There have been many great teams in the quarter-century history of this league of ours, teams of the sort any soccer fan can watch and admire. You can take joy from their attacking flow, or their defensive solidity, or the lightning transitions from one phase to another. You can point to those teams and say “damn, they’re really good. They’ve got a real shot at a trophy.”
The Union, in the past, have been that team, up to and including taking home a trophy (the 2020 Supporters’ Shield).
There have been precious few transcendent teams, ones that hit an extraordinarily high level and stay there for months. The type of team that neutrals – or even fans of rival sides – drop plans for and build their weekend around. I’m talking 2019 LAFC, or 2018 Atlanta United, the 2014 Galaxy, the 2012 Quakes and some of the early D.C. United teams.
These were the types of teams whose games you watched 1) because you knew you’d be entertained, and 2) because a part of that entertainment was the understanding there was a very real chance you’d see something that had never, ever been done in this league before. Through a combo of tempo and game model and personnel and literal &#$%ing magic, these teams took what you thought you knew about the game and our league and stood it on its head. They are rare, and they are precious.
Philly hit that level this year. They were one of those rare, precious teams that made you drop everything, rearrange your schedule and watch. And once you started watching, you could not turn away.
They are also the only one of those teams listed who did not take home a trophy in their year of magic. The game is cruel.
Formation and Tactics
4-4-2 diamond with an insanely high tempo. They accomplished this by playing fully 40% of their passes forward, one of just two teams (the Red Bulls were at 46%, which is ridiculous) to hit that mark. And that's a pattern you see throughout the stats, which matched the eye test from throughout the year: Philly finished second to RBNY in basically every Energy Drink Soccer metric – everything from second-fewest passes per sequence, to second-fastest direct speed, etc etc etc. Those are Ernst Tanner’s roots, and that’s how this team played the game.
There were two big differences, though. The first is the Union hit lots of long balls – they were among the league leaders as per TruMedia via StatsPerform – and happily ceded possession (they finished the year down around 44%) in favor of field position. “Trading possession for field position” in Red Bull terms usually means pressing high and hard, keeping the opponent pinned, and dominating in the attacking third.
The Union could do that if the matchup called for it, but they were much more of a mid-block pressing team with an eye toward opening up space in behind and running onto long balls into the channels. They drew their line of confrontation fairly deep and then annihilated you in the space between your center backs and goalkeeper.
The other difference was if you forced the Union to play – to break you down with the ball – well, they had that in their bag, too. We saw it in the playoffs against both Cincy and NYCFC, and we saw it pretty frequently in the regular season as well. They could toggle from Plan A to Plan B in a flash, and very, very few teams were equipped to stop them.
From July 8 to Sept. 10, the Union went 11W-2L-0D. Other teams have had great stretches like that – I’m not even sure it’s the best 13-game stretch in terms of PPG this year.
THEIR GOAL DIFFERENTIAL DURING THAT STRETCH WAS +37!!! +37!!!!!!!!!!
I’ve never seen anything like that in this league, and neither has anyone else. They registered more six-goal wins (four of them) during that stretch than any other MLS team has IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE LEAGUE.
Think about that. Think about how great and high-scoring the Galaxy were for the first 20 years of the league, or how dominant those Marco Etcheverry-led D.C. teams were, or what Atlanta did under Tata. Nobody – none of those teams over the course of their entire lifetimes – has posted as many six-goal wins as the Union did just this summer. It is the craziest MLS stat I can think of.
The highlight, though, is what happened in the second half of the Eastern Conference Final:
WATCH: Philadelphia Union get revenge on NYCFC! MLS Cup awaits
There were four truly excellent teams in MLS this year, and NYCFC were one of them. They were the defending champs, and they went up 1-0, and they were balling.
The back-to-back disappointments in Atlanta (a scoreless draw) and Charlotte (an inexplicable 4-0 capitulation) near the end of the season that cost Philly the Supporters’ Shield deserve a mention here, but we have never seen anything – even in this absolutely bonkers league of ours – like what happened in MLS Cup itself.
The Maxime Crépeau injury and red card. The Jack Elliott brace. The Gareth Bale equalizer in the 128th minute, which melted my brain and the brains of every single person at Banc of California Stadium, 3-3 after extra time between two teams this great? Are you kidding me?
And then Philadelphia native and former Union back-up John McCarthy pitched a shutout in the subsequent PK shootout to win LAFC the Cup. Andre Blake, who is maybe the greatest goalkeeper in league history, was outdueled, and the Union snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
You couldn’t have scripted this. The soccer gods were off the reservation for this one, man. It’s one of the most brutal losses I’ve seen in this sport.
The Phillies lost the World Series four hours later. There are a lot of tortured sports cities in the US, but only Philly – or maybe, I guess, Chicago – could lose two major titles on the same day.
I’m going to call it a tie between Dániel Gazdag and Julián Carranza. I usually avoid going with high-priced players here, but Gazdag’s jump from “hmm, maybe he’ll hold off the kids for one more year and put up something like 10g/7a” to the second-most productive player in the league – 22g/10a during the regular season, then two more goals in the playoffs, including Philly’s first equalizer in MLS Cup – was just an astounding leap that no one, in good faith, could’ve claimed to see coming.
Carranza, meanwhile, is a literal DP, and I never put DPs in this space. But the way the Union got him, by taking him on loan from Inter Miami CF, then purchasing him outright for only $500k GAM… we’d never seen a move like this in the league. And then Carranza, who had 3g/0a in two years down in Fort Lauderdale, put up 15g/10a across the regular season and playoffs, while also being a Maxi Urruti-level “empty the tank” defensive presence from up top.
The way he and Mikael Uhre worked to create attacking depth and opened up space underneath worked perfectly with Gazdag’s poaching instincts, and it’s all on display here:
WATCH: Dániel Gazdag's go-ahead goal makes Subaru Park crowd erupt!
The entire front three had the type of chemistry you rarely see, which is why they combined for 49g/25a. Very good players who amplify each other’s skills to the point that they become great players… It's always wonderful to see.
I don’t really think there was one, aside from how the season ended.
Five Players to Build Around
- Carranza (FW): No reason to think the 22-year-old (he turns 23 in May) won’t at least replicate what he did this past year.
- Gazdag (AM): I expect his boxscore numbers to regress next season, at least a bit. I do wonder if there’s some room for him to explore being, from time to time, more of a traditional playmaker.
- Uhre (FW): I’m not sure he was ever fully fit, but even so he put up 13g/7a across the regular season and playoffs in about 1,850 minutes. If they can squeeze 3,000 minutes out of him next year, those are Best XI-level numbers.
- Glesnes & Jack Elliott (CBs): Either could’ve been Defender of the Year (Glesnes got the nod), and both are clearly among the top four CBs in all of MLS.
- Blake (GK): A legend.
It’s the Union, and the Union will sell. Paxten Aaronson’s gone, and it wouldn’t be a shock to me if left back Kai Wagner was next. Know who else could be out the door? Right back Olivier Mbaizo, who’ll be heading to Qatar this month with Cameroon and is the type of talent who could earn a significant incoming transfer fee ($4-5 million wouldn’t shock me at all).
That’s built into who the Union are, though, and I’m sure that Tanner, Curtin et al already have replacements lined up, as well as a plan to push the academy kids into bigger roles (remember, homegrown RB Nathan Harriel actually kept Mbaizo on the bench for a good chunk of this year).
They’ll need those kids to be ready, and they’ll need to layer more depth on top of what they’ve already got in-house because this team could end up playing 50+ games next year. They’ve got CCL to start the year, then 34 regular-season games, plus Leagues Cup (that could be as many as seven games), plus whatever they do in the playoffs.
The spine of the team – which includes the attacking trident (and top back-up Cory Burke), Blake and the center backs, and the dominant midfield of José Martinez, Ale Bedoya, Leon Flach and Jack McGlynn, which I somehow hadn’t even mentioned in this recap yet – will stay intact, I’m pretty sure, and play the vast majority of the minutes. But there needs to be more depth and squad rotation if the Union are to survive, then thrive and take one more step and actually lift the damn Cup.
Because that’s been their thing, remember: linear progress. They somehow manage to take it one step further each year and, well, we all know what that means for 2023.