CHESTER, Pa. — The Philadelphia Union have preached the team concept since the start of the 2019 Major League Soccer season.
Saturday’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United was the latest example of the collective coming together to defeat an opponent with more talented individuals.
Sergio Santos came off the bench to provide a goal and an assist, Jamiro Monteiro played well in a deeper role in Alejandro Bedoya’s absence and the center back pairing of Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott put in strong shifts against the Josef Martinez-led attack.
The performances from the 14 players that stepped on the field put the team back in first place and made it the first Eastern Conference side to hit 50 points.
The icing on the cake came well after midnight, when Orlando City’s loss to San Jose helped the Union clinch the fourth playoff appearance in club history.
Below is a look at the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s triumph at Talen Energy Stadium.
Santos turns into game-changing sub
Sergio Santos displayed flashes of his individual brilliance during his first 14 games, but inconsistency and injuries left him outside the matchday 18 for more than a month.
In his first appearance since July 13, the Brazilian turned the match on its head by providing Kacper Przybylko with an assist on the game-winning goal and scoring the third and final tally of the contest.
“Look, Sergio has been fighting to get back off of injury,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “You can see how explosive he is, how fast he is and he is just a guy that defenders don’t like to play against, especially when he comes in with fresh legs.”
“Really happy for him because it is frustrating when you’re injured and you’re battling little things,” Curtin said. “You’re in for a month, then you’re out for two weeks, and that’s kind of how his season has been, it’s stop and start. We saw a lot of emotions come out on the cut back ball that he gives Kacper, which is a great ball.”
With the Union in a 4-2-3-1 and Brenden Aaronson dealing with a minor knock, Santos was the positional fit off the bench on the left wing over Andrew Wooten, whose entrance would have triggered an adjustment throughout the attack.
Santos’ injection of pace combined some tired legs in the Atlanta squad set off the sequence of events that will long be remembered by Union fans.
The 24-year-old has been impressive now in two substitute appearances, the other coming in the 5-1 win over New England May 4.
If Santos can find a way to remain healthy and be more consistent with his chances, he could turn into an important piece in the final five regular-season games and the postseason.
Elliott and McKenzie hold firm
Elliott and McKenzie limited Josef Martinez to a single shot on goal, which found the back of the net off a superb 1-2 move with Darlington Nagbe right before halftime.
McKenzie racked up five clearances, three interceptions and two tackles, while Elliott recorded three clearances and tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Elliott’s tackle right past midfield in the 61st minute allowed Haris Medunjanin to pick up the ball and feed Brenden Aaronson for the equalizer.
“For a kid that’s the 77th pick, from West Virginia, an English kid, those are three things that you wouldn’t expect to lead to becoming one of the better center backs that our league has and I believe that,” Curtin said.
“His ability to pass is second to none out of that position. He has long legs so people think he’s slow, but once he gets going, he opens up and can really run, our data shows that. Great performance, a lot of last second deflections, blocks at the top of the box for him tonight and that’s what you need when you have Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez combining little one-twos.”
McKenzie has slotted into the lineup and produced two quality starts in the pair of 3-1 wins over D.C. United and Atlanta United.
The Englishman selected 77th overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft and the Homegrown Player with 192 minutes played in 2019 are the club’s first-choice pairing, a combination that is fitting for the first-place team chock full of unlikely stars.
Union prove they can compete with the best
The Union proved last week they could bury a team below them in the standings.
On Saturday, Curtin’s men showed they can take their game to the next level and contend with squads in the top tier of MLS.
“I think we showed MLS we are not an afraid team,” Medunjanin said. “We can play against everybody because nobody is counting on us. Everyone is against us so everybody thinks we are lucky, that because they lose we are up, but we showed today we can compete against any team, especially at home.”
The manner in which the Union achieved the win was remarkable. In previous seasons, the Union would compete with a team like Atlanta for 45 minutes, but then the goal before halftime would have been the death knell.
But the 2019 Union are far from any team that has stepped foot in Chester, and they once again displayed with the come-from-behind display.
The club can revel in the victory for now, but a well-rested Los Angeles FC awaits September 14, and after Saturday’s win, the expectations are high for the Union to compete and prove they belong in the upper echelon of the league.
“Maybe the Philadelphia Union can start to be talked about a little in that [top group] for this season, which is something our players have earned and deserved and I’m proud of them for that,” Curtin said.