Former Italian national team goalkeeper and Napoli star Alessio Ferrari was looking for one last hurrah at the age of 33, and Linneman convinced him to sign a three-year deal in Philadelphia. Ahead of him in the centre of defence, Browne’s shoes were filled by Bryce MacDonald from Kansas City, a massive five draft picks headed to Atlanta for star winger Deon Cole and backup central midfielder Oscar Hernandez, and up front Linneman went to work for yet another first choice striker. Luis Valdes was a capable backup, but wasn’t ready to lead a team that wanted championships. The one transfer fee he was able to pay saw him head back to South America for a forward, 25-year-old Leonardo Suarez arriving from Rosario Central to lead the line. It was still a thin roster, but the Union could at least field a full team without using too many raw academy players.

In King’s first competitive game on the bench, Philly travelled to Atlanta and won, a second half free-kick from new boy Suarez toppling the reigning MLS champions. In the next game, a home game against Colorado ended in a 3-0 victory for the Union on the back of a Deon Cole double, and a week later they forced their way back from two goals down to a force a 2-2 tie on the road in LA. Rudy King looked like an inspired choice as coach, and hopes were high in Philly.

Until the very next game, when Vancouver came to Subaru Park and left with the victory, and the game after that, a defeat to the Red Bulls in which Philadelphia never even looked like scoring. Just three wins from the next seven knocked the Union back into the chasing pack along with a struggling NYCFC, and the MLS Cup seemed a long way away all of a sudden.

And as if by magic, the storm clouds began to gather over Union head office. An interview from Hal Berryhill appeared in the local press made it quite clear that any failure on King’s part would have severe consequences not only for the new hire, but for Linneman as well – the first reminder in some time that their previously untouchable GM was rubbing the ownership up the wrong way. By the midway point of the season, with the Union in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, a second interview suggested that TLA were looking at organisational changes at the end of the season.

With less than 18 months remaining on his own contract, Linneman could see the writing on the wall. Using his extensive network of contacts across the game, he began to sound out opportunities in the United States and elsewhere. As middling form brought Philadelphia towards the end of the regular season hanging on to a playoff berth, an exclusive interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the news that after more than half a decade in the front office, Todd Linneman would be leaving the Union at the end of the postseason to take up a Director of Football role with Czech champions Sparta Prague, who had recently been bought out by an American consortium.

Berryhill was both snookered and furious. He had wanted Linneman out for years and got his wish, but in a manner which had made him look impotent. When his own riposte, that the move was still subject to TLA confirmation, was shot down by the basic fact that Linneman could simply resign, he made his own decision. At the end of the season, regardless of the outcome, Rudy King would not be continuing as head coach of the Philadelphia Union. It was nothing more than a desperate power move, and served only to overshadow events on the field, where the lame duck King could manage only a 6th place finish in the East. The playoffs beckoned, but only just.

After 45 seconds of the first round in Chicago, Suarez flicked in a near post finish to put Philadelphia ahead in the playoffs, and that would be as good as it got. A clumsy tackle from Deyvon Campbell handed the Fire a penalty just 10 minutes later, and at the final whistle Philly trudged off the field after a 4-1 thrashing. King was gone, Linneman had left, and the days of the three-peat were long gone. To describe the Union as a shadow of their former selves would have been generous.

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“I don’t think any of us realised just how much Linneman had done to keep the team competitive. When he left, the new guys got worse and the hope dried up.”
Inigo Vasquez, leader of La Union Latina supporters group.

A fan-pleasing attempt to lure Phil Brazier back from England failed in the offseason, resulting in Dutch coach Arne Spijker being given the job – a far cry from TLA’s one-time American-only policy – operating under Jamal Booker, a former NBA executive drafted in from the Houston Rockets despite having no former experience in the sport. In line with previous years, the few remaining star players – right-back Campbell, left-back Myers, Tom Brannigan, and Suarez after a single season – were sold off at the earliest opportunity, Grant LeBarron’s loan ran down, and the Booker/Spijker duo would have to move fast to rebuild.

Without Linneman’s bullishness and skill at the negotiating table, they struggled to do so. With signings limited – Chicago’s Karl Garland on the left side of defence, aging Spanish midfielder Gonzalo Mendoza on a free transfer, and SuperDraft pickup Robin Heller at right-back – former backup players such as Luis Valdes, Jesus Mendez and Kai Richardson were forced to take on leading roles ahead of a group of academy graduates – two-footed winger Jamal DeMarcus, target man forward Tim Probert and full-back Sam Bryan – and the results were less than brilliant.

Philly were out of Eastern Conference contention by a third of the way through the regular season, but the goalposts had already shifted – TLA and Berryhill wanted their team to make the playoffs, add value to some of their assets, sell them off for profit, rebuild and repeat. It was just as well really – the Union were battling for the bottom two playoff spots, competing with Toronto and Columbus to even make it into the postseason. On the final day of the season, a late Tim Probert goal was enough to grab a point at the Red Bulls and take 6th seed in the East. That sent them to Boston to take on the Revolution, who promptly swatted them 3-0 to bring the first post-Linneman season to an unsurprisingly disappointing end.

Where the Berryhill model fell apart, of course, is that it’s hard to make profit on players that aren’t performing well. Of course, TLA still managed to strip a couple of assets, sending Deon Cole to Germany, Jonas Lindstrom to San Jose, and reinvesting just a fraction of that in bringing back Logan Kupiec from Poland as Ferrari’s backup in goal and signing up Darius Lincoln as defensive backup. Neither signing inspired anything resembling confidence for the upcoming campaign.

What little confidence there was proved to be misplaced. Halfway through the year with Philly second bottom of the East, Booker sent Spijker packing, replacing him with Andre Young on the sideline. A brief bounce saw a 5-2 hammering of Minnesota one week and 2-0 win over Toronto the next, but the momentum didn’t last. Heading into the final week of the regular season, Philadelphia needed a win over Portland and the Galaxy to beat the Red Bulls to sneak into the final playoff berth. Jamal DeMarcus scored the goal that held up Philly’s end of the bargain, but LA could only take a point from New York, and for the first time since 2019, the Philadelphia Union would not take part in the MLS postseason.

Nor would they make it the following year, with Ferrari’s retirement handing Kupiec the gloves and starting defender Bryce MacDonald sold off in a cut-price deal with one year left on his contract. Even long-serving Luis Valdes turned down an extension, choosing instead to take the bench for FC Dallas. Not a single cent was spent on incoming transfers, only one man – Vancouver’s reserve goalkeeper Paul Bentley – came in on waivers, and no fewer than five members of the roster were either rookie draftees or fresh academy graduates. It was certainly a bold strategy – some outsiders would even laud the Union’s ‘trust in youth,’ but it was misguided at best and reckless at worst, governed not by a desire to see home-grown talent blossom, but crass profiteering.

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“It’s hard to build a football club, but it should be harder to kill one. What’s going on in Philadelphia today is an absolute disgrace.”
Todd Linneman

Whatever your thoughts on Philadelphia’s approach, it didn’t work. This time they missed the playoffs by six points, which cost Young his job and saw Booker hire veteran Swedish coach Pontus Gustavsson in his place. The man on the bench didn’t seem to matter – with no power to make deals and remaining talent forever up for sale, Philly became the one place nobody wanted to go. Six seasons after lifting their third MLS Cup in a row, the Union finished their campaign rock bottom of the East, having earned just eight wins – it was the worst season across MLS that year.

And they’ve never truly recovered. Four years on, playoff soccer has yet to return to Subaru Park, even with the emergence of academy stars Ben Daniels and Travis Bradbury. Attendances have dropped from the 18,000+ that turned out during the three-peat years to a mere 13,000 today, and the thought of an Ezequiel Barrios turning up in Pennsylvania today is laughable.

Without Linneman – their former GM helping Sparta Prague compete in Europe – working magic behind the scenes, without coaches like Phil Brazier and Mike Shields getting extraordinary performances from the team, without star men like Barrios, Ollie Downes and Jay Harper set loose on the field, the Philadelphia Union have descended back to irrelevance. And for as long as TLA and Hal Berryhill are running the show, that is exactly where they will stay.

Or perhaps not. But before you get your hopes up, Philly fans, I’m not talking about a sudden change of fortunes. I’m talking about a change of location. Rumours beginning to emanate from MLS HQ are suggesting that TLA Sports have commissioned research into the possibility of taking the Union out of Philadelphia in response to their low fan engagement. Detroit and Milwaukee are the two cities being whispered about in the corridors of power if these rumours are to be believed, and either would bring a swift and definitive end to the story of the Philadelphia Union. Whether expansion into those cities is right for MLS is one thing, but it’s hard to see how stripping a sports-mad city of its record-breaking franchise furthers the growth of the game. To see a team struggling to live up to their name and history is one thing, to see them airbrushed out of the picture entirely is little short of blasphemy.
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That's a wrap, folks! It may have stretched the definition of short, but I don't think <10k words is bad for several seasons of game time. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed, and I'll see you in the next one.

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