CHESTER, Pa. – A common narrative around the Philadelphia Union this season has been that the club has won matchups in 2019 that likely would have been losses in years past.
The reward for a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference is a long-awaited second home playoff game in franchise history. Expectations are high and the fanbase is clamoring for a change in fortunes after the Union have lost three U.S. Open Cup finals and never made it past the conference semifinals.
“I think our club’s gotten better, I think our roster’s gotten stronger, I think our mentality now if we go down a goal in a game is different,” head coach Jim Curtin said. “I think that we’ve evolved as a club. We have some Homegrown kids that are really contributing in big ways.
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“I have guys playing in their best form who aren’t going to make our 18 and that’s hard. That’s different than in past years. Usually once we got past 10 to 12 guys there was a bigger drop-off than there is now.”
As the No. 3 seed, the Union enter as favorites. But they also aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
“I’m not going to say we’ve reached any goal or accomplished anything yet, but we’ve moved certainly forward and our record over the past couple years has shown that,” Curtin said.
Still, the mounting pressure on a team and head coach that's yet to win the “big game” has probably never been higher. A playoff win would be a first for all but a couple players on the roster.
“It means a lot to our city, to our fans and definitely to me,” said forward Fafa Picault. “We know what it means to everyone and we want to take advantage of the situation and play together as a team in front of our home crowd.”
A win would also further validate a season that saw the Union top the Eastern Conference for over three months, but started and ended with their only consecutive losses of the season.
“For this to be considered the best team in Union history they have to win a playoff game,” Sons of Ben president Matt Gendaszek said.
Picault, who has spent much of his playing career in Europe, agreed.
“We’re very satisfied with what we’ve done this year, we’re proud of it, we broke a few in-house records, but we know it’s not enough,” Picault said. “We don’t want to keep a medium mentality and just settle for average.”
A standing room-only crowd is expected at Talen Energy Stadium, too. Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya, back after a late-season injury, expects the team to feed off that.
“It’s playoffs man, this is a whole different level, the intensity of the game,” Bedoya said. “The LAFC game at home, that felt like a playoff intensity type of game, so that’s what we need to do. We need to match that type of intensity.
“We take their first five-, 10-, 15-minute punches we’ll be fine. We just can’t concede a stupid early goal like we did against New York City and in past games.”