The MLS is Back Tournament may not have ended how the Philadelphia Union wanted, but they believe they reached another level in the competition.
Now the task is to take that next, possibly final, step.
The Union’s run at MLS is Back came to a close on Wednesday following a 2-1 semifinal defeat to the Portland Timbers. The Union nearly clawed back late from a two-goal deficit, but ultimately paid the price for lax marking on a pair of set pieces on the defensive end, along with a failure to finish in the attack.
Coming up short at such a deep stage in a tournament tends to come with loads of disappointment, but the Union stated after the match that they would not let the sting of defeat overshadow all the positives they had shown over the past few weeks.
“I won’t allow it to take away from the strides and the growth that the team has made during this competition,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin on a videoconference after the loss. “We challenged (the group) to take a step to the next level of teams in this league. I think we did that. I think we had a lot of great performances from a lot of players.”
Wednesday’s loss aside, the MLS is Back Tournament was a rousing success for the Union. After all, they finished the tournament with a 4-1-1 record, and grabbed plenty of attention across the league thanks to impressive performances from players like veteran leader Alejandro Bedoya, promising teen Brenden Aaronson, and stalwart goalkeeper Andre Blake.
Still, the Union will rue what could have been.
Their stated goal was to win the competition, but a combination of poor marking on a pair of corner kicks, a botched penalty from Sergio Santos, and a tight offside call late on Kacper Przybylko all contributed to the Union’s undoing against the Timbers in the semifinal.
“We just have to learn from it, we have to keep growing, and we just have to know that in games like these it’s about the details,” said Blake. “Teams like those that are very tough to break down, you give them a restart and a goal and you might never get a chance to get back into the game.
“It is a tough pill to swallow. We will learn from it and we will gain valuable experience going forward.”
The Union might not have to wait very long to apply the painful but possibly valuable lesson they learned on Wednesday. The MLS regular season is set to resume in the coming weeks, and that should give the Union another chance to try and compete for a championship.
“Ultimately you want to get to a final, you want to try and lift a trophy. We came up short of that,” said Curtin. “I think it’s clear we can play with any team now, but in the big moments, in the key moments we have to find ways to get over the hump and win a big one.”
The Union are confident they have the ingredients to do just that. Yes, they may have fallen short of a championship at the MLS is Back Tournament, but the belief from within is that significant progress was made.
For them, the next step is to simply build on that.
“I’m proud of the group for everything they did on the field,” said Curtin. “I think we showed a lot of growth and improvement. I think we have a lot of good things that we do defensively. I think we’ve improved as the tournament has gone on in the attack.
“But I’d still say we have to tune some things up and we can still improve and get better as we look forward to the rest of the year.”