If you were to make a list of the most enjoyable teams to watch (as a neutral) this year, you would probably include the usual names:
There’s another name that’s been flying under the radar that should be included: the Philadelphia Union.
The Union won 3-2 at New England on Saturday to move to 5th in the East – their highest standing of the year — and for those that have watched the Union this year, you can’t say a playoff spot is not deserved, not to mention their qualification for the U.S. Open Cup final. The Union have been good this year. Perhaps just as importantly, they’ve been fun to watch.
Every team on the list above has something different about them. Atlanta are electrifying; NYCFC are complex; the Red Bulls are overwhelming; the Galaxy have Zlatan; the Union flow.
They aren’t 1974 Netherlands, of course, but they follow similar principles. They keep the ball on the ground; they play quick and simple; they break lines with passes; they interchange positions; they take risks with their outside backs; and everyone once in a while someone throws in a snake move or a no-look through ball and you say outloud to yourself, “oh damn.”
Jorge Valdano wrote a wonderful piece about Luka Modric during the World Cup that also applies to the Union. Of Modric, Valdano wrote, “It’s not about adding intensity or danger to the move; it’s about adding sense, clarity, intent.” The same could be said about how Philly’s midfield – Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Borek Dockal – operate.
They don’t overpower anyone; they slowly maneuver forward. Pass, trap, move. Pass, trap, move. No stress, no frills. Calmness and clarity.
And when their soccer isn’t perfect, the Union also deploy the drug of hope. They have two teenagers developed in their academy starting at center back. I’m not a die-hard #playyourkids prophet, but I can admit it’s fun to watch young prospects get minutes.
When they do, everything takes on a positive spin. When 18-year-old right center back Mark McKenzie deals with a winger 1-v-1, I text my friends “He has the footwork to be special,” or when 20-year-old left-footer Auston Trusty takes the perfect angle to intercept a pass, I get pumped enough to tweet it out. And then when they mess up – no stress; it’s part of the process. When a 27-year-old fails to track a runner, it’s a mistake; when a 19-year-old messes up, it’s a growing pain.
The Union have managed to blend fun soccer with long-term planning with results.
It’s tough to say where the Union stand in the overall hierarchy of MLS right now. They have yet to win or lose more than two MLS games straight at any point. They haven’t beaten a team currently ahead of them in the standings. They have the scored the fifth fewest goals in the league. They don’t excel in any specific stats.
Sometimes, though, you just have to trust the eye test. And the eye test says the Union are good. Even when they aren’t good, they are generally fun to watch.