The Philadelphia Union’s recent romp was all well and good, not to mention history. Remarkably, a team in insane form since the start of July is notable for the fact that their 35-goal differential over their last 13 games hasn’t exactly set the template for what they can expect in the playoffs.
Saturday afternoon’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium presented a challenge they haven’t seen in a long time. Union did not show their most beautiful football – by some measures, it was one of the least effective matches of the season. But dormant muscles strained in a 0-0 draw with desperate Atlanta United provided more of a blueprint for the postseason than their frequent defeats.
“It’s important to have one of those games where it’s not 4-0 or 4-1 or 5-1 or 6-0 because there’s intensity,” manager Jim Curtin said. “Every play, every takeaway is important, and it felt like a playoff because it’s basically a playoff game for them.”
The Union (18-4-10, 64 points) did not allow its defensive abilities to atrophy. For all their electric results, they are still the best defensive team in MLS, on pace for the best defensive season in MLS history. The Union have conceded 22 goals in 32 games, the fewest in 32 games of an MLS season. Even two games off and they would still tie the MLS record for most goals in a 34-game season, set by Sporting Kansas City in 2012 with 27 goals.
Union’s offensive prowess didn’t come at the expense of defensive solidity, and they didn’t allow themselves to play open plays. But Saturday was different, and not just in a season-low expected goal shootout. What was unique was the way the hosts rushed at them, poured forward in waves and created dangerous moments. And it was a unique game that, unlike many over the last two months, wasn’t finished or destroyed before the 60th minute.
“I think you need games like this,” Curtin said. “I tell this to the guys in the locker room all the time: The hardest thing to do is finish a team’s season. I don’t think people understand and appreciate that. All these teams fighting below the line are giving everything to get all three points. And it gets complicated. Tactics are out of the window. You’ve seen the subtitles they’ve done; they brought five hitters on and went for it and we kind of bent but didn’t break.”
The Union’s 14th clean sheet of the season tempered Curtin’s assessment of the team’s performance. The offense was unusually disjointed and the passing was too sloppy for the coach’s liking, which may have had something to do with Atlanta’s unfamiliar turf and the absence of captain Alejandro Bedoya. But Curtin will never be too harsh on a team that scores clean sheets.
Andre Blake was stunning, making five saves, including save of the week candidate Edwin Mosquera’s 90-plus save, and denying Josef Martinez’s diving header in stoppage time. The back line was just as good, with Curtin repeating his praise for Jakob Glesnes in the Defender of the Year vote and Jack Elliott being just as good, if not better. Jose Martinez seized the opportunity again, ending the parade of expensive Atlanta midfielders who like to shoot from the edge of the area.
The pass in the 52nd minute was telling – the Union were caught in the kind of opposition that Atlanta has created all too rarely this season, and it was a big reason why they found themselves outside the playoffs. But Elliott tried to at least put pressure on Brooks Lennon’s shot, which was blocked by Blake. And Glessens recovered to get to the goal line, meaning his back end got in the way as Dom Dwyer tried a low effort and Blake eventually closed the ball down.
In a nutshell, it was the Union’s defensive approach – not pretty, but quite effective.
“Dre was making a good save and I was a little late,” Glesness said. “I just had to jump in front of the ball to try and save it. I was maybe a little bit lucky that it got in my (sample) and it went back to Dre, then back to me, and eventually we got control of it.”
This image of the maddened struggle to keep the ball down is more emblematic of what the playoffs will look like than the lopsided offense. So many times when it looked like the Union was on the verge of a game like this, their offense was laughable.
Still, Saturday was a warm-up for some intense playoff games. And at least on one side of the ball, they passed with pride.
“We always say we have to be ready for the playoffs,” Glesnes said. “But the good thing now is that we meet teams that are playing for the playoff line, they want to go there. And it makes the intensity almost feel like a playoff game. … It’s going to be two tough games now, but it’s going to be perfect for us because we have to be ready when the playoffs start.”