It’s good to be a Philadelphia Union fan right now. Between the big wins, sold-out crowds, being first in the East, and Bedoya making national headlines last week, there hasn’t ever been a time quite like this in Union history.
Everyone should savor the moment, because there are 22 teams in the league wishing they were leading their respective conference. As the season winds down, each game takes on a new sense of importance, and this win against Houston is bigger than it may seem on the surface. The remainder of the home games this season are all going to be big tests. A newly revamped DC United, league-leading LAFC, a surging Atlanta United, and a challenging NYCFC all come to town looking to knock them off their perch. The next month or so is crucial, and in some ways, make or break for this team. People are still skeptical of the team’s potential due to inconsistent performances since the all-star break, but we should let the standings speak for themselves. With eight games to go, the Union are in first.
That being said, head coach Jim Curtin was clearly not happy with his team’s performance against Houston. After the game he said, “Our roster and our talent level is too good for a performance like tonight…If we want to be now mentioned in the elite teams in this league, a performance like this is nowhere good enough.”
While I love that Curtin is really pushing this team to be their best, I tend to disagree with the fact that this was a performance that is abnormal for a top team in the league. Yes, LAFC is winning games at a rate higher than any team in league history, but if you’ve watched Atlanta or really anyone else this year, the best teams have found ways to win games even when they don’t play well. In this league, everyone is inconsistent. Winning is all that matters in my book, and the Union accomplished that this week like they have so many times this season when they haven’t played their best.
It’s probably best summed up by Houston’s goalscorer tonight, Christian Ramirez, who after the game said, “Two unlucky bounces and (Philadelphia Union) capitalized and that’s why they’re top of the league right now, on this side of the conference.”
Tactically, Houston deserves tons of credit for their approach. They played almost a 4-man front line that pinned the Union back and made Jack Elliott and Aurélien Collin try to pick out line-splitting passes for much of the game. Curtin acknowledged that this caught them off-guard a little bit, and Houston’s game plan was quite effective till Jamiro Monteiro and Ilsinho came on. Marco Fabián tended to drift back and out to the left, leaving himself with fewer chances to make impact plays on the night. Haris Medunjanin was lying too deep in the first half, unable to truly get into the attack. Kacper Przybyłko, who scored and had a few really good moments, had more than a few poor back passes when he had space to turn and take on his defender. Too many times the Union turned it over before even getting it to the final third.
While Houston was successful in disrupting the midfield and the attack, the defense only really gave up two scoring chances on the night, one which Ramirez finished. The performance was never going to be as good as the dismantling against DC last week, and was probably poorer than most of us expected, but the team still got the result and everyone who was there will tell you they had a great time.
Sold out crowds automatically make the game day experience more fun, but something special occurred last night as well. After the Union scored the eventual winning goal, the new supporters group, Keystone Ultras, started a cheer and eventually they got everyone in the stadium in on it. Besides the Union chant on corner kicks, there have been close to zero full-stadium cheers, and that was one of the coolest atmospheres there’s ever been in the stadium.
Tonight shows that winning puts the butts in seats regardless of the location of the stadium, and selling out a game against a lackluster Houston team is a big feat for the organization, considering their attendance struggles in the past few years that everyone’s loved to talk about.
Tonight was a big win for the team, and based on Curtin’s post-game reaction, I’m sure he’s going to keep pushing the team to make sure they’re not satisfied with anything other than complete domination. As I said, it’s a great time to be a fan of this team right now, and their performance tonight, while not the prettiest, demonstrates a change in this organization’s view of success. Here’s to continued wins and hopefully an elusive home playoff game to cap this historic season.