Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Pre-match anxiety

Photo: 215Pix

No team in MLS has been more consistently successful over the last three seasons than our own Philadelphia Union. Perhaps you saw this from Friday:

It may have been posted on April 1, but it weren’t no April Fools. The Union have earned more points than any other team across the last three regular seasons, and have a Supporters’ Shield and last year’s run to the conference finals to show for it.

This season, they are second in the Supporters’ Shield standings, behind LAFC only by virtue of goal difference. Speaking of goal difference, they’ve given up just two and scored nine, in the process generating the best expected goal difference in the league, which measures the quality of the chances they generate versus the quality of the chances they allow.

The Union are creating chances better than previously and giving up fewer chances than ever.

In short, they are balling out.

And yet, I can’t seem to shake my pre-match anxiety.

Before the season began, listeners of the All 3 Points podcast heard me say that I was confident in the Union’s quality in a macro sense, but on the scale of an individual game I felt unable to predict how things would go. I still feel that way. I know, intellectually, that the Union are good—like, really good—but banking on that to show itself in a game? That feels like hubris, like tempting the wrath of the gods to smite the U as punishment for my overconfidence.

Coming in to the game against Charlotte, for instance, I could think of all sorts of ways to erode confidence. Yes, Charlotte are an expansion side, but I remember the Union struggling against Cincinnati in their first encounter (note that I don’t know if they actually did struggle; I just remember them doing so). Plus, coming out of an international break is always tricky. Sure, the Union were in good form beforehand, but two weeks is plenty of time to cool off. Plus, that Karol Świderski guy was coming off two consecutive braces. The Union hadn’t faced a striker like that recently (sure, they bottled up Taty Castellanos, but that was weeks ago, plus NYC is playing like crap right now). Perhaps, in the time since last we’d seen them, the Union had found a way to revert to being fragile, weak, clumsy, labored, foolish—pick any of the negative terms we might have used to describe previous iterations of this franchise.

Yet then the Union came out and immediately broke down a five-man defensive front, getting behind the backline and producing one of the most dangerous plays in soccer, the cutback from the endline, and won the game in about minute five. Their press created a Charlotte mistake just as early in the second half and Dániel Gazdag scored a gimme to seal it. Other folks will analyze the game in more detail, but suffice it to say that the Union looked every inch the league leaders. It was a comprehensive win, without their talismanic captain Alejandro Bedoya and with Mikael Uhre still finding his feet in limited minutes. As Curtin has said multiple times now, the Union have yet to play their best. They have yet to play their best, and this is how good they are anyway.

But do I feel confident? Only in theory.

That’s just one of the caveats my brain wants to bring up. The next run of games includes hosting Columbus, with away trips to LA, Nashville, and New York. Those will be tough games! Or maybe going to Toronto will be too much. Or hosting Montréal could be a banana skin. What if Uhre generates three breakaways a game but can’t finish any of them, like a Sergio Santos 2.0? What if José Martínez breaks some chump’s leg and gets banned for six games? God forbid Jakob Glenses or Jack Elliott get injured. What if Jim Curtin or Ernst Tanner decide to leave?

I understand that the Union will not go undefeated. And they will drop points in ways that are regretful, whether or not dropping points is inevitable. Knowing these things should be a comfort to my mind, but winning does complicated things. On the one hand, each win slowly chips away at the cynical armor I’ve built up through years training atop the Cliff of Union Despair. Every positive showing of growth and development is more evidence in a growing mountain of it that the Union are who they appear to be: the best team we’ve ever had here.

But with every win, I can’t help but worry that the inevitable collapse will be even more painful.

I know it’s not rational. I don’t expect it to happen. But that’s what my lizard brain whispers at me before each game—Today is the day they fail.

And that is why I love watching this team. They prove my deep-set fears wrong, every game.

The highest compliment I can pay to the Union is that they almost never beat themselves. The collective composure with which Curtin has imbued his team is so strong that costly individual mistakes stick out—they are flagrant outliers. And when they do lose, it’s one game. There are no death spirals, no terrible recriminations. They hold each other accountable and move forward.

Maybe someday my brain will catch up.


  1. John P. O'Donnell says:

    I believe you left out we don’t spend enough money to compete with teams. Coming into the season the fact that everyone kept ignoring who made the playoffs compared to team roster spending, instead of how playoff teams build a roster to compete adds to that “lizard brain” syndrome.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Union didn’t really struggle in their first game against Cincinnati, unless you include the struggle to stay dry in pouring rain. It was a 0-2 win.
    Union did struggle in their first game against Nashville, it was one of the 4 times they were shutout last season and the last time they were shutout when they had fewer than 7 players unavailable.
    The real struggle with expansion is whether they will ever actually play against Austin. It didn’t happen last year and is not on the schedule for this year.

  3. SilverRey says:

    I think part of it is that this is such a chameleon of a team right now. At one point in the second half I asked my group who they thought had the most possession – a few said 80/20 Union, others said 40/60 Charlotte. It was actually 50/50 up to that moment (though did end up being 40/60 by the end).
    We still have that ’19 death-by-1000-passes DNA so we can still hold onto the ball when we want to.
    But obv we don’t want to right now, so we’re just as comfortable w/o the ball.
    Add that to the fact that Jim really has his guys dialed in right now, and boom – nobody knows how to deal with us.
    As a team we’re thriving on chaos (Santos leads MLS in final third pressures right now), but to your point, as a fan it’s hard to rely on chaos – but I’m here for it!!!!

  4. Chris Gibbons says:

    The best thing about writing the Match Report or running the Twitter for PSP is detaching my emotions from the game in front of me (at least in part). I don’t really get nervous when I’m “working” a game, there’s too much to prep.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Whenever I get inside my own head about this team, I just remember to breathe and think about Andrew Wenger running the ball over the end-line, by himself, unchallenged… and Danny Cruz (bless his heart), just trying so hard, but having such a small amount of skill…
    I would justify those teams… I would be so desperate for a win, or for some games to just have them compete – then I would immediately do the math and say, well, if they can put together a run of games – we might be able to squeak into the playoffs!! Then we’d miss by multiple points… which of course I knew deep down would be the case.
    So I breathe. I’m just living in the moment and enjoying the hell out of this team right now and in the last few years. It’s all cyclical. We can’t be this good forever. So yeah, I’m gonna get cocky sometimes and yeah I am going to assume they are going to win some games – because for a while back there – we never really had a chance to do that.
    But dammit Jeremy – your article is spot on! HA!

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      LOL. I was there for that Wenger run! And Conor Casey getting the ball in the box and just banging it straight into the shins of the defender right in front of him, over and over.

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    Yet they get almost ZERO respect nationally. It’s amzaing.
    This team has displayed it is so difficult to score against… they’ll lose some games, but generally speaking I expect there will not be many.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      The Major League Soccer soccer dot com writers seem to acknowledge the Union’s ability, but I don’t see much other places.

    • We have been getting some scant…very scant coverage on local news,but I agree that The U don’t see any national respect. I think MLS as a whole still doesn’t get the attention of other sports. Kind of remarkable. This many years in and unless there’s a MLS team in your market I don’t think there’s much coverage!

  7. No one likes us… we’re from f-ing Chester.

    Hosting MLS Cup 2022 in Chester!

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