Why the Philadelphia Union's slow build, in contrast to Atlanta, was the right approach for them

When the Philadelphia Union take the field on Thursday night against MLS Cup holders Atlanta United (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada), they’ll be confident coming off their first playoff win in team history.

As for their opponents? High-stakes wins are almost the norm for Atlanta, who are looking to build off this season's U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles. 

To say there's a gap between these Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs teams' competitive histories and financial strategies would be an understatement. To bridge that gap and rise to Atlanta's level, Philadelphia have stayed true to the slow build model of growing through their academy and relying on the vast scouting network of sporting director Ernst Tanner.

When Union owner Jay Sugarman hired Tanner last August, he explained the approach with a history lesson.

“I always talk about this Waterloo example of, we should not line up with our muskets and our men against their muskets and their men and see who wins,” Sugarman said at the time. “If you play on their terms, you’re going to have a hard time beating them. We have to find ways to play that are unexpected by them ... or put them at some level of unease.”

The Union have excelled on their own terms in 2019, even while seeing their most-heralded acquisitions like Marco FabianSergio Santos and summer signing Andrew Wooten struggle to make major impacts.

They finished the season with the biggest point haul in team history (55) and sat atop the Eastern Conference standings for over three months. More importantly for this Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup, they held Atlanta to a 1-1 draw on March 17 and overcame a first half deficit to win 3-1 at home on Aug. 31. 

“Our league has unique rules that allow for teams to build in different ways,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Sometimes it’s a fast build and immediate – I guess Atlanta and LAFC would be the example to that. Others like to build through their academy and through acquiring a good scouting network and bringing in players that can impact the game. Everyone has a different approach.”

Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson, who turned 19 earlier this week, has been the poster boy for this approach, building on the breakout seasons Homegrown defenders Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty had in 2018.

Aaronson made his MLS debut and scored a goal in that 1-1 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A lot has changed since that game, which served as a catalyst for Aaronson finishing second in MLS Rookie of the Year voting. He's had the team's philosophy drilled into him since he was commuting to academy training from New Jersey as a pre-teen. 

“A team that doesn’t have a star player, you really have to rely on each other,” Aaronson said. “I think everybody on our team is quality this year and everybody can come in and change a game.”

That was certainly the case in Sunday's 4-3, come-from-behind triumph against the New York Red Bulls in Round One, when the equalizer and game-winning goals were scored by Fafa Picault and Fabian off the bench. That kind of depth and the next-man-up mentality Curtin has preached have provided the foundation of the narrative for the team’s success this season. It will be put to test again on Thursday, with leading goal scorer Kacper Przybylko possibly out with a foot injury.  

“We stick to our philosophy, [that] we aren’t kind of governed by what the rest of the league does,” Curtin said. “We believe in what we’re about. We will go out on the field with confidence and look to move on.”