Philadelphia Union group celebration vs. Toronto FC
USA Today Sports Images

Philadelphia Union shine in biggest test yet, and now Shield is theirs to lose | Charles Boehm

Technical problems rendered Mark McKenzie nearly inaudible to members of the media during the back half of the Philadelphia Union’s Zoom press conference following their 5-0 thrashing of Toronto FC at Subaru Park on Saturday. It was just about the only setback all night for the home team, which has now vaulted past TFC into first place in the overall MLS standings with the win, level on points and wins but holding a superior goal differential.

McKenzie turned even that minor bugaboo into a moment to savor, using the subsequent audio check to casually drop a few rhymes using the first few journalists’ names he saw on the screen in front of him:

It was that kind of evening for Philly, who notched yet another high-water mark on their slow, steady climb into the MLS elite by viciously, emphatically dispatching their closest rivals in what we can again call the Supporters’ Shield race. In fact, the final scoreline could easily have been even more one-sided.

Hip-hop has a proud tradition of boasting and toasting, but McKenzie was just, well, spitting facts, you might say. According to MLS stats guru Rick Lawes, this was the biggest defeat of the No. 1 team in the overall standings by the No. 2 team in league history, and the most one-sided loss suffered by a first-place team since the “red wedding” on May 21, 2016, when the New York Red Bulls pasted East-leading NYCFC 7-0 at Yankee Stadium.

“It’s a big win for us. We now have our destiny in our own hands with these final three games, two of which are at home,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin. “It’s in our hands now; we have to step up. We have three really tough games … there’s nine points out there and we’re going to need all nine to win the Shield.”

Toronto snatched a 2-1 comeback win in these teams’ previous 2020 meeting a few weeks ago, Alejandro Pozuelo heading home a late winner at Rentschler Field after Philly led for more than half the match. It was a result that has been gnawing at the Union’s collective insides ever since — until Saturday night.

“We all remember what happened last time we played them, so it was just about coming on our home field and putting on a performance that we're proud of and we know we can put together,” noted McKenzie. “I think we accomplished that against the top team, at the time, in the league, and we showed why we deserve to be No. 1. We put together a strong 90 minutes, but it was all about mentality.”

If the DOOPers remembered that Oct. 3 result bitterly, the same may apply to this one for the Red half of this equation. TFC came into this game shorthanded due to injuries and probably a bit short of full sharpness due to a trip home to the GTA to break up their COVID-19-imposed residency in Connecticut, and were brutally punished for every shortcoming by a hungry Union side.

Highlights: Philadelphia Union 5, Toronto FC 0

“Yeah, we're missing some guys, but guys had the opportunity to step in and try to show that at this time of year they might be able to help us,” said Greg Vanney. “From start to finish it was never really right.”

There’s been a great deal of discussion and debate around the Shield over the past week or so. On the one hand, there’s the notion that competitive balance has been lost in this strange season, on the other, there’s the idea that these many challenges make it just as great an achievement.

If you think an asterisk must be affixed to 2020, take note of Curtin’s observation that his team would be flirting with history if their outstanding campaign had unfolded over a full 34-game slate. Philly are on a 2.05 points-per-game pace, just a smidgen off LAFC’s blistering, best-ever regular season last year.

“I think what I'm most proud of, with this team and with this club, is we've gotten incrementally better in each of the last five seasons. The jumps haven't been huge ones, but if you averaged out the points total for this season over 34 games, it’d be, I’ll just say very high, certainly a record-breaking year for us,” said Curtin.

“So I’m really proud of the players, they deserve all the credit in the world for the effort that they put in, they come to work every day in training with a real willingness to get better, to improve. Whether you’re a 35-year-old veteran or you’re a 15-year-old homegrown, in our group everybody tries to get better and push each other every day. That environment that we’ve created now is one where players are improving and they’re improving quickly.”

The Union have arrived, and now they can punctuate their ascent by delivering the club's supporters something shiny for the very first time.

“Ultimately, we've had the goal of making sure we bring silverware back to Philly, so now it's about finishing the season strong and lifting a trophy,” said McKenzie. “That’s the Supporters’ Shield, and then ultimately fighting for the MLS Cup.”