In a season that saw Philadelphia Union set club records for points, wins, and road wins while featuring Major League Soccer’s best goal creator, there were a lot of individual and team achievements. There were important debuts that signal the pathway from the academy to the professional level is beginning to bear considerable fruit, and there were records set by club stalwarts. There was also an extremely well-deserved award for an American soccer legend handed out.
Let’s run through all the different achievements unlocked by the Union this year.
A season of firsts
In the Union’s opening day win over New England Revolution — the first of three victories over the Revs in 2018 — homegrown players Anthony Fontana and Auston Trusty made their first MLS starts. Trusty, who would go on to play every league minute in his debut season as a starter, showed off his skillset early on the match with a determined and epic sprint to catch Juan Agudelo after the striker slipped behind Philly’s defense.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Trusty’s season was that instances like this one — using his natural athleticism to cover up poor positioning — did not define his play. Instead, the now-20-year-old center back great into more of a vocal presence and worked to hold a high defensive line that helped minimize the dirty running Philly’s veteran midfield had to do.
Fontana’s first start came with a memorable moment of its own. With the ball bouncing around New England’s box, Philly’s teenaged midfielder stepped up and slammed home the season’s opening goal. In the raucous celebrations that followed, Fontana couldn’t keep the joy off his face as Trusty and others climbed all over him.
There was a third MLS debut in that opening day match, and it was a player that would go on to make a huge impact on Philly’s season. No, not future MLS assists leader Borek Dockal, though this player did pick up an assist against the Revs (his only one of the season!).
Cory Burke’s 24-minute cameo was the first of seven substitute appearances the Jamaican striker would make over the first nine matches of the year. Burke’s stellar 2017 with Bethlehem Steel earned him a spot on the Union roster, but it was the all-out effort he showed in limited minutes that led to his first start of the season in the tenth match, an important road game at Montreal Impact.
Not quite how he wanted to end the day, but an achievement unlocked for Cory. First MLS start and goal for the Jamaican International! pic.twitter.com/Bam060OnkT— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) May 13, 2018
Mark McKenzie, Matt Real and Dockal all made their MLS debuts over the first five weeks of the season.
In fact, five different Union players saw their first MLS minutes during the opening six matches of 2018. A sixth would have to wait until late September to see the pitch. Right back Olivier Mbaizo had a standout preseason, but Keegan Rosenberry’s strong form meant Mbaizo spent much of the season growing his game with Steel FC. Against Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City, though, Mbaizo debuted and put in a strong performance to help Philly shut out Peter Vermes’ men.
Other firsts for Union players?
Borek Dockal’s first assist game on April 7 against San Jose, and the Czech playmaker notched his first goal later that month against DC United. Cory Burke’s first goal came against Montreal on May 12 (the same match he picked up his first red card!) and Marcus Epps had his first multi-point game when the Union smashed Real Salt Lake on May 19.
Two Union players earned the first two-goal games of their MLS careers in 2018, and both were fairly unlikely choices in the ‘Who will get a brace’ pool. Jack Elliott, central defender, scored two against New England on the road on August 11. Jay Simpson, who had been passed on the depth chart by Burke, earned a start against Kansas City with a strong cameo against Seattle. The English striker used his 90 minutes to drop two stunning goals on the Western Conference giants as Philly rocked their way to victory.
Achievement unlocked: Jay Simpson recorded his first MLS brace in yesterday's game 🙌 pic.twitter.com/8eHt7o2sqs— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) September 24, 2018
Records? They set ‘em
It was not all debuts and opening goals for the Union in 2018. There were also some long-serving members of the club that earned recognition for extended runs of strong play.
Goalie Andre Blake set a career high for wins with 11, and he did it while earning the most shutouts for a goalie in Union history.
Achievement unlocked: Dre set a new career high for single-season shutouts last night 👌 pic.twitter.com/Pg5iFHQaoN— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) September 30, 2018
Blake also set the Union single season — and, of course, his own personal career — record for saves.
Achievement unlocked: Dre broke our franchise record for single season saves last night, setting a new career high 🙌 pic.twitter.com/kJ9TI7byQW— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) September 20, 2018
In front of the Jamaican, Ray Gaddis shored up the Union’s young defense by slotting in at left back after spending 2017 on the right. Gaddis earned his 150th career start — all with Philly — and set the club record for starts and minutes played, passing legendary midfielder/salad-fanatic Brian Carroll.
CJ Sapong also passed into triple-digits with his 100th Union start on August 25 against New England.
Borek Dockal’s records were not based on longevity but on setting up goals. Dockal set the Union’s single-season assists record on October 6, leaving Chaco Maidana’s impressive 15 assists in the dust.
Then, in the final match of the season, Dockal slid a pass through the lines to Burke for his 18th helper of the campaign, pushing him ahead of Lucho Acosta as the top assist man in all of Major League Soccer.
There was one more record setter in Philly this year: Head coach Jim Curtin. Not only did Curtin guide the Union to their third US Open Cup final during his 4+ year tenure, but he earned his 50th regular season win.
Club-wide, for club pride
Most points, most wins, most road wins, and most assists in a single game (against Real Salt Lake in May). As a club, the Union reached new heights in 2018 and will try to build on that success going forward.
Achievement unlocked: last night we set new franchise single season records for total wins & wins on the road 🙌 pic.twitter.com/6Uq3Meij56— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) September 20, 2018
While the wins and points stand out, the single-game assists record (7, from five different players) provides particular insight into how the team played. Philly was determined to move the ball quickly, retain possession, and establish an attack-minded identity this year. Against RSL, Vancouver, and Minnesota, the club was at its peak and borderline unstoppable.
Best of the best
And, finally, no list of 2018 achievements would be complete without mentioning living legend JP Dellacamera. The Union broadcaster snuck out of the country midseason to lead World Cup coverage in Russia, but the Union were always on his mind as he sent back a video journal from his travels.
Dellacamera became the 11th recipient of the Colin Jose Media Award from US Soccer. The award — named after a former US Soccer historian — is given to somebody who makes a special impact on American soccer by communicating the sport to fans and observers in a unique and impressive manner. That description wasn’t written specifically for Dellacamera, but it could have been.
All in all, a year of notable achievements for the Union. But the club did not unlock the MLS Cup in 2018, so there is still plenty of work to do in the future. That work will take place in the offseason, as new Sporting Director Ernst Tanner (Achievement Unlocked: First time overseeing a MLS club) looks to build on the foundations laid in a 50-point season.