Major League Soccer

MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Philadelphia Union

Chris Smith
The Philadelphia Union are a mobile, efficient unit.
The Philadelphia Union are a mobile, efficient unit. /

The Philadelphia Union are back in the MLS Cup Playoffs after another strong regular season.

Winners of last year's Supporters' Shield, Jim Curtin's side finished second in the East and this time around will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the post-season. Though they'll be hoping to go at least one better in the Playoffs after being dumped out in Round One last time.

So here's everything you need to know about the Philadelphia Union ahead of the post-season - from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did Philadelphia Union make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Concacaf Champions League commitments really messed with the Union's start to the season with just one point from their opening three MLS matches. But once CCL took a back seat, Philly got to work, with only a minor summer dip halting their progress.

A run of just one defeat in their final 11 games saw Curtin's side rise above the pack into second in the East. And although they ended up 19 points behind the Revs, they boasted the second-best defensive record in MLS to cover for their more modest attack.

After falling to the Supporters' Shield curse last season, the Union may feel a little more liberated in the Playoffs this time around.

Jim Curtin: Tactics and style of play

Jim Curtin is one of the strongest American managers around.
Jim Curtin is one of the strongest American managers around. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Curtin is a real advocate of the diamond midfield and has stuck to at least a close variant of the 4-1-2-1-2 formation for pretty much the entire season. Philadelphia love to press and chase high up, but are impressively efficient and disciplined when it comes to recovering their defensive shape.

Despite being incredibly tall, Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott are excellent ball players and surprisingly threatening in front of goal, both on the ground and in the air. Behind them, Andre Blake is arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS - it's between him and Matt Turner.

Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo provide the width and are protected by the industrious running of Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, and Jose Martinez in the more withdrawn midfield roles. That said, Flach and Bedoya, in particular, like to get forward and the interchanging of positions in these areas is incredibly fluid.

Jamiro Monteiro is the all-action No.10, splitting defenses, driving the ball forward, and relentlessly pressing. He operates behind a strike partnership of Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos that isn't the most prolific in MLS but incredibly hard-working and intelligent.

Of course, the Union are famed for their homegrowns and as the season has gone on, the likes of Paxten Aaronson and Jack McGlynn have become more prominent.

Who are Philadelphia Union's key players?

Andre Blake: As mentioned, Blake has a serious claim on being the best 'keeper in the league. It'll be between him and Turner for the Goalkeeper of the Year award, which he won in 2020. Blake overperformed his xGA by 7.71 through the regular season. Translated, that basically means he saved the Union almost eight goals - a league-high among goalkeepers. Blake is agile, confident, and commanding - a huge difference-maker between the sticks.

Alejandro Bedoya: To go far in the Playoffs, you need experience and leadership. Few tick those boxes quite as well as Bedoya. A two-time Gold Cup winner with the USMNT and veteran with time logged in Sweden, Scotland, and France, Bedoya has been around the block. He's been a cornerstone of this Union team since 2016, too. Even at 34, Bedoya has plenty of energy left in the tank and he's a key defensive piece at the heart of the Union's midfield - though don't write off his ability to grab a few goals himself.

Kacper Przybylko: After all the disruptions of 2020, Pryzybylko has returned as the Union's top scorer this season, hitting 12 goals during the regular season. Obviously, there are far more clinical strikers in MLS, but Przybylko's ability to hold the ball up and act as a focal point is vital when Philadelphia are looking to throw numbers forward quickly. Perhaps more importantly, half of the Polish striker's 12 goals came in the final 11 games of the season hinting he could be hitting form at the perfect time.

How far can Philadelphia Union go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Will the Union go all the way?
Will the Union go all the way? / Matthew Burt

Although the Union can be entertaining with their direct style, they find themselves way down in 13th throughout the league for goals scored (48). They're also way down the league for open-play goals, xG, and non-penalty xG. If they can't punch through in transition, Philadelphia struggle to break teams down, and that could be their undoing in the latter half of the Playoffs.

Still, they should have enough to win at home against the Red Bulls in what should be an incredibly entertaining Round One match between two relentless pressing teams. If they do that, it'll be just the second time they've ever won a Playoff match - the first, of course, being against RBNY just two years ago.

Prediction: Conference semi-final