As a successful season ends; Union's new culture has them wanting more

A new system, a new style of play, and — perhaps most important — a new culture. That is what Ernst Tanner, Jim Curtin, and the Union have created. Curtin has been building that culture of accountability, trust, and Philly pride for years, and now it includes an expectation of success.

“The main goal we should have in every season,” Tanner said after the Union earned 55 points and a first-ever playoff win, “is that we should constantly be in the playoffs. “If we don’t dream too much and concentrate on the next game, winning it, then we will have the possibility, for sure, of being very successful.”

Just over one year later, Tanner, Curtin, and the rest of the Union lifted the club’s first trophy high above their heads at Subaru Park. That trophy, the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, was awarded to a team that finished atop MLS with 2.04 points earned per game, a number higher than every club save LAFC earned in 2019.

They did it with defense, an area the club focused on in the offseason. With Jakob Glesnes in the back line, Jose Martinez at defensive mid, and Olivier Mbaizo and Matt Real taking big steps forward, Philly became the stingiest club in the land. Following a dramatic 3-3 draw with LAFC, Jim Curtin’s team shut up shop and didn’t allow more than two past them the rest of the season. In the league’s MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, Portland was the only side able to put more than a single goal past Andre Blake.

They also did it by trusting their Homegrowns. Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie snatched the spotlight from more established stars when the season resumed in July, and Anthony Fontana threw himself a coming out party in the back half of the year. With the Supporters’ Shield on the line on Decision Day, Matt Freese stepped between the pipes and pitched a shutout.

And, to hear the team tell it, they did it by leaning heavily on their secret weapon: A deep and unyielding connection to their city and their fans.

Every game is different without fans in the building. For some teams, that meant a home field advantage that nearly evaporated. But not in Philly. The link between players and fans takes on additional significance when the players were fans and when the coach knows what it’s like to ride the waves of hometown teams. The Union finished the regular season with a perfect record at home, carrying the spirit of their fans into each match even when The River End was covered in a tarp and the seats that were packed for the epic 2019 playoff match against the Red Bulls was empty. In a year that presented novel and difficult challenges, the Union’s connection to fans and Philadelphia proved a key factor in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.

The winning, the trophy, the club’s first-ever Coach of the Year award and second-ever Goalkeeper of the Year award, and taking up over a quarter of the MLS Best XI for the season remain outputs of a philosophy, an execution, and a culture that has become unique within MLS. Other teams lean heavily on their academies but misfire on international signings. Some nail their signings but don’t develop top tier talent internally. Others don’t find alignment between the coach and general manager or sporting director, and some lean on deep pockets. Philly has found a new way forward. The mentality of the player is of the utmost importance, and the coaching staff’s ability to grow that mentality from the academy level up to the first team reflects a long-term investment that provides a clear, undeniable path for the hungriest to reach the top and excel.

Don’t underestimate how many levels of execution it takes to feel comfortable dropping a homegrown goalie behind a homegrown centerback behind a first-year player from Venezuela still learning English behind another homegrown — this time at the vaunted No. 10 position — behind two strikers who couldn’t be more different except for the fact that they both were overlooked and undervalued. But if you have the right mindset, Ernst Tanner will give you a chance. And if you do the work, Jim Curtin will trust you on Decision Day.

In 2020, it took a special level of focus to succeed under conditions of extreme uncertainty. The Union did it.

And now they bring five new homegrown talents into the fold and go again in 2021 with the same mindset — don’t dream too much, concentrate on winning the next game. Then the one after that.

Back on Halloween day in 2019, after Tanner reviewed a season that brought unmatched club success, Jim Curtin got the mic.

“Yes, it was a successful season,” he said. “But we can’t be satisfied.”

In 2020, Curtin, Tanner, Chris Albright, the entire coaching staff, and the Union players can say they once again had a successful season. They dreamed — but not too much — and they brought a trophy to Philadelphia.

But they aren’t satisfied. And in 2021, the mentality won’t change. Keep working. Keep pushing, Keep that same mentality. And keep doing it for the fans, whether they are in the Subaru Park stands or just in their hearts.

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