CHESTER, Pa. — With one game left before they reach the midpoint of the MLS season, the Philadelphia Union are perched atop the Eastern Conference standings looking down at several teams they’ll need to beat to stay where they are.
One of those teams — the New York Red Bulls — they’ll face for the first time this season at home on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada) ahead of an 18-day break from league play that precedes multiple key tests of their playoff bonafides.
“Always, by the end of the year, the Eastern Conference kind of really kicks in,” head coach Jim Curtin said. “We still recognize we’ve done a lot of good things to get into first place in our conference and we’re happy to be there right now but we also recognize that the schedule does get tougher with Eastern Conference teams coming up.”
Of the teams currently in playoff position in the East, seventh-place Toronto FC are the only team the Union won’t play again in the regular season. After Saturday’s game, they’ll play D.C. United and New York City FC twice and the Red Bulls, Montreal Impact and Atlanta United once more. They also play eighth-place Orlando City twice in a three-day span in early July.
“The Philadelphia Union players have earned exactly where they are and that’s first place in the Eastern Conference,” Curtin said. “We want to stay there for as long as possible. We want to push now into the playoffs and be a team that is hosting a game because our fans deserve that.”
The Union have only once hosted an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs game. That was way back in the team’s second season in 2011, when they hosted the first leg of a conference semifinal against the Houston Dynamo, a series they lost.
“You try not to look too much at the standings; it’s nice people are talking about you more and you see you’re at the top,” captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s still early in the season still, anything can happen in this league. A lot of teams not named LAFC go through slumps and streaks and it’s managing that.”
A win over the Red Bulls on Saturday would create a little more breathing room, but with games in hand further down the table, a lot of fluctuation and six-point contests await. By contrast, LAFC are nine points clear of second-place LA Galaxy in the Western Conference.
Team defending will be a key to staying at or near the top of the standings, according to Union defender Jack Elliott, who is one of three players on the team who has played every minute so far, alongside Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.
“Whenever we defend as a team we win,” Elliott said. “The goals are going to come with the quality we have.”
As a team, the Union have conceded just five times in their eight wins. It's something Elliott said has come from the team buying into the system sporting director Ernst Tanner has implemented, which focuses on aggressive team defense that forces mistakes and quick transition play.
“It’s given everyone more confidence to play forward and really defend aggressively,” Elliott said.