Alejandro Bedoya was exasperated.
Just weeks after hoisting the Supporters’ Shield, their first-ever major trophy, the Philadelphia Union had fumbled away their Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs campaign before it had really even begun, conceding two goals in five first-half minutes to fall 2-0 to the visiting New England Revolution at Subaru Park in the postseason’s Round One. And their veteran leader, sounding equal parts hurt, angry and embarrassed, had to step in front of the cameras and lament the untimely demise of the best season in club history.
“I don’t understand what we were doing, but we just weren’t ourselves,” said Bedoya. “We just were not ourselves. Our game is meant to be transition quick, one, two touches, play, pass and move, keeping it simple. We didn't do any of that in the first half. It was ridiculous.
“It’s one thing to be performing at an elite level during the regular season,” he added bitterly, “but playoffs are playoffs. They’re different beasts.”
That disappointment is now a year gone and somewhat mollified by the Revs’ subsequent, and dominant, march to this year’s Shield, supplanting Philly in that honor. But the pain remains down there under the surface, a memory head coach Jim Curtin can use as kindling to help fire up his squad as they prepare to open this year’s playoffs with a visit from the New York Red Bulls on Saturday afternoon, another Eastern Conference Round One game (2:30 pm ET | MLSsoccer.com & App, Univision, TUDN).
“Look, last year, it's in the past first and foremost. But I've talked about it openly,” Curtin told reporters in a Thursday media availability. “A lot of things aligned in a tough way for us last year, where we had the long layoff [as the No. 1 seed], you had a New England team that I think has proven this year to be pretty darn good – they were just starting to peak and they were getting all their guys healthy at a difficult time. We beat them five times in the regular season, but when it mattered most, we didn't get the job done, and that's the easiest way I can put it.
“While you have the euphoria of a first trophy, you have the disappointment of a first-round exit,” he later added. “That's kind of the unique thing about MLS – just when you think you've reached the top, you get kicked back down.”
The Union are just one among many Shield winners over the decades to learn that the award means only so much in the postseason; only eight regular-season champs have even reached that year’s MLS Cup final, much less won it. Now they hope the experience has made them a more formidable foe in this win-or-else landscape.
“It was a horrible feeling last year and obviously you don't want that again,” defender Jack Elliott told MLSsoccer.com this week. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen again, and go far in the playoffs this year. We certainly have the team to be able to.”
In 2021 Philly experienced everything that’s thrown at successful MLS teams: Concacaf Champions League participation, the target that others around the league affix on your back, the trickier management of both the salary budget and the locker-room dynamic as players activate contract bonuses and seek bigger wages and roles. While things looked pretty dicey for a while, Curtin and his group navigated through those challenges, finished second in the Eastern Conference and now look like a more seasoned, self-aware bunch.
And it just so happens that the top seed this time around are those very same Revs.
“I've certainly put it in my players’ head now, the way it sets up this year, New England has the incredible season, Bruce [Arena] has done an amazing job and they're sitting in that 1 seed, just like we were last year,” explained Curtin. “If things fall a certain kind of way we could see them again. So again, there is that, not revenge, but the idea is in our players’ heads that if we do take care of business at home, which we've earned now two home games, the chalk would tell you New England’s going to take care of theirs and then you have the Eastern Conference final.”
The first step is dodging the substantial banana peel that RBNY represent. These Red Bulls are a young, aggressive, press-oriented side very much in the Union’s image, carrying plenty of momentum from the impressive stretch-run revival that rocketed them from the East basement into the playoff places in a matter of weeks. It’s a fire-against-fire type of matchup between two collective-oriented clubs with several shared connections, and a rematch of Philly’s first-ever playoff win from 2019, also in Chester.
This time around, they vow, there will be no complacency, from the opening whistle.
“It'll come down to the team that makes plays in the red zone in either of the [penalty] boxes,” predicted Curtin. “Every inch is going to matter. But certainly the first goal in this game really takes the other team out of their comfort level. We recognize that, so the start to the game, the first 15 minutes, while we know it's going to be complete and utter chaos and intensity, we need to keep composure and not have mistakes.”