The turning point of the Philadelphia Union’s 2020 season was a 23-minute stretch on July 9 against NYCFC in the first-ever 9:00AM kickoff in club history. The memory most have from this match — aside from the players’ important statement displayed on their jerseys — is Andre Blake’s physics-defiant 86th minute save on Heber to preserve the win and earn the Union, who had given up five goals in their opening two matches, a shutout.
That 23-minute ride began, though, with what initially looks like a messy, blue-collar goal from captain Alejandro Bedoya.
Jamiro Monteiro plays a vision of a pass from the center-left channel into the right side of the box where Bedoya, typically, has Houdini’d the defense and popped up in a dangerous spot. The ball drops at his feet and Brenden Aaronson calls for a pass into the center for a first time shot. Bedoya delivers the ball to feet but the defense collapses and knocks it right back to the Union midfielder. From a tight angle, he laces a left-footed drive past Sean Johnson. It was Philly’s first shot from anywhere close to the box since the 24th minute, and it required an oasis of skill, patience, intuition, and intelligence amidst the humidity of Orlando and the messiness of the first match in four months.
Every MLSSoccer.com pundit picked NYCFC to finish above the Union, and just like everybody that thought Philly was overpaying for a national team role player when Bedoya arrived — they were wrong.
The best laid plans fall apart without the right leader in place, and in Philadelphia the plans require young players to play heavy minutes and the entire squad to buy in and play together against the ball. In 2020, the Union’s plans also relied on a leader that could shut out all the uncertainty and anxiety of a wild season every time he stepped on the pitch. Training, preseason, a once-in-a-lifetime midseason tournament — Ale Bedoya just wants to win. Whatever it takes to finish on top, he will do it. Dominate the ball, play the decoy with early runs, move into the back line, drop truth on a Homegrown teenager, drop truth on a veteran, what else you got? Bedoya is your man.
Taking the armband in Philly was never going to be easy. The city has a long and proud soccer history and the club had been agonizingly close to its first silverware twice with Jim Curtin in charge. After earning a European career by grinding — he was signed by Swedish club Orebro after a trial to prove himself — Bedoya arrived with a clarity and fearlessness about his role as a leader that few others could balance.
That same ability to both see the world clearly and believe in his team as one ready for the challenge (when, outside of Philadelphia, few others believed) allowed Bedoya to bring a trophy to a fanbase that had embraced and overcome such daunting tasks as creating a supporters’ group before their city ever had a franchise.
Perhaps the story that best explains how Bedoya helped create the culture that allowed the Union to bring home the 2020 Supporters’ Shield is one from his early days on the US Men’s National Team. One year after his first USMNT call-up, Bedoya found himself, at age 23, the most capped player on the roster for a January 2011 matchup with Chile.
“It’s kind of crazy,’’ he told The Boston Globe. “I saw my name on the list and I was the most-capped guy. I never expected to be one of the most experienced guys at national team camp.”
Thrust unexpectedly into a leadership role, Bedoya, then as now, did not see it as a burden. “There could be some nerves, but soccer is soccer at the end of the day,” he concluded.
That outlook allowed young talents like Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson to quickly feel at home on the senior team. It allowed players with huge potential like Jose Martinez, Sergio Santos, and Jakob Glesnes to integrate and excel faster than anybody had a right to expect.
And it will make Bedoya a Union legend and surefire Ring of Honor member after that sad day when his Union career draws to a close.