Full speed ahead, and at times looking like it could be a disaster. But it never was, and in the end, they got damn close to where they wanted to be.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

We’ve gotten used to the idea of the Union somehow showing linear improvement year after year, increasing their point total (or, in the case of last year’s shortened season, their PPG) every season under Jim Curtin until they finally won the Supporters’ Shield.

Then they sold two Best XI Homegrowns and it seemed time for a step backward. And in the regular season, it was – they dropped all the way to second in the East. What a letdown!

Of course, they managed to take two massive steps forward anyway. In their first crack at continental glory, they ran it all the way to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals before bowing out against a Club America team with much more firepower than the Union could boast. And then instead of collapsing (as most teams that make deep CCL runs do), they spun that forward into the rest of the regular season and playoffs until crashing out in the Eastern Conference final against an NYCFC team that, once again, had much more firepower to bring to bear.

No trophies this time, but 2021 was a great season for Philly.

Formation and tactics

The Union are built around the primacy of transition soccer, and are still ridiculously good at it. They don’t totally subvert the idea of needing to control the ball in the way the great RBNY teams of last decade did, or the way great counterattacking teams have in the past, but there are elements of that mixed with real skill and an absolute commitment to pushing numbers forward at the drop of the hat.

The two big changes from 2020 to 2021: The line of confrontation was a bit lower this year. Philly were a pressing team, still; they just weren’t really a high-pressing team. They were more willing to let you come up the field and open space in behind.

The other change was the formation, as Curtin shifted out of the 4-4-2 diamond and into the old 4-3-2-1 AC Milan Christmas tree down the stretch. This was originally because they were shorthanded up top, but it ended up working in and of itself and was a fun excuse to get more attacking midfielders on the pitch.

Highlights

In their very first game of the year, they went down to Saprissa and won 1-0. Winning at Saprissa isn’t as hard as it used to be, with the new stadium and the pandemic-enforced empty stands, but still… it’s a rare thing. Then they smoked the Central American giants 4-0 in the return leg.

Then they smoked Atlanta United over two legs – Curtin called Gabriel Heinze “kind of an a**hole” in the process – and earned their way into the CCL semifinals.

Once there they simply didn’t have enough, losing 2-0 at Club America in Leg 1 then 2-0 again at home in Leg 2 despite controlling the game and creating chance after chance for 70 minutes.

After that second leg, which came in mid-September, and with Philly sitting eighth in the standings, here is what Curtin said:

“We can finish anywhere from second through ninth. And right now we're a good result out of being back in the playoffs. So it's going to go down to the wire. I can say with confidence, though, if we play like this – look, we can play with any team, certainly in our league, that's for sure. If we bring the energy and the effort that we had tonight, we'll be in a good spot by the end of these last 11 games. It's all in our hands. It's up to us.”

They went 6-1-4 in those final 11 games, climbed up to second and got themselves a trio of home playoff games for their efforts. Understand that MLS teams usually melt into a puddle after prolonged CCL runs (2019 Sporting KC; 2018 Toronto; 2017 FC Dallas); Philly just got stronger. It was a massive statement.

Anyway, this section always gets a highlight, so here you go:

Not a bad way to pick up just the club’s second-ever playoff win!

Lowlight

Obviously missing 11 players due to health and safety protocols in the Eastern Conference Final was a crushing blow. But the Union controlled that game against NYCFC for an hour anyway, and they had basically all of their starting attackers, and they turned that control into… not much.

That’s been the story for this team repeatedly over the past couple of years. That second leg against Club America? Control that turned into zero goals. That win over the Red Bulls? They needed a 123rd-minute boombazo from a center back to advance. The subsequent win over Nashville? A scrappy goal off a set piece and then Andre Blake’s greatness got them through.

“I'm proud of the effort, we just lacked that finishing touch in the final third, which has been an issue for us this season. Just kind of lacking that final bit of quality in the final third.”

Alejandro Bedoya said that after the second-leg loss to Club America, but it would’ve been an appropriate sentiment at any point during this year’s playoffs or last year’s as well.

These big games have laid bare the difference in quality between Philly’s attackers and the truly elite, both in the league and on the continent.

Revelation

They got 20-year-old midfielder Leon Flach for a reported $250k transfer fee ahead of the season and it turns out they bought themselves a monster with three lungs.

In a lot of ways he reminds me of a young Bedoya – always making unselfish runs off the ball, but always on it or around it in the crucial moments when he needs to be. The difference is while Bedoya, in his early-20s, was more of an attacking player, Flach seems to be wired for a pure destroyer role and will probably develop into a No. 6 or one sort or another.

He also saved his best for last, putting in probably his best performance of the season in that loss to NYCFC.

Eight months ago I had zero expectations for this kid. Now I’m disappointed he’s not in this December's USMNT camp.

Disappointment

I already mentioned the health & safety protocol issues for the Eastern Conference Final, plus the lack of final third quality in big games. So let’s just move on.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Blake (GK): One of the two best GKs in the league, and one of the three best in the region.
  • Jack Elliott (CB): Maybe the most underrated center back in the entire league? I actually think he was better in 2021 than the man he replaced, Mark McKenzie, was during his 2020 Best XI season.
  • Jakob Glesnes (CB): An occasional match-winner with in-the-gym range, he and Elliott formed one of the best pairings in the league.
  • Jose Martinez (DM): He has more YOLO moments than I like to see out of a d-mid, but he’s a force in front of that center back pairing.
  • Olivier Mbaizo (RB): He had an awful moment at the end of that NYCFC loss, but his first year as a starter in MLS was a very, very good one, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun pushing forward.

Offseason Priority:

Will LB Kai Wagner – one of the best in the league at that spot – be sold? What about Flach? What about the trio of Homegrown teenaged midfielders (Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan) who showed a ton of potential throughout the year? What about No. 10 Jamiro Monteiro, who was away from the club for a while in mid-summer before making an autumn return?

The Union are open for business. That is not going to change, and the hope in the fanbase will be that:

  1. Not too many of those guys are sold and ...
  2. There will be serious reinvestment into the attacking third to close the gap between themselves and the true elites.

And yes, holding onto Curtin is a big priority as well. He’s under contract for two more years and has said Philly is where he’s going to be, but FC Cincinnati are reportedly sniffing around, and maybe LAFC want to stay within the league to replace Bob Bradley, or Houston's new ownership want to make a splash? What happens if one of those clubs writes a big enough check?

Philly are really, really close to the mountaintop, maybe just one move away. But the footing at those heights is precarious, and one wrong step could send them hurtling in the other direction real fast.