CHESTER, Pa. – When Tranquillo Barnetta arrived in Philadelphia in the middle of the 2015 season, the Union were already near the bottom of the MLS standings – a familiar theme for a club that only made the playoffs once in their first six years of existence.
It was only natural, then, that Barnetta stressed to his teammates throughout the offseason and preseason that getting off to a good start in 2016 was paramount.
So far, so good.
After their 2-0 win over New York City FC on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union (4-3-0) moved into a first-place tie with the Montreal Impact atop the Eastern Conference, marking their best start since the 2011 season – the only one that ended with a playoff appearance.
“It’s great,” Barnetta told MLSsoccer.com. “I talked to the guys in the last few years that they always start really bad and then they have to run from the back. So that’s the one thing we talked about in the preseason that we have to get off to a really good start.
“I think we have to go on,” he added. “If you are first, you have to protect this position for everything. So let’s try to keep going and stay in this position.”
Perhaps the most promising part of Saturday’s result – the Union’s third win in three tries at home this season – was that they know they didn’t play particularly well.
New York City FC controlled nearly 65 percent of the possession and won nearly every statistical category – except for the one that counted, with the Union riding first-half goals from Chris Pontius and C.J. Sapong to their fourth win of the year.
“I’m not happy with the overall game on the day but, at the same time, good teams find ways to win when it’s not their best night,” Union coach Jim Curtin said. “I give guys a heck of a lot of credit for keeping a clean sheet at home. And it was a very good performance from some young guys on the field – guys that came in off the bench and impacted the game in a positive way. I’m happy in that regard.”
Indeed, the personnel the Union have used to surge to a 4-3-0 record is another promising sign that they might be for real this season. Against NYCFC, they were missing two of their best midfielders in Maurice Edu (stress fracture) and Roland Alberg (suspension), while top playmaker Ilsinho was limited to a reserve role as he works his way back from an injury.
Brian Carroll, who played his 350th career MLS game Saturday, said depth is the biggest reason for the team’s success so far.
“We have competition at every spot and that’s making everybody a little bit sharper,” Carroll said. “We’ve gotten a couple of wins and that tends to breed a little bit of confidence.”
And there’s still more to come with Curtin saying the team hasn’t “fielded our best lineup yet” heading into two more upcoming home games.
“It’s a good start to the year,” the Union coach said. “We knew it was important to have a good start. We had a lot of positive changes in the organization and now we’re seeing the results give belief to the players. They’ve really bought in and they deserve a lot of credit.”