With a relentless and gritty style of play that’s uniquely Philly, a stadium with stunning views of the Commodore Barry Bridge and the Delaware River, and a home atmosphere that head coach Jim Curtin has called “the best party that there is in Philadelphia,” the Union of Major League Soccer are no longer the best kept secret in the Philly sports landscape as they enter their 14th season.
Add in that on the field in 2022: the team reached the MLS Cup Final for the first time; led the league in goals scored (franchise record 72) and fewest goals allowed (MLS record 26); tied for the league lead in points (67); set a team record with 19 wins; had the league’s Coach of the Year (Curtin), Goalkeeper of the Year (Andre Blake), and Defender of the Year (center back Jakob Glesnes), this team has high expectations and is focused on making the next step of capturing the MLS Cup while also contending for four other trophies in what will be a busy 2023.
It’s been a steady climb into the upper echelon of MLS for the boys in blue. Curtin, who has been at the helm since midway through the 2014 season, has guided the team to the MLS postseason in five straight seasons and six of the last seven.
Each year the team has seen postseason improvement. In 2018, the Union were eliminated in the knockout round. In 2019 the team won its first-ever postseason game and in 2020, the team led the league in points to earn the Supporters Shield but was bumped out of the playoffs in the conference semifinals. In 2021, they finally reached the Eastern Conference Final, only to suffer a tough one-goal loss to NYCFC with 11 players (five starters) sidelined due to COVID protocols, setting the stage for the record-shattering 2022 season.
“If you go back over the last five seasons, we’ve gone one step further. It was winning that first playoff game (2019), then we had the COVID year of 2020, then we get past that hump into the Eastern Conference Final (2-1 loss to NYCFC in 2021), then get to a heartbreaking loss in the MLS Cup Final last year, so the next logical step – I wish it were so simple – is to win it.” Curtin said following a training session the week before the 2023 season opener – a 4-1 home win over Columbus on Feb. 25.
“We know how hard it is to get back there. At the start of every season, there’s hope in every franchise and you have 28 other teams that think they have something special but very few teams actually do. I think we’re one of the consistent teams now over the last five seasons where we’ve built a winner and we’re now expected to win which is a new role for us.”
The Union will play their usual 34-game MLS schedule to pursue the MLS Supporters Shield, with a potential of six more playoff games to capture MLS Cup, but the team is also participating in the U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League and Leagues Cup (a new annual competition starting this summer between clubs from MLS and the top league in Mexico, Liga MX). So, the potential for more than 50 games across all competitions this season is possible.
Captain and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who is as Philly as any pro athlete you’ll find among the five major pro teams in town, is in his eighth season with the club, and in his tenure, the team has really seen its profile rise in direct correlation to its winning percentage.
“We had a fantastic season last year with all of the records and defensively how strong we were and getting to the MLS Cup Final,” said Bedoya, who recorded a career-high six goals and a career-high-tying six assists in 2022. “The linear progression we’ve made as a club in my time here has been incredible. Credit to everyone involved. But in this league, there’s so much parity, so it’s very tough to make it again year after year. But we’ve shown the level of consistency that we need to be successful.”
According to Curtin, consistency is a big deal for the Union. In fact, it starts with him as he enters his 10th season. The team returns all 11 starters from last year’s record-setting team, which connected for an MLS record-tying 49 home goals in 2022. Midfielder Dániel Gazdag set a franchise single-season record with 22 goals, good for second in the league, and he became only the sixth player in MLS history to record a 20-goal, 10-assist season. Gazdag and forward Julián Carranza (career highs of 14 goals and nine assists in 2022) each scored twice in the Union’s 2023 season opener.
“Consistency is the key word that you hit on,” said Curtin, the two-time MLS Coach of the Year (2020, ’22) and the youngest to win the honor twice. “That’s what we’ve become. We’ve become a pretty consistent group. The continuity of our 11 starters is really strong. They know each other’s strengths and, more importantly, they know each other’s weaknesses and they really can cover for each other on the field. We’ve not only kept all of those guys but we’ve added some real pieces that I think give us more depth than last year.”
Bedoya agrees that with all starters back from 2022, it should really help them start fast.
“The fact that we’ve been able to keep the core of the team intact with our starting 11, where other teams may have a lot more turnover is a benefit to us. And then, with the added depth pieces that we’re going to need throughout the season because of so many games, this is the deepest team we’ve had since I’ve been here and that’s awesome.”
Another reason for their success? The home-field advantage of Subaru Park. The Union were unbeaten at home in 2022 (12 wins, zero losses and five ties). And in the past four seasons, the Union have lost just six times at the stadium in Chester, PA, going 44-6-13, including the 2023 season-opening win.
“Homefield advantage is huge in this league just because of the travel and the way it’s all set up. In front of our fans, it gets loud in there, the atmosphere has been unbelievable and that helps us a lot,” Bedoya explained on the team’s training grounds just days before the season opener. “We have to keep taking advantage of Subaru Park being a fortress and winning our games at home. It’s tough to win away games here in this league and the fact that we’re able to have a strong winning percentage at home is huge.
“My kids are starting to go to school and it’s great to see families from their school come up to me and say, ‘Wow, that was my first Union game and the atmosphere is awesome, it’s even more exciting than going some of the other games I’ve been to’ – no disrespect meant to the other teams in town – ‘people are loud, they’re chanting, singing, celebrating, it’s fantastic.’ ”
Curtin glowingly talked about his club’s edge at home.
“A lot can be said about the advantage we have here,” he said, nodding toward the stadium which sits across from the team’s practice fields. “(Subaru Park) has a real buzz. It’s not the biggest stadium in the league or the fanciest. It’s not the newest with the most amenities or suites but, it’s kind of ours.”
Curtin’s description was reminiscent of fans’ thoughts on Veterans Stadium, the notorious and often maligned home of the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles. The stadium also housed the Philadelphia Atoms (1973-75) and Philadelphia Fury (1978-80), both of the North American Soccer League.
“Exactly,” Curtin said, concurring on the assessment of his description while being no stranger to the Vet. An Oreland, PA, native he grew up a huge Philly sports fan. The 43-year-old is a Villanova grad who became the Wildcats soccer program’s first-ever MLS draftee in 2001 and was inducted into the Villanova Varsity Club’s Hall of Fame in 2018.
“I won’t go as far as to say it’s got a Wrigley Field nostalgia to it but there’s something cool about the building, with the river and the bridge the way it is and the way our fans get behind us. I just know every team hates coming here and that’s a real badge of honor. It’s very Philly and we like that.”
Besides Curtin, who lives in downtown Philadelphia, the Union roster boasts five players with Philly area roots: defender Brandan Craig and midfielder Quinn Sullivan call Philly their hometown. Forward Chris Donovan (Drexel University) lists Paoli, PA. Plus, midfielder Jeremy Rafanello (Delran, NJ) and defender Matt Real (Drexel Hill, PA) are both local. As kids, unlike generations prior, they all grew up with MLS to aspire toward and had the benefit of being able to watch the Union in action and inspire their dreams.
“When I was really young, MLS was barely a thing,” the 22-year-old Donovan explained. “The Union weren’t a thing yet. I was only a fan of the other Philadelphia sports teams. But since its inception, it’s really been right in my backyard. YSC Academy (Wayne, PA) is like five minutes from my house. That’s where the Union Academy trains so I’ve been right around it my whole life. It’s really special to be doing it here and while my goal was always to play in MLS, it worked out perfectly to be here – it’s where I want to be.”
Sullivan, who turned 19 at the end of March, has deep soccer roots in the Philly region. His grandfather, Larry, was the head coach at Villanova (1991-2007) and was Curtin’s head coach there. Quinn’s father, Brendan, was a three-time All-Ivy League midfielder at Penn (1993-95) who had a six-year pro career. And his mom, Heike, was a captain of Penn’s women’s team in 1994 and ‘95.
“This is truly the definition of a hometown team,” Sullivan said of the Union the day before the Columbus match after a training session in Subaru Park. “Growing up in [the Bridesburg section of the city], which is not too far, I was able to come to games here… It’s definitely cliché to say it’s an honor, but it truly is to be able to say I represent Philadelphia, and my family has such deep roots in Philadelphia soccer culture that it’s really special that they’re able to come watch me play on the weekends.
“I think our team is a microcosm for the city,” Sullivan added. “We’re diverse, we’re unique, everyone is hard-working on this team and we’re a unit. You think of all of the hard-working people out there that truly have made Philly what it is and we just feed off of that energy in the stadium, make it our own, and put it to good use on the pitch. But I think we’ve really encapsulated what Philadelphia soccer and Philadelphia really means as a whole.”