Here’s a sentence some of us might not have expected to read, or write, this month:
The Philadelphia Union are one of the hottest teams in MLS, one of the league’s most aesthetically pleasing, arguably even the most fashionably edgy dark-horse MLS Cup pick any North American soccer hipster could hope to wager their indie-maverick cred on.
How much cred? Well, they’ve attracted a certain locally-grown overnight sports folk hero to hop aboard their coattails:
Yes, even I’m a bit taken aback by all this. Union + Phang + Gritty = Team of Destiny ... Really?
But it checks out! Let’s assemble the particulars, starting with this here animated infographic of the Eastern Conference standings in 2018:
Getting closer to the end in the East. 👀 pic.twitter.com/9iv51TmiVt— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 9, 2018
The Union clinched a place in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs over the weekend – for the third time in nine years of existence – with that emphatic 5-1 undressing of Minnesota United FC. As The Athletic’s Matthew De George notes, they’re 7-1-2 in their last 10 games dating back to August 11, and have won 13 of their last 23. That’s a prospect almost as daunting and unexpected as a mohawked snake with arms joining forces with a googly-eyed mountain of orange fuzz.
During that time they’ve climbed, steadily, from seventh place in the East – a most frustrating spot in the MLS pack, one they were stuck in for weeks upon weeks earlier this year – all the way up to fourth, good for hosting rights to a Knockout Round match. It’s been a painstaking, methodical haul, first to escape the hole of a 1-3-2 start to the season and later to reel in Orlando, New England, Montreal and most recently Columbus.
They did this while prioritizing, suffering painful defeat in and then quickly pivoting from last month’s U.S. Open Cup final vs. the Houston Dynamo, their third loss in three trips to the historic tournament’s title bout. They’ve done it against the backdrop of a passionate but hard-boiled fanbase.
Standings looking good for Union right now but Crew finish the season at ORL, vs. MIN so they could easily finish with 54 points. Union gotta aim for at least a win and draw in their final two (vs. RBNY, at NYCFC) to get to 54 too and they'll own first tiebreaker (wins) vs. Crew. pic.twitter.com/PijgQeAsMP— Dave Zeitlin (@DaveZeitlin) October 7, 2018
Philly may not be done climbing, either. The DOOP Squad are now just three points back of third-placed New York City FC, and the two sides meet at Yankee Stadium on Decision Day presented by AT&T at the end of the month. It’s quite possible that a Union win there hauls them past the fading Cityzens and into an even more advantageous slot in the postseason bracket.
Notably, Jim Curtin and his squad are doing all this collectively. There’s no Zlatan or Rooney here to grab headlines or seize the spotlight in key moments. One of their big offseason acquisitions, electric winger David Accam, has been a shadow of himself all year, apparently dogged by a sports hernia issue that finally required what’s likely to be season-ending surgery this week.
Their season, already the most successful in Union history, is a triumph of the collective, the vindication of planning, patience and persistence. There’s a cutting-edge youth academy, a conscientious undertaking overseen by minority owner Richie Graham that’s finally bearing sustained fruit. A diverse, egalitarian squad full of no-frills types, led by a coach who himself might just be the Union’s biggest project: A local boy who returned home to work for the club in its first year of play and scaled the ladder from youth coach to first-team boss.
Despite some unsightly results and the recurring skepticism of possibly America’s most sports-crazed town, Curtin was given time to master the trade, build a culture and hone a well-rounded – and lately, often pleasingly proactive – tactical toolbox. All that said, his latest superior, new sporting director Ernst Tanner, has made it clear that Curtin is still auditioning for the right to stick around at the helm for another year or two.
Just the type of earn-your-bread scenario that locals can relate to.
“We’re a team in the true sense of the word in that we can’t have off nights. If we have two or three guys have an off night, we can’t win,” Curtin told MLSsoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal in August. “So, you can tell the guys all rely on each other. We’ve called upon our full roster; I think we have a deeper team now … everybody’s contributed.”
The Union have shown an ability to press opponents, but also to pass over, around and through them. There's battering-ram options like CJ Sapong, multitools like Alejandro Bedoya and even a lovable flair-delivery device in the form of Ilsinho. They’ve parked the bus when necessary, and bunker-and-countered to good effect. They have the best road record in the East outside of Supporters’ Shield hunters Atlanta and RBNY.
And that brings us to what the DOOPers haven’t done – not yet, at least.
Philly have yet to taste victory against Atlanta or the Red Bulls, 2018’s clear frontrunners. In fact they’re winless in four all-time meetings (0-3-1) with the Five Stripes, with 10 goals conceded and only three scored. Their history against RBNY is a bit better, though not great: 6-12-5 all-time in league play.
The Union have knocked off some top-tier Western caliber opponents, but many, even some of their own fans, harbor doubts about their postseason prospects against the cream of the East:
This far pic.twitter.com/FB1ncHHzY9— Duane Rollins (@24thminute) October 10, 2018
Give Atlanta or RBNY a series but come up short in the end. I honestly see them winning the play in game whoever they face.— Brian (@MrBrianJSmith) October 10, 2018
Turns out, that frames their run-in pretty nicely. They host the Red Bulls on October 21 before that big NYCFC clash on the last day. Philly sports teams have always taken special pleasure in knocking off the Gotham big-timers from the other end of the turnpike, and now the U has a perfect chance to make a statement twice over.
They’ve done laudable work to date; the next step is the hardest yet. If the Union can trade haymakers with the heavyweights and stay upright, we might just find out how special they are.