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Three takeaways from the first twelve games of the Philadelphia Union season

The most important things we’ve learned from the few stretch of the Union’s MLS and CCL campaigns.

Carl Gulbish

The Philadelphia Union have started off on the right foot in their 2021 efforts, putting themselves in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League and second place in the MLS Eastern Conference.

The Union have certainly not been perfect, however, so let’s dive into the highlights and lowlights of their play from before the international break.

Playing (or not playing) the kids

One of the biggest headlines from the Union’s last game against Portland wasn’t the score, rather, it was the appearance of Paxten Aaronson, who made his first-team debut a little over two years after his older brother, Brenden. Paxten’s appearance, and the excitement that came with it, summarized much of the Union’s front office efforts in obtaining new players: finding talent in the Academy.

However, the Union has yet to really push forward what has composed the majority of their newest signings. Most of this year’s Homegrowns have yet to see any minutes, with the exception of Jack McGlynn, who’s played 138 minutes over four games. Many players haven’t stepped foot on the pitch at all over the course of the whole season, even during one of the most strenuous stretches of games that the team has possibly ever seen.

With that being said, the Union is finally starting to place more and more trust in their youngsters, little by little. Hopefully, the International break will give McGlynn, Harriel, Craig, Sullivan and Aaronson the time they need to start seriously representing their club.

Top of the continent, top of the league

Coming into the Concacaf Champions League, the Union wasn’t expected to go far. Despite a very successful regular season in 2020, Philadelphia had suffered a disappointing loss in the playoffs, and had lost Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie in offseason transfers. There was plenty of uncertainty about how the Union would look against the best teams in the continent, but Philly came to play.

The Union is not only in the semifinals of the Champions League, but they are the only MLS team to make it this far. They have exceeded expectations in CCL, and while they aren’t necessarily expected to make it past Club America in August to the finals, they weren’t expected to make it this far either. The Union could very well cement themselves as the best club in North America, and make themselves the best in the continent.

While focusing on CCL, the Union found themselves at the bottom of the MLS table early in the season. The Union was clearly falling below any ideal standards that they or their fans had set for them.

After finding themselves with no points to their name after the first three MLS games, the Union mounted their comeback push. In the past five games, the Union has netted thirteen points, putting themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference, just behind the undefeated New England Revolution. As they come out of the international break, the Union will come out swinging. The best direction for the Union to go is up, and up they will continue to go.

The good, the bad, and the necessary

The first few games into the season have given us a look at who’s been great thus far, and who the Union could live without. Here’s a quick and arbitrary look at the best players, the worst players, and the players vital to the team’s success.

The Good:

Andre Blake: No surprise here. After an impressive comeback season in 2020, Blake is staying on track to remaining one of the best goalkeepers in the MLS. The only reason he isn’t necessary is that his backup is Matt Freese, who can cover for Blake pretty well when called upon.

Cory Burke: After coming back from his long-term sabbatical, Cory Burke has once again been making splashes on the Union’s offense. Thus far, Burke’s netted two goals, and he looks to be one track for around ten this season if he can continue his progress. While he isn’t the best forward the Union possesses, he’s certainly been a huge help to the team’s attack.

The Bad:

Sergio Santos: Santos has played in every game so far this season, but in his 399 minutes of play, Santos has recorded just one goal and no assists. While in previous seasons, Santos has been able to make strong runs down the field, this year many of his possessions end in the negative movement for the Union. While it’s entirely possible Santos can make a rebound over the next few weeks, it’s difficult to see him as a key part of the Union’s offense in the coming months.

Nothing: I honestly don’t have any other major issues with Union. They’ve looked tremendous in games where they play their starters and put their full effort into it. It’ll be interesting to see where the team progresses over the three-week break, and with any luck, we will see some more decisive results out of the team

The Necessary:

Kacper Przybylko: So far, Przybylko is leading the Union in goals across all competitions, with seven goals in both the MLS regular season and the Champions League. Przybylko has made himself a staple in the Union attack, playing in every game this season as the Union dominates both CCL and MLS play. Any absence from Przybylko would force the Union to create a complete adjustment, making him a very necessary element of the team.

Leon Flach: Since coming into the Union as a late signing, Flach has turned into a fan favorite. His versatility and field awareness are impressive, and he still has plenty of potential. While Flach has also demonstrated just how much he can move around the formation, and without him, the Union would have a very different record during Jose Martinez’s suspension, making him a necessary part of the team.