The Columbus Crew knows a thing or two about a tough cup final, and this season the Black & Gold kick off the 2023 season against a Philadelphia Union side that experienced that just a few months back. After losing the 2022 MLS Cup Final in penalty kicks to conclude last year, the Union welcomes the Crew to Chester, Pennsylvania for the kickoff of a new MLS regular season this Saturday.
To get prepared for the match, Massive Report spoke with Joe Lister from Philadelphia soccer blog Brotherly Game to learn how things have gone for the Union since dropping the final to LAFC and what’s coming this year.
Massive Report: Last season ended in probably the toughest way imaginable for Philadelphia, losing to LAFC late in the MLS Cup Final. I know the saying goes “it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all,” but how has the team been responding to it so far this preseason, from what you’ve seen?
Brotherly Game: Obviously there was a lot of disappointment, but if there’s any feeling around the group right now, it’s that they’ll be back. The Union has become a perennial contender in MLS, it’s hard to see them not at least reaching the conference finals.
It’s also worth noting that the team very much expects to win a trophy this season. Through four competitions, the Union can win five different trophies this year. I’d imagine they snag at least one.
MR: All teams go through changes in the offseason. How has the Union’s roster adjusted in the months since the end of 2022? Who’s a new name or two supporters should be watching?
BG: The Union did a good job of keeping the squad together this offseason. With the exception of defender Kai Wagner rumored to move to Leeds, not much happened. Midfielder Paxten Aaronson went off to Frankfurt, but he wasn’t making a huge impact in Philly anyways. Forward Cory Burke went to the New York Red Bulls, which is rough, and goalkeeper Matt Freese went to New York City FC. But at the same time, no starters were lost to the transfer market. The Union can roll out their starting XI from the MLS Cup Final against the Crew.
While Philly lost some depth, they also regained it. Damion Lowe, Joaquin Torres, and Andres Perea were all good signings at defense, midfield and attack, respectively.
However, I would look at forward Chris Donovan to have a breakout year. This is a slightly hotter take, but I’d expect him to play the same role as Burke and come off the bench late in the game and cause some chaos.
MR: Crew head coach Wilfred Nancy and his former club CF Montréal played the Union well last year. How do you see the first game of the season playing out?
BG: It’s the Union, so there shouldn’t be high hopes in Philly for a win. While the team has certainly gotten better in its openers in recent years, it is still historically bad in the first game.
Nancy certainly presents a challenge, especially with a solid roster that Columbus offers. That being said, I think that attacking midfielder Djorde Mihailovic in Montreal was a step better than the Crew, so it may not be an even transfer here.
MR: Looking into your crystal ball, what does the end of the 2023 season look like for the Union? Can they continue to defy the parody of MLS and thrive?
TBG: Philadelphia is certainly winning at least one trophy this year. I can make the argument that they should have had two last year had MLS regular season rules played by everyone else, but I don’t want to be that Philly fan.
Whether it’s the U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup, or anything in between, Philly is bringing some hardware this year. Bet on it.