Jim Curtain’s squad is outplaying their preseason expectations. The Union were expected to contend for the playoffs but not to dominate the East. Coming into the midway point, Philadelphia has not had this sort of regular season success historically. Notably, Marco Fabián has been a relative non-factor with only making appearances in 8 of their 17 games. Andrew Wooten has been signed to add a consistent goal scorer. So, what is driving the success behind a team that is only six points behind LAFC?
Playing Every Game like it’s the Final One
The energy and intensity of this side is quite different than past years. Leadership and a sense of urgency are exuding from Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin who are experienced MLS vets at this point in their career. They along with Andre Blake provide an ideal balance between the experienced members and the youth. Additionally, Curtain has implemented a formation change. He switched to a 4-4-2 diamond shape from a 4-3-3 defending one where this balanced side is thriving. The Union are averaging 1.82 points per game. Therefore, playing at home or on the road has not affected the result. With their most recent comeback against the Red Bulls, Philly should have a sense of confidence sitting atop the East.
Goal Differential Advantage
The Union are home cooking as they are outscoring their opponents 22:11. Accordingly, they have the second highest goad differential at +11. Surprisingly, their 31 total goals are shared by amongst their co-leaders in Ilsinho, Monteiro and Przybylko who have four each. The Sons of Ben were expecting Burke and Fabián to be leading the charge, but visa issues and injuries have kept them out of the lineup. To support their efforts on the road, Philly have scored as many goals as they have let up. Positioning yourself like this will allow for chances to win on the road. Their attacking position has a slight edge on the wings resulting in 22 open play goals. Diving more in depth, they are not getting lucky in these goals. Philly is averaging 1.82 goals per game and their xG (expected goals) is 1.72. Since there is not a large difference between these two statistics, the Union are entering the second half of the season in good form.
From their leading goal scorers, Ilsinho’s impact on this side has been significant. His heroics against the Red Bulls to lead them back from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 was incredible. Coined this season as the super-sub, he’s contributed four goals and four assists while only playing 669 minutes. Managers utilize subs as energy boosts or momentum changers, and Ilsinho has surpassed those expectations so far. Without Fabián in the lineup, Monteiro and home grown 18-year-old Brenden Aaronson have stepped right in. Monteiro has produced on the stat sheet while Aaronson has possessed and distributed the ball with confidence for a rookie. Someone who was expected to contribute but is going over expectations is Kai Wagner. A transfer from Germany has eased himself into the left back position. From the cohesion in the backline and his ability to push forward, it does not appear he was a transfer in this past February.
The Union will need to stick with the mantra of “Playing every game like its your last” to remain in first place. The franchise has not had any postseason success and they’re hoping this year will be different. However, at the end of the season, I do not expect Philly to be the one seed, but they will remain in the top three. Their lack of depth and inconsistent play from their strikers will play a critical factor as the season progresses on. If Wooten can step in seamlessly, then expect Philly to remain atop the East. Atlanta, NYCFC and D.C. are the teams that have a chance to surpass them in the standings. Finishing in the top three and winning their first-round match-up, Philadelphia would host its first second-round match-up in franchise history. The Union faithful should expect some postseason success from this squad.