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Philadelphia Union looks to shed stigma in run to MLS Cup playoffs

The Philadelphia Union's eight-plus seasons in MLS have been defined by pain, misery and a seemingly never-ending stream of self-inflicted wounds.

There was the mystifying decision by then-manager Peter Nowak in 2012 to bust apart a team that had made the playoffs the year before. There were the two U.S. Open Cup final defeats in the Union's home stadium. There was the disastrous, blunder-filled tenure of Algeria World Cup goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi in 2014. Even Philadelphia's qualification for the playoffs in 2016 came with something of an asterisk, as the Union did everything it could to miss the postseason, going winless in its last seven games. The list goes on.

Yet the 2018 campaign has witnessed signs of a turnaround at Talen Energy Stadium. This is normally the time of year when Philadelphia is in a desperate chase to get above the playoff red line. But with two months left in the regular season, the Union finds itself ensconced in the playoff places, sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference, 10 points ahead of seventh-place D.C. United. Another U.S. Open Cup final -- this one on Sept. 26 against the Houston Dynamo -- beckons.

Philadelphia has played some stylish, possession-based soccer along the way with some high-pressing thrown in. There is definitely a different, more confident vibe radiating from the side these days.

"It's a set of new players," said manager Jim Curtin. "There's been so much turnover from the Peter Nowak days, I feel this group doesn't feel that. That's at least my gut feeling right now. It's a new page in history, we've had some exciting moments this year, there's still a lot more work to do. We've by no means accomplished anything yet, but it's trending in the right direction for sure."

The past is never too far away, however. As captain Alejandro Bedoya recalled last month's 1-0 win over the New England Revolution -- a match that saw the Union lean heavily on goalkeeper Andre Blake -- he mentioned how it was precisely the kind of result the Union would have found a way to squander in the past.

"We maybe bend a little bit, but we're not breaking like we used to," he said, at which point he caught himself. "S---, here I go, I'm saying this and now I'm jinxing myself as we're going for the playoff push."

But this Union team doesn't look like a fluke, even if its squad is a tad unconventional. You will find no high-profile internationals on Philly's roster. That by itself isn't that unusual in MLS, but the rest of the team's construction is.

The defense has been anchored by a pair of teenage centre-backs in Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, with 23-year-old Jack Elliott stepping in when needed. The forward line has been led by Cory Burke, a 26-year-old Jamaican who came through the team's USL side, Bethlehem Steel.

While Blake has been stellar in goal again this season, the Union's biggest area of strength has been its central midfield trio of Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin and Borek Dockal -- internationals all -- who have provided slick passing with enough defensive steel to help the backline go through its growing pains.

Bedoya in particular has emerged as a force for the team in all manner of ways.

"Where I think [Bedoya] has shown a ton of growth and leadership is off-the-field stuff, keeping our locker room together," said Curtin. "Because all 11 guys have to be on the same page and Ale has been the one that has kept them going."

Dockal has lived up to his reputation as the team's playmaker, with five goals and 14 assists, and shown an ability to adapt to an environment very different than what he experienced previously in his career with the likes of Sparta Prague.

"Dockal came from clubs that predominately had 80-20 possession in the league he was playing," said Curtin. "I think early on he would take a lot of risk with his final ball because he thought he'd be on the ball 25 times a game. I think now he's recognized, 'I might only be on it 10 times, and I've got to make the most of these 10 plays.' He's been really smart with it and adjusting to that. It's no secret that when we're going good he's on the ball a ton for us, and he's making those final passes and getting goals."

Even more remarkable is the fact that two of the Union's higher-priced attacking pieces in forward C.J. Sapong and winger David Accam have suffered through subpar seasons -- although Sapong did have a goal and an assist in the 2-0 win over D.C. -- with the pair combining for just five goals. Yet the likes of Burke and Fafa Picault have stepped in and performed well. While inserting those two into the lineup may have not happened soon enough for some, the moves added a layer of accountability within the team.

"That's just the way it is and how it should be," said Bedoya. "If you're not doing your job -- and if C.J. was struggling, he would be the first to admit that he wasn't finishing off his chances -- it's next man up. Ilsinho has come in and done some good stuff. Fabian [Herbers] and whoever it is that gets their opportunity, you've got to be ready for it."

It amounts to an impressive coaching job by Curtin, who annually seemed among the favorites to get fired, but who has so far managed to get the most out of his team's ability. This was especially true earlier in the year when the team was struggling for results. Yet he knows better than anyone his team's limitations. There is no David Villa or Wayne Rooney to bail the team out.

"That's also what makes our margins tiny. But it's also what we believe in as a club," he said.

Curtin's contract is up at the end of the year, and there is now a new sporting director in Ernst Tanner. It would border on ironic overload if Curtin were to win the organization's first trophy and get the team to the playoffs only to see Tanner bring in his own man. But he insists he's not worried about that, and that he looks forward to absorbing the ideas that Tanner will bring in.

"I'm a guy who believes that if you put your heart and soul into a club, and you find ways to get good results, you're seeing us play young players, you're seeing us play for a playoff spot, if you do that, I think things will take care of themselves," he said. "That's how I'm operating."

For now, the challenge remains pushing through the playoffs and winning the U.S. Open Cup. The upcoming schedule is difficult, with six of the remaining seven league games against teams in the playoff places. Therein will lay the proof that the team has grown.

"You can feel the confidence in the guys when we train now," said Curtin. "It's fun to watch each and every day. Guys have a smile on their face when they go to work. There's new things at the training facility that we have, all these things help shed that old stigma. We've made strides."

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