This is the best ten game stretch in Union history.
That’s a real fact. The Union have never before collected 23 points in ten matches. And in case you’re wondering, that’s two more points than New York Red Bulls have earned during the same span.
That disheartening Montreal loss? It’s the only time Philly has fallen in the league over their past ten, and only the third time in the last 14 matches. Over the past ten games, only Seattle has more points than the Union and they went on a record-setting winning streak to get there (who broke that, by the way?) And since David Accam’s extra time winner in Chicago, only Seattle and Red Bulls have more points than Philly; Atlanta United and the Union have the exact same number.
This is all a complicated way of saying that Philadelphia Union really are one of the best teams in MLS this season, and in the exact opposite way that they were last time they made the playoffs.
In 2016, Philadelphia’s playoff run was turbo-boosted by a hot start to the year. When the international break hit at the start of June, the Union were one of only two Eastern Conference teams with six wins, and nobody in the east had fewer losses. The end of the season went the opposite way, as a winless run led into an opening round playoff exit at the hands of Toronto FC.
When they flew out of the gates in 2016, Philadelphia’s best ten game stretched netted 17 points, a full six fewer than they have in their past ten matches. That 2016 run was driven by an impenetrable defense and just enough in attack; right now Philly is far more balanced.
The Union currently have a good defense, though probably not a great one. They also have a good offense though, again, not a great one. According to American Soccer Analysis’ database, the Union have the 9th best defense based on Expected Goals Against and the 12th best attack based on Expected Goals. Over the past ten games, they have overperformed expectations a bit, but keep in mind that seven of the nine teams they have faced are either above the playoff line now or were when they took on the Union. So unlike Orlando City’s early season winning streak that floated on the early season struggles of the Union, RSL, and the full-season dysfunction of Colorado and San Jose, Philly is knocking off quality opponents.
Stepping back even further, since David Accam’s stunning last minute winner against Chicago, the Union have been one of the top teams in MLS. They have ten different goalscorers during that time, and Cory Burke and Fafa Picault are tied as the eighth highest scorers in the league — measured as goals per 96 minutes, both Burke and Picault are above Wayne Rooney.
Overall, the Union have 19 goals in 14 games from their front three positions alone and another three each from the midfield and defense. The only regular starter of the front six that hasn’t scored? Borek Dockal. He’s been too busy providing more assists than anyone else in the league.
All of this means two things.
First, yes — the Union are fun to watch right now, but they are also very good. And second, they have reversed course from 2016 and are playing their best ball in the home stretch of the season.
It does not mean the Union are guaranteed to go deep into the playoffs or knock off presumed MLS Cup favorites Atlanta United. In 90 minutes of soccer, all the trends go out the window and the team that finishes their chances comes out ahead.
But right now, the Union are as well-positioned as anyone in Major League Soccer to make a run at the clubs that have camped out at the top of the standings all season. They have gone from Open Question to a tier below ‘They Might Be Broken’ to playoff lock, and they’ve done it with youth and a commitment to playing their style.
They have done it by finding internal solutions at back — Auston Trusty, Ray Gaddis, Mark McKenzie, and a reborn Keegan Rosenberry — and up front — Cory Burke!? CJ Sapong on the wing — and by giving a long leash to a coaching staff that knew its players (and the club’s pipeline of players) well enough to make risky bets that have paid off.
It also means one more thing, something specifically highlighted by Sunday’s matchup against New York Red Bulls. In Jesse Marsch’s first season, he had a veteran midfield supported by one academy signing — Sean Davis. In his second season, Tyler Adams, Derrick Etienne, Alex Muyl, and — on loan — Aaron Long made the first team leap.
In other words, Red Bull, a club that, like the Union, has sought to develop talent internally, started with a core of top talent (it sure helps when Bradley Wright-Phillips can paper over any attacking issues to the tune of scoring 36% of the team’s goals over the past three seasons), and has still never won more than a single playoff series in a season.
The Union developed talent internally while building a core of top players in midfield, and they did it in one year less than it took Red Bull to get to the point where it could truly turn things over to its academy products.
Time will tell if Philadelphia can maintain a consistent level of success now that the right pieces are in place, but the fact that they got there this fast is both surprising and notable.
Now the Union get to go head-to-head with the club that developed from within before splashing big cash on a playmaker to finally put them over the top before BWP ceases his unquestionably brilliant run. This could be New York’s year, and maybe it better be.
Because Tyler Adams is leaving and Wright-Phillips ain’t getting younger.
And the Union look ready to step up.