Leon Flach was the most pleasant surprise of the 2021 MLS season. The former St. Pauli midfielder excelled in his debut season and quickly became a fixture in Jim Curtin’s lineup, appearing in all 43 games while starting each one but three. Flach was named the Philadelphia Union’s Newcomer of the Year and was included in MLS’ Top 22 Players Under 22 last season.
But instead of reveling in his success, Flach wants more in 2022, especially with the way last season ended in the 2-1 loss to New York City FC in the Eastern Conference Final, a different experience after spending his youth career in the traditional soccer format where champions are crowned after the regular season.
“I would say it would be the same in Germany if you lose the semifinals in the cup competition,” Flach told Brotherly Game this week. “You always have a bittersweet feeling because you think what if and what could have been if we would have the full squad available.”
One of six regular starters to appear in the playoff loss, Flach played the entire game, shutting down Jesús Medina and U.S. international James Sands, only to give way after the Union went down a goal late. “Playoffs are definitely interesting for the fans,” he said, “but for example if you look at New England or Philadelphia one year before, it’s not always fair, it’s how it is, good for the fans but hard for the players. But I think it’s definitely interesting for us because we had a great run and sometimes you have the feeling that you’re unstoppable.”
The Union indeed looked unstoppable down the stretch. Backed by a number of stellar performances by Flach, the Union went 6-1-4 over the final eleven games to finish second in the East. The Union’s only loss came on the road against Minnesota, the team’s opponent in the 2022 season opener Saturday. The Union also overcame a postseason hump after beating the New York Red Bulls on a Jakob Glesnes bomb in extra time before dispatching Nashville SC in penalties to reach the club’s first conference final. And with home field advantage and a potential matchup against Portland, who the Union beat 3-0 earlier in the season, the team appeared destined for the MLS Cup.
“It’s a really interesting way to play the season,” Flach said, “although it’s really hard because you had thirty four games before and the most important part is coming after the regular season. We did a really good job, you could see we played almost every time 120 minutes, and we were really fit the whole time. But it’s definitely different.”
Consistency was one of the keys to the Union’s success in 2021. With multiple players leaving for international commitments, Flach became a keystone in the Union midfield through a mid-season dip in form filled with road tests where the Union battled from behind to earn valuable points.
Though many experienced European players struggle to adapt to Major League Soccer, Flach made an immediate impact. After signing with the club in late March, his debut came in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 match against Saprissa, playing 64 minutes in the 1-0 road win. His integration into MLS was swift, and it was clear from the start the Union’s style of play suited his game.
“At that point it was really good for me to play directly,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better that you just have a short period and play immediately instead of thinking of what I have to do. I was just doing what I learned, pressing, playing, giving 100%, and that worked out pretty well.”
A tireless box-to-box midfielder, Flach led MLS in successful defensive pressures and ranked among the leaders in tackles won, distance covered, and minutes played, logging over 3,500 minutes in all competitions. Yet despite his age, the soon-to-be 21 year-old is aware of his contributions and the areas where his games needs fine-tuning. “It was a really good season,” he said. “If you look at statistics, I was always one of the top players, but I will definitely improve my offensive skillset hopefully because the offensive side is always the side that everybody wants to see and everybody’s looking for. Sometimes defense gets a bit lost in some moments, that’s how it is because offense wins games but defense wins championships. That’s okay for me, but I definitely want to improve for example, goals and assists.”
Though Flach was bullish on defense and complemented the experience and grit of Alejandro Bedoya and José Martinez, he did contribute offensively more than statistics would show. He scored his first Union against Columbus in a 3-0 win at Subaru Park in October, and he had four assists on the season, none bigger than his counter-press steal that set up the second goal in 3-0 road win over Atlanta in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals. Flach also was a driving force behind the Union’s ability to win the ball and keep it, a staple of Jim Curtin’s teams over the past several seasons. He averaged 79.5% passing percentage in all 6 CCL games, which considering the midfield pressure he faced in both quarterfinal and semifinal matchups, ranks among the team leaders. And his MLS average was just over 76%, also high when factoring in three games each against New England, Columbus, and the NY Red Bulls, teams that employ a high-pressuring style like the Union.
“I think I had some unlucky moments last year, especially with assists because maybe I could have had two or three more, and some people would say it was an okay season, but I definitely know that I have to improve, want to improve, but I have a good feeling about it. That’s one point I want to improve here, to help the team in the offense a bit more.”
While addressing the media this week, Union coach Jim Curtin praised Flach’s efforts from a season ago and is expecting no different from his midfielder in the season ahead.
“Sometimes we forget because he plays so smart, how young Leon still is,” Curtin said. “There’s still room for improvement, there’s room for growth. But he had a great debut season last year. The challenge now is to have another and have that consistency that we have come to really appreciate when you talk about Leon’s qualities.”
And what are Flach’s best qualities according to Curtin? What followed was a list of attributes that sums up the completeness of Flach’s game.
“Incredible work rate, incredible engine, can run forever, has a real knack for winning balls and playing forward, has added now an element of beating guys off the dribble or playing early passes in behind, or running in behind himself, adding some more offensive qualities to his game. Something I think you’ll see come over the years as he gets more and more experience.”
But perhaps more importantly, Curtin spoke about the off-the-field qualities that make Flach a special player. “He’s great to work with, a great kid, super intelligent, knows all his strengths, knows how to minimize his weaknesses, and try to improve them as well. So he’s a coach’s dream in that regard.”
Flach’s emergence on the MLS scene brought a greater sense of stability to a Union midfield already ranked among the best in the league, but his play also caught the attention of U.S. Soccer officials ahead of the Concacaf Gold Cup last year. The German-American, born in Humble, Texas, was named to the preliminary roster and earned consideration for the team’s friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina last December.
“It’s a great honor because one year before maybe nobody heard my name,” Flach said, “so it was a great accomplishment to put my name in the conversation during one year.”
Flach is on the verge of becoming the first Union player to represent the U.S. National Team since Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, who made their debuts after the 2020 season and their moves abroad were complete.
“There was some contact when the national team had the break after the last playoff game,” Flach said. “There was some discussion of maybe I should join them or not.”
But after playing full season with the Union on the heels of a half season with St. Pauli where me made 9 appearances and scored his first league goal in a 2-1 win over Greuther Fürth in January, Flach was eager to represent his country but aware of his body and his mindset.
“In the end, I think it was best that I had my full offseason because especially after you lose a game like that, maybe your emotions are a bit low, and you’re always feeling a little bit shitty after those games. It’s a new year, a new chance. I think the best and easiest way to get into the national team is to be successful with your club, and that’s what I hope. I will do my thing and the rest will come because I can’t influence everything. I will take everything that comes, but first I want to be successful with Philly.”
Flach, who covered more than 200 miles in all competitions as of last October, welcomed his time off to prepare for 2022. “It’s perfect for me to have a full preseason because sometimes you get a bit more confident, you can try some things in a preseason that you normally can’t try during the season because every mistake is maybe one mistake too much.”
Flach is once again expected to fill the left side of the Union midfield diamond, where he formed a strong partnership with All-Star left back Kai Wagner.
“It was really good for me to have a preseason, learn some things about me, some more things about my teammates and the team. The good thing is we have a plan, know what the plan is, it’s nothing new, we played almost the same system, so everybody knows what we want to do and hopefully we’ll be as successful.”
Flach is prepared to take the Union to the next level. “We played a really good season last year, but I think we want to achieve exactly the same as we achieved last year and even more.”
Despite the losses of Kacper Przybylko and Jamiro Monteiro, the Union will return most of the regular starters and a majority of the bench, adding depth and experience to a team that will be among the favorites to win it all this year. And now they’re even more determined after being so close.
“We all feel we could have done more,” Flach said. “We could have gone further, but we’re definitely looking for a big trophy, the MLS Cup. It should be the goal of everybody here, and we will definitely play to win the Cup this year finally.”