MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

"It put us on the map": Philadelphia Union come full circle as they prepare for LAFC

CHESTER, Pa. – Days after the last time the Philadelphia Union went to Los Angeles to face LAFC, the world completely changed.

Philly and LAFC played out an enthralling 3-3 draw on national TV as the final game of Week 2 in the 2020 MLS season. There were stars and rising talents; golazos and tricks; a tremendous atmosphere; intense tackles and relentless, end-to-end soccer.

It was March of 2020. There was this mysterious disease that was first spotted in China and now popping up in Europe that was beginning to enter the national consciousness, but life went on as normal.

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More than two years have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended how we view “normal” and altered life both in huge ways and the mundane. In COVID times, two years simultaneously feels like a decade and two months all at once.

That game – that incredible game – lives on. Whether it was Jakob Glesnes’ AT&T 5G Goal of the Season candidate or just the simple admiration of a stadium full of fans, the memories remained.

For the Union, head coach Jim Curtin continues to point back to that day as a big moment forward for his young, emerging group. It’s fresh in their minds once more, as the Union travel to face LAFC on Saturday for the first time since everything changed (11 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).

“In a weird way, that game built us some real forward momentum,” Curtin told media Wednesday. “It’s a really important game in our history, as strange as it sounds.”

The game did build momentum, even if that was the last MLS game until the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida in July 2020. The teams couldn’t even train for months, yet it was a stake-in-the-ground type of 90 minutes.

Brenden Aaronson had another breakout performance, the beginning of his Best XI season before being transferred to Austria's RB Salzburg. Glesnes announced himself to the league with his 40-yard free-kick goal.

It was Jose Martinez’s MLS debut at a time when he didn’t have his current reputation among the league’s best defensive midfielders and being a regular with Venezuela. There were some even inside the Union organization who were still upset at the decision to let Haris Medunjanin leave and replace him with the unknown Venezuelan. After this performance, those concerns subsided.

The Union went on to win the Supporters’ Shield by three points that season. It was their first-ever trophy.

“It put us on the map in more ways than people realize,” Curtin said. “It led to us starting that run to the Supporters’ Shield, it was a big moment in our club’s history. Those little moments lead to bigger moments.”

Philadelphia aren’t done growing. They continue to take incremental steps, including that 2020 Shield, a run to the 2021 Concacaf Champions League semifinals as well as hosting their first Eastern Conference Final later that year.

This season has gotten off to another strong start, with the team aiming to set new heights in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs later this year, and projecting to be among those vying for the Supporters’ Shield as well. They sit atop of the East with 18 points (5W-1L-3D).

The current league leaders? Saturday’s opponents LAFC, who have taken 22 points from their first nine games (7W-1L-1D). LAFC don’t have a lot of continuity from that group, with a new coaching staff and only five of the 11 starters still on the roster from that 2020 showdown.

For the Union, it all comes full circle a little more than two years later, with the world forever changed.

“We’re still a growing club, one that does things a little differently,” Curtin said. “A lot of people talk about us now, which we’re proud of, but you go back to that game, a lot of big things happened.”