The Philadelphia Union are not as good as last season, which is why this is the year they’ll reach the MLS Cup. Although that sounds contradictory, it’s not far-fetched considering the way the Philadelphia Union’s historical 2020 season ended abruptly at home against the New England Revolution.
Although time may have healed, a toothless 2-0 loss to an opponent they went 4-0-1 against in the regular season is still fresh on the minds of this veteran team. And now after the Revs won the 2021 Supporters’ Shield, setting an MLS record points in a season, the fuel to the dumpster fire that was the Union’s 2020 playoff dreams has only intensified.
Revenge will be sweet, but the Union still need to get to the conference final. If we’ve learned anything about the MLS playoffs, good teams make it to the finals but the best teams in the regular season usually don’t win. Over the past ten years, only two teams (Toronto 2017 and L.A. Galaxy 2011) have won both the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup.
Last season, Union fans witnessed the grind it took out of a good team to secure the regular season title, only to watch it deteriorate with raised stakes and an expanding target on the back. The previous eight champions have been a second seed or higher entering the playoffs.
After securing the second seed, the Union’s 2021 playoff run has all the trends of a conference final, but in the shadows lurks a performance like last year we all fear. Here’s a rundown of why 2021 could be the year the Union reach the MLS Cup and the questions that need to be answered if they’re going to succeed.
The X factor
Andre Blake is one of the top five players in MLS. No, I didn’t say goalkeeper, I meant PLAYER. No single player has been at the peak of his position over the past five seasons, and what’s even more impressive is that 2021 was Blake’s best season yet.
As per Tom Bogert’s tweet on November 9, Blake leads the league in goals against minus expected goals against. Here are the top three:
Andre Blake: -7.71
Matt Turner: -7.30
Maxime Crepeau: -5.30
Blake was named a finalist for Goalkeeper of the Year along with New England’s Matt Turner and Nashville’s Joe Willis and should be the frontrunner. He is second in MLS shutouts with 12, though he only played in 26 games, 7-8 fewer than the keepers above him in that category. He also had 4 more clean sheets in the CCL. His save percentage (76%) and goals against average (.92) are both better than his 2016 season in which he won GOTY (66.7% and 1.56) and are a smidge lower than last season (77.8% and .86) when also won the award for best goalkeeper and should have been considered for league MVP.
Prior to this summer’s All-Star Game, he was somehow left off the roster then added the week before. No disrespect to Turner, who’s had an incredible season and went full-out beast mode in the Concacaf Gold Cup, but Blake proved himself as the most reliable goalkeeper in the league with the way he controls the box, shuts down angles, and challenges shooters. And going back to the Atlanta first leg in the CCL among one of many examples, he can change the outcome of a game at any moment. This season, he’s stopped three out of the four penalties he faced, which equals his total from previous MLS seasons combined, evidence that he continues to get better with age.
Experience and synergy vs fatigue
With last season’s compressed schedule, Union coach Jim Curtin managed a difficult task of winning now or preserving players’ legs. He chose the former and won the club’s first Supporters’ Shield, which may have led to fatigue down the stretch and in the playoffs. This season, the Union played more games than any MLS team and lost half their starting lineup during multiple international breaks yet still maintained continuity. Jack Elliott’s been so good that Stuart Findley, last off-season’s coveted left-footed center back, can’t even get on the field.
Leon Flach has been the biggest surprise, another grinder in the midfield diamond, protecting the backline and instilling the counter press that makes the Union midfield so tough to play against. In two seasons, the regular starting XI has remained largely intact, with the only changes being Dániel Gazdag and company for Brenden Aaronson and Elliott for Mark McKenzie.
What about the kids? Remember way back in the beginning of the season when Anthony Fontana had the keys to the 10 and Matt Real was going to play right back after the unexpected retirement of Ray Gaddis? The rest of the bench included a crop of teenagers whose professional experience was a healthy thrashing in the USL. Credit to Ernst Tanner and Chris Albright for acquiring Gazdag and veterans Alvas Powell and José Bueno. With the anticipated number of games for José Martinez, Olivier Mbaizo, and Jamiro Monteiro, the Union staff knew their squad couldn’t be 100% the entire season. Though we’ve yet to see Davó in meaningful action, at least the Union have an experienced bench that provides tactical flexibility. And with that experience and sustained success, Curtin has been able to slowly introduce the kids, and week by week they’ve been more impressive. Paxten Aaronson is molding into an explosive attacking midfielder, Jack McGlynn has shown his fine passing ability in midfield, and Quinn Sullivan has contributed big moments when the Union needed a boost.
Granted, the kids won’t be asked to play 90 minutes, but they may be called upon fo important roles and potentially win games. And because they’ve outgrown their firsts, they should be ready contribute.
Home record vs playoff teams and performance down the stretch
Home field has its advantages—waking up in your own bed, resuming daily patterns, engaging with family and friends, training in a familiar environment, playing in front of a supporting crowd. The Union are 11-3-3 at Subaru Park in 2021 and against playoff teams, they are 6-2-1, with the only losses coming against New York City FC in May and New England in September with six regulars out.
The most important trend for the Union heading into the playoffs is performance down the stretch. They are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games with statement wins against Nashville and Atlanta (Orlando City was their 11th game) and a positive showing at Minnesota despite the loss. If the seedings hold, the Union’s playoff hopes will come down to a potential conference final at New England, which had the upper hand in every matchup this season.
Though the Union are 0-2-1 against the Revs in 2021, the Union will have an intense desire to enact revenge for last year’s playoff defeat. There’s also the possibility that New England gets knocked out early, allowing us to revel in Bruce-face memes for weeks while we pack Subaru Park for our first conference final.
Playing ahead vs playing from behind
We know the Union are built from the back and excel when scoring first, where they can utilize their defensive organization and counter attack. Last year’s knock on the Union was their inability to come from behind. They rarely had to until the playoff loss to NE. This season, they’ve come from behind nine times, however, every game ended in a tie, which means they’ll be confident playing down and pushing for extra time.
So if the Union are capable of reaching the MLS Cup, why am I not heading to the sports book to back it up? There have been a number of questions asked throughout the season that still have not been answered, which reminds me of the Dennis Green quote of “they are who we thought they were.” And that fact alone causes hesitation when discussing finals.
Can the Union win on the road?
Road performances have troubled the Union all season. With conservative play, slow starts, and a lack of energy against good teams, the Union are 3-5-9 on the road this season and 0-4-4 on the road against playoff teams, which doesn’t factor into the first two rounds but could be a major hurdle if they have to travel to New England. In some of their away games, notably New England, Nashville, and Orlando City, the Union were outclassed and looked like a different team.
We saw a breakout performance by Dániel Gazdag against Minnesota, but the Union squandered the lead in the second half and allowed a lesser team to dictate the game.
Will the Union correct their attacking third woes?
This is where the eye test comes into play. The Union have found the most success down the right side with Alejandro Bedoya and Olivier Mbaizo, who over the past two months have been the Union’s best combination going forward. The counter attack has cooled off as opponents have become more prepared, and the injuries to Sergio Santos has affected the Union’s ability to attack with pace. The high press and counter press still present the most dangerous Union offensive threats, like the Legion of Doom dumping the puck deep and pressuring defensemen into turnovers. I don’t know, it seems kind of—boring?
As of late, the Union have shifted to a single striker and two attacking midfielders. Whether it’s Gazdag, Monteiro or Aaronson, they’ve played with more creativity and fluidity, attacking through the middle and down the flanks than when playing with two out of sync strikers, but the questions remains if that will be enough.
Who is the game-winner on offense?
Let’s get this out of the way. Kacper Przybylko has scored some huge goals for the Union this season. He’s singlehandedly saved the Union multiple times. Przybylko passed C.J. Sapong for second on the Union’s all-time scoring list with 40 goals and is a season away from breaking Sebastian Le Toux’s record of 53. But he could be the Union’s most frustrating player when he disappears for large stretches, which contributes to the lack of offensive synergy in the final third. Outside the box, he’s a 6’4” target striker who loses duels and doesn’t support the midfielders in link up play. Inside the box, however, he’s a clinical finisher when given the opportunity. It’s really a matter of which player shows up.
With Ilsinho injured for most of the season and inconsistent play from Santos and Cory Burke, who at various points of the season had been the Union’s best players on the field, the Union lack a player that will take over a game late. Unless we’re hoping for hero by committee, there’s no single attacking Union player we can expect to change a game.
Will fatigue catch up?
I meant to use this as a strength and a question. The consistency vs fatigue gamble paid off again as the Union secured the second seed and home field advantage late in the season. But at what cost? The performance staff has done an incredible job keeping the players in peak condition with very few injuries throughout the season, especially 34-year-old Bedoya, who’s played three or four years below his age and in a number of games logged the most distance covered of any Union player. Here are the Union leaders in minutes played this MLS season:
Glesnes: 3,060 (3rd in MLS, 2nd among outfield players)
Elliott: 2,970 (7th in MLS, 5th among outfield players)
Wagner: 2,830 (18th in MLS, 13th among outfield players)
If you include 6 CCL games, the Union players’ minutes increased significantly, plus Mbazio, Monteiro, Gazdag, and Blake have been regular starters during the most recent international breaks and have endured the travel, Covid protocols, and recovery trainings as a result of knocks and injuries. In the latest window, McGlynn, Aaronson, and Sullivan played for the U.S. youth national teams, an honor to their growth but another adjustment ahead of the playoffs.
So despite a two-week recovery for some, a majority of the Union’s core will enter the playoffs without a break, and although many of the MLS playoff teams have lost players to internationals, Monteiro and Mbaizo played in must-win games Tuesday, leaving them with one travel day and two days of recovery before the early Saturday afternoon game against the Red Bulls. The big question Saturday will be how fresh the team looks. Are we going to see an energized lineup or the survive-and-advance mode? We’ll have to wait and see. I have a positive feeling heading into this weekend’s playoff game, a home playoff game against an opponent the Union have outplayed all season. They’ve beaten all their potential opponents, except the Revs, who are the Union’s only major obstacle from the MLS Cup final.
Perhaps the biggest sign of optimism heading into the playoffs is that the Union haven’t played their best yet. We’ve seen stretches of dominance at home against a depleted Portland and a disastrous Toronto but also against quality teams like Nashville, New York City FC, Orlando City and Atlanta. And the Union fought back in the semifinal second leg against Club América, the best team they’ve played all year. Experience and a top defense are two defining qualities for a championship team, so despite an up-and-down season, this could be the year the Union make a deep run in the playoffs and play for another trophy.