The Philadelphia Union had their best season in Major League Soccer in 2018.
Let’s go through some of the facts. The Union finished with 50 points, the most points collected by any Philly squad since the team’s first season in 2010. The team also came away with six away wins this year, another team record. Auston Trusty, one of six players to go through the pipeline from Academy to Steel to the first team, started all 34 MLS games in 2018. Borek Dockal, the Union’s (on-loan) number 10, led MLS with 18 assists. Mark McKenzie finished as an MLS Rookie of the Year finalist. The Union secured spots in both the US Open Cup Final and the 2018 MLS Playoffs.
Leading up to the 2018 season, the Union had three major needs to address in the offseason: a winger to play opposite of Fafa Picault, a starting center back (or two), and a playmaker at the number 10 position.
The Union made their first big move on the same day as the 2018 MLS Draft, acquiring David Accam from the Chicago Fire for $1.2 million ($900,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and $300,000 in General Allocation Money), the largest transfer fee exchanged between MLS teams. Early predictions had Accam as a potential MLS MVP candidate, and it seemed that the Union may actually start to shell out some real money, but there was hesitation, because the transfer fee paid for Accam was all MLS “funny money” given by the league.
As the offseason went on, it seemed like the Accam transfer might be the ONLY move they would make. Cory Burke signed from Bethlehem Steel in early December, but no one thought much of it. The team was committed to the “play your kids” idea that fans had clamored for the year before. Union homegrown Anthony Fontana was poised to take the reigns at the number 10 position. The starting defense would consist of players under 25, including Homegrowns Auston Trusty and Matthew Real.
Huge speed on the wings, potential for a catastrophic season defensively, and an 18-year-old commanding the offense. That was the outlook for the 2018 season.
But right before the season began, the Union loaned in Borek Dočkal, a player they had been monitoring for a few seasons, from the Chinese Super League, to take on the role of central attacking midfielder. Relatively unknown and judged for coming from a league that significantly overpays for players, Dockal wasn’t exactly received as the savior the team had been waiting for.
Dockal was not fully acclimated to the team in time for the season opener against New England Revolution, but it didn’t matter. Anthony Fontana scored his first MLS goal and CJ Sapong opened up his scoring campaign early, leading the Union to a 2-0 victory at Talen Energy Stadium.
But over the next five games, the Union took two of a possible nine points from home and scored only one goal, all games with Dočkal in the lineup. It seemed eerily similar to Tranquillo Barnetta’s start with the Union, slow initially, and taking time to adjust to the pace of MLS.
D.C. United visited Talen Energy Stadium, and it seemed the Union were doomed for another draw after conceding a goal in the 70th minute, but 2 minutes later Dockal would finally introduce himself to the league with an emphatic finish to give Philadelphia the 3-2 win.
I had relatively low expectations about the Union’s road trips, after only winning one game in 2017 away from home. But a 2-0 win at Montreal became the first pleasant surprise of the season. The significance of this game, aside from the victory, was that it was Cory Burke’s first MLS start. It started a trend throughout the season, Burke starts, he scores, and the Union win.
But frustratingly, Jim Curtin would stick with CJ Sapong at striker, which didn’t seem like an awful decision, as the Union would take down Real Salt Lake 4-1 in their next game. But the season low for Sapong came at Red Bull Arena on May 26th. In a 0-0 draw, Marcus Epps would draw a penalty via handball in the 52nd minute and Sapong, the Union’s leading scorer in 2017 with 16 goals, would step up to the line and embarrassingly put the ball wide right of the net. Spoiler Alert: the two points lost in this game, would be the difference between hosting a playoff game against DC United and traveling to Yankee Stadium.
Let’s fast forward a little bit. Over the next few months, the Union would lose games to the big spenders of MLS (LAFC, LA Galaxy and Atlanta United twice). These are games, the Union were expected to lose. They would topple teams below them including Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution and Vancouver Whitecaps. And the Union, being the Union, cruised their way through the rounds of the US Open Cup, taking out Richmond Kickers, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City and finally Chicago Fire to reach their 3rd US Open Cup final. Cory Burke had solidified his starting position at striker. Dockal finally looked like the number 10 the Union have needed.
In the month of August, the Union would win all five games they played (4 MLS and 1 US Open Cup match). They were finally getting noticed. The formula was working. Despite a non-existent year for David Accam and a rookie center back pairing, the Union were making a run for the playoffs.
Things were getting exciting. I booked my flight to Houston almost immediately to watch the Union potentially lift their first trophy. Guys like Bobby Warshaw were jumping on the Union bandwagon. Away games were actually winnable.
But as quickly as things got exciting, the harsh realities kicked in just as fast.
There were definitely nerves travelling to Houston. The trip seemed to be destiny for the team, this was the year. The Eagles just lifted the Super Bowl, and in the same year, the Union were about to bring more silverware to Philadelphia. I give it to the social media team, they make you buy in. They get you excited. They make you believe. And the 300+ fans that traveled to Houston believed. We filled up Jackson Street BBQ, a little spot right outside Minute Maid Park, almost celebrating the idea that it was going to happen that night. We marched and sang all the way to BBVA Compass Stadium. And 4 minutes into the Union’s third U.S. Open Cup final, Fafa Picault headed a ball into the back of the net, causing the Sons of Ben to erupt with joy, only for it to be taken away by the offside flag. As much as we were deflated in the stands, it seemed to suck the air out of the Union as well, and seconds later, Houston was the team celebrating.
Despite the Cup final defeat, there was still plenty to play for. 3rd place was an achievable goal for the Union but a home game was most important. They drew a tough Columbus team days after losing to Houston, then clinched with an emphatic 5-1 win over Minnesota. Things were fine. If the Union can grab any amount of points from their final two games again NYRB and NYCFC, they would be playing at home in the first round of the playoffs. A Kaku penalty would give Red Bulls all three points in the final home game of the regular season, and NYCFC would run over the Union in a game played on a field the size of the mini pitch at Stetser Elementary School in Chester.
Jim Curtin made an attempt to adjust their strategy for the rematch at Yankee Stadium, inserting Warren Creavalle in place of C.J. Sapong and pushing Alejandro Bedoya out wide. The strategy wouldn’t pay off, and the Union again suffered a 3-1 loss and crashed out of the playoffs.
Let’s revisit those facts now. Fifty points bought the Union sixth place. Auston Trusty scored an own goal in the two biggest games of the year, the U.S. Open Cup final against Houston, and the Decision Day matchup for third place against NYCFC. Despite having perhaps the most underrated midfield trio in Bedoya, MLS Assist leader Dockal and Haris Medunjanin, the Union finished with a -1 goal differential. Four of the six away wins were against teams that did not make the playoffs (and one was against D.C. United, which also exited the MLS Playoffs in the first round).
Looking forward, the Union have some questions to answer. Can they keep Borek Dockal? Does management go full overhaul, dismantling a team that played in a third place game in the final game of the regular season? Is Cory Burke the answer at striker? Will they finally acquire a left back? Is there faith that David Accam will still play at a DP-caliber level after surgery? Is Jim Curtin still the guy for Ernst Tanner?
This season showed the Union can hang around with the top teams in the league in their current system, but still lack the killer instinct and the kinds of players who can take over a game when they need it most.
Despite the reasonable amount of success in 2018, the Union could look very different at the start of the next season.