All five teams that finished above Philadelphia Union in the 2021 Supporters’ Shield race missed the playoffs in 2022. The Union, in contrast, flipped their attack and finished 2022 even with LAFC for the most points in the league.
This is impressive on its surface. What makes it stunning, and what makes Jim Curtin’s 2022 Coach of the Year award so justifiable, is how the 2021 season ended and what he has engineered a year later.
Eleven players missing for Philly, and NYCFC still had to come from behind in the second half to knock off the Curtin’s men. The nature of the Union’s Eastern Conference Final loss made it difficult, from the outside, to determine what should change going into 2022. When the eventual MLS Cup champion struggles to knock you off, you know you’ve got a lot of the pieces it takes for another deep postseason run.
But you also need the mentality to do the whole thing over again despite the brutal ending. Curtin, along with veterans Ale Bedoya and Andre Blake, ensured a young squad was locked in to such an extent that they became flat track bullies against bad teams, and went punch for punch with the rest of the best.
The only thing that changed in the offseason was the front line, and it not only produced, in one year, more six-goal shutout wins than any other club had accomplished in their entire histories, it made the defense more coherent back-to-front.
And it brought Philly back to the Eastern Conference Final with receipts to show last year’s deep playoff run was more than a flash in the pan.
But while Philly’s on-field approach remains largely unchanged from a year ago, NYCFC has a new coach and a different shape. They no longer lean on Valentin Castellanos to knock in most of their goals, and instead they spread the load between a number of high-end offensive talents. Gabriel Pereira has four goals since August 1, and Santiago Rodriguez, Talles Magno, Heber, and Alex Callens have added two each. In the playoffs, Miami and Montreal struggled to contain NYC’s flexible attack, and both sides were reluctant to send players forward given how many ways NYC could hit them going the other way.
As Matt Doyle has noted for MLSSoccer.com, a big key to the Cityzens’ success is putting pressure on a defense to keep eyes on four other attackers while Maxi Moralez floats and connects play. This can mean that Nicolas Acevedo and, at times, Keaton Parks, are asked to protect the back line without much support. NYC will let their defenders step up to help in midfield to avoid odd-man situations in the center, and Philly’s compact midfield will need to play quickly to move the ball before defenders can advance and close space.
To succeed, the Union must use the space and size of their pitch to their advantage. Philly’s attack can go back to front in a hurry, and that can put a lot of pressure on NYC’s attackers to track back. If they don’t gaps will open in their shape and the Union will be able to force NYC to give the ball up quickly instead of building attacks the way they prefer.
Another key to the game will be the availability of big-time players on both sides. Maxime Chanot picked up an injury in the conference semi-final against Montreal and the extent to which he can influence the match is uncertain. The Union are in a waiting game to see how many minutes they will get from captain Alejandro Bedoya, a player that has quietly had one of the more complete seasons for a midfielder in MLS this year.
And then there are the goalkeepers. Two of the best in the league and, undoubtedly, the best two remaining in the playoffs, both Andre Blake and Sean Johnson will look to show off in a match where chances are guaranteed due to the fluidity and pace on Philly’s side and the number of pieces NYC can fit on the field.
Kickoff from Subaru Park is set for 8:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, October 30, as NYC and Philadelphia meet in the postseason for the third time in the last five years.