The Philadelphia Union are now in their ninth season as a Major League Soccer franchise. After eight years, three head coaches, three U.S. Open Cup Final appearances (losing all three), only three MLS Cup Playoff qualifications, and still searching for their first playoff round victory, the pressure has been on ownership to make changes, as Philadelphia sports fans are certainly not the easiest to please.
Coming into the 2019 campaign, questions surrounded this team which said goodbye to striker C.J. Sapong and the team’s assist leader from last season, Borek Dockal. Head coach Jim Curtin was one of, if not the largest question, as his love-hate relationship with supporters saw Curtin again lead the Union to the U.S. Open Cup final last year, but again failing to claim the coveted prize, losing to Houston 3-0. Then, a late-season push catapulted Philadelphia into the MLS playoffs before falling in the first round to New York City FC (3-1 aggregate). The longest-serving bench boss in Union history, Curtin is now in his fifth full season as head coach, after taking over mid-campaign for John Hackworth in 2014.
Through nine matches this season, Philadelphia holds a 4-3-1 record (13 points), with all four wins coming in the last five games. After going winless in the team’s first three matches of the campaign, the Union now sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Curtin and the young squad seemed to have turned things around at the right time, and the brightest spot for the Union during this recent stretch has been in their half.
The Union lineup features a group of defenders who have quietly become among the best defensive groups in MLS, surrendering only nine goals in eight matches heading into this weekend’s tilt with Vancouver. Youngsters Auston Trusty (20 years old), Jack Elliott (23) and first-year German international Kai Wagner (22) could form the core of the Union defensive line for years to come. The veteran in the backline is 29-year old Ray Gaddis, the club’s all-time leader in minutes played.
Impressively, this group of four has been unwavering since surrendering three goals in the opening match with Toronto FC and two goals in the following game to Sporting Kansas City. MLS veteran Aurelien Collin, at 33 years of age and in his first year with Philadelphia, has seen the field just once before this weekend, and 19-year old Matt Real provides excellent depth at fullback while playing regular minutes for USL club Bethlehem Steel F.C.
However, suspensions and the recent injury to star Jamaican goalkeeper, Andre Blake, couldn’t come at a worse time for the Union.
This weekend’s tilt with the lowly Vancouver Whitecaps begins the first of three games in eight days. This run of games will serve as a true test of the team’s depth, especially with the ever-present Blake likely to miss at least a few weeks after tearing his groin in last week’s 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact.
Up front, Curtin has been trying to find the right mix of talent and chemistry, and there are quite a few positives to focus on. Through eight games, the Union have scored 12 goals, which is only bested in the Eastern Conference by Toronto FC (18 goals in six games played) and D.C. United (13 goals in nine games). More impressive is not how many goals the Union have scored, but by the spread of (timely) contribution by the individuals.
Statistically, winger David Accam has been the most productive of the Union forwards, notching a team-leading three goals, along with two assists. However, all five of Accam’s contributions occurred over a two-game span at the end of March, and he has been an unused substitute in the last two matches.
Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, striker Corey Burke and the club’s highly publicized off-season acquisition, Mexican international Marco Fabian, all have struck twice this season. Philadelphia’s lineup has also produced one goal each from Ilsinho, the 18-year old rookie Brenden Aaronson, and 25-year old first-year MLS player Jamiro Monteiro, on loan from F.C. Metz (France).
Fabian will look to return from injury this week, which would be a boost to the offense. Burke, meantime, continues to impress as the team’s top striker, while Curtin is still looking to find consistency from Accam and winger-turned-striker, Fafa Picault. Going forward, the Union could really start to turn heads around the league should the offense hit a good run of form and remain healthy, and if the defense can continue to build on their own performances as of late.
Following this weekend, up next for the Union will be back-to-back home tilts with F.C. Cincinnati (Wed., May 1st), who the Union previously defeated 2-0 at the end of March, and the New England Revolution (Sat., May 4th). Both Cincinnati and New England have struggled to defend this season, giving up a combined 28 goals between the two teams, and both sat toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference in terms of goal differential (New England -9 & Cincinnati -5) heading into this weekend’s games.
The goal will be to claim maximum points out of these next two games, as the Union looks to build momentum at the start of this coming month, one which features a rematch with Toronto F.C, and more tough matchups ahead with Seattle, Portland, and Colorado to round off the May calendar.