For Pete's Sake

Now the real work begins

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Sunday’s game felt more like a party than a contest.

Philadelphia Union’s chance to win the Supporters’ Shield was already gone, and the only thing standing between them and a first-round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs was a ragged, shorthanded Toronto FC side that wanted nothing more than their season to come to an end.

The game was over when Daniel Gazdag scored, a whopping four minutes into the game. He’d add two more on the day, his second hat trick of the year and finishing his season with a club-record 22 goals.

Broken record(s)

Let’s zoom in on Gazdag for a moment.

Sure, he put together the most productive season for a Union attacker — ever.  (Ten assists to go along with those 22 goals.) And his vision, passing, and shooting all helped unlock one of the most dangerous attacking trios in MLS — himself, Mikael Uhre (who also scored on Sunday), and Julian Carranza. That group fueled the best goal-scoring season in club history, with a whopping 72 goals in 34 matches.

But what was also impossible to miss about Gazdag’s performance on Sunday was his commitment to defense. He harried and harassed Michael Bradley, Toronto’s veteran No. 6, making it difficult for the visitors to build anything from the back. He chased the ball deep into his own half at times, giving the Union plenty of numbers to secure yet another clean sheet.

That defensive work is what makes Gazdag the perfect No. 10 for what the Union are trying to do, as manager Jim Curtin said after the match. And it’s a leaps-and-bounds improvement from his slightly unsettled and exhausted first half-season in MLS, where Gazdag tried to find his footing while being often played out of position as a second striker.

What’s amazing about this team is that Gazdag is an exceptional player and a league MVP candidate…

… and yet you could make the case that he’s maybe the sixth most important player on his own team.

After all, a club record for most goals is nice, but a league record for fewest goals conceded is even more impressive. And that wouldn’t have been possible without:

  • Brick wall Andre Blake, a shoo-in for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and one of the best keepers in MLS history,
  • Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, an unbreakable 1a and 1b in the center of the Union’s defense,
  • Kai Wagner, the league’s best left back and producer of an amazing 15 assists from the back line,
  • And Alejandro Bedoya, the seemingly ageless club captain, whose absence coincided with two of the Union’s more frustrating results on the season recently.

(You could throw Jose Martinez in there too, if you wanted, as he’s been mostly excellent if uneven at the No. 6.)

It speaks to the incredible job that Ernst Tanner has done to build the roster, Curtin has done to coach it, and Bedoya and co. to turn a group of guys into a true team.

Playoff push

As great as the Union have been this year, though, what matters now is turning that success into the club’s first-ever MLS Cup.

The 2020 team is a cautionary tale. In that weird COVID season, the Union took home the Supporters’ Shield, along with a host of end-of-season honors. But their first playoff game would also be their last playoff game, a stunningly poor performance against New England Revolution that undercut everything that came before.

This year’s squad will be motivated to avenge not just that defeat, but last year’s heartbreaker, too. After memorable victories in extra time (against Red Bulls) and after penalties (against Nashville), everything was going right for the Union heading into the conference final… until eleven players entered COVID protocols before the match, and a shorthanded side fell to eventual champion NYC FC.

The circumstances this year are different. This Union team is better than both the 2020 and 2021 iterations, boasting more firepower and more defensive solidity. COVID has had very little impact on this season, though I advise everyone in the Union training facility to wear their N95s throughout the playoffs anyway. And, although there are some good teams in the Eastern Conference bracket, the Union should be favored in any matchup. (That said, I’m sure no one wants to see Union Ohio — FC Cincinnati — come to town, as one of the few sides that gave Philly a serious issue this season.)

It might be a long time before we see a regular season like that from this team again. The Union did just about everything they could possibly do in the regular season to set themselves up for playoff success.

But, now, the real test begins.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    That New England game was also where fans found out that Martinez had a knee injury and was subbed at halftime – while the Revs got Gil back. Double bad.

  2. We do all realize that if the Union do manage to win MLS Cup, the Phillies will win the World Series in 7 games and no one but us die hards will notice the Union’s win. (Game 7 of the World Series is scheduled for the same day as MLS Cup.)
    I’ll be the “no one” that wants to see Cincinnati rather than New Jersey come to town on October 20. Both teams gave the Union fits in their trips to Subaru Park (don’t forget, the Union blew the lead against New Jersey while up a man), and New Jersey has been the better road team all season, picking up 4 more points on the road than the Union. (Montreal will be even scarier to play. They picked up 35 points on the road which was as many points as any team except the Union and LAFC picked up at home.)

  3. Biggest “what if” of the season (so far) to me: what if Bedoya plays and we win either ATL or CLT—we win the Shield.

    • Or just a draw in Charlotte. We missed it by a point! 🙁

      • Or if MLS didn’t make most losses the first tiebreaker and got in line with every other league in the world.

      • @Andy Muenz – I agree with the part about getting with the rest of the world, but when you don’t have pro/rel, why would we expect MLS to get in line. I remember the good old MLS days when the clocks counted down.

        But the reason for this reply – total losses is not the first tie-breaker. LAFC had 9 to the Union’s 5. The first tiebreaker is which team has more wins. Sure LAFC had one more win, but 4 more losses. They should get with the rest of the world, but…

      • Actually, LAFC had 2 more wins than the Union. MLS may say that the first tiebreaker is most wins, but it’s really most losses, since each extra win implies 2 extra losses if teams are tied on points.

      • This is why I don’t like the win tiebreaker. LA was beaten four more times than the Union. It completely negates the draw as having value. Whatever… No one will care. Gotta win the Cup.

  4. Best thing going for this team into the playoffs is the “been there, done that” experience of last year. These guys know they can do this and should have the confidence to keep the expectations high and the nerves calm. Gotta be steel.

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