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Why "the Philly way" is suddenly MLS's hottest model after the Philadelphia Union's Supporters' Shield triumph

To borrow a term from reality-television, Axel Schuster had entered the confessional.

The Vancouver Whitecaps’ sporting director and CEO was taking part in a roundtable discussion with members of the media – to his credit, a lengthy and expansive one – a day after his team were humbled 6-0 by LAFC on Sept. 23, riddled by an MLS-record four goals in the first 14 minutes.

Schuster has done his best to shoot straight and pull no punches since taking over the long-suffering ‘Caps, who have now missed the MLS Cup Playoffs three years running and in six of their 10 seasons in MLS. So when the topic of long-term plans and winning back disaffected fans was broached, Schuster was not exactly playing to the cheap seats with his tribute to an MLS counterpart’s road map out of a cul de sac similar to the one he and Vancouver find themselves in.

“One of my role models is Philadelphia,” revealed the German. “The way that they build the team over years. And I really, really enjoy their game every single gameday, and if we are able to be there in two or three years, I think then also the season ticket holders will come back.”

The Philly Philosophy

Citing the Union’s approach as a road map to sustainable competitiveness has become quite a trend across the league lately, coinciding with the DOOP squad’s crystallization of their philosophy and long, slow climb into the thin air at the top of the standings, a rise that’s taken them to the 2020 Supporters’ Shield trophy.

Each club’s blueprint has its own specific context. But Chicago Fire FC, the Colorado Rapids, D.C. United and San Jose Earthquakes have all dropped signals along these lines to some extent or another, while the likes of FC Dallas, the New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC can safely be categorized as already on board with the general concepts. Others may be lining up as we speak.

Asked about Schuster’s remarks at the time, Philly coach Jim Curtin called them “flattering” and “humbling” before laying out “the three pillars” of the Union way.

“We want to build from within. That's number one,” said Curtin. “Number two, we believe that all 11 players working together cohesively can beat any group of superstars and individuals. We've proven that to be right.

“And then the third is innovation: We have to be strategic in how we scout and mine different, maybe untapped talent. We have to use analytics and data. We have to, with our film, have little unique ways of showing, and tracking devices on the field [recording] how far guys run in distance covered and that kind of thing.”

Certainly Philly’s first-team results have been impressive; that’s also not the sole measure of their success. The Union have one of the most productive academies in the league and several of its most prominent alums are sought-after commodities on the transfer market. Brenden Aaronson will move to Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg this winter on a reported $6 million-plus transfer, while a similar move for Mark McKenzie is likely a question of when, not if. Others, like Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones have also fetched decent returns in intra-league transactions. Perhaps even more importantly, centering the club’s identity around the academy has given the Union a strong sense of place.

“I mean, they're my homies. They're my best friends,” said Philly goalkeeper Matt Freese on Sunday after he backstopped the Shield-clinching 2-0 win over New England alongside several of his fellow homegrowns. “I guarantee they'll all say the same thing: Being out there together, it means the world. We're representing the city that we're all from, the academy that raised us and the team, the academy, the organization that turned us from boys into men. And quite frankly, I don't think there is a single better feeling in the world than being out there with them on the field.”

Watch: Philadelphia Union lift the Supporters' Shield

Philly have also steadily ramped up their use of advanced analytics and are stretching their roster-spend budget by sniffing out value signings from all over the globe, guided by the contacts and expertise of sporting director Ernst Tanner. They found fierce defensive midfielder Jose "El Brujo" Martinez in Venezuela, spotted midfield engine Jamiro Monteiro in the French second division (then finagled a permanent transfer from FC Metz on a lower transfer fee than the purchase option laid out in his original loan deal) and dug up rangy left back Kai Wagner in the German third tier.

Patience over Panic

The one-two punch of a strong youth pipeline and an underdog/Moneyball mindset has cultivated value that allows Union to keep pace with MLS’s financial elite, a group generally led by Seattle, Toronto, Atlanta United, NYCFC and the Los Angeles clubs. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, Philly’s annual roster outlays are somewhere around a third or less of what the biggest spenders splash out.

Rest assured that this is a highly attractive facet of their operation in a league where the rank-and-file have grown increasingly fearful of being economically outgunned by the “big clubs.”

All this isn’t nearly as sexy as daring and expensive forays into the international transfer market like TFC’s swoops for Alejandro Pozuelo and Sebastian Giovinco, the Sounders’ big-ticket buys or the eight-figure transfers that Atlanta have pulled off. Curtin cautioned that a long-range viewpoint is necessary — and fans of his team can attest that the road to this point was paved with frustration and no small number of painful losses.

“It does take time,” said Curtin, the beneficiary of ownership’s patience through some lean years since he first took the helm on an interim basis in 2014. “Our build has been a slow one where we've incrementally got better each year. I think that's something that [Schuster] probably sees and respects … and then the amount of impact that our academy players have had, and our group kind of embracing being a bit of the underdog, and punching above our weight, we love that now. It used to be something that we maybe fought against. But now our complete technical staff has buy-in in that, all our players have buy-in.”

Here’s where Vancouver supporters, and probably other fanbases around the league, point out that the bigger spenders have been hoisting a lot of the hardware in recent years. And it’s not as if LAFC, the Sounders and Toronto aren’t also doing a lot of the same stuff that Philly are.

But that’s why their run to the Shield is such a watershed. Winning something big hugely affects the perception of the values that have gotten them to this point.

“There's a million different ways you can do it in MLS, which makes it special, but our way is unique,” Curtin said on Sunday. “And I'm really proud of everybody, especially our owners, Richard Graham, Jay Sugarman, Richard Leibovitch, for the vision and the commitment to this idea.

“Because it's really easy, when a couple losses happen, to jump ship and move on from a guy. But they valued that continuity and that cohesiveness of the group and they kept our group together. And now we're seeing the ultimate result.”