Weeks before the 2021 MLS season, the Philadelphia Union added a rather unknown 20-year-old German-American from Texas who made 9 appearances for St. Pauli in Bundesliga 2.
Initially believed to have been signed to provide midfield depth and versatility for the Supporters’ Shield holders, Leon Flach played so well in his first appearances he soon became a regular fixture in Jim Curtin’s side and emerged as the surprise of the season and one of the key offseason signings in Major League Soccer.
A rugged defensive midfielder, Flach proved to be a valuable road-grinder for a midfield that made a habit of outworking teams in 2020 and continued that trend in 2021, imposing a constant stream of pressure and disruption to boost the team’s counter-press and counter-attack. He featured in every game, starting 34 times in the regular season, 3 playoff games, and all 6 Champions League games, logging over 3,500 minutes.
According to MLS stats, Flach finished the regular season ninth in distance covered, sixth in tackles won, and first in the league in successful defensive pressures.
Though not as recognized for his offensive prowess, Flach came to life in the pressing game and burst onto the national stage against Atlanta United in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. In the second half, with the Union up 1-0, Flach picked off a ball in midfield, combined with Sergio Santos down the left side, and slipped a pass across to Kacper Przybylko, who fired past Brad Guzan to give the Union a 2-0 lead. An improbable dagger goal set-up by Flach’s ability to read the pass and get the ball out of his feet, something his fellow young teammates struggled with in several green preseason performances.
Recognized for his spatial awareness and possession, Flach proved he could also play the defensive midfielder role at the base of the diamond when José Martinez was out or as a left back when called upon. Making several crunching tackles throughout the season, Flach earned the appreciation from the Philly fanbase for putting his body on the line and showing he could handle the physicality of MLS.
Ray Gaddis goal-scoring jokes aside, Flach’s defensive strengths overshadowed his weakness in the attacking penalty area, yet he did score his first goal against Columbus on October 3 when his well-struck half-volley squirted through keeper Evan Bush’s hands. With four assists on the season, Flach was effective advancing forward into the attack. Against D.C. United in July, his long ball released Sergio Santos behind the defense, which led to Przybylko’s game-winner and against New York City FC in the regular season finale, his cut-back cross found Przybylko on the doorstep for the game’s opener.
Flach’s play for the Union could also lead to more attention at the international level. With past appearances for the German and U.S. youth national teams, his 2021 breakout season put him on the verge of the Concacaf Gold Cup roster. Though overlooked, there’s no denying his senior national debut could be coming in the near future.
As a role player in a system of role players, Leon Flach stood out for a string of outstanding performances in 2021, especially during the mid-season dip when results were hard to come by and grit and determination turned zero road points into something. Flach now forms a leading block in a solid young foundation at the club, sustaining a midfield dealing with an aging captain and several anticipated departures due to international competitions in the upcoming season. With a further constricted MLS schedule in 2022, Flach will again be asked to maintain a high level as the Union seek to return to the Eastern Conference Final and get back into international competition.
Philadelphia Union Newcomer of the Year
MLS Newcomer of the Year Nominee
Read our other 2021 Season Player Reviews at brotherlygame.com/player-reviews.