After losing two best-XI players, competing in an international competition for the first time ever, and making the semifinals, the Philadelphia Union were able to finish in second place in MLS eastern conference in 2021. This feat continues the trend of an upward trajectory for Philadelphia, who have made the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Being able to secure the 2-seed makes them a true contender that can make a playoff run. Ahead of the playoffs, it’s important to look at how this team was able to overcome adversity to get to where they are now.
Union secure 2-seed
There’s no reason that this Philadelphia Union team should have been able to compete for a top-four finish in MLS this season. That’s what the pundits said at the beginning of the season, and the fans understood the sentiment. The loss of two best-XI players and their all-time minutes leader and right-back mainstay was a huge jump to get over. Add in the club’s first-ever CCL berth and there was little reason to think Philly would be a good team in MLS this season.
There have been plenty of teams who have lost important players and dipped in form, and traditionally teams that make CCL runs tank in the league. This Union team didn’t do either of these things. There were dips in form, but this team was able to replace the quality players they lost, make the CCL semifinals, and still finish second in the eastern conference. This has been an unprecedented successful season.
Philly’s biggest struggle came just before their home stretch of the 2021 regular season. Their CCL semifinal against Club America took most of the team’s attention in August and September. The club dipped below the playoff line during that time as they crashed out of CCL against the Mexican giants. Then came a resurgence. From the middle of September to Decision Day the Union played 11 matches; they won six, drew four, and only lost one. This run helped them secure the 2-seed.
The decision day draw at NYCFC coupled with Red Bull drawing Nashville clinched the 2-seed for Philly. It provided a favorable playoff bracket, as well as a Round One match against their rivals New York Red Bulls.
A favorable Playoff bracket
When looking at the playoff bracket, there’s a clear and favorable path for the Union to make their first-ever eastern conference final. Since Philly has the 2-seed they will be able to host a first-round playoff match and the conference semifinal. They know who they’ll play in round one, and have beaten both teams who they could face in the conference semifinals should they make it to that round.
The Union takes on 7-seed New York Red Bull in Round One of the playoffs. They are very familiar with playing this team in this round as the club’s lone playoff win was against Red Bull back in 2019. Should Philly be able to beat New York again, then they’ll play either 3-seed Nashville or 6-seed Orlando. Philadelphia beat both of those teams at Subaru Park in their home stretch of the 2021 regular season. While it will be a challenge to beat either of those teams in a one-off match, Philly is capable of doing so again to make their first-ever eastern conference final.
If Philly makes the conference final, then they could be playing on the road to the Supporters Shield Champions New England. However, the Revolution could be knocked off in the conference semis, as they’ll have to face 4-seed NYCFC or 5-seed Atlanta. Either of those teams can beat New England in a one-off. Should New England fall in their playoff opener, then the Union would host the conference final. It will take a lot of hard work, but the bracket is a favorable one for a Philly playoff run. They will have to start that run against New York Red Bulls when the playoffs kick-off.
Union vs Red Bull in two weeks
The Union will play New York Red Bulls either on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 2:30 pm EST. This will be another fun match between two teams with similar styles.
Philly and New York love to play pressing soccer. They’re more comfortable when the other team possesses the ball, and it’s shown this season that Philly is able to execute that style of play better. The Union won their match at home vs Red Bull and drew twice away at Red Bull Arena. The games were low-scoring affairs as no team was able to score more than once in any matchup this year.
If the Union is looking to make a playoff run, they’ll need to win in the transition moments. If they allow Red Bull the chance to run with a numbers advantage, then they could stun the Union. Philly’s midfield dominance as of late should put a halt to that plan; their utilization of the 4-3-2-1 formation should also help press the Red Bulls into mistakes.
No matter the date and time, it will be fun to see this rivalry renewed yet again in the playoffs 2019’s extratime 3-2 comeback win for Philly is still a delightful memory for fans. Now the club has a chance to make new fond memories of beating the club from North Jersey. Could it possibly be the catalyst of a postseason run?
It’s time for a playoff run
The only thing that Philadelphia has never done in the club’s 12 seasons is winning multiple playoff matches. There have been no playoff runs. The team has progressed year-over-year since Jim Curtin took over as coach, now the measure of success needs to be set at making a playoff run.
I wrote a month ago about the question of, is this Union team a real contender? I wrote, if they wanted to answer yes to that question they’d need to push into the top four in the east. Philly did that (with two fewer points than I thought they’d need) as they secured the 2-seed. Now they need to keep that momentum going into these one-off playoff matches!
This team has the belief in itself and the grit to either dominate or grind out matches. Can they use this to their advantage in a playoff bracket that is favorable? It all starts with beating Red Bull in 12-days time!
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Mandatory Credit: PHILADELPHIA UNION, ANDREW ZWARYCH