The Philadelphia Union may already be that team
By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (March 25, 2022) American Soccer Players – Is the Philadelphia Union the best team in Major League Soccer? The club certainly have an argument in the early stages of the 2022 MLS season. For four weeks, the Union sits atop the Eastern Conference standings with an unbeaten record and a +5 goal differential. Only LAFC and Real Salt Lake can match the Union for points. Only LAFC has a better goal difference.
There is no longer any mystery about how the Union does what it does. Few teams in MLS have been as consistent in their identity as the Union in recent seasons. This stems from a head coach with a clear understanding of his staff and tactics and a group of players who have fully bought into the plan.
Calling this plan pragmatic takes nothing away. The brand of football Philadelphia plays relies as much on effort as it does on skill, which can lead to low praise.
The Philadelphia approach aims to maximize the return on a modest investment. MLS is now richer than ever with teams that try to cover up mistakes with spending or are just plain ineffective with scouting and recruiting. It’s somewhat reductive, but there’s honesty in saying that what Philadelphia does better than almost any Major League Soccer club is simply being aware of how everything it does fact contributes to its objectives.
This of course includes the famous Union Academy, a development machine that is just getting started. Philadelphia doesn’t have the most developed USA internationals or the highest return through player transfers. It’s FC Dallas. Instead, he has the strongest connection between his academy and performing well on the pitch. The Union gives its children a chance and still sacrifices little in its quest for a championship.
What we see so far in 2022 is more or less the same. The club’s last outing was a 2-0 road win over NYCFC at Yankee Stadium. It featured little possession but plenty of offensive output.
“Here in Philadelphia, we don’t care about possession,” Jim Curtin said after the game. There’s no easier way to explain Union’s playing philosophy than this. Although the visitors only had 28% of the ball, they created more chances and were the deserving winners with goals from Daniel Gazdag and Alejandro Bedoya.
Bedoya deserves special attention for his continued high-level work in Philadelphia’s midfield. He’s been doing the work for the Union long enough that it’s easy to overlook his contributions. Due to the way Union play, Bedoya doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.
Instead, his relentless running, smart passing and understanding of when to take risks in the future make him one of the most valuable players on Curtin’s team. At 34, Bedoya remains a staple when healthy for his footballing abilities, while his leadership role in the team adds extra value to his presence.
Considering what Philadelphia was building at the time of his arrival and how far the club has come during his tenure, it’s safe to say that Bedoya is one of the league’s best rookies of the past decade. By combining performance, longevity and a multitude of intangibles, Bedoya was a perfect fit for Chester’s project.
Bedoya’s leadership helps the group stay level when introducing new faces and eases the transition of homegrown players to the first team by extension. Right-back Nathan Harriel is the latest homegrown breakthrough to benefit from the culture established by Bedoya and others.
Harriel stood out with his performance against NYCFC, setting up Daniel Gazdag’s goal in the 33rd minute. He worked a combination with Bedoya from a Union throw-in in the New York half, slipping behind on a well-timed straddle run and firing a cross for the first time at Gazdag at the back post.
The assist made the stat sheet, but Harriel’s play throughout the match also earned the 20-year-old praise. There are potential pitfalls ahead and Curtin will no doubt be wary of handing Harriel too much responsibility too soon, but the club are expected to have their rights back for now and the future.
The funny thing about Harriel is that while there was hope he would be ready to contribute in 2022, the club have a trio of midfielders who are set to have their breakthrough seasons this year. Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn are all top homegrown talents with promising futures that Curtin will have to turn to at various points in a long season.
None of the trio have yet won a start, although the grueling nature of MLS seasons guarantees them significant playing time. For some clubs, the idea of being dependent on teenagers would be a scary proposition indicative of a squad in transition. For the union, this is all part of the plan.
For the plan to work, signings from outside the league must make a difference. The Union can’t afford to burn resources and spots on the non-delivering roster. No club is ever perfect. It is of the utmost importance that Philadelphia’s big swings in the transfer market succeed.
Last year’s major signing, playmaker Daniel Gazdag, is off to a good start this season. Seeming better prepared for the rigors of Philadelphia’s pressing system, Gazdag is already three-quarters of the way to his tally of four goals in 2021. The Union still needs a better finish at the end of his passes, but Gazdag seems change the situation.
Philadelphia’s victory in the Bronx was its first away win over NYCFC. This is some measure of revenge for last season’s Eastern Conference final loss. This Union team lacked a host of key players, including Bedoya. Bad luck took Philadelphia’s chance to be at their best in the playoff decider.
The “unfinished business” theme is a sporting cliché overused by teams looking for extra motivation. The Union can legitimately claim to have some after last year’s disappointment. A team that is very sure of who they are and how they can make the most of what they have is a dangerous thing in Major League Soccer. Philadelphia is that dangerous team that knows exactly who they are and what they can do.
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Logo courtesy of Philadelphia Union