1018 PHI Feature

The 2022 Philadelphia Union represent the city they call home and identify with so well. It's special when those values align.

Gritty, hard-working and brash. The high-pressing, in-your-face style of play fits almost as well as the Philly-born-and-raised head coach standing on the touchline under the Commodore Barry bridge in a Union hoodie.

The city of Philadelphia loves an underdog mentality, embracing the “nobody believes in us” rallying cry. The Union have embodied that, too. A club that had few great moments to point to until recent years. A club that routinely is among the league’s lowest spenders on salary and transfer fees. A club all too often overlooked.

Heading into the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs, the Union seemingly have it all. They led the league in goals scored (72). They also had the fewest goals conceded (26). The attacking trio is clicking, with three players who could be match-winners on any given day. There's maybe the best coach in the league. A raucous crowd and home-field advantage, too.

There’s only one problem: They cannot possibly play the underdog role, holding the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed.

Make no mistake about it, the Philadelphia Union are in the top tier of favorites to win MLS Cup as they kick off their postseason run on Thursday in the Conference Semifinals when hosting FC Cincinnati (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).

“Yeah, look, there is that underdog mentality for this club and this city in general,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya told MLSsoccer.com. He didn’t want to fully concede the notion of being favorites, so he pivoted quickly.

“I mean, I still like to think we’re going to be underdogs, I still think LAFC are clear, heavy favorites, you know?” Bedoya said with a little laugh. “Maybe you might disagree, but I’ll just leave it at that so I can continue to give the guys something to chew on.”

Bedoya has a point at least. LAFC are the favorites to win MLS Cup on BetMGM, the only team ahead of the Union. FiveThirtyEight also has LAFC with the highest MLS Cup probability (36%), ahead of the Union (29%).

“I’d agree we’re not going to sneak up on anybody, but as the head coach of the team, I go into every game thinking the worst,” head coach Jim Curtin said. “Every game is a new test. Our players embrace that too. If you feel comfortable in this league, you get beat. That’s the way it is. The parity in our league is a gift and a curse, because the second you think you’re on top, you get humbled. … I'm constantly warning our guys not to get comfortable or complacent. I think they embrace that.”

“We’re not hiding; every game people are trying to take us down,” even Bedoya admitted. “We’ve got a target on our backs.”

The Union topped the Eastern Conference with 67 points, missing out on a second Supporters’ Shield only due to the tiebreaker of LAFC having more wins (21 vs. 19). The attack is elite, as is the defense, which it has been for years. The group has a blend of in-prime stars, veteran experience and youthful exuberance.

“I can say with confidence this is the best team and best regular season we’ve had as a club,” Curtin said.

From “very good” to “best regular season ever”

Halfway through the season, talk of a “best regular season in club history” was nonexistent. Rightfully so.

The Union went into the year among the top teams in the Eastern Conference and started the season fine – good, nothing special. A stretch of games from mid-April to early July saw the Union draw eight of 11 games, as the attack routinely left goals on the table.

“At the beginning of the season, there were some tough conversations and frustration,” Bedoya said. “We kept drawing games at home, some of these were games we should have never been drawing.”

As the dog days of summer came, the Union went from good to historic. Over their next 13 games, the Union went 11W-2L-0D with 46 goals scored (!!!) and only nine against. The front three exploded into one of the league’s very best attacking trios.

Union attacking trio
Union attacking trio
Player
Goals, assists
Minutes (minutes per G/A)
Daniel Gazdag
22g, 10a
2,939 mins (91.8 mins)
Julian Carranza
14g, 9a
2,227 mins (96.8 mins)
Mikael Uhre
13g, 6a
1,633 mins (85.9 mins)

It’s never just one thing that sparks a run like that, Curtin was quick to point out, but he noted one difference: An adjustment of placing further emphasis on getting to the “primary assist zone” more often and making the most of those opportunities.

The primary assist zone is the spaces outside each goal post to the edge of the 18-yard box. Data consistently shows these are the most valuable areas to pass/cross from in soccer. The Union staff put together numerous video presentations on it throughout the year, hammering home the point with clips that mixed Union players doing it as well as goals from Liverpool, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and other heavyweights in the game.

“We labeled it the assist zone, you can call it whatever you want,” Curtin said. “How many times can we get the ball in that area? We don’t want to be a team that crosses balls from the corner flag, too often we settled for that early in the year.”

Linear progression and improvement

The Union’s linear progression over the last half-decade is oft-planned, rarely executed like this. Every year it’s been incremental growth. Sports typically don’t happen like that. Too much can go wrong, and even sometimes teams are ahead of schedule and then fizzle out into a new era.

Philly made the playoffs in 2018, which was then their best regular season (by points per game). They did better in 2019 and won their first-ever playoff series. The next year, the Union lifted the Supporters’ Shield, their first-ever trophy. Last season, they made the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League and played in their first-ever Eastern Conference Final. This year, the Union had their best-ever points total and the second-best goal difference in league history.

“Even I’m shocked at what these players keep doing,” Curtin said. “No matter who’s here, who’s in the lineup, who gets traded, who moves onto a top club in Europe, we don’t miss a beat and continue to pull in the right direction. It’s something we’re really proud of and it’s even impressed me, man.”

Curtin, Bedoya, Andre Blake and Jack Elliott have been here for it all, but different key players have come and gone. US men's national team players Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie broke into the first team, had Best XI seasons and made big transfers to Europe. Kai Wagner will soon, too. Other key players have been allowed to leave as well.

The front office, led by sporting director Ernst Tanner, has been the best in the league at finding value. Bedoya, Blake and Elliott were already at the club and have all signed new deals. Wagner was signed out of the German third tier, Leon Flach from the German second tier and Kacper Przybyłko a free agent. Jose Martinez was a little-known midfielder in Venezuela, while Julian Carranza was picked up on loan from Miami with a $500k GAM trade option.

Even their biggest signings didn’t come from traditional markets for MLS teams: Mikael Uhre from Denmark, Daniel Gazdag from a relegation-threatened Hungarian team.

“The level of consistency we’ve shown over the last five years, it’s not easy to do,” Bedoya said. “With the way our team is compiled – we’re not the LAFCs of the world who can go out and pay big money for players, so it’s an even greater achievement I’d say to do what we’re doing with how we go about our business.”

The only way for the Union to continue this progression and reach a new level? Winning MLS Cup 2022 on Nov. 5.

How much pressure is on Philadelphia Union in MLS Cup Playoffs?

“We want the Cup”

This Union group is built for postseason soccer.

While the late-summer explosion of goals was welcomed, Philly have a defense-first mentality, anchored by the 2022 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year (Blake), the 2022 MLS Defender of the Year (Jakob Glesnes) as well as potentially three Best XI presented by Continental Tire defenders (Wagner, Elliott, Glesnes).

“We’ve already proven we’re a great team. Now, we just have to prove we’re a championship team,” Bedoya said. “That’s what we want to do, that’s what we plan to do. I hope we can accomplish our goal of lifting MLS Cup.”

The unforgiving nature and chaos of single-elimination playoffs, particularly in a league with as much parity as MLS, means a dominant regular season doesn't always equal playoff success. Just one single No. 1 seed in either conference has made MLS Cup since 2011.

“You can be great with the ball, you can be great without the ball, you can be great in transition, you can be great on restarts – but to go on a playoff run, you need a break or two,” Curtin said. “There is an element of luck that’s involved in pro sports. I know people don’t want to hear that, but it’s reality. Every great team who goes on a run has a break or two.”

They didn’t get much luck in 2021. Just ahead of hosting the Eastern Conference Final against New York City FC, 11 players were out due to Health and Safety Protocols. That list included starting XI stalwarts Bedoya, Glesnes, Elliott, Blake and Wagner.

“I’ll never move on, I’ll say it,” Curtin said. “So many people put so much into that opportunity, then Jakob Glesnes and Ale Bedoya have to miss that game. That hurt. I thought we had something special, and we even gave NYCFC a run anyway, but that’s in the past. It’s part of Union history. I think we can still be proud of it because we gave them everything.”

Philly lost 2-1. NYCFC went on to win MLS Cup the next week at the Portland Timbers. This year, the Union are intent on being the ones left standing.

“We want the Cup,” Bedoya said again. “That’s what we really want, especially guys like myself and Blake, other guys who have been here for a while. We have a little bit of a bitter taste from last year, we were so close. What could have been, but now, we’re so close again we can taste it. That’s all we’re thinking about.”