With ten games remaining in 2019, Philadelphia Union are on their longest run in first place in franchise history. 

By rebounding from difficult losses with big wins, and turning injuries to key players like Marco Fabian and Jamiro Monteiro into big opportunities for Brenden Aaronson and Anthony Fontana, the Union have held off the rest of the Eastern Conference and now enter the All-Star break with a three point lead over Atlanta United and DC United. Philly will look to extend that lead next weekend when they travel to Wayne Rooney’s home while Atlanta takes on Los Angeles Galaxy and New York City FC heads west to a streaking Real Salt Lake side with only one loss in their last six matches. 

The Union are far from perfect, but they remain one of the few teams in the Eastern Conference with a legitimate chance to make a run in the playoffs. 

The driving force for the Union’s success has been their adaptability in the face of adversity: They have earned points five times after going behind, and have the fifth most road points of any team in Major League Soccer. 

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the Union’s success this season is the attack. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela steal the individual headlines, Philly’s collection of goalscorers has the club second in the league in goals scored, behind only LAFC. 

Kacper Przybylko is on the verge of becoming yet another new double-digit goalscorer under Jim Curtin and Anthony Fontana’s strike against Chicago means Warren Creavalle is the only non-defender that has played at least 90 minutes without scoring. 

Przybylko’s emergence, though, has been most emblematic of the Union’s season. Few, if any, commentators had Philly anywhere near the top of the conference before the year began. Fewer still had the Union’s current leader in goals getting close to an MLS starting XI. Instead, Przybylko was expected to ply his trade with Bethlehem Steel as Cory Burke and Fafa Picault led the line. Burke’s absence opened the door for Przybylko and he has been a shot machine ever since. Even when he doesn’t tally, the big striker gets on the end of chances. His contributions have also been timely: A tying goal in Vancouver, a game-winner against Cincinnati, the game-winning assist in Toronto, and then more tying goals at New England and against Orlando. Przybylko’s success has allowed the Union to ease new striker Andrew Wooten into the lineup, and now they will have a healthy and in-shape new weapon for the closing stretch. 

Another player that has defied the expectations of many was known far better to Union fans than Przybylko. Haris Medunjanin was questioned from the outset after a difficult opener against Toronto. The Bosnian has returned fire by owning the holding midfield role throughout the year. Philly’s recent losses have not been due to Medunjanin’s supposed defensive deficiencies; and in a season that has seen deep-lying distributors like Michael Bradley, Dax McCarty, and Wil Trapp struggle to cover space laterally as they age there is a clear model to follow in Philadelphia for players that want to contribute at a high level in their mid-30s. 

On either side of Medunjanin, the player that spent many of his prime years doing selfless work for the US Men’s National Team and a player that looks capable of doing the same for the next decade-plus have been the dual heartbeats of this first place run. Ale Bedoya’s transition from a deeper role that asked him to face forward for much of the game into a purer No. 8 that must receive on the half-turn and play in tighter spaces has allowed for a new level of formational flexibility in 2019. Bedoya continues to be one of the most intelligent movers in MLS, darting into gaps in the back line whenever a fullback is pulled out of position. For all the wild excitement Ilsinho has brought to the right side of the field this year, it has been Bedoya’s interactions with the Brazilian that provide him with the opportunities to change the game. 

Brenden Aaronson doesn’t have the experience of Bedoya, but he does have both the captain and Haris Medunjanin as guides. With a motor that won’t quit and an eye for a throughball, Aaronson has provided value with his defensive work even as he learns how to move — and how to remain still and let the game come to him — at the MLS level. Jim Curtin and his staff expected Aaronson to take big steps in 2019, but he wasn’t supposed to be required to do it in the starting XI week after week. Injuries to Marco Fabian and Jamiro Monteiro, though, have forced the teenaged homegrown player into big spots, and he continues to respond. 

And that leads to Monteiro. The less heralded of the two bigger-name offseason signings, Monteiro spent a large portion of 2019 as one of the most complete midfielders in the east. His defensive pressure can change a game, and by pairing that with exceptional technical ability, the Cape Verde international often provides the extra piece that both allows Philly to control matches with the ball and without. 

Jim Curtin has taken all of these pieces and fashioned a winner. It is still not a team filled with big names, and it remains a team that must play with confidence and energy to dominate matches, but it is undeniably a winning team nonetheless. The standings tell the story, and no matter how you shape your argument, leaving the Union off the list of the conference’s best is indefensible. 

The Union are still searching for their top gear, but they have been so good in 2019 that Curtin’s team enters the All-Star break atop their conference despite still waiting for the first extended run with Marco Fabian and Jamiro Monteiro in the side. 

When that happens — and it looks like it could as soon as next weekend — who knows what Philly could do.

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For U Kit Now Available

The For U kit pays homage to the early days of the Union and was designed with the help of the fan-based Creators’ Collective to feature details reflective of the city and its fans.