There’s always been an underdog, us-against-the-world energy to the Philadelphia Union. Whether it’s in their roster build (characterized by shrewd spending over splashy signings) or their style of play (full of energy and never light on tackles), the club seems to relish a grit over glam persona.
“I think you guys have heard me say I love 1-0 wins, and that's a good team win from the group,” said Curtin of a stout defensive effort that held The Crown to just 0.2 expected goals at Subaru Park.
But just because the club’s workman-like identity remains consistent, doesn’t mean their tactics do. Matchday 16 saw the Union roll out a 3-5-2 formation that’s become more and more common for Philadelphia in 2023 after years of playing almost exclusively out of a 4-4-2 diamond.
Their inspiration? Another club, albeit from overseas, that gets consistent results without the flashiest names or largest payroll: Brentford FC, who just finished ninth in the 2022-23 English Premier League table.
“Look, we all want to be like Man City, right? … Pep [Guardiola]'s almost made it this fake thing for people to chase, because it's impossible to do what they do. So I watch teams like Brentford, and I watch what Brentford does,” said Curtin.
“And when they play at home, they play a certain way similar to how we play: 4-4-2 diamond, where we go and we get after the game, and we high press against certain teams. When they go on the road, and they play against the top six teams, if you look at it, they play in the back five. They're a little more stable, they take a little less risk, but they also get points against the top teams. So I'm not saying we're a lower team, but I also know that we're a team that that’s something we can go to.”
According to Curtin, what makes the setup particularly useful is having three center backs – Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott and Damion Lowe – that can comfortably defend space: “We have three center backs that I'll put one-on-one against any group of attackers, and we can just let them be, which is, I'll just say, a luxury a lot of teams don't have.”
Gazdag flies under the radar again
Another luxury most teams don’t have is a No. 10 that’s averaging nearly a goal contribution per game since the start of 2022 who still manages to fly under the radar, both on and off the field. For Philadelphia, that's Dániel Gazdag. The Hungary international didn't technically get on the scoresheet for the match, but he did take the shot that ultimately ended up in the back of the net after hitting the post and ricocheting off Kahlina.
“Danny has a way, and I've said this before, of almost, I don't know if he goes invisible or what, but he has a way of kind of ghosting in from a deep spot and teams just lose track of him,” said Curtin. “And he's done it enough times that it's not luck.”
Last year, Gazdag notched an eye-popping 22g/10a but still got lost in the shuffle for the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award behind Sebastián Driussi and Hany Mukhtar – an unjust slight in Curtin’s eyes. This year, despite 7g/7a in 14 league matches, his spot in the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target – particularly as a starter – is anything but a lock due to the scintillating play of attacking midfielders like Mukhtar and Thiago Almada.
If Gazdag is snubbed once more, the Union will only have more fodder to fuel their quest in avenging 2022's heartbreaker penalty-kick MLS Cup Final loss to LAFC. For now, though, Curtin is more focused on creating distance between his side and the log-jammed Eastern Conference.
“It's a good time to try to separate," said Curtin, whose team is on a 6W-1L-3D run. "You guys see where the Eastern Conference is. You can get lost in that shuffle, and then all of a sudden, there's five games left in a year, and must-wins start to happen, and you want to separate now rather than wait till the end of the year.”