Since Cory Burke spent a good portion of the season knocking in goals from all angles, it's easy to forget that the big striker's first contribution came in the Union's opening day win over New England. Three minutes after entering his first MLS match, Burke left Gabriel Somi staring into space before punching a low cross into CJ Sapong's path for the striker's first goal of the season. It was a wildly surprising move, and even now it can be difficult to process just how smooth and intelligent Burke is on that play. After chasing down a long pass from Jack Elliott, the Jamaican feels Somi get tight, uses his large frame to protect the ball, and switches direction in a sudden, impressively quick shift.
That type of play is exactly what made Burke one of the more incredible success stories of the season in Major League Soccer. He could seem at times like a young X-Man still grappling with the extent of his powers.
His first goal of the year, a wonderfully hard and decisive run to get on the end of a cross in Montreal, was followed by a red card tackle. That diving/sliding challenge remains so absurd in its brashness that it's reminiscent of an early scene in the film Creed in which Adonis Creed, a successful amateur boxer, is certain he can knock out one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world and force local trainers to take him seriously. Adonis, like Burke, ends up on the ground, largely because his self-belief and reality meet head on and only one survives.
Burke, like Adonis, picked himself up after that ejection and got to work harnessing his unique skill set. He scored in six of his next eight starts. Some goals, like his madly entertaining back post charge in Chicago, were pure effort. Others, such as his seemingly off-balance but careful finish against NYCFC at home, were more refined. This was the story of Cory Burke's season: He vacillated unpredictably between attempts (often successful) to bend the world to his will and moments of exciting clarity that let him read a play and take off into space at just the right time.
The same forces seemed present in his defensive work. Jim Curtin consistently highlighted the exhaustive effort Burke put into his duties off the ball, but then there was the argument at the midpoint of the Union's final regular season match. For all Burke's effort, he was allowing center back Alex Callens to carry the ball into the heart of the Union defensive shape, and that was -- as Curtin later made clear in his press conference -- not what Philly wanted to happen.
In the end, Burke's 2018 season can be summed up most accurately like this: He was essential. Burke has the size, speed, and ability to read space on the break that can make him unguardable; his goal against Minnesota United, for example, is iconic Cory Burke. A sprint past one defender in the open field, a flex on an aerial challenge that left another United center back in a heap, and a sudden shot from the edge of the box that caught Bobby Shuttleworth flat-footed. It's such an impressive goal, but at the same time, it seems somehow unrepeatable. Yet over and over Burke found new ways to engineer unlikely events, and throughout the year he just kept scoring.
There will be doubters going into 2019. Cory Burke is a late bloomer who needed to buy into what Brendan Burke was selling in Bethlehem and then trust that Jim Curtin would help him harness his power at the MLS level. Many will question whether he can find success now that the league knows what to expect. Set aside the goals for a moment, though, and the real story of Cory Burke's 2018 season emerges: He wanted to score so badly every time he was near the box. That desire motivated his work, and his work -- not just on game day but in each training session -- convinced the coaching staff that he could handle the load as the club's starting striker.
If that work continues in 2019, Burke could see his run up top continue.
For more from our 2018 Philadelphia Union Season in Review series, click here.