The reluctance to place faith in up-and-coming teams is an affliction which permeates all sports. We'd rather watch you win the big game first before trusting you to do so. We'll doubt and doubt some more until you prove us wrong. Then we'll hastily shuffle onto the next team to doubt.
It's true in MLS, too. We're a little worried about LAFC in the playoffs (or when they play the LA Galaxy, who we have seen Win The Big Game time and time again since the league's inception) aren't we? Atlanta have lately been held up as the favorite in the Eastern Conference, because we just watched Josef Martinez mean mug his way to lifting MLS Cup in 2018 and he's doing it again now. Goals in 13 straight games, my word.
There's another team out East that has been doubted much of the season, rolled with the punches that come with a midseason dip in form and are defiantly staring down a hellacious finish to the season with a point to prove. Not simply exerting a quiet us-against-the-world confidence, the Philadelphia Union are putting their name on it and have a message: We don't care who you are, if you're coming to our house, then we wish you luck. Because you need it.
“LAFC, I wish you a lot of luck,” Kacper Przybylko said after Saturday's 3-1 win over Atlanta United. “This is our house. This is our stadium. We have great supporters. And we’re waiting for you guys.”
Philly's brutal remaining schedule (thus potential to finish third and have to navigate up to two road games in the East), lack of an alpha star, relative defensive question marks and no championship pedigree make them imperfect. Then again, every team in the conference is imperfect.
The Union are legit. It's personal preference whether or not Atlanta, NYCFC or Philly are the outright favorites in the East – I'm not here to split hairs, particularly in the one-game sample size that is the playoffs – but that's the top tier and Philly belong. Here's why.
Against good teams and good coaches, tactics (and game states) can change. The Union have the ability to effectively press or dictate patient build-up, push the game to chaotic transition or slow it down. Haris Medunjanin's expert set-piece delivery coupled with Jack Elliott is also good for a handful of goals a season.
The pressing system that sporting director Ernst Tanner envisioned is well in place, as Philly are third in MLS in possession won in the attacking third. But they're much more than a one-track team.
Teams that press like this aren't supposed to also be this useful in possession. They are a respectable ninth in passing accuracy despite an emphasis in finding riskier, direct forward passes immediately after regaining possession. Philly are also fifth in total passes completed. For comparison to another pressing team, the New York Red Bulls are last in MLS with a 69% passing accuracy.
Teams that press like this aren't supposed to have an orchestrator like Medunjanin at the base of midfield, which highlights his own defensive growth and the incredible amount of ground Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro cover. Przybylko is both a competent pressing forward and a target forward, which is not a typical combination.
Philly are adept at multiple playing styles, in large part, because of the midfield. Medunjanin, Monteiro and Bedoya can stack up with any trio this side of LAFC. Designated Player Marco Fabian is healthy and fit, starting eight of the club's last nine games, while Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson has enjoyed a breakout season after being given a chance in Fabian's absence.
If Fabian can peak at the right time – and I know, I've been writing this for months – then the Union get even better. He's a luxury, rather than a necessity, which is not something anyone envisioned when he signed. Without him playing at his apex, the Union will be alright.
There's only one Ilsinho
What's the word above "elite" to properly illuminate Ilsinho's relative value as a super-sub? "Super-sub" doesn't do it justice either, honestly. The uniqueness and numbers that hit you like a stun grenade make it incredible.
Ilinsho's .43 expected assists per 90 are the best in MLS. His 4.63 (!!!) dribbles completed per 90 are the best in MLS. His 1.31 non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 are second only to Vela (1.37). He's a walking viral social media clip; the sense of anticipation when he gets the ball is one of the greatest phenomena in MLS this year.
I'll let Matt Doyle take it away, because he launched a word-arrow right straight into the Ilsinho bullseye: "Other than Carlos Vela no winger in the league has more gravity right now. Atlanta sold out to stop him, which opened space elsewhere, and when Philly have space they do murder. ... The Union are +26 when he's on the field, including all three goals on Saturday. He is the greatest off-the-bench weapon in MLS history."
Identity and belief
Last season, Philly had their best campaign in franchise history. But they lost the U.S. Open Cup final and were easily dispatched by NYCFC in the first round of the playoffs. This year, they're even better and are past last year's growing pains.
Teams can take shape of their leaders, be it the coach or captain, and Philly have followed captain Bedoya's unapologetic confidence and expression. It manifests itself in small ways, in small moments. The victory over Atlanta was a statement win, then the Union weren't shy in making actual statements, either.
"These are the best teams the league has," Jim Curtin said after Przybylko's public warning to LAFC. "Maybe the Union can start to be talked about in that conversation for this year."
They also don't beat themselves, which is a bit more measurable. Philly have had just two errors leading to goals (third best in MLS), per Opta, and six errors leading to shots (fourth best in MLS).
Will the Union win MLS Cup? Who knows. The exhilarating three-week sprint that is the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs can spit out any number of champions. But Philly have a chance.