The Philadelphia Union, at long last, won their first major trophy on Sunday. They defeated the New England Revolution at home and raised the trophy in front of 3,000 scattered supporters.
Obviously, this year has created different circumstances and shortened the regular season. But the Union are legitimate winners.
They surprised much of the league with their elite performance throughout this weird season. It seemed like they might be too young, or they might not have enough top-tier attacking talent to top the league over the course of the season. They proved doubters wrong with a brilliantly-assembled roster, mixed between youngsters and veterans and acquired in various ways. Jim Curtain proved himself as one of the league’s best coaches, putting himself in line to pick up a Coach of the Year trophy.
Union’s homegrowns lead the way
Philly has been known for producing quality players from their academy in recent years, and those players contributed heavily. Homegrown player Brenden Aaronson, scheduled to head to Red Bull Salzburg after this season, took the leap we were waiting for. Playing as the creator and No. 10-type, Aaronson grew more willing to get on the ball consistently and take on a bigger playmaking role. Box score production — four goals and seven assists —came with it.
Mark McKenzie is one of the top two or three contenders for Defender of the Year. Another Homegrown, McKenzie became an every-game starter at center back and performed at an elite level throughout the season, locking down a backline that boasts a surplus of talent.
Add in players like Anthony Fontana and Matthew Real and you see the Homegrown influence on this Union squad.
Smart international signings put Philadelphia on top
While the young stars shined, it was the smart signings Philadelphia made from Europe and South America that assured their success.
They stuck with their strike pairing from last year, Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos, players who were signed from the 2.Bundesliga and the Chilean first division. They brought in center back Jakob Glesnes from the Norwegian league to compete with Jack Elliott for a spot on the backline, and Glesnes won that battle. 23-year-old German left back Kai Wagner arrived in 2019 as a diamond in the rough from the German third tier. He’s one of the league’s best at the position.
Jamiro Monteiro continued to play at an elite level in the midfield. In his second season with Philly after arriving from Ligue 2’s FC Metz, he had three goals and six assists. Ilsinho, a former Shakhtar Donetsk winger, remains an immensely useful super-sub in his fifth year in Philly.
Jose Martinez’s contributions were immense
Their biggest improvement from last year, though, is the presence of Jose Martinez, a defensive midfielder who cleans up messes in front of the backline and breaks up plays with tenacity. They brought in Martinez from the Venezuelan top flight as a replacement for Haris Medunjanin, who was traded in the offseason. The goal was to get better defensively, exchanging an immobile passing wizard for a defensive bulldog who can still distribute the ball.
The gamble paid off. Martinez, part of a dominant midfield alongside veteran Alejandro Bedoya, Monteiro, and Aaronson, has been a best XI-caliber player this year. Though he’s missed time due to covid-19 and international duty with Venezuela, he has been fantastic in 14 regular season appearances.
With Andre Blake enjoying a career season at goalkeeper, the Union saw top-tier production almost everywhere on the field.
Worthy Supporters’ Shield winners
Philadelphia proved themselves as MLS’s best regular season team. Regardless of what happens in the postseason, this will go down as an immensely successful season for the club. They did it with smart signings, a productive academy, and a style of play that helped them play at a level greater than the sum of its parts.