A View from Afar / Union

Not over yet: The Union’s biggest games are still to come

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Still pumped over Philadelphia Union’s 5-0 pasting of Toronto FC to go top of the table?

Here’s why you — and the Union — don’t get to savor it any longer.

On Apr. 22, 2018, I sat on the piazza in front of my apartment in Naples, Italy, with 500 of my closest friends, as a half dozen outdoor televisions showed Napoli pull off a stunning win over Juventus. After nearly the full 90 had gone scoreless, Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly headed in the game-winning goal to propel his club back into the title race.

Everyone went nuts. Screams, cheers, fireworks, parties. It was on.

With four matches left to play, Napoli had closed to within a point of first place Juventus and looked destined to win it all. A city full of fans just like Philadelphia’s — cynical, infamous, entertaining — dared to hope. 

A week later, Napoli crapped the bed in epic fashion. Koulibaly earned a red card eight minutes into their next match, and they lost 3-0 to Fiorentina. A subsequent home draw killed any remaining shot at winning Serie A. 

Now, why did I have to go ruin Saturday’s win for you?

I didn’t. It’s still massive. The Union’s first half performance against Toronto was perhaps the most impressive half of soccer we’ve ever seen from this club, and the rest was just piling on.

But that was not the most important game of the season.

The next game is.

Then the next game after that, and the one after that.

Because the Union’s first ever trophy is in sight.

So focus your eyes on the real prize.

The Supporters’ Shield is back in play, now that the Supporters’ Shield Foundation has reversed an earlier decision and will in fact award the trophy to the club with the best record in MLS.

The Union have the league’s best record with three games left to play, tied with Toronto on points and wins but running away on goal differential, the key tiebreaker after total wins.

They host Chicago on Wednesday, travel to Columbus on Sunday, and host New England on Nov. 8 to close the season.

None of those is an easy game. Chicago is far more talented than their record, Columbus had the league’s best record until injuries struck, and New England is rounding into a playoff threat thanks to the return of Lee Nguyen.

Toronto plays New York City, Miami, and the Red Bulls down the stretch, with only the final game on the road. (Caveat: The two “home” games will be played in Connecticut due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on travel to Canada.) Those are all eminently winnable games. 

The Union are beyond being just happy to be here. They’re the best team in the league. Now they have to prove it for the history books.

Injuries and showtime

In the wake of Saturday’s blowout, we’ve heard a lot about how Toronto was playing without five starters.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let’s remember that the Union played without three of their four starting defenders when they lost 2-1 to Toronto on Oct. 3. And that the Union basically did that for weeks.

This is a bizarre and challenging season for everyone because of the pandemic, and Toronto has it worse than many due to the inability to return home to Canada due to quarantine measures.

But no excuses.

The Union systematically demolished Toronto.

Their defensive pressure was relentless.

Their passing was pristine.

And the show — goodness, what a show.

From Kai Wagner’s inch-perfect cross to the Sergio Santos Show and the perfect Brenden Aaronson dummy that let Jamiro Monteiro go upper 90, the attack was a monstrous thing of beauty. And with Jose Martinez owning Alejandro Pozuelo so thoroughly that I forgot the latter’s name, we see pretty clearly who the league’s best defensive midfielder is this year.

The Union have the league’s best record because they have depth. They kept winning even when injuries, suspensions, and international duty claimed key contributors. They didn’t lose 5-0 to anyone. 

The team is the star

We haven’t seen a top club with so many unsung heroes since Salt Lake was winning trophies under Jason Kreis. For that team, the slogan was “the team is the star.”

So it is for the Union, playing the same 4-4-2 diamond formation in a very different way.

Kacper Przybylko may be struggling to hit the net, but he recorded three assists to three different players Saturday.

Monteiro and Alejandro Bedoya have been absolute stud No. 8s, outworking their opponents just like Martinez. Mark McKenzie may win Defender of the Year, but he steadily makes things look so effortless that he’s probably underrated at this point. (Aaronson has been great, but McKenzie is the best young player in the league in my book.) And Ray Gaddis has made Gaddis Island a popular tourist destination again for visiting wingers.

The Union are winning without a large number of designated players and may be the best advertisement for revamping the league’s salary structure to allow for fewer big names and more unheralded but equally talented stars. They don’t need a Zlatan or Chicharito. Give us players like Monteiro, Bedoya, Martinez, and McKenzie any day.

Health and Warren Creavalle

Right now, nearly everyone is healthy for the Union, save one surprisingly key player: backup defensive midfielder Warren Creavalle.

Martinez, Bedoya, and Monteiro have been fantastic but prone to yellow card accumulation and the suspensions that come with it. Bedoya leads the league in cautions, Martinez ranks eighth in far fewer minutes, and Monteiro will miss his next game due to card accumulation. And they do need a breather now and again.

The Union need Creavalle healthy and available for reserve duty and spot starts. Anthony Fontana and Ilsinho may be extraordinarily talented, but they are far more attack-minded and not like-for-like replacements. Nobody else can really fill the No. 6 role behind Martinez. 

Union head coach Jim Curtin clearly recognizes it, and his lack of Creavalle has forced him to shoehorn starting center back Jack Elliott into his old college role of holding midfielder behind Martinez, with Jakob Glesnes starting at center back. Glesnes may be up to his task, but Elliott isn’t the answer at defensive midfield. His midfield instincts have atrophied as he’s evolved into a top flight center back.

On a team full of unheralded contributors, Creavalle could prove as important as any of them.

8 Comments

  1. Hopefully the Union can take care of business in the two home games and put together a perfect record at PPL/Talen/Subaru (although beating New England a 4th time in one season won’t be easy). The hardest one is Columbus. When the last part of the schedule came out, the first thing I commented on was that the Union play in Columbus twice without getting a home game against them. That’s bad luck considering I believe the Crew are the team with the biggest differential between home and away (both “away” wins were during the MLS is back tournament). Given that the Union have 9 true home games and 11 on the road (albeit 2 “at” Canadian teams playing in the US), it seems like Sunday’s game could have just as easily been scheduled in Chester rather than Columbus.
    .
    The other team to worry about is Seattle. If both the Union and Toronto lose, Seattle could easily win their last 4 and take the shield…they only need to make up 4 in goal differential. In the meantime it’s going to be weird rooting for NYCFC tomorrow night (and possibly the Pink Cows on the last day of the season).

  2. It’s time for Matej Oravec to step up in place of Creavalle

    • I thought the same thing at one point, my goblin friend, but if we have not seen him yet, I don’t think we will.

    • So why hasn’t Oravec been given a chance?
      At this stage of the season it’s fairly obvious.

      • We, the public will probably never know, but I have to trust Curtin on this. Oravec must not have earned it yet. That’s on him, not Curtin.

  3. Union 41pts – vChi @Crew vRevs
    TFC 41pts – vNYCFC vIMFC @NYRB
    Crew 35pts- @DC vUnion @Orl vAtl
    SKC 33pts – @FCC vMinn @RSL (*@Col*)
    Seattle 32 pts – @Van (@Col) @LAG vSJ (*@Col*)
    .
    If Union get a tie and a win they knock the rest of the league out of contention, and 3 of those 4 teams above need close to a perfect finish to catch them. Let’s face it – if the Union don’t get at least 4 pts they prob drop off the top anyway.
    .
    I have no idea how the league will deal with the Colorado games, but both teams out West have a relatively easy (if not potentially packed) finish.
    If the CRapids games are dropped and they go by ppg, Union need two wins to ensure Seattle can’t catch them. One win puts them ahead of SKC in this scenario.
    .
    Both Toronto and Union have the hardest finish in terms of avg points/team. Both also have two home one away, where everyone else is traveling more.
    .
    There is a lot of work to be done.
    .
    Let’s hope it finishes with U sitting at the (top of the) table with a shiny plate and drinking out of the cup!!!!

  4. JUST. WIN.

  5. Incredible how Curtin has been able to get the best out of ‘average’ players. He has come a long way; he has learned well over the years. Glad that the Union put the $’s into the Academy instead of going after expensive DP’s.

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