Commentary / Union

The battle for supremacy in the East

Photo credit: Earl Gardner

The Eastern Conference has become a battleground ahead of the home stretch of the 2019 MLS season. The Philadelphia Union lead the table with 45 points from 26 matches played, but Atlanta United are looming, needing just a single win to equalize. New York City FC likewise look menacing on the horizon; their 38 points understates the fact that they still have 3 games in hand over the Union. In short, the next series of matches will be the difference between glory and disappointment for all of the giants in the East, especially the Union who have everything to lose.

Philadelphia stands uniquely positioned compared to all of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, because its destiny is firmly held within its own grasp. The 1st place Union, over the next 8 matches, will play the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th place teams in the East. Simply, they will face off against every single direct competitor in their Conference over the next two months. This means that the next two months will be the most challenging that the Union have ever had, and perhaps also the most historic.

What will the Union need to accomplish success as they battle for the chance to go deeper in playoffs than they’ve ever gone before? While it’s a complicated question that the Union staff will be working on throughout the next two months, there’s at least three simple key battles that the Union need to win on and off the pitch:

1. Buying points when they’re on sale.

Like Forrest Gump said to saliently describe life and boxes of chocolates, you never know what Union you’re going to get. While grinding out points from teams like Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United will require a herculean effort, they will have to become reliable at buying points when they’re on sale, meaning winning when they play teams that they should be winning against. An away match against Chicago Fire will be the first of their next 8 matches and the easiest three points they will have the chance at grabbing until next year. Likewise, D.C. United the following week, and Columbus Crew as their penultimate regular season match, should be prime targets for a Union that will be hungering for every point it can get.

2. No mistakes, full stop.

The biggest enemy to the Union’s success over the past couple of years has been themselves. Own goals, unmarked attackers, cheap penalties and set pieces, and naive red cards have all played a role in shaping the Union’s season so far. While the other teams in the East have been far from perfect themselves, this is the home stretch of the season, and those mistakes can be fatal. It will fall on the Union to ensure they have the discipline and reliability they need to prevent mistakes from finding their way onto the field. Giving a cheap goal away to Houston Dynamo over the weekend is one thing, but Los Angeles FC will certainly be less forgiving.

3. The beautiful game.

When the Union are playing beautiful soccer, it is truly something special. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that their potential for creating beautiful plays and opportunities is what brought them to first place and kept them there. It will be crucial that they continue their style of play by taking creative risks and showing a desire to score and a hunger for goals. The Union have a history of regressing into mindless possession in the middle third of the field, as if it’s their psychological reaction to stress. Finding a way to play their own style of soccer against assertive teams like Atlanta United and New York City FC will likely make the difference between domination and marginalization.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    The point about getting points when they’re on sale is spot on. You are at a point now where you have “win the games you are supposed to win”. At Chicago, vs DC, at Columbus (I think that’s a road game) is a 7 out of 9 point MUST. Exciting times. I really think this team is up for the challenge. That Atlanta game at the end of the month could be MONUMENTAL.

  2. When you look at the teams we’re facing, it certainly looks daunting. But when you look at the our opponents’ schedules you see that 5 of our next 6 games will be against teams running on tired legs from playing midweek while the Union have a week’s rest.
    Having Atlanta playing the Open Cup Final (which hopefully goes to extra time) just days before they travel to play us is potentially really beneficial to our season.

    • WOW… I did not realize that 5 of our next 6 opponents have midweek fixtures too!

      We really need that, because the thing Shayan didn’t really mention is… our immediate competitors have less difficult league games remaining than we do. This is marginally true for Atlanta, but definitely true for NYC FC.

  3. PhilinWilmington says:

    Is be thrilled with Philly finishing 2nd it 3rd, and in fact the style they have been playing this season suits them not having a bye in the first round of the playoffs. That said, it’s very very VERY satisfying to see this team play to potential and bet a few lucky breaks for a change. I hope everyone enjoys the ride!

    • I saw the graphic over the weekend of the playoff calendar. Looks like decision day is Sunday, next weekend is international break, and then first round weekend after that. So if you have the bye you actually have 3 weeks between competitive games- a recipe for coming out flat in that first playoff game. Would almost be better to play in that first round- how much of an advantage is it to get 2 weeks off when every other playoff team also gets a week off for rest? Still would probably like to finish first for pride purposes and take our chances from there though.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        Right. Pride, but I think more importantly, the Champions League. We’ve never made it that far. Would be great exposure, among other obvious benefits.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    Columbus isn’t going to be all that easy unless the Union are willing to likely give up the points in San Jose. Columbus is the third road game in a week with the games in New Jersey and San Jose before that.

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