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Philly sports column: Union putting it all together

The Philadelphia Union are on pace for an exciting end to the 2018 campaign. With seven games left in the regular season, the Boys in Blue currently sit at fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings and have a date with the Houston Dynamo in the U.S Open Cup Final on Sept. 26. If the U continue their winning ways behind breakout goal scorer Corey Burke, Philadelphia could make their first playoff appearance since 2016.

August was a particularly strong month for manager Jim Curtin and his squad. Philadelphia opened up with a 3-0 loss to the Portland Timbers, but during the game Curtin rested several key players including star midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The move panned out well for Curtin, as the Union bounced back four days later and beat the Chicago Fire 3-0 in the U.S Open Cup Semifinal to kick-start a five game winning streak.

After the Open Cup Semifinal, Philadelphia went on to win four games against three Eastern Conference rivals in the New England Revolution, New York City FC and D.C. United. Three of the four games were shutout victories for the Union, and rising star Corey Burke scored in two out of the four games.

Burke—who is listed as the Union’s backup striker behind C.J Sapong— has burst on the scene this season. The rookie striker has really proved his worth during the opportunities he’s had in the starting 11, despite being listed as Sapong’s backup. During his nine starts, Burke has scored eight goals while leading the way at the top of the Union’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Alone at the top seems to be where the Jamaican international striker seems most comfortable, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Burke overtake Sapong’s starting role before the season is up.

While Philadelphia has always had the talent to be a winning team, self-inflicted wounds have scarred their luck in the recent years. In 2016, the Union went on a seven game losing streak and still managed to make the playoffs, only to lose to Toronto FC 3-1 in the knockout round. Adding washed-up veterans like Freddy Adu and goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi destroyed the team’s chemistry during the Piotr Nowak and John Hackworth years. And, let’s just say pulling Andre Blake for John McCarthy minutes before penalty kicks during the 2015 U.S Open Cup Final was not Jim Curtin’s best decision.

Now, with all of that in the past, Philadelphia’s summer success is a sign of a major turnaround for the club, and the numbers don’t lie. Philly was expected to score an average of 1.7 goals per game this season, and during the undefeated August run their goals per game came out at 1.89.

On the defensive side, goalkeeper Andre Blake has stopped nearly 70 percent of all shots he’s faced, saving 99 out of the 143 total shots faced.

Unlike fellow newcomer David Accam, attacking midfielder Borek Dockal has not disappointed in his first year with the club. Dockal is currently tied with Toronto’s superstar Sebastian Giovinco for the league lead in assists at 14, and has also tallied five goals. In fact, the Union’s goal scoring tendencies this year has proven that Curtin’s tried and true 4-2-3-1 formation is working. Out of the Union’s 39 total goals this season, 29 of them have come from the core attackers at the top.

Winger Fafa Picault is quietly having his best year to date with seven goals and a team leading 55 shots, while Ilsinho on the other side of the midfield has scored five goals on only 21 shots this year. Factor in Dockal’s five goals and another four from Sapong, and it’s clear to see why Curtin has not had to call upon his bench for desperate help as in years past.

There are some difficult opponents remaining on the schedule, including matchups against the surging Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. However, with a seven-point cushion in the playoff standings, the Union doesn’t need to be perfect down the stretch.

Philadelphia still has to face Columbus Crew, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls—all of whom are ahead of the Union in the standings. Wins against these types of clubs could prove whether or not this Union team is for real. Throw in a possible U.S Open Cup title, and we just might be witnessing the most complete team in Union history.

Andrew Heller is a second-year graduate student majoring in English. ✉

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