Coming into this year's Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, it's safe to say the Philadelphia Union are no longer under the radar.
Basking in the glow of their first-ever Supporters' Shield as they gear up for the postseason, the Union very much have a target on their back. It's unfamiliar territory compared to Philly's past postseason ventures, and the Union will need to be gearing up for every team's best shot, knowing that taking down the regular-season champs would carry a bit of extra luster for any team that can come into Subaru Park and get it done.
With that in mind, head coach Jim Curtin acknowledged on a Thursday video call that the distinction of being a favorite represents a change in role, saying that it's up to his team to match their customary level of intensity come playoff time.
"Look, it is different. It is a new position for us, for sure," Curtin said. "Our job now is to play with the same fearlessness, the same intensity, the same emotion that we played with as the underdog all year. So now games are going to be in our stadium, which we're very comfortable playing. Winning the Supporters' Shield can't be something that we think we're just done for the season. It would be very easy for us take the foot off the gas and say what a year, so many special memories, our first trophy and lose sight of the fact we have a real big opportunity now as the host throughout the playoffs to play in our stadium where we haven't lost yet this year.
"Again, it is a unique season, there's no question about that but the way things shake out we have to really protect our home field and win our games there. We're four games away from winning another trophy for the club, which would cap an unbelievable season."
Full highlights: Philadelphia clinch Supporters' Shield
The Union have arguably already exceeded expectations this year in winning the Shield.
While Philadelphia were considered a solid group coming into 2020, few preseason prognostications had them finishing atop the league table, let alone had them competing for multiple trophies. With the Shield now in the bag, Curtin said the opportunity that awaits them isn't lost on him or his players as far as what an MLS Cup title could do to enhance the legacy of their 2020 group.
"After the [last] game, you heard the Leicester City-type conversation and I think that's a little bit extreme, I don't think we're that much of an underdog," Curtin said. "But now maybe if we win an MLS Cup as well, you can inch closer to how special the year is. We still have goals at the club to achieve. I don't want the players to now start reading the headlines and get complacent and think, 'Oh, what a year, it's just done'. We have a real opportunity now, we don't let it slip through our fingers and I think our players understand that.
"[Winning the Shield was] a great celebration and a great party, one that we were really happy and thrilled with. The guys have all gotten their pictures with the Supporters' Shield, but that now that all has to take a backseat, because now the real season starts and that's the MLS Cup Playoffs."
As far as what his team can expect on the field in the playoffs, Curtin said he's also preparing for the reality that the homefield advantage his team has clinched throughout the playoffs also means that his team will have to be ready for some tough, grind-it-out type games.
Overall, the coach said he's confident his team will be ready for whatever is thrown at them tactically, as well as for the increased stakes of the single-elimination format.
"It's no secret that when teams do come and sit in deep and counter us, it's harder for us, no question about it," he said. "We make no secret there. But there's still ways we can counter that. At home we always like to press high but at the same time you can flip that on teams and allow them to come a little bit, so it'll be a bit of a cat and mouse depending on who we play in that first round. But each game will have a different approach to it. We're a team that likes to get out on the break, is pretty comfortable not having the ball for long stretches, but can also hurt you with the ball too.
"We've found different ways to win this year," he continued. "I think we're a very good transition team, offensively and defensively. We're a very good team without the ball, as our goals against this year speaks to. And we're pretty darn good with the ball if you look at the amount of goals we scored. So in all areas I think we're a pretty solid team, we know what our strengths are, we've done a job of masking our weaknesses against certain opponents that try to exploit them. So now it's a matter of execution where there is the most pressure in the biggest games, where if you lose your season's over. That's the easiest way you can put it."