A View from Afar / Union

Don’t look now: The Union are good

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union have turned their season around and become, regardless of what the standings say, a good team.

The Union have gone 10-6-1 against MLS clubs in all competitions since their dreadful 2-5-2 start. That works out to 1.82 points per game since May 11, a rate that would be fifth best in MLS if taken over the full season.

Their record with Cory Burke starting at striker is even better.

In fact, it is literally perfect: 9-0-0 in all competitions.

Union record when Cory Burke starts

CompetitionRecordGoals forGoals againstGoal differentialBurke goals
MLS regular season5-0-0157+85
US Open Cup4-0-0111+103
vs. MLS clubs
(all competitions)

This isn’t to say that Burke is the Union’s long-term solution at striker. At 26, he’s a career journeyman thus far who has gradually worked his way up the professional ladder and never before scored at this rate. Sooner or later, opposing teams will have enough film to scout how to shut him down. Just like with every other MLS player, that’s when we’ll find out just how good he really is and will be in the long run.

Regardless, Burke is putting in quality shifts now, making good runs, getting great looks on goal, and burying most of them. He’s finishing the chances the Union have been creating for months and showing that, when they start someone at striker who isn’t cold as ice, they are really good.

Take the Union’s 3-2 road win over New England on Saturday, their third match in eight days. The Union midfield was clearly fatigued, and the Revolution controlled the run of play throughout most of the match.

But the Union did what good teams do: They stayed disciplined and exploited an opposition weakness to pull out a win.

The Union’s game plan was clear: Play tight defense, seize on counterattack opportunities when they emerge, and win corner kicks and free kicks whenever possible against a New England squad that struggles to defend set pieces. Essentially, the game plan was predicated upon patience, discipline, and opportunism. Once they took their lead, their approach to play was so deliberate that goalkeeper Andre Blake was booked for time-wasting. When they got their opportunities, they were merciless and efficient, netting three goals off set pieces.

When New England head coach Brad Friedel was interviewed at halftime during the Boston telecast, he said the following about the Union:

  • “They’ve had three chances, all off set pieces.” 
  • “I don’t think they’re getting any passing rhythm whatsoever. I think we’re stopping them from playing at all. They’re just sending long balls. I think [New England is] dealing with the long balls quite well. But we’ve got to get some of our crosses and more runners in the box, and I also think we can combine a little better around Trusty and Elliott.” 

Friedel’s assessments were spot on correct, and the second half played out similarly for the Union. Not until Antonio Delamea’s inexplicable handball on another set piece did the Union net their third goal, on Fafa Picault’s ensuing penalty kick.

The Union were tired, but they were opportunistic, seized their chances, and won a huge match because of it.

And just how big a game was this?

It is, as they say, a six-pointer, because New England is one of two teams — Montreal being the other — bunched with Philadelphia in the standings, occupying fifth through seventh places. (Note, however, that Toronto is behind them and still, well, Toronto.) Only six teams make the Eastern Conference playoffs, and right now, the Union occupy fifth, having jumped both New England and Montreal in the standings.

Following this, the Union’s upcoming schedule offers a stretch of five straight games against Eastern Conference foes that is full of winnable games. (Except wow, watch D.C. United.)

Upcoming Union schedule

DateOpponentPlace in standingsLocation
Sat., Aug. 18NYC FC3rdhome
Sat., Aug. 25New England7thhome
Wed., Aug. 29D.C. Unitedlastaway
Sat., Sep. 1Orlando8thaway
Sat., Sep. 8Montreal6thhome

They better win most of those games, because their schedule gets really tough after that, with their final six regular season matches being:

  1. at Seattle
  2. Kansas City
  3. at Columbus
  4. Minnesota
  5. New York Red Bulls
  6. at NYC FC

With the U.S. Open Cup final coming as the middle match of a three-games-in-eight-days stretch against Kansas City and Columbus and Seattle heating up, that span looks even tougher.

Many Union fans don’t like being optimistic these days, and it’s hard to blame them. Their overall record is what their overall record is, and that’s what determines the playoff field.

But the Union are doing their best impersonation of a good team right now, and they might even be for real.

Miscellaneous Union notes
  • Finally, an early goal: Until Jack Elliott’s 14th minute goal on Saturday, the Union had not scored a single goal in the first 15 minutes of a regular season game this year. They were the only team in MLS that had yet to do so. Previously, their earliest had been a 21st minute goal by Marcus Epps against Salt Lake on May 19.
  • Second half freeway: The Union have given up 30 goals in second halves of regular season games this year but just 11 in first halves. That’s the largest difference in MLS.
  • Facing the barrage: Only one goalkeeper in MLS has faced more than the 136 shots on target that Andre Blake has faced: Montreal’s Evan Bush. Interestingly, the Union rank in the middle of the pack in terms of total shots faced (313), meaning opponents are getting better, clearer shots when they get them. Blake’s save rate this year is a pedestrian 68 percent, which doesn’t rank among the league’s top 10, but he ranks third in the league in saves, behind Bush and David Bingham.
  • Burke finally doesn’t score: Saturday marked the first regular season match in which Burke started this year but didn’t score. He did hit the post with a powerful header.
  • Jack Elliott: Elliott lost his starting spot when Mark McKenzie played well upon replacing him earlier this year, but he gave a clear reminder of just how good he is: Too good to be riding the bench. How that plays out over time remains to be seen, but right now, with Richie Marquez finally returning from injury, the Union have probably the deepest crop of center backs in the league.


  1. Let’s not forget that every team below us (with the exception of DC) has a tougher remaining schedule than we do.

  2. It’s almost as if Sapong should have been benched a little sooner….

  3. What is the Union record since Adam Cann started there…? Just sayin’…

  4. Burke’s starts have come across mostly weaker teams (Chicago 3x, Montreal, Houston, New England, Richmond, Orlando, NYRB – open cup). During that time he did not start against Portland, Atlanta (2x), either LA team, Toronto, RSL, or NYRB. They won without him against RSL and they probably would have won had Sapong not been in the game against NYRB. Other than that, I don’t think his presence would have made a big difference in most of the other losses.

    • But he made a difference against the weaker teams. And that’s important. I’m not ready to celebrate a 5th place finish for the Union just yet. They’ve long demonstrated a capacity for folding. No need to get excited now.

  5. Hey Dan – isn’t the DC game on August 29th, not the 30th?

    • I think the Orlando game is Sat Sept 1, too.

      • Maybe it’s a euro vs North America calendar thing. Those wacky euros…

      • Yep, totally is a Europe thing. (It automatically shows me the date in Europe, on Europe time, if I’m writing from Europe. I neglected to correct for that when writing. Ironic, since I’ve been bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic all summer and hope to be at that DC game.) Either way, I’ve corrected that accordingly. Thanks.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Be careful if you go to that game. I understand that the stadium is already falling apart and attacking reporters there.

  6. Plenty of time to tank.

  7. Let’s hope they keep up the winning play.

    On a different note…Hey Dan, any thoughts on why the site no longer saves my tag name and email. ?? I’m sure I touched something but can’t seem to find out what…thanks!!

    • ^ Have had the same problem but google autofill saved it so it’s a low priority issue for me

    • Thanks for the heads-up. I wasn’t aware that was happening. My guess is it’s related to an update on the back end, but we’re behind on a lot of technical stuff, so I’ll add that to the list of things to check.

  8. Good piece, Dan. I’m not ready to be optimistic yet, but our record with Burke starting is pretty striking (no pun intended).

    As to your last point, I wasn’t terribly happy when Jack Elliott got benched in the first place. I didn’t think he was doing so badly. Now, McKenzie stepped in and did a great job, so maybe Curtin was itching to give him a chance. But neither McKenzie nor Trusty can match Elliott’s long-ball passing ability. I would love to see him continue to start. And frankly, having 3 strong CBs is a great thing. They get hurt, they get suspended. You need more than 2. So I would also favor keeping all 3 of them rather than trading one. (I also like Richie Marquez, but maybe he’s the one to trade.)

    • And don’t forget about Josh Yaro, if he ever manages to stay healthy.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Hey Scottso, ever thing about a smart, 6’5” guy who can tackle and pass playing the #6, with two guys behind him who have elite pace and quickness?

  9. The Union are a playoff team. Or rather, they’re a 43 point team that should finish 5th (fingers crossed) or 6th (oh well). That midweeker at CMB is winnable, on the road in either NY isn’t.
    The U could win their own version of a double with the USOC and a postseason win. Not sure they’re “good”. ATL,NY,NY, even the Crew are good. PHI, MTL and NER are “well someone has to be 5-7th”. Could DC go on a tear a their house? Sure. Margins are razor thin. The gap between “actually good” and “playoff good” is noticeable this year.

  10. I’m not a fan of the playoffs an no relegation. Huge fan of supporter shield I guess to me is the real winner as well as open cup/champions league which I hope one day is actually marketed properly.

    I am liking the way we play atm. Even Jim had a game where he subbed the right guys (first time ever).

    Go union!!

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