By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 25, 2022) US Soccer Players – Is the Philadelphia Union the best team in Major League Soccer? The club certainly has an argument in the early stages of the 2022 MLS season. Through four weeks, the Union sits atop the standings in the Eastern Conference with an unbeaten record and a +5 goal differential. Only LAFC and Real Salt Lake can match the Union for points. Only LAFC has a better goal difference.
There’s no mystery anymore over how the Union does what it does. Few teams in MLS have been as consistent in their identity as the Union over the last few seasons. That stems from a head coach with a clear grasp of his personnel and tactics and a group of players who fully bought into the plan.
Calling that plan pragmatic takes nothing away. The brand of soccer that Philadelphia plays relies as much on effort as it does on skill, which can lead to faint praise.
Philadelphia’s approach works to maximize return on a modest investment. MLS is now richer than ever before in teams that try to cover up mistakes with spending or are simply ineffective with scouting and recruiting. It’s somewhat reductive, but there’s honesty in saying that what Philadelphia does better than almost any club in Major League Soccer is simply being conscious about how everything it does contributes to its goals.
This, of course, includes the renowned Union academy, a development machine that is still only just coming into its own. Philadelphia doesn’t have the most US internationals developed or the highest return through player transfers. That’s FC Dallas. Instead, it has the strongest connection between its academy and good results on the field. The Union gives its kids a chance and still sacrifices little in its quest for a championship.
What we’re seeing so far in 2022 is more of the same. The club’s last outing was a 2-0 road win over NYCFC at Yankee Stadium. It featured little possession but plenty of attacking output.
“Here in Philadelphia, we don’t care about possession,” Jim Curtin said after the game. There’s no simpler way to explain the Union’s playing philosophy than that. Though the visitors had just 28% of the ball, it created more chances and was the deserving winner with goals from Daniel Gazdag and Alejandro Bedoya.
Bedoya deserves special focus for his continued high-level work in Philadelphia’s midfield. He’s been doing the job for the Union long enough that it might be easy to overlook his contributions. Because of how the Union plays, Bedoya doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.
Instead, his relentless running, smart passing, and understanding of when to take risks going forward make him one of the most valuable players in Curtin’s team. At 34, Bedoya remains a must-start when healthy for his soccer abilities, while his leadership role in the team adds extra value to his presence.
Accounting for what Philadelphia was building at the time he joined and how far the club has come during his tenure, it’s possible to argue that Bedoya is one of the league’s best signings of the last decade. When combining output, longevity, and a host of intangibles, Bedoya was a perfect fit for the project in Chester.
Bedoya’s leadership helps the group stay level when introducing new faces and makes the transition of homegrown players into the first team easier by extension. Right back Nathan Harriel is the latest breakthrough homegrown to benefit from the culture set by Bedoya and others.
Harriel stood out with his performance against NYCFC, setting up Daniel Gazdag’s goal in the 33rd minute. He worked a combination with Bedoya from a Union throw-in in the New York half, slipping in behind on a well-timed overlapping run and firing a first-time cross to Gazdag at the back post.
The assist made the stat sheet, but Harriel’s play across the game earned the 20-year-old praise as well. There are potential pitfalls ahead and Curtin will no doubt be cautious about giving Harriel too much responsibility too soon, but the expectation is that the club has found its right back for now and the future.
The funny thing about Harriel is that while there was hope he’d be ready to contribute in 2022, the club has a trio of midfielders expected to have their breakthrough seasons this year. Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, and Jack McGlynn are all top-of-their-class level homegrown talents with bright futures who Curtin will need to turn to at various points in a long season.
None among the trio has yet earned a start, though the nature of the grueling MLS seasons guarantees them significant playing time. For some clubs, the idea of depending on teenagers would be a scary proposition indicative of a team in transition. For the Union, it’s all part of the plan.
For the plan to work, signings from outside the league have to make a difference. The Union can’t afford to burn resources and roster spots on players who don’t deliver. No club is ever perfect. It’s of the utmost importance that the big swings Philadelphia takes in the transfer market find success.
Last year’s major signing, playmaker Daniel Gazdag, is off to a flying start this season. Looking more prepared for the rigors of Philadelphia’s pressing system, Gazdag is already three-quarters of the way to his 2021 goal total of four. The Union still needs better finishing on the end of his passes, but Gazdag looks like a game-changer.
Philadelphia’s win in the Bronx was its first away victory against NYCFC. It comes as some measure of revenge for last season’s Eastern Conference final loss. That Union team was missing a host of key players, including Bedoya. Bad luck took Philadelphia’s chance to be at its best in the playoff decider.
The theme of “unfinished business” is a sports cliche overused by teams searching for extra motivation. The Union can legitimately claim to have some after last year’s disappointment. A team very sure of who it is and how it can get the most of what it has is a dangerous thing in Major League Soccer. Philadelphia is that dangerous team that knows exactly who it is and what it can do.
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Logo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union