Nine wins, eight game-winners: Culture of teamwork behind first-place run

Three goals in a 12 minute span to overcome a two-goal deficit can lead us to look for historical analogues. When was the last time the Union pulled off such a feat? Where does this one sit all-time on the Union’s great games list? Where does Ilsinho’s performance rank on the all-time list for a substitute in all of MLS?

But for the 2019 Union, this was simply three points. Acquired in a unique way, yes, but little more than points earned in the playoff race nonetheless.

Because even if Philly had lost to Red Bulls, even if Ilsinho’s heroism hadn’t been enough, the Eastern Conference table would have told the full story. The Union were, even after a three-game homestand that netted only two points, the best and most consistent team over the first half of the season. They had the best attack in the east and the best goal difference in the league outside of LAFC.

The Union have won by smothering opponents’ shots and through last-gasp comebacks. They have won without their star offseason signing and with a teenaged homegrown player at the No. 10 position. They have, for the second straight season, won with a striker that first had to prove himself with Bethlehem Steel. They have won nine games and Ilsinho is the first player to score multiple game-winning goals.

So while Saturday’s match was the kind of spectacle fans love to see, for Philly it was just one more way to earn the points they believe their hard work and talent deserve.

Consider that only two seasons ago, Jim Curtin was forced to roll out Ilsinho as a No. 10 because Roland Alberg never grabbed the position and made it his own. Now a homegrown prospect is filling in at the No. 10 while a superstar signing recovers from injury and Ilsinho is back in his favorite role: Winger 25, destroyer of souls.

Ilsinho’s entry prompted another change that highlighted how much the team has developed in only half a season. Moving seamlessly from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-2-3-1 that featured endless runs past the Brazilian magician by Ale Bedoya and Ray Gaddis, Philly put two past New York before they could make adjustments to a sub they knew was coming.

The change in shape was expected, but the speed at which the Union adapted to the shape — immediately targeting Ilsinho without opening themselves up defensively — should give the rest of the league pause. Bedoya’s ability to thrive in both a box-to-box role and as a midfield pivot is one of many reasons the captain should be competing against the league’s more glamorous names for Team of the Season through 17 matches.

All of this is why there is no reason to search through history and put this team into context. The 2019 Union are not streaky, and they are not spectacular (though, clearly, they can be). They are just a good team that competes like they believe in themselves. In an Eastern Conference that has seen a lot of big, splashy purchases over the last year, including Pity Martinez, Alexander Mitritu, and Wayne Rooney, the Union have locked up first place by using a Next Man Up mentality and attacking each and every opponent. It’s smart, it’s progressive, and it’s exciting.

It’s soccer for Philly, and it’s fun.

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