Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 3-1 New York City FC

Photo credit: Stephen Speer

Know thyself.

So goes the famous Greek maxim on identity, about making foundational the act of affirming one’s own choice of being.

Know thyself.

Why put something so simple, so seemingly obvious, in stone atop a temple?

Because having an identity in the first place, let alone affirming it in the face of adversity, is as hard a thing to do as exists in the world.


The Philadelphia Union’s identity has been carved in the metaphorical stone of their own temple now for several years: a diamond-shaped midfield, 4-4-2 of a team that doesn’t give a lick about possession, baits its opponents into mistakes, and destroys them on counterattacks.

It’s an identity that has its own global culture (gegenpressing, et al.) – as well as a loud chorus of detractors (see: Bob Bradley) – and a track record of success on multiple continents.

On Sunday night, as the visiting New York City FC were celebrating their breathtaking, end-to-end opening tally, the Union-verse would be lying if they said there wasn’t a bit of doubt creeping into the conversation about identity.

This team isn’t build to come from behind…

City are going to bunker and we’ll have to break them down. The U aren’t good at breaking teams down…

Blake has to be perfect the rest of the way. A second goal would kill this thing off…

Whether one is a hipster trying to be a banker, a choir nerd trying out for the football team, or any other clichéd, anachronistic, juxtaposition of self and the world (Author’s note: these aren’t idle suggestions, but roughly the story of the author’s life), that choice of self in the face of a reality that asks for something other is difficult.

To put a point on it, the entire premise of this choice is where the idea of authenticity is born.

In the biggest game of the season, down a goal at home for only the third time all year, with a cup final on the line, the Union decided their sense of self was stronger than the adversity they faced and they leaned in to who they were.

  • Not only did they not try and possess the ball after going down a goal, they possessed it less than in the first half when they were out possessed 60% to 40% – not winning a single 5-minute interval the entire second stanza.
  • Not only did they not abandon their 4-4-2 or their right-sided bend in attack, but they instead brought creativity to the formation itself. On came left-footed Jack MyGlynn to invert that side of the field, allowing space for Olivier Mbaizo to overlap and Daniel Gazdag to run through – both spaces where Alejandro Bedoya would usually be, and both key features to their formational choice.
  • Not only did they press, they pressed higher up the field than they have in most of 2022, making playing out of the back a chore for the well-drilled City and once again forcing an errant kick from a goalkeeper in stoppage time – this time because of the tireless work rate of Leon Flach and Cory Burke.

When the game demanded they look themselves in the mirror, they did so, smiled, adjusted their tie, and went out to kick more ___.


It says something to the nature of this club that they haven’t wavered in this pursuit of self.

In a league where the narrative is constantly handing them the Union the short straw before asking anyone to draw in the first place, they constantly embrace the role. In a game against a team with two starters who cost more than the entire starting Union starting lineup (Heber and Martins), the Union prevailed – and that came just a week after doing the same against a team with one starter who cost as much as two years of Union wages (Cincinnati’s Brenner).

Jim Curtin used to say the team was bringing a knife to a gun fight when playing against top heavy sides like the ones they’ve faced in this postseason. Now one wonders if he’s in fact asking of his opponents, “Would you rather fight one horse-sized chicken or one hundred chicken-sized horses?” Curtin is picking the tiny thoroughbreds and picking his foes apart.

The Union will have a chance to reaffirm their identity one more time in 2022 – with the biggest, priciest stars they’ve faced yet.

Moreover, there won’t be a home crowd there to stand with them, but rather a sea of black ready to pull every thread of doubt that might exist – until the entire blue sweater is nothing more than a pile of string. This has happened before along the way, in undoings against the aforementioned Cincinnati and Charlotte most recently.

But that’s precisely why identity matters so much, especially against adversity. It’s easy to stand for something when everyone else stands behind you.

It’s far more impressive to stand alone.


  1. Great article Chris! (particularly for a hipster, banker, choir nerd) 😉

  2. Clap clap clap. Another excellent piece Chris.

  3. The Union Jack says:

    Excellent bit of writing Chris.

  4. I felt that this game was a microcosm of their season. In the first half, with the same starting XI as began the season, they created multiple chances and had a goal called back. Martinez got a (deserved) yellow card. And at the end of the half, it was a scoreless draw. I can imagine that at halftime, Coach Curtin told them the same thing that he told this fan base around May or June, “The goals will come.” But first, they had to go down a goal, which though it was not against the run of possession (a mostly meaningless statistic), was against the run of scoring chances. The crowd and the team renewed effort together, and the goals, which had been elusive in the first half, came. Carranza’s first goal was a replica of the one he scored against Nashville. His headed assist on Gazdag’s goal 2 minutes later was a thing of beauty (and but for Gazdag’s volleyed rocket against Toronto, my candidate for goal of the year thus far). And then, Cory Burke brought the energy and seemingly newly-found skill to left-foot the third goal, which deflated the Pigeons. The only difference is that we did not have to endure a negative spell at the end (Charlotte and Atlanta) to get to the end result. After they conceded the goal, they looked in the mirror and saw their resilient selves. Well done (and nice writing)!

  5. soccerdad720 says:

    whoa. Could be the best, well thought out and metaphored (sp?) article ever on PSP. Thank you.

    Be the lighthouse, Union. Be the lighthouse.

  7. Chris Gibbons says:

    Thank you everyone. I really appreciate the kindness.

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