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Alejandro Bedoya
Captain Alejandro Bedoya is a major reason the Philadelphia Union have reached the MLS Cup after four years of gradual improvement. Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Don’t forget the Union, Philadelphia

The Phillies may be in the World Series, and this Eagles team may be the best ever on paper, but Philly’s MLS team is also a win away from its first MLS Cup.

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As Philadelphians bask in the glory of seeing three of their city’s professional sports teams compete at the highest levels of their competitions, two often overshadow the third despite the latter having the best track record in recent years to expect a championship appearance.

We’re talking about the Philadelphia Union, and while the Phillies’ magical World Series appearance and equally unexpected Eagles’ start to the NFL season are amazing in their own rights, the journey of Philly’s MLS team is four years in the making.

Where it sits now is competing for its first-ever MLS Cup 12 years after the team began playing on the Chester waterfront. 

In its first eight years, the Union saw just one playoff appearance, but since 2018, the team hasn’t missed the year-end tournament to crown a league champion. That first year saw its first playoff win and appearance in the Conference Semifinals. What followed were two disappointing playoff exits in the first round after finishing third in the Eastern Conference in 2019 and taking home the team’s first hardware with the Supporter’s Shield in 2020 before losing to the eight seed New England Revolution.

2021 was supposed to be the year, especially after the exit in 2020, but the two-seed Union bowed out again to a lower seed in its first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. It played the game against eventual champion New York City FC without captain Alejandro Bedoya and 10 other members of the team as a result of COVID-19 infections.

The “dream” of winning an MLS Cup that year “was over,” Bedoya said in the parking lot after the home playoff loss

A year later, the Union met the same New York City FC team in the Conference Finals on Oct. 30, and this time dispatched them 3-1 after going down 1-0 in the 57th minute. The team scored three goals in less than 15 minutes to seal the deal.

Now, the Union will compete on Saturday, Nov. 5 in the first MLS Cup in 19 years to feature the league’s top two seeds. The last time that happened, the Western Conference’s San Jose Earthquakes beat the Eastern Conference’s Chicago Fire 4-2, with U.S. men’s soccer legend Landon Donovan netting two vital goals.

The Union will be hoping the Western Conference is not as successful this time around — especially with most experts picking 2022 MLS regular season champion Los Angeles FC in the lead up to the showdown on Saturday. 

The LA team may have notched more wins to get the Supporters Shield under the leadership of versatile Carlos Vela, but the Union sport the far superior goal differential at +76. 

At only 26 goals allowed in 34 games, the Union set a new MLS record for least goals allowed in a season. They were anchored by an ironclad defense led by defenders Kai Wagner and Jakob Glesnes — who were two of the three defenders named to the MLS’ Best XI team at the end of the season. Glesnes was also voted the MLS’ Best Defender of the season, and Wagner finished tied for second in assists with 15. 

Both were joined on the Best XI by midfielder Dániel Gazdag — who finished tied for second in the league in goals (with 22) — and goalkeeper Andre Blake. The Jamaican keeper was voted the Best Goalkeeper of the MLS season and finished with the most clean sheets (with 15). Manager Jim Curtin was also named Coach of the Year.

In other words, the Union have a lot riding on Saturday’s MLS Cup. It is also when the Phillies will battle to stay alive in the World Series and hopefully force a Game 7 in Houston.

But don’t let the Phillies stress distract you from what could be more sports history on Saturday afternoon for the city.

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