Philadelphia Union are once again atop the Eastern Conference table after perhaps the most noteworthy comeback in franchise history Saturday night. Philadelphia scored three second half goals to defeat New York Red Bulls 3-2 after initially falling behind 2-0. Here are five main reasons the team has earned the best start ever in club history through 17 games.
1. Team Pressing
Across the board, Philadelphia possess a roster full of players’ who routinely showcase high work-rates on both sides of the ball. Whether moving forward in the attack or counter opportunities, or helping out defensively with man-marking or backtracking, Head Coach Jim Curtin and his staff have several players who continually push the envelope each week.
A prime example of the gritty and determined attitude many Union players have developed would be the brief moments when they lose possession only to hastily swarm the opponent in hopes of winning back the ball or stifling any chance for counter attacks to brew. Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson have continually displayed the work ethic needed in the midfield to truly cause opponents headaches centrally. Both Aaronson and Monteiro possess a highly valuable asset in ground coverage. The two of them will pop up in all areas of the pitch in hopes of disrupting opponents’ play. And the determination to remain a thorn in opposing clubs’ sides is present not only in the midfield but with the attacking group as well.
As part of the new style of play implemented back in the off-season, Philadelphia have relied heavily on their strikers to create an effective line of confrontation. The peskiness displayed by Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos, and Cory Burke (earlier this season) – along with the efforts of David Accam and Fafa Picault – Philadelphia have found success allowing the striking duo to press high up the pitch which has limited opponent’s time and space on the ball.
2. Andre “Brick Wall” Blake
No surprise here. USMNT fans caught a glimpse of what Andre Blake brings to the pitch every single match for Philadelphia when his native country of Jamaica stole a close 1-0 result away from USA in an international friendly last week. The man possesses some truly remarkable reflexes in front of net. Blake routinely enters discussions involving the best keepers in MLS, and for what it’s worth, there may not be any other keeper that displays the athleticism needed to make the saves Blake does in this league.
In just 12 matches this year, Blake has racked up an impressive 22 saves with a 1.4 goals against average (GAA). Two of his five wins this season have been clean sheets as well.
While Blake’s stats may not be as impressive as year’s past (thanks to a nagging injury earlier this season), the Jamaican routinely keeps his side in contests. Whether he stops consecutive shots from close distance, parries a long range effort, or connects perfectly with a striker off a restart, Blake finds ways to make meaningful impacts in almost every match. With Blake as the last line of defense, Philadelphia should not be worried defensively if things continue to click offensively.
3. Next man up mentality + roster depth
For a short-while in the early goings of this season, it seemed Curtin and his technical staff would be overcome by not only an injury bug from hell but also some pain staking paperwork road blocks. However, Philadelphia were able to persevere through that rough patch thanks to a group of players not commonly highlighted week in and week out.
So far this season, 22 different Union players have suited up for at least an appearance when needed. Perhaps most noteworthy was Aurelien Colin’s 90+ minute performance on April 20th at home against Montrel Impact. The Friday night before the match, Curtin received a phone call from fellow center back Mark McKenzie. McKenzie was slated to earn his first start of the season but informed Curtin that he would need an emergency appendectomy and as a result be unavailable for the match. Colin who appeared on the matchday 18 seven times prior without earning a minute of playing time, stepped in like the true pro he is and handled himself very well – not committing any timely or costly errors while remaining a strong physical presence along the backline. Philadelphia would go one to earn a 3-0 clean sheet victory that match.
Another player who earned their stripes so to speak was Przybylko. The international striker joined the club at the tail end of the 2018 season as a reserve striker to assist in the club’s playoff push. He never saw the field though.
However in 2019, Przybylko emerged as a key player and continues to develop as the season marches on. Through 10 games and nine starts, Przybylko has netted four goals and earned one assist. He’s also registered 34 total shots, 15 of those hitting the target. As a tall and fiercely physical striker, Przybylko has filled Burke’s shoes well and will hopefully continue to do so moving forward. He also has an intriguingly effectively way of finding the perfect spots in front of net. I don’t think Philadelphia have yielded all of the fruits Przybylko still can offer.
Philadelphia decided early on in 2019 that one key goal for them would be to showcase their depth and prove to the rest of MLS that they can compete with their whole roster. Needless to say, they’ve done very well in accomplishing that goal at the halfway point of the campaign. They now sit four points clear of second place Montreal Impact.
4. Coaching, Game-Planning, and Locker Room Chemistry
The emergence of Sporting Director Ernst Tanner this past off-season granted Philadelphia with a renewed vision of the future for the club. Immediately Tanner, Curtin, and the rest of the technical staff began implementing a new, ‘fresh,’ style of play. The first major change came with a new formation. Gone were the days of three attackers with wingers creating space in the final third. Gone were the days of defensive liabilities in center midfield leaving players stranded alone. Gone were those days.
What resulted was a system which relies on outside backs barreling forward offensively while tracking back aggressively on defense. Along with the increased responsibilities of both outside backs came a renewed importance placed upon playing as a cohesive unit in hopes of benefiting from a team-based approach. In other words, Philadelphia sort of revamped how they approach each match.
Along with the new system of play, came a new game-plan of sorts. There was more importance placed on communicating and rotating throughout the field when on the defensive. Players were instructed to consistently remain organized in hopes of remaining just a few yards to the right or left shoulder of a teammate when chasing the ball. When the ball switches to the right side of the pitch, the midfielders roam as one big mass in the center of the pitch to try and slow down opposing team’s build-up play. While they remain compact, the strikers press forward in hopes of creating rushed decisions and errant passes.
But perhaps the most intriguing change in style of play came with the emergence of a true number 10 in the starting XI.
In steps Marco Fabian and Aaronson – two highly creative midfielders who have injected some increased offensive abilities to a Philadelphia team which struggled to excel in the goal scoring column years prior. No longer was possession just for possession’s sake. Instead under Tanner and intricately guided by Curtin, Philadelphia have transformed into a team that plays with the intention of scoring instead of remaining content with the majority share of possession.
Philadelphia’s game began to simply flow a bit more easily, and the results began to pile up as a result. The increased focus on offense has been integral in the team’s continued success. As a result, they lead the Eastern Conference in both goals scored (31) and in goal differential (+11).
5. Ilsinho aka the Brazilian Streetballer aka The Super Sub aka The Closer aka The Most Efficient Man in MLS
If for whatever reason you still don’t believe just how effective and incredible Ilsinho is, then you may just be blind. The man with the fast feet and flashy flicks, Ilsinho, was recently named MLS Player of the Week as his mesmerizing season continued against rival Red Bulls.
Despite starting just four times this season, Ilsinho and his majestic footwork have netted a team leading nine points with four goals – two of those game winning (team-leader) – and five assists (two game winning). With only four starts, the Brazilian solidified himself as Curtin’s go-to-sub making 10 substitute appearances as the first half of the campaign ends.
Ilsinho’s two goal performance Saturday night was his third multi-goal game of his Union career and his first since the final game of the 2017 season in which he started, earned an assist, and played all 90 minutes in a 6-1 win over Orlando City SC.
For some professionals, being a substitute and impacting the match in consistent ways can be extremely difficult. Seeing the pitch for anywhere between 15-30 minutes or less on a random cycle can cause players trouble when trying to establish a rhythm.
Not for Ilsinho.
So far in 2019, Ilsinho sits 11th on the team in minutes played with 551 minutes. For comparison, Przybylko is comfortably just above Ilsinho with 816 minutes under his belt while Cory Burke (who remains in limbo) is just beneath with 490 minutes played.
At the halfway mark, Ilsinho needs just two more goals to reach his tally from last year. As far as assists go, he’s already tied his mark from 2017 when he recorded five assists in addition six goals in 27 games played. When Ilsinho scores his seventh this season – and it’s most definitely a matter of when not if – the Brazilian would break his MLS career single-season record.
And once again, he’s doing all of this as a late-game sub.
Future is Bright.
The next task for Curtin and his thriving club is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Philadelphia with take on D.C. United tomorrow night at 7PM in a fifth-round match-up.
The Open Cup has been a bit of a tricky situation for Curtin and the Union as a franchise. But perhaps this year could finally be the year Curtin and long-time Union players like Ray Gaddis and Fabinho and Blake.
As for the remainder of Philly’s MLS season, they resume play on June 26th at New England to begin a difficult three-match road stretch, one that includes an always dangerous NYCFC side. The three-match road trip to resume play following rest is perhaps the most important stretch of matches remaining for Philadelphia.
The final week of September however, is the other three-match road journey still to come. While both require Curtin to configure a roster for three matches in seven days, he has to do so while traveling.
Each road trip will serve as a litmus test of sorts to see just how gritty and determined Philadelphia is as they look to solidify themselves as an elite MLS club.
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Peace out Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports