Union Spotlight: defense wins championships

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You have heard the cliche that defense wins championships millions of times; however, the Philadelphia Union’s chances of winning MLS Cup in 2022 rely heavily on the ability of their defense to stop LAFC. In the lead-up to this weekend’s MLS Cup Final, we’re taking a deep dive into what makes the Union, the Union; this time shining the spotlight on their elite defense and the brick wall behind them.

CHESTER, PA – NOVEMBER 20: Philadelphia Union defender Jakob Glesnes (5) celebrates a goal in overtime during the MLS Playoff Game between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union on November 20, 2021 at Subaru Park in Chester, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

Union‘s defense is the best in MLS

Philly’s defense was the best in MLS in 2022. They only let in 26 goals in the entirety of the 2022 season, the second closest team to them in that regard was Dallas who let in 37. Philadelphia’s ability to stifle opponents is thanks to a great team framework of defense first. Head coach Jim Curtin, a former center back, has always prided himself on having his team be defensively sound, now he has an elite defensive team that could lead to Philadelphia’s first MLS Cup win.

Philadelphia has the only three-time winner of goalkeeper of the year, Andre Blake in net. His ability to make a big-time save in a big-time moment helps Philly whenever a world-class effort beats their top-tier defense. Kai Wagner at left-back, Jakob Glesnes (this season’s defender of the year) and jack Elliot as center-backs and Oliver Mbaizo (and at times Nathan Harriel for him) at right-back have created one of the all-time great defensive units in MLS.

The D has shown they can stop great opposition from scoring, and also help out a good deal in the attack!

Lock things down and help with the attack

The Union’s first goal of the defense is to always stay together to limit the opposition’s chances of getting a goal. After that, they can help the team advance up the field. In 2022, this team’s defense was able to be a huge help to their offensive output as well!

Philly defenders scored four goals this season (Elliot – 2, Harriel – 1, Real – 1) and notched 24 assists (Wagner – 15, Glesnes – 3, Mbaizo – 3, Elliot – 2, Harriel – 1). That’s 28-goal contributions from a back four that is usually just known for being the best defense in MLS. That ability to lockdown the back and then push forward to help the attack could be a key to a Union MLS Cup-winning victory.

One huge factor for this could be Kai Wagner. He was tied for second place in all of MLS in assists. That’s unprecedented in this league where attacking midfielders usually rule the assist category. Add to that some defenders who can score goals, like Jack Elliot’s ability on set pieces, or Jakob Glesnes’ rocket hit can hit from anywhere on the field and this team’s defense looks to be a formidable foe on both ends of the pitch.

It helps too to have an MVP-caliber player in goal.

An MVP in net

Andre Blake is a huge success story for the Philadelphia Union. Philly drafted him number one overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, a mechanic the team doesn’t use nowadays, and he’s become an all-time great in MLS. Blake has always shown outstanding athleticism as a goalkeeper.

Blake can make a spectacular save look easy, and is a match-winner from the goalkeeper position. Not many clubs in the world can say that their keeper can single handily win a match for them with the saves he makes, but Philly has that in Blake.

As an MVP finalist, and winning his third goalkeeper of the year award this season, Blake has the opportunity to put himself in a rare space. Winning this MLS Cup would put him in the conversation as one of, if not the best, goalkeeper in MLS history. Should he have a match-winning performance, he could even be the Cup final MVP.

Will he and the elite Union defense ahead of him be able to hoist the MLS Cup trophy on Saturday evening? We’ll have to wait and watch to find out!

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Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire