The Philadelphia Union has had a hell of a 2021 season. There’s been highs-and-lows with many twists-and-turns along the way. Now the season is entering its final four weeks. Philly has six games left and sits in third place in the east. It’s officially time to ask the question; could the Philadelphia Union be a contender for MLS Cup in 2021?
Are the Union a contender for MLS Cup right now?
Philadelphia are undefeated since the middle of September after their heartbreaking loss to Club America in the Concacaf Champions League (CCL) Semifinals. This has been the catalyst to surge up the table to third place in MLS’ eastern conference. This surge is something that is not common for MLS sides that make a run in CCL, and it’s one that not many thought would happen earlier this year.
The Union has been a streaky team in 2021. The beginning of their campaign was focused on CCL, where they won three and drew one in the first five weeks of the season. Their league form in that time was poor drawing one and losing two. After a break in the CCL action, Philly went on an unbeaten run that lasted all of May and June; racking up five wins and three draws. In that time, the Union looked to make even more strides forward welcoming Hungarian number 10 Daniel Gazdag. His quality hasn’t totally shown through yet, but the intent is there to win now. The dog days of summer then came, and the results went bad.
Philly had three wins, five losses, and four draws between July and mid-September. Over that time, the loan DP Jamiro Monteiro seemed to be on his way out; he was unhappy with his playing time and family visa issues prompted a potential move. Luckily things were figured out between ‘Miro and the club and he came back to the side. Over the summer transfer window, Philly brought in midfielder Jesus Bueno, and loanee striker Davo. Neither has made an impact yet, but if they come good this team could have two more weapons in their holster come playoff time. Speaking of weapons, the next batch of Union homegrowns started to sprout over the summer. Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Paxten Aaronson looked to make the most of those opportunities while the team struggled through the summer months.
Over the poor stretch of league games, the Union took on the Mexican giant’s Club America in the CCL Semifinals two times. They lost both those matches 2-0, which presented how Philly will need to grow to compete with great teams in the Concacaf. Coming out of CCL play, the Union sat on the outside looking in of the playoff spots. They quickly rose up to where they are now. Five matches, four wins, one draw, third place in the east. Now, Philly has six remaining games in the final four weeks of the MLS regular season to show if they are really a contender for the MLS Cup in 2021
What’s does the rest of the way look like?
The Union is in a race to finish in the top four and have a shot at finishing in second place in MLS’ eastern conference. After the CCL run many MLS pundits and Union fans alike were groaning about a grueling schedule to finish the season. Halfway through that stretch, Philly won two games that felt like true playoff games against Orlando and Atlanta. They also took seven out of nine points from three other teams in the conference. Now on the home stretch four of the six opponents the Union play are in contention for playoffs.
Philly plays three of those four matches against playoff contenders on the road. Philly goes to CF Montreal (Today at 1:00 pm), Minnesota United (Wednesday, October 20 at 8:00 pm), and NYCFC (Sunday, November 7 at 3:30 pm). These are three very tough matches. The Union also plays the team two points above them, Nashville SC at home. It would be hard to say that Philly should win all of these games. The mentality the rest of the way should be that of a World Cup Qualifying team; Win at home, draw on the road. If Philly can do just that and take at least six points from those four matches then they should be able to secure a top-four finish.
Philadelphia also plays at Toronto FC (Wednesday, October 27 at 7:30 pm) and at home vs FC Cincinnati (Sunday, October 31 at 7:30 pm) in this final stretch. Both of these teams will likely be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs at this point of the season as these games take place on the second-to-last week. While there is no “easy” match ever, Philly should be able to take six points from these matches.
These results would give the Union 12 points from their final six matches, putting them on 57 as the season ends. This should be enough to have a home playoff game in the first round and possibly be the catalyst for a Cup run. But how can the Union do this and avoid yet another late-season drop in form?
What needs to happen to make this team a Cup contender?
Philly is no stranger to a late-season collapse. In fact, almost all of the Union’s playoff appearances have come after a late-season dip in form. Avoiding that is key for this streaky 2021 side. The main way the Union can be considered a true MLS Cup contender is to continue the unbeaten streak they are currently on. This team has the quality to truly contend in one-off games that the MLS playoffs provide. Using these last six matches as a tune-up for that could cement the contender status for Philly. This is all barring on the quality of play on the field.
If the Union wants to truly be a contender for MLS Cup this year, their attack needs to do what they’re paid to do. Philadelphia’s attack has been okay this season, but if their strikers can put the ball in the back of the net consistently, then this team could be on their way. Before you get mad at me saying that, the attack is already on its way to doing this. The strikers have five goals in the last five matches of the current unbeaten streak. If Kacper Przybylko (who has 10 goals on the season), Sergio Santos (who may have long-term injury problems), Cory Burke (who is coming back from injury next week), and Davo (who may see the field before his loan is over, please Jim) continue to score a goal a game this team will be a contender for the cup. The attack is one thing, but so is the midfield selection.
The midfield diamond, as run out by Jim Curtin, needs to dominate matches in order for Philly to be a true contender. This has been the case over the last five matches; however, getting the correct four on the field for each matchup will be key. Curtin has his work cut out for him with Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Ale Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro, Daniel Gazdag, Jesus Beuno, Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson, and Quinn Sullivan all pushing for minutes. The right four players playing out of those nine options will be the key for Curtin to get right in the final stretch of the season. Get it wrong and the midfield might lose a step in a crucial moment of a must-win game.
Speaking of making the right decisions, the Union now has homegrowns who are ready for more minutes they HAVE to play a role if this team wants to make a run. Whether it’s from the start of matches or as super subs, these kids have shown they are difference makers in big moments. It won’t matter much what the homegrowns do however if the backline is leaky.
The Union’s defense is one of the best in MLS this season, yet they don’t instill confidence and consistent play all of the time. The pressing style Philly like to play has made them the top team in successful tackles per match (making 11.5 a game)! The issues lie when the defense is stretch thanks to missed tackles. If Olivier Mbaizo and Kai Wagner are caught upfield, then Jack Elliot and Jakob Glesnes are forced to cover the two halves of the field by themselves. This cannot happen often if this team wants to be a Cup contender. The play needs to stay as consistent as possible in these very important matches.
So we know what this team needs to do to be a contender, now the only to do is to sit back and see if they can be one!
The answer to the question
The Union can and should make a run in the 2021 MLS Cup playoffs. They’re a top-10 team in MLS. They are third-best in goals conceded per match, giving up one per game, and in clean-sheets with 10. Their goals-per-match average is 1.4, which is better than their goals-against average. Philly has the potential in their final regular-season stretch to be a top-five team in MLS.
Philly needs to secure a top-four spot in the east if they want to make a run. Falling off would likely mean a first-round playoff exit. If Philly can push up to the third or second place, then there’s no reason they can’t win one-to-two home games and make the eastern conference finals.
All in all, the Union needs to use these final six games of their 2021 regular season to stay hot. They will rely on their mixture of experienced players and youth, coupled with a determined gritty playing style and a tangible belief in themselves have to make a run toward MLS Cup right now!
Union look to start that impact at CF Montreal today
The Union will begin to show how they will answer the contender question today at 1:00 pm EST. CF Montreal is fighting for their playoff lives in the east, while the Union is trying to push even higher. Can the Union get a win or at least some points in what could be a first-round playoff match? Check out the Doop by the River Podcast for a preview of this oneListen to “DOOP By The River Podcast Les Kids need to play more!” on Spreaker.
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Mandatory Credit: PHILADELPHIA UNION, ANDREW ZWARYCH