Jim Curtin calls them "one play games." Remember the 0-0 draw at Red Bull? The Union had a breakaway and a penalty in that one but came away with a single point. A hot start in Atlanta was undone by... well, something you can get fined for talking about.
Although the Union have not been overawed by the top squads in MLS, that “one play game” win remained elusive until Jim Curtin’s men played New York City FC off the pitch Saturday night. Now, as Dan Walsh of The Philly Soccer Page and Bobby Warshaw of MLSSoccer.com have recently noted, it's hard to argue this simple statement: The Union are good.
2-0 tells the story
You can trace the arc of the season thus far by shining a spotlight on the Union’s three 2-0 wins. The first came in the opener against New England Revolution. All of the major elements that had to combine in order to create a season combustible enough to rocket the Union into the playoff picture were already present. Goalscoring from the striker position? CJ Sapong got one. Contributions from the No. 10 role? Anthony Fontana's first MLS goal. The roller coaster ride that is a young defense ending on a high? Auston Trusty was caught out then impressively ran down Juan Agudelo to prevent a big chance.
But after showing what they were capable of producing, the goals dried up for the Union as the defense went through ups and downs, making a trip to Montreal in mid-May a huge game.
On May 12, at the tail end of a three game road trip in which the Union had been outscored 4-0 in two losses, the Union got their second 2-0 win of the year. Cory Burke finally opened the team's road account... but then was promptly sent off. Yet the team persevered and brought three points with them on the trip back to Philly.
This 2-0 victory was a turning point, though few realized it at the time. It preceded Borek Dockal's coming out party — a two-assists-and-a-goal performance against Real Salt Lake — by a week, and hinted at what has since remained true: When the Union score multiple goals, they are extremely hard to beat.
In fact, that statement needs a slight revision: When they score more than once in a game, Philadelphia has been entirely perfect in 2018. No draws, no losses.
Since May 12
Right now, the Union are locked in a race for the playoffs with Montreal and New England, with DC United and Toronto in hot and lukewarm pursuit respectively. But since that May 12 victory over the Impact, the team Philly has resembled most is not those four around them in the standings. It is Columbus Crew.
The Crew are currently six points ahead of the Union in the standings, however they are exactly even on points with the blue and gold counting from May 12 on: 25 apiece. Montreal Impact are one point back.
Perhaps more surprising to the casual fan that has ignored the Union throughout the season: Atlanta United have 26 points over the same period, and NYCFC have 27. In short, following a stuttering open to the year, Philadelphia Union are part of a five team group clustered within three points of each other behind Red Bulls, who have 30 over that span. And of that group, only the Union, Crew, and Sky Blues have taken points of NYRB.
So where are New England, DC, and Toronto since May 12? At 15, 16, and 17 points respectively.
Next man up
Even if you leave out Saturday's big win over NYC, the Union look like a playoff team in the numbers since that turning point in May. They are 5th in the league in Expected Goals and 12th in Expected Goals Allowed, despite playing with what has largely been a pair of teenagers in the heart of defense.
Fafa Picault, who has stepped in as the team's starting left winger with David Accam struggling, is 11th in the league in Expected Goals since May 12. Cory Burke, taking over as the primary striker, is equal on Expected Goals with Portland's Samuel Armenteros over that span — the latter is largely seen as a good buy at nearly ten times Burke's salary.
The success of Burke and Picault highlights how Jim Curtin and his staff have managed to find success despite significant challenges. Accam's lack of production has been overcome by a rotating cast of wingers, all of whom — from Picault and Marcus Epps to Ilsinho and Fabian Herbers — made important contributions before CJ Sapong joined them out wide.
The player who best represents this "next man up" mindset, though, is left back Ray Gaddis, who was right back Ray Gaddis a year ago and is now helping guide Auston Trusty through his first MLS season while inching ever-closer to the all-time Union record for minutes played. Trusty, of course has played every minute of every game in his debut season, partnering with 19-year old Mark McKenzie and second year giant Jack Elliott.
Massive in midfield
And, of course, the Union have made huge strides in midfield this season. After spending 2017 without a rostered player that fit the No. 10 role, they acquired Borek Dockal. And since May 12 he has been fantabulous. The Czech man is now tied for second in the league in assists with 12, two behind Kaku and even with Giovinco and Maxi Moralez. Since May 12, Dockal is third in the league in Expected Assists, behind only Diego Valeri and Darwin Quintero. Going into Saturday's match, he was also fifth in MLS in key passes -- passes that lead to a shot -- behind Valeri, Quintero, Sacha Kljestan, and Moralez.
Along with Haris Medunjanin, who no longer has to bear such a heavy creative burden thanks to his new teammate, Dockal is part of the only midfield pair in MLS in the top 15 in the league in Touch Percentage, which is the amount of touches a player has divided by the total number of touches his team has. What does that mean? It means when Jim Curtin says the Union want to get the ball to their best players in good positions he can look out at the pitch and see it happening right before his eyes. And so can you and everybody else.
Then there is captain Alejandro Bedoya, a player whose contributions are infamously difficult to capture in numbers. Luckily, American Soccer Analysis now has an Expected Passing model, and Bedoya has spent the season trying to break it.
If a player's actual pass completion percentage exceeds his expected pass completion percentage, that indicates that the player is likely completing passes that the average player is not expected to complete. In other words, that player is making difficult passes and those passes are connecting. The top tier of the Expected Passing model is littered with defenders because they are often afforded the most space to try long, difficult passes. In fact, if you look at players whose actual passing completion percentage exceeds what the models expects of them, the top 15 are all defenders except for one guy. You can probably guess who it is.
Bedoya is one of only four players in MLS whose passing completion percentage exceeds what the model expects by 7% or more. The other three — Gregory van der Wiel of Toronto, Reto Ziegler of Dallas, and Larrys Mabiala of Portland — are primarily central defenders. Nobody else in the league is even 6% better than what the model expects of them.
Maybe you're still not convinced. Perhaps, you say, Bedoya simply drops off a lot and makes a long, low pressure passes that boost his score. Cool. Cool-cool-cool.
So let's narrow this down to just passes made in the final third, where space is often compressed and players that can squeeze balls into tight windows under pressure earn their green. Now Bedoya exceeds what the model expects by over 13%. The only player better than that is Jalil Anibaba, who exceeds expectations by 18%.
The big caveat: Anibaba has made all of 16 passes in the final third. Bedoya? 125. The only other midfielder near the top that isn't an out-and-out holding player who primarily recycles play is Jonathan Osorio, who is beating the model by about 9% in what is far and away his best season as a professional.
And if you still need more evidence, then seriously: Just watch the games. Bedoya's work in the right channel has turned that side of the pitch into the the Union's fertile crescent of offense. It has helped rebuild Keegan Rosenberry's confidence and created space for Ilsinho to hold classes on the experience of shame for Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ronald Matarrita. It has opened up the center for Borek Dockal, and it has created key goals in all three of the Union's US Open Cup matches against MLS opponents during their march to a third final in five years.
Let's see us
Yet, for all the positives that have surfaced this year, Philly was missing one thing: A signature win that would show they had the ability to compete with the league's best. They were close in New Jersey against the Red Bulls but couldn't secure the necessary goal. They looked up for it in Atlanta but... yeah.
As the Union prepared to emerge from the tunnel below the River End stands on Saturday night, Haris Medunjanin turned to his teammates and, in Jim Curtin's telling, said, "Let's see us against a top team."
The Bosnian did not mean that he simply wanted to see his teammates match up well with one of the league's premier sides. No, Medunjanin wanted the Union to show that they could take down an expensively assembled, highly resourced squad by using the advantages they had accrued through hard work and belief. He wanted to beat New York City by playing the Union way: Aggression on both sides of the ball, clarity in decision-making, and attacks built through three high volume players in midfield.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Haris Medunjanin and all the fans in attendance saw the Union play their way. And in doing so, Jim Curtin’s team earned their third 2-0 win of the year. The first two were inflection points. With ten games left in the season, this one could point the way to the postseason.