The Philadelphia Union closed out their historical season with an emphatic 4-0 thumping of Toronto FC on Decision Day, securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference. In the process, they set the single-season MLS record for goals against (26) in a 34-game season, finished with the second-best goal differential all-time (+46), and tied for the best home winning percentage (85.3%, 12-0-5) in the league’s 26-year history. It’s been a season to celebrate: Concacaf Champions League berth, two potential MVPs, three worthy Defensive Player of the Year candidates, and several players earning national team boosts.
Yet even the plethora of accolades means nothing when the Union open the MLS playoffs against the winner of the New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati on October 20 at Subaru Park. When comparing the Union’s performances over the past three seasons with the MLS dynasties of past, whether it’s D.C. United of the 90s, the LA Galaxy of the early 2010s, or. the Seattle Sounders of the late 2010s, one elusive title separates Jim Curtin’s team from the. elite.
“It’s brutal,” Union coach Jim Curtin said about transitioning from the memorable season to the. playoff mindset. “As nice as it is, the real season starts now, and we know with our own experience, with others’ experience in the league, the teams that finish one-two doesn’t guarantee success in the playoffs because a team that gets hot at the right time can beat you.”
In recent years, during the MLS playoffs, earning a top seed has meant very little. Over the last four seasons, no conference top seed has reached the MLS Cup final. In 2020, the Union won the Supporters’ Shield and played the New England Revolution in the first round at Subaru Park following a two-week international break. The Union lost 2-0 in an uninspired game. Last season, the New England Revolution set the MLS record for points in a season, then lost to New York City FC on penalties in their first playoff game. Colorado, the Western Conference top seed, also lost the first game, and their opponents, Portland Timbers, met NYCFC in the MLS Cup.
“We get a bye, so we get to sit around and wait,” Curtin said, “and you’re 100% guaranteed going to be playing a team that just won a big playoff game…so they have the momentum coming into your building, which is hard, and then they have nothing to lose because anything. they do is a bonus. So we’ve learned that the hard way.”
In 2017, Toronto FC was the last Supporters’ Shield Winner to raise the MLS Cup. That season, Portland, the other top seed, lost their first playoff game. Over the past five seasons, the top seeds are 7-9 in the playoffs, and over the past three seasons, only two top seeds won one game each. Going back to 2012, the trends get worse for the Union. Only one top seed has reached the MLS Cup (Toronto 2017), and top seeds have a combined 11-19 record.
“We’ll learn from what happened to New England last year,” Curtin added, “it’s happened to LAFC. Teams get beat if you’re not prepared.”
The long layoff has produced mixed results for the Union this season. For a team that prides themselves on intensity and defensive pressure, the rest will be much appreciated, however, the issue of rust has affected the team’s rhythm. After the March 19-April 2 break, the Union beat Charlotte FC 2-0 at home, extending the best start in franchise history. But after the late May-early June international break, the Union returned home to a disappointing 1-1 draw against FC Cincinnati. Though at the time, the Cincinnati tie was the Union’s seventh in eight games, that was the first performance all season where the team was largely outplayed. The most recent international break resulted in the Union’s worst performance of the season, a 4-0 loss to Charlotte.
Despite the pressure of high expectations, Curtin believes his team will be ready. “We’ll remember this season forever,” he said. “I think the fans will remember all of the special moments that have happened in this building. But we’re also smart enough to know history won’t remember us unless we take a big step forward in the playoffs and get to our first MLS Cup.”
The biggest reason for optimism in reversing the top seed trends this postseason has been the emergence of Dániel Gazdag. Gazdag returned to form in Sunday’s win over Toronto, opening with a stellar volley in the fourth minute before adding two more goals in the second half, completing his second hat-trick of the season. Gazdag now has 22 goals and 10 assists on the season, finishing as only the sixth player in MLS history with over 20 goals and 10 assists in a season, joining Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sebastian Giovinco, Diego Valeri, and Hany Mukhtar. Unfortunately, the only player standing in the way between Gazdag and the MVP is Mukhtar, whose 23 goals and 11 assists earned the Nashville SC playmaker the Golden Boot.
Last season, Gazdag scored a first-half stoppage time equalizer against Nashville in the Eastern Conference semifinals that helped the Union send the game to extra time before Andre Blake’s heroics in the penalty shootout. “We had a good run last year in the playoffs,” Gazdag said, comparing the Union in 2022 to 2021. “At the end, we were a bit unlucky. This year, we are even better than last year. We are more experienced, we have a good team, so we have a good chance to win the MLS Cup.”
Another reason for optimism is the experienced defense that recorded the most clean sheets (15) and has played together for a majority of the season. Andre Blake and Jakob Glesnes are two of six players in the league to play every minute (3060). Kai Wagner, who finished third in MLS assists with 15, missed the season finale due to suspension, and Jack Elliott missed two out of thirty-four games. All could be up for end of season awards.
Glesnes, the only outfield player to play every minute, spoke about the transition from the long season to the postseason. “It’s been long time for us now that we knew we could fight to the end with the Supporters’ Shield,” he said, “but we gave that away last weekend, so there wasn’t that much to celebrate today. It’s of course huge to win our conference, but again we didn’t win the Supporters’ Shield, so now we have to restart again to take the MLS Cup home because that’s our goal to go all the way.”
Glesnes made a monumental impact in last season’s playoffs, sending Subaru Park into a frenzy after his last-second extra time wonder strike erased the Union playoff demons of 2020. Now, with another season under his belt, Glesnes feels confident that the Union’s season form will continue into the postseason, especially with the possibility of hosting every round. “We have shown now over the whole season that we are a team to be in the top. We’ve seen it over 34 games and we have also shown it at home that we are really good. So now we have the advantage to be here at home, to play at least the first two games.”
The Union will learn their opponent early this weekend. The Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati kick off at noon on Saturday, with the winner having a short week before facing the Union Thursday night at Subaru Park. The Union will have over a week to prepare with the added benefit of not having a majority of their players away on international duty during this break. The team will be ready, the fans will be ready, but we can’t ignore the trends that stand in the Union’s way of taking the next step. The Union will once again need to make history if they’re going to lift their first MLS Cup.