With the 2020 MLS Season less than a week away, expectations are high for the Philadelphia Union and the possibilities endless, which is perhaps the perfect time to simulate the season ahead.
Using FIFA20’s Career Mode, I decided to find out what the season could look like - for the Union. The side I used for this simulation to start the season is similar to the one the Union currently have, meaning Fafa Picault has been sold, Haris Medunjanin lost to waivers, etc. but one new acquisition I was unable to acquire to start the year was Jakob Gleses, due to a low number of center backs at Strømsgodset Toppfotball during the January transfer window.
Despite the dissimilarities to the side’s current reality — there are more you will see below — it still paints a picture of what the Union season could look like.
Head coach Jim Curtin began the 2020 Season by leading his side to a top place finish in their group at the North American Soccer League Tournament (a tournament meant to resemble a side’s entire preseason in FIFA’s Career Mode). And while they’d eventually lose to Liga MX Side Atlas in the semifinal, the Union showed an ability to win in a multitude of ways (something good sides always seem to do).
Nonetheless, Curtin did realize there were weaknesses in his side. The specific deficiency he pinpointed was his lack of depth at central defense. But he, and his team, were too late in attempting to address it, as he was unable to secure a move for Jakob Glesnes as the window slammed shut. Having not targeted any other center backs he was left with Jack Elliott, Mark McKenzie, and Aurélien Collin until the summer window opened back up.
First Half of the Season
The Union started their season unquestionably slow. This was due to an unidentified lack of balance in their side.
Curtin was trying to install a system that allowed the Union’s mercurial winger Ilsinho time and space. While also playing Jamiro Monteiro as a central defensive midfielder [CDM]; doing so was an attempt to account for the loss of Medunjanin.
To fans, Curtin playing his side in these formations may have seemed like an obvious mistake, but it allowed new signing Matej Oravec more time to settle. Preventing any possible ‘baptism by fire’ moments for the youngster. But after losing two of their first three matches, and sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference, Curtin decided to change formations.
Reverting back to the 4-4-2 (diamond) and moving Ilsinho to the bench while bringing Monteiro further up the pitch changed the Union’s luck. Adding to it, the inclusion of a much more comfortable CDM, in Oravec, the team was able to play at a level that has never been seen by a Union side - even in last season’s historical run.
This run would see the Union go unbeaten through 23 matches.
The tear the Union was on continued into the Summer Transfer Window, and with 30 points they sat third in the Eastern Conference.
Only eight points behind the conference leaders, New England Revolution, the Union weren’t as concerned about their center back depth as they were to begin the season. Instead they were concerned about their inability to score goals - with nine draws on the season, there were several points that they had left on the field. This was due to their sheer inability to find the back of the net.
That’s when Sporting Director Ernst Tanner made some surprise moves, not in the attack, but deeper in their formation.
They first felt they needed to provide competition for Alejandro Bedoya, who at 33 had begun to show an absence of the ability that had once made him a USMNT regular. Ryan Gravenburch from Ajax was the player they identified as his eventual replacement, and as a box to box midfielder he was the perfect fit for the 4-4-2. Furthermore, his ability to fill in for Oravec presented some additional flexibility. The second spot they established as needing improvement was right back. The Union turned to a rising star when they bought USMNT and FC Dallas defender Reggie Cannon.
Between the two additions and with a sale of Warren Creavalle the Union only spent around $7 million. Both players would break the Union’s current record transfer fee (Monteiro’s reported $2 million fee). However, the Union weren’t done yet, as Curtin and Tanner didn’t want to leave their defensive business till the next window. They decided to return and sign Glesnes on a pre-contract deal that would bring him to the team in 2021.
These decisions proved to be good ones as the Union were able to defeat league leaders LAFC following the closure of the window.
The Union would soil their 23 match unbeaten run by losing for the second time in a tournament’s semifinal. This time against DC United in the US Open Cup. To make matters worse the loss was a perplexing one, as they had given up three goals at home, which was the most they had conceded in Chester all season.
Curtin had determined that the side needed fresher legs, and had decided to retract Bedoya from the side. Where up until very recently, he had been playing alongside Monterio, in front of Gravenburch. Fulfilling the role he was signed for, Gravenburch was moved to partner Monteiro in the midfield. This would allow Oravec to return to the starting 11, where he would anchor the defensive end of the Union ’s midfield for the remainder of the season.
These changes led to the Union dominating the tail end of their schedule, allowing them to finish first in the Eastern Conference, and third in the league (behind LAFC and the Seattle Sounders ). Another reason for this late season success was the form of Kacper Przybyłko, who saw himself barley miss out on the coveted golden boot, as he finished with 21 goals.
MLS Cup & Playoffs
The 2020 MLS Playoffs went as well as the Union could ever hope.
In their second round match — after a first round bye — they took on Toronto FC. Throughout the match the Union were never seen flagging as the players used every ounce of energy they had. Doing so was required against such an experienced playoff side, and allowed them to come out of extra-time on top. The Union won 2-1 following a late goal in the second half of extra-time by Gravenburch.
In the Eastern Conference Final, DC United saw a much different side than the one they faced in the U.S. Open Cup. The Union won this one 1-0 through a 72nd minute strike from Gravenburch.
Moving into the MLS Cup final at home, the Union would face the LA Galaxy, a side led by golden boot competitor and Mexican International Javier “Chicarito” Hernadez. This was another match that was a onegoal thriller for the Union, with another extra time, and a Przybyłko strike to secure the MLS Cup win in front of their home crowd.
My takeaways from the simulation
I truly believe the Union are not that far off from a similar situation occurring this season.
Toward the end of last season they were only two matches away from taking home field advantage through the playoffs. So I believe that it is totally possible that they do the same this season and that they actually take advantage of their position.
The only issue with this is that I don’t see the Union’s offense being the problem as it was in the simulation. I see it being their defense like it was last season — a defense that only allowed their star goalkeeper to record three clean sheets on from his career high 10. When taking that into account it makes perfect sense why the Union made the moves they did this offseason. With the actual signing of Jakob Glesnes and both Matej Oravec and Jose “El Brujo” Martinez, they definitely strengthened on the defensive side of the ball.
But even with these signings I do still question the validity of Ray Gaddis as an MLS right back. He plays with heart, and is honestly quite good defensively; however, outside-backs in the modern game need to provide something in the final third, and he simply doesn’t. I hope that position is revisited in the summer or that Olivier Mbaizo is given more of a chance to make it his own .
The last thing I wanted to address was that this simulation doesn’t entirely cover the lack of respect the Union gets. Recently, SportsBetDime brought out their odds for the sides most likely to win MLS Cup 2020. The Union, which lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season have similar odds to both the San Jose Earthquakes and the Chicago Fire coming off seasons where they had missed the playoffs. That is why, with my final take-away, I wanted to suggest that this simulation gets one major thing right, and that is that the Philadelphia Union will surprise in 2020.