The Philadelphia Union are a team on the rise. Not even a four-month break in competitive matches knocked them off course.
Philly debuted Thursday at the MLS is Back Tournament with a gritty 1-0 win over NYCFC, setting the pace in Group A alongside Orlando City. Beyond three points toward the regular season and their hopes of making the MLS is Back knockout stage presented by Audi, the win contributes to the ultimate sports radio question: Are The Union For Real?
Head coach Jim Curtin called NYCFC the best team in the East in the buildup to the game, something NYCFC boss Ronny Deila was quick to agree with. Beating last year's Eastern Conference leaders signals another step in the right direction for Philly and their project, but Curtin cautioned excitement.
"We beat a good team, but it means nothing if we don't follow it up with another victory in our next game," Curtin said via video conference call after the game. They face Inter Miami on Tuesday (10:30 pm ET | TUDN in US; TSN in Canada).
The Union's point total has slowly improved under Curtin, who took over during the 2014 campaign and is among the league's longest-serving coaches. In 2015 it was 37 points and by 2018 it was 50 points. Philadelphia then set a new club-record of 55 points last season.
"We're not there yet, but we want to be mentioned among the top teams in this league," Curtin said. "New York City, Seattle, LAFC, Toronto – if I leave one out they'll put it on the bulletin board, but you get the idea. There's a lot of good teams in the upper echelon of our league and we're starting to get discussed like that. Now our job is not to have any steps backwards. We're going to move forward, we're going to do it in a unique Philadelphia way."
The players were up for the challenge upon returning from the COVID-19 pandemic layoff.
"As much respect we had for New York City, at the end of the day when we got on the field, it's a battle," defender Mark McKenzie said. "We're not going to give anybody much respect when we get on that field."
With the Orlando heat, which had a real feel of 99 degrees and 77 percent humidity during the second half, the match didn't always have a frantic pace. Captain Alejandro Bedoya got the breakthrough in the second half, finding the corner from a tight angle. It was enough to ensure victory.
“I mean, I don’t score often, but I'm glad we got the win from the goal," Bedoya said with a laugh.
The win was preserved late by Andre Blake, as NYCFC piled on the pressure. He turned away a close-range effort from Heber that was destined for the side netting in the 86th minute, then in the final minute of stoppage time denied Gary Mackay-Steven on a breakaway.
"With Andre, knowing you have the best goalkeeper in the league behind you to bail you out when things go wrong, that helps as well," Curtin said.