For Pete's Sake

With the Shield in sight, can the Union win the Cup?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Sergio Santos finished the fourth hat trick in Union history and jumped into the waiting arms of his teammates, substitutes warming up for a game already well out of hand.

A smattering of fans in the River End, faces masked, celebrated along with their Boys in Blue, who’d just put the capstone to a 5-0 rout of the supposed best team in the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC.

Like so many others, it was a scene that could only be from this craziest of years, 2020.

The win over Toronto gave the Union the lead in the Supporter’s Shield race, a lead they extended through last night’s choppy 2-1 win over Chicago Fire. With two matches left, it would take a major stumble by Philadelphia to fall short of the club’s first-ever trophy now. Even in this virus-ravaged year, it counts.

But the real gauntlet still lies ahead: the road to MLS Cup, the league championship. For the first time in history, the Union are serious contenders to bring home that particular hardware — but that result is far from a sure thing.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors for and against the Union’s chances of claiming the cup.

The case for

Start with the obvious: even if they don’t win the Shield, the Union will have one of the best records in the league. They’ve already banked 44 points, good for over two points per game so far this season. With only two losses in league play since March, Philadelphia has put together better form than any other side in MLS.

That pace has also given the Union inside track on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If they win the Shield, every game from the first round through to MLS Cup will be at Subaru Park. With the pandemic making travel complicated, that’s a big edge — reflected in the Union’s undefeated record at home in 2020.

The Union are also built for playoff success. Unlike last year’s team, which shipped goals almost as fast as they scored them, this season’s defense is a strength. Anchored by MLS Best XI defender Mark McKenzie and stellar offseason acquisitions Jakob Glesnes and Jose Martinez and backed up by a keeper at the peak of his powers in Andre Blake, the defense has stifled even some of the league’s best teams. Since the return to regular action in August, the Union have allowed multiple goals to an opponent just one time in 16 matches. And the offense, although lacking a top-of-the-league goalscorer, has plenty of firepower, both in the deep striker corps and a midfield that loves to chip in goals of their own.

Finally, there’s Jim Curtin. The man has put in a coach-of-the-year shift in a season unlike any other. Night after night, he hits the right buttons to get the club going, or makes the right changes at the right time to pull out a necessary result. From the outside, it seems clear that this is a well-led, tight-knit squad that won’t crumble under the bright lights…

No Union team would do that, would they?

The case against

I don’t need to rehash the history that this fanbase knows all too well.

Until 2019, the club had never won a playoff game, and suffered devastating defeats (of varying types) in three U.S. Open Cup finals. Even last season’s team, riding high after a club-best season, needed a miraculous second half and extra time to topple New York Red Bulls before being summarily dispatched by Atlanta United in the second round. While Curtin has had an outstanding season, he still has something to prove on the big stage given the club’s history of disappointments.

There’s also a question of whether the Union will have their whole roster available in, at least, the first round. The playoffs kick off after a FIFA international window, and Curtin has indicated that there is a lot of interest in Union internationals from their respective federations. Obviously that situation is in flux, but given quarantine requirements that come with out-of-country travel it’s not a guarantee that international players will be available for the first-round matches. Philadelphia also must get through the final two matches without any major injuries — eyes will be on Blake, who left Wednesday’s match with a hand injury, to see whether he’s ready to go in his next start.

Even if the Union are at full strength, these will be challenging matches. The gap between Philadelphia and the pack is not enormous, and most of the playoff teams have the potential to frustrate the Union. Remember: Philly’s only two defeats since the restart have come against fellow top sides Toronto and Columbus, and battle-tested Seattle looms in the West. As for lower-seeded teams, it’s been a struggle at times this year for the Union to break down teams that are determined to cede possession and sit back.

In these tight games, the spotlight will be on the club’s streaky forwards — Santos, Kacper Przybylko, and Cory Burke — to get goals out of very little. If they’re not up to the task, the Union won’t be lifting any hardware at the end of the playoffs.

One step at a time

The path to playoff glory is wide open, no question, and the Union fanbase is right to be excited about their squad.

(Excitement that may, of course, be somewhat tempered by the raging pandemic — which, with the positive test for Martinez Wednesday night, has again infiltrated the Union team. There is a bittersweetness to this team’s accomplishments, which have come in front of a tiny number of fans  instead of a raucous crowd filling every seat in the house. But that is a topic for another time.)

There is, of course, still work to be done in the regular season, with this weekend’s game against Columbus the last big pre-playoff measuring stick. (I would rather inject bleach into my lungs than watch another match between the Union and New England — alas, that’s the season finale.)

After that, though, it’s all on the table for the Union.

For the first time ever, there’s a legitimate chance they’ll be lifting MLS Cup on December 12.

We’ll be watching, intently, to see whether they will.


  1. It’s possible that Martinez’s positive test and Blake’s injury could be blessings in disguise if they happen to last just long enough to prevent them from getting called up for international duty. Maybe the Union need to fake a couple of positive tests for Monteiro too..:-) 🙂

    • Andy, I like the way your mind works. I had exactly the same thoughts.
      Blake needs to not have broken something. Badly dislocating something would not be good either.
      I am assuming Jim Curtin was telling the truth about tangling his fingers in the net.


  2. MLS Cup is really pretty random. The union should be as likely to win it as they’ve been to get to the final of the Open Cup. I’d say they’re as likely right now as any team to win it.

    One caveat is Blake. I think they have to have him to seal the deal. If there is a Union MVP it might be blake. He’s stopped 63 of the 81 shots he’s faced, kept 8 clean sheets. He’s been a real difference-maker all season. We might survive without Montiero or Martinez, but to win a tournament like MLS Cup without Blake is asking too much.

    • It’s slightly less random than the US Open Cup in that the location is based on the season rather than random. I believe the Union’s record at home in the Open Cup is pretty good with only 3 losses, one in regulation (KC in 2012), one in overtime (Seattle in 2014) and one in PK’s (KC in 2015). Other than that, all of their Open Cup eliminations have been on the road.

    • Agree about Blake but my reasoning is because he earned the right to be there. Blake has made some enormous saves. In fairness though, generally, the defending is why this team has given up so few goals in my opnion. Very hard to break them down.
      I’m okay with Joe in between the posts if this is the case.

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