If you want to look for storylines ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final, you won’t have to look very far to find star players on the heavily decorated if not underpaid Philadelphia Union squad.
Jack Elliott’s name won’t be one of those names, but his atypical path to professional soccer and role anchoring one of the stingiest back lines in league history deserves recognition and admiration.
Elliott was famously passed over and over again in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, landing with the Union with the 77th overall pick in the fourth round. Not much was expected of the lanky Scottish defender out of West Virginia University and the thinking was he’d get a chance to prove himself with Bethlehem Steel to try and win a first team contract.
His time with the Steel was short-lived and he went on to do a whole lot more than just earn minimum salary MLS contract. He logged 2,621 minutes playing in all but four games.
In the year’s since, the 27-year-old’s importance has only continued to rise along with the fortunes of the Union, which conceded a minuscule 26 goals to set a new 34-game record with Elliott and Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes in front of Goalkeeper of the Year and MVP finalist Andre Blake (left back Kai Wagner was a finalist for Defender of the Year and made Best XI).
The Union’s rise to prominence has been a slow burn since Elliott’s rookie season when the team finished eighth.
“You could certainly see the signs as we carried on and the mentality changes and challenging to win every game and even going away to take points and win games away from home,” Elliott said. “I think it’s a huge, huge stepping stone in the league to start winning games away from home.”
The Union won one road game Elliott’s rookie year, six the following two seasons and topped that high-water mark with seven this season.
The number of goals the defense has conceded has seen a steady decline from the 47-50 range his first three seasons to under 40 the last two seasons. During the team’s 23-game Supporters’ Shield run in 2020, the defense averaged .869 goals per game to this year’s .764. The mark was still a very respectable 1.02 in 2021.
As head coach Jim Curtin is always quick to point out, the stinginess isn’t just a product of his MVP caliber goalkeeper and Best XI-worthy defenders. The Union grabbed headlines this summer with an unprecedented run of lopsided victories — scoring six or more goals in a game four times over a seven-week span — but even when scoring six or seven goals in games they also kept clean sheets in all four touchdown games.
That remarkable run happened because of a team effort that included contributions from Jose Martinez and Leon Flach on up to the front line where forwards like Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre pride themselves seemingly as much in their pressing as they do in stuffing the stat sheet with goals and assists.
They defend as a team, and score as a team too with the back line chipping in four goals and 24 assists this season.
Elliott is one of only three players still on the team from the 2017 season — Blake and Bedoya are the other two and John McCarthy will likely dress as the backup goalkeeper for LAFC on Saturday — so he has a different perspective on the journey it’s taken to get to the final game of the season for the 2010 MLS expansion side.
“We’ve moved from a fighting to get in the playoffs to fighting to be the top team the past few seasons,” Elliott said. “It’s been incredible to see but there’s plenty more to come.”
The team’s blend of experience, from former college soccer players like Elliott, Bedoya and Blake to European imports like Gazdag and Glesnes, Inter Miami cast-off Julian Carranza and players who have come up through the club’s academy system might just be the perfect blend to bring home the club’s first MLS Cup.
“I think every guy in our locker room has some sort of adversity that they’ve come through,” Curtin said earlier this week. “No path has been perfect, even Bedoya, you know, for as storied a career as he’s had he’s a college soccer player at Boston College who was brave enough to go overseas... Jack Elliott, you could write a book on him being the 77th pick, every team passed over him what five times?”
Saturday’s game will be a battle of the two best teams in MLS during the regular season but on paper it will be a battle of LAFC’s checkbook of stars against a Philadelphia Union team that has gotten more for its money than maybe any club in the world the past few seasons (their salary payroll is $10.3 million to LA’s $19 million).
There are many names you can point to both in the locker room and the front office for how the Union have been able to out Moneyball even Billy Beane himself but when you start to list the names try not to be like those who cast votes for awards and forget how to spell Jack Elliott.