I have been struggling to muster the right words to encapsulate the past season and what it means for Philadelphia soccer fans, but more importantly what it could mean moving forward. Should I have just written a match recap after the 2-0 loss at Atlanta? Or should I have gone with a story arguing for optimism moving forward? Or nothing at all?
Instead, a simple thank you letter will do.
But where should I start? We could rewind all the way back to training camp in Florida where the Philadelphia Union began the year with new faces – both young and old, 10 players departed and four joined at that point (Aurelien Colin, Sergio Santos, Brenden Aaronson, and Matthew Freese were the additions).
More Homegrown deals
The Homegrown signings of Aaronson and Freese are the first key reasons for a thank you. The signings not only continued to solidify the positive contributions from YSC Academy and the Union Youth system, but it granted a guy like Aaronson an opportunity to further his development to unseen heights. Having recently turned 19 years old, Aaronson provided countless quality moments both offensively and defensively. He provided fans a glimpse of what he could be as a pro. With time and growth, Aaronson will continue to be a key guy.
Freese may not have earned as many first-team minutes but his name was called upon early in the year when starter Andre Blake was hampered by a leg injury. He earned his first MLS win in his first-ever start back in July at Orlando. He earned 13 total saves over five starts with two wins, all while continually catching the eyes of several coaches within the US international system as well. If there ever is a time further down the road when Blake departs, Freese will be a solid option as a replacement.
The next big thank you stems from that momentous day in early February. Remember? February 8th was the day. Marco Fabian was officially announced as the team’s newest (and most expensive ever) Designated Player signing. He would wear the #10 kit, join the club via a free transfer, and would be introduced during a fan fest of sorts down on the club’s riverfront campus.
Some, including myself, have been critical of Fabian and what he provided this team in his first MLS season. He stated just 15 times while appearing in eight others. He deserves a lot of credit for making the most of his limited playing time though. He tallied seven goals and one assist in just 1,249 minutes played. He also scored the greatest goal in club history during the first round playoff win against Red Bulls.
However, his production may not have been as significant as everyone hoped and frankly planned on from the Mexican international that day in February. Whether the signing ultimately is deemed a failure or more harshly stated, a waste, remains in question. But a big thank you goes to the club’s front office group for landing a high-caliber player with endless amounts of fans throughout the world to the city. That moment in February was the first moment fans began to think this club may have finally detached from their painful past.
The Big 3
Kacper Przybylko, Kai Wagner, and Jamiro Monteiro are the Big 3 in reference. The idea that a brand new Sporting Director with no MLS experience would be able to pluck three key players from Europe with little to no name-recognition and succeed on all three is perhaps the most impressive aspect of this season. Thank you, Ernst Tanner.
Tanner secured Wagner from a third-tier German league and planted him at left-back, a role with incredible responsibilities in the new style of play Tanner implemented as well. Wagner was clearly ready for that challenge. His eight assists and lockdown defense along the wing allowed Philadelphia to excel in all thirds of the field at times this past season. Curtin often expressed how surprised he was of Wagner’s abilities. We are all still.
Monteiro was untouchable in the first half of the season. Union fans had never seen the technical abilities Monteiro possesses on the ball coupled with his deadly quickness before this year. His ability to win balls back throughout the midfield was pivotal too, considering Haris Medunjanin was tasked with covering more ground in the new system. Monteiro suffered an injury mid-season and battled back to top form when it counted. If he can return, the MLS should be very scared of Philadelphia in 2020..
And lastly, the friendly goal scorer Kacper Przybylko. Kacper deserves his own article of gratitude but for now, his goal-scoring will be the focus. He entered training camp as a giant question mark. Having fully recovered from a foot injury and having gained full physical fitness, Przybylko battled for playing time. Once he earned his first start in April and scored in that match, he never looked back. In total, he netted 15 goals, one shy of the club record for most in a season. Unfortunately, he missed the playoffs due to injury and left fans wondering what could have been. But a massive thank you is owed to Kacper regardless.
Leadership on and off the pitch
The locker room felt different this year. Both players and Head Coach Jim Curtin made many remarks throughout the year about the chemistry the team cultivated early on and managed to maintain throughout the year.
This time a thank you goes to Curtin and veteran leaders like Ale Bedoya, Ray Gaddis, and Medunjanin.
What do you get when you combine two veteran midfielders with never-say-die mindsets and a coach who continually stands up for his players? A winning environment. That was the secret recipe for Philadelphia in 2019. With leaders who hold themselves accountable just as much as they hold others accountable, greatness can grow. The locker room never splintered into groups this year. Maybe in years past, when things got tough certain groups of guys would isolate themselves from others. Then friction starts and winning stops.
But the 2019 Philadelphia Union had none of that. Curtin is the main reason why but it’s impossible for a coach to create a winning environment alone. With Bedoya and Medunjanin as vocal leaders and Gaddis as more of a silent but strong leader, the trio of veterans was able to keep the Union rolling through hard times. Some fans were even counting on a collapse, yet Philadelphia soldiered on.
A fan-base reinvigorated and ready for more
If you’re able to look a bit down the road while still trying to recover from the heart-breaking loss, you may notice there’s much more light than in previous years. Yes, I’m referring to a renewed sense of optimism for Union fans – that Posi-delphian vibe.
Do you feel it?
One main battle this franchise continually suffers through is one of their own making: a past riddled with big moments squandered and fans wondering when the tides will shift.
2019 shifted those tides. The script has been flipped. The stone has been turned. You get the idea here. Despite the loss at Atlanta. Despite losing the way they did. Despite all of that. Next year already seems like it’s primed to be a fun one yet again.
That’s the magic of winning. Winning brings people to the stadium which fostered a revamped gameday experience which provides fans an opportunity to embrace each other. Fans have already noted a new sense of community with each other. Soccer in Philadelphia has become fun, exciting, and moving.
So thank you to the Philadelphia Union for reviving a fan-base, for injecting it with new life and hope. There is definitely a reason for optimism now.
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Peace out Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports