Read this one back a few times: The Philadelphia Union are your 2020 Supporters’ Shield winners.
And while they have every intention of pushing on and winning MLS Cup when the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs kick off after the international break, they’re going to make sure they savor this, their club’s first major trophy in more than a decade of existence.
“I hope they're out drinking for the next three nights,” head coach Jim Curtin told reporters with a laugh after Philly’s emphatic 2-0 Decision Day win over the New England Revolution, adding that Union fans should make sure his squad drinks for free in perpetuity once the City of Brotherly Love’s many watering holes are back up and running after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is the time to celebrate for sure. I know I'm not supposed to say that as a coach, and I should be so serious, but they should enjoy this. This is something that's special. It's unique.”
It’s not that often that a coach goes beyond a nod and a wink and actually actively urges his players to bust loose. And that reflects the long, steep and winding road the Union have navigated to reach this point.
This is the club that reached three U.S. Open Cup finals (hosting two of them) and lost every time. Whose most dedicated fans once grew so frustrated that they performed a funeral for their team’s moribund hopes — complete with a life-sized coffin — during a pregame tailgate. Who only last year notched their first-ever playoff victory.
Union celebrate the Supporters' Shield
It was just over seven years ago that minority owner Richie Graham launched YSC Academy, the cutting-edge school where Union youth prospects attain a high-grade education while chasing their dreams of becoming a Philly homegrown player. The idea was to build, from scratch, an elite player development model that could anchor the Union in their home community and fuel a team-first collective capable of beating even the most star-studded MLS opponents.
“When I flash back, I can picture sitting with Richie Graham across the table, when YSC Academy was just an idea. It hadn’t been [built] – we were sitting in a trailer and he was taking me through blueprints of where they were going to build this world-class soccer facility and eventually have a school where kids could learn and grow and improve in the academy and eventually play for the Union first team,” recalled Curtin, back then a freshly-retired Chivas USA center back set to begin his coaching career in Philly’s academy.
“Things were happening fast, but I could tell in two seconds that this was a club, and [Graham] had a passion, that I wanted to be around.”
Ray Gaddis is one of the few who’ve been around long enough to witness the project’s full trajectory and it was fitting that the rock-steady right back logged a full 90 minutes in Sunday’s Shield-clinching victory. Afterward the 30-year-old spoke of the daily work of nurturing the young players who’ve now become the engine of the Union’s ascent.
“The thing that I was teaching them: They have the means to change the future of this organization,” said Gaddis. “I'm just blessed to be a part of it, and stick around and have been here.
“It's not lost on me [that] Jim Curtin coached a lot of these academy kids. And his special relationship, not only with the older senior guys, as we kind of say in the locker room, but also these guys who have graduated from the academy, [USL side] Union II to now first team, he has really put his stamp on or made an impression on them as well.”
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Bolstering their interpretation of the “Play Your Kids” movement with a high-tempo pressing style and a data-driven approach that’s helped reap a litany of savvy international signings, Philly fashioned a contender that aptly reflects their blue-collar city, with a fearless eagerness to knock off richer and more star-studded competitors. Sunday’s achievement tells them they’re on the right path.
“It took years of hard work, and a lot of people and a lot of kids that put a ton into it to have this special day. But this is proof of concept,” said Curtin. “This is proof of the Philadelphia Union's vision, the Philadelphia Union's way of doing things. And it is a unique way. I won't sit up here and tell you that we do it perfectly, but then, there's a million different ways you can do it in MLS, which makes it special. But our way is unique to how we wanted to do it.”