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Philadelphia Union halfway home: what went right, what was surprising and what will it take to stay where they are

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A look back at the first half of the season and how the Union have defied expectations all the way to first place at the midpoint in the 2019 MLS season. 

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

If you had told me before the season that the Philadelphia Union would be in first place in the east halfway into their 2019 campaign and looking at having a chance to host MLS Cup, I would have told you about 15 reasons why that wouldn’t and couldn’t be the case.

Maybe that’s the negadelphian coming out in me, but I think it’s safe to say that the Union have defied everyone’s expectations (including their own).

Sporting Director Ernst Tanner originally said there would be a learning curve to his new system, but that seemed only to last for their first two games of the season. They started in the worst possible way, losing 3-1 in the season opener against Toronto FC at home, but came on incredibly strong, only losing once in their next 11 games after the loss at Sporting Kansas City. Not to mention they’ve battled numerous injuries and dealt with missing players for international games incredibly well. Everyone seems to be on the same page, and the roster is without a doubt the most talented it’s ever been.

What went right

Ernst Tanner
Ernst has been making moves that have absolutely improved this entire organization, and done so in an open fashion endearing himself to the entire fan base. His personnel decisions have all been positive moves, and if there was such an award, he would be sporting director of the year. While Earnie Stewart laid some of the framework, Tanner has taken this organization from a lower middle of the league team to cutting edge in terms of scouting, training and academy development. Tanner has signed impact players such as Kai Wagner, Jamiro Monteiro, as well as strikers Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos, and now Andrew Wooten. All of the trades he’s made in the league have set him up to bring in better players and he’s doing all of this while working within the confines of a limited Jay Sugarman budget.

Sticking with Jim Curtin
Jim has truly been given the reigns after not really having any freedom to experiment tactically under Stewart. Numerous times this season, his substitutions have made impact plays to win games, and tactical shifts have been crucial to the Union’s second half success. Sticking with Jim wasn’t a popular decision, but it has most certainly been the right decision.

What’s been surprising

Ambition
The Union organization was really on the brink of losing much of the fan base for good. Last year’s finish epitomized mediocrity and the fans have seen enough mediocre soccer in the last 10 years to not be disillusioned with a single big name signing (Marco Fabián). The team has gone out of its way to improve as the season has gone on, showing that it really wants this to be the year they win in the playoffs and actually make a push to win the league. The Monteiro and now Wooten signings illustrate a turning point for the direction of this organization. They’ve now shown they desperately want to win and win big which up to this point, they haven’t made a real effort to do.

Kai Wagner
The German third division left back was not expected to be an impact player for this team when he was brought in. He immediately won the starting spot over Matt Real, and has been one of the top three left backs in MLS so far this season. I thought it was just a small time move when they announced it, but Ernst proved me dead wrong.

Road Results
The Union have never been a good road team, but they have already won three road games this season. Last year they didn’t pick up their first road win until July 11. With a road-heavy second half of the season, look for their good form on the road to continue.

What do they need to do in the second half of the season

Sign a right back who is an attacking threat.
I love Ray Gaddis. He’s a hard worker and a solid defender. What he is not is an MLS Cup caliber starting right back in a system that requires him to contribute significantly to the attack. He is the obvious weakness on paper, and short of Ale Bedoya switching to right back (which I personally think would be awesome), upgrading that position should be the number one focus for the summer transfer window. This team is a right back version of Kai Wagner away from being an MLS Cup favorite, and if Sugarman really wants to change our perspective of him, he should shell out some money for one more player.

Win at home
They play 10 of their last 17 matches away and if they are going to have any hope of finishing the season in first, or hosting a playoff game, they need to take care of business at home, including during a crucial three-game home stand against DC, Atlanta and LAFC. They’ve had a few disappointing results at home this season (Namely against Portland, Colorado, and Toronto) but with the schedule the way it is, if they can’t get results at home, they’ll be setting themselves up for another disappointing end to the season.

Clinical Finishing
For this team to be real MLS Cup contenders, Fabián needs to be playing and playing well. The midfield, when healthy, is as dynamic as any team in the league, but the final third has still been a problem for them at times this year. Hopefully Wooten continues his fine run of form (13 goals in his last 17 games in Germany) and the attack starts consistently finishing the chances handed to them.

Overall, I’m pumped to see where this team goes this year. Its never been more exciting to be a fan of this team and hopefully the city starts to truly recognize that there’s something special happening in Chester this year.

What do you think about first half of the Union’s season? Let us know in the comments