The Philadelphia Union have another chance at making club history this weekend. It feels like they’ve been knocking down these milestones quite a bit over the last few years.
Since Jim Curtin took over as head coach in 2014, Philly have methodically risen from a club struggling to find their feet or vision post-expansion to an Eastern Conference heavyweight with a clear identity and sustainable plan.
The Union kept hitting new marks for club-record points (or points per game) each year from 2018 through 2020, culminating with their first-ever trophy, lifting the Supporters’ Shield last year. They won their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs match in 2019 and qualified for the Concacaf Champions League for the first time this year, outlasting the other four MLS entrants and making the semifinals.
Now, they can reach their first-ever Eastern Conference Final when hosting Nashville SC on Sunday (5:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes). The winner will face either the Supporters' Shield-winning New England Revolution or New York City FC.
“Little by little we’ve progressed each year. We haven’t done it in a flashy, loud, obnoxious way. We’ve done our talking on the field,” Curtin told media on a virtual press conference. “The players deserve all the credit for consistently improving, being a team that punches above our weight a little bit. But we don’t fear anybody.”
The No. 2-seeded Union await a highly competitive match against No. 3-seeded Nashville.
“I don’t anticipate a high-scoring game; you have two great defensive teams with special playmakers in attack,” Curtin said. “I think the chances will be few and far between.”
Nashville and Philadelphia were among the best defensive teams in MLS this year. Nashville tied for a league-low 33 goals against, while Philly finished just two behind them (35). Both have Defensive Player of the Year-quality center backs, as well as two of the best goalkeepers in the league.
“It’ll be a battle, it’s playoffs,” captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “I don’t expect it to be pretty soccer.”
Digging deeper, advanced numbers highlight both sides’ defensive solidity. Nashville and Philly were each in the top four in expected goals against.
To boot: Nashville’s 0.88 GA/per game on the road this year was best in MLS and the fourth-best mark in league history.
Nashville spent more time than anyone else in an organized defensive state, per Second Spectrum, but allowed the fewest xG in the league when organized (17.75). They are likely to form their block and make life extremely difficult for Philly, then take advantage in transition.
Philly, meanwhile, allowed just 12.9 xG in transition all season, which was second-best in MLS.
“It’s important when playing Nashville not to force things centrally,” Curtin said. “When they turn you over, they’re excellent at playing forward quickly. You can get baited and frustrated to forcing things centrally, that’s a recipe to play right into Nashville’s strengths. We have to have patience, to move the ball side-to-side, to find Jamiro [Monteiro], [Daniel] Gazdag in the pockets. It’s not an easy task, but we can’t get frustrated because they can really hit you on the break.”
How to stop Mukhtar?
Nashville boast several match-winners on the counterattack, particularly Landon Donovan 2021 MLS MVP finalist Hany Mukhtar.
Mukhtar had 16 goals and 12 assists this season, averaging a goal contribution once every 89 minutes. He carried that form into the playoffs by scoring twice in Nashville’s 3-1 Round One win over Orlando City, including a memorable solo effort for the game-winning goal.
“Mukhtar is a special player,” Curtin said. “When I see Mukthar play – and obviously he moves a little better than the reference I’m going to use – is [former Chicago Fire FC star] Cuauhtemoc Blanco. They have an ability to get open while you’re in possession. They find space and create problems.
"You saw it when him and CJ [Sapong] basically went 2v6, they don’t need numbers because he’s special and he sees the game a little bit different. He knows where to be to get the ball when you’re in possession. It’s an art you kind of can’t coach, certain special players have it. He certainly does.”
Here’s a screengrab from that run.
“The guy’s on fire, he’s had a great season,” Bedoya said.
The Union and Nashville jostled for position near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for much of the stretch run. They finished level on points (54) but the Union had the edge in wins (14) to earn second place. As a direct result, Philly host Nashville instead of traveling to Tennessee this weekend.
“Home-field advantage is big, we all know that,” Bedoya said. “… We’re at home, we’ve got to take care of business in front of our home fans.”