Philadelphia Union clinch Eastern Conference with 4-0 win over Toronto FC

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Soccer players surround and hug one soccer player who is smiling.

The Union's Dániel Gazdag is surounded by teamates after scoring a hat trick in the second half of the match against Toronto. (Jonathan Wilson/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Union closed out the regular season by maintaining its home unbeaten streak at Chester’s Subaru Park with a 4-0 win over Toronto FC.

Having already secured a playoff spot way back in August, the win clinched first place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference for the Union, securing a first round bye in the playoffs and guaranteed home games until the MLS Cup on Nov. 5.

Fans cheer in a stadium.
The Union fans cheer as Union player walk onto the field in a match against Toronto. (Jonathan Wilson/WHYY)

Hungarian attacking midfielder and the team’s top scorer Dániel Gazdag scored the Union’s first goal in the fourth minute with a volleyed shot into the bottom right corner of the goal.

Philadelphia nearly doubled the score in the 14th minute, but forward Julián Carranza’s shot clanged off the bar and into the back of the rooted Quentin Westberg in the Toronto goal.

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In the 42nd minute, the Union’s lead went up 2-0 when Mikael Uhre ran onto Gazdag’s lofted pass, curling his shot around Westburg.

Toronto nearly scored its first before halftime when Jesús Jiménez’s pass found an open Mark-Anthony Kaye, but Olivier Mbaizo was on hand to block the otherwise open goal.

After the break, the Union were given a penalty for a handball in the box, which Gazdag calmly put away for his second of the day.

The Union’s Dániel Gazdag kicks a penalty kick to score his second goal in the second half of the match against Toronto. (Jonathan Wilson/WHYY)

Three minutes later, Gadzag completed his hat trick with a right-footed shot, bringing the score to 4-0.

After the match, Union head coach Jim Curtin praised his side’s performance, but said he still sees room for improvement.

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“I still don’t think we’ve played a perfect game, which is the great thing about the sport; you can always improve and get better,” Curtin said. “But overall, players deserve all the credit for the breaking of almost every record that we have in our club’s history.”

It’s a great time to be a Philadelphia sports fan. The Phillies made the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and swept the St. Louis Cardinals to advance from the National League wild-card series, including a thrilling ninth-inning comeback in the first game. The Eagles are the only NFL team to go 5-0 this year. The city’s best team at the moment, though, may be out in Chester kicking a soccer ball.

Goalkeeper Andre Blake was the proverbial brick wall in what has been the stingiest back line in the league, conceding a league record 26 goals. The Jamaica national team keeper — and 2022 John Wanamaker Athletic Award winner — finished the season with the most clean sheets in the league and is the clear frontrunner for his third MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. Union head coach Jim Curtin is also leading the charge to consider Blake for the the overall Landon Donovan MVP Award, which would make him the only other goalie besides Tim Meola in 2000 to earn the honor.

A soccer player is on the ground near the ball as a player on the opposing team jumps over him.
The Union’s Matt Real slides to deflect the ball from Toronto’s
Jahkeele Marshall-Ruttyin the first half of the match. (Jonathan Wilson/WHYY)

In attack, no other team outscored Philadelphia this season. Gazdag and forwards Julián Carranza and Mikael Uhre combined for 49 goals and 25 assists, contributing to the team’s record-breaking 72 goals and league-leading 72 assists.

“Whereas last season there was never a guarantee that we would score goals and win, this season, I go in and I know the top three are pretty much always going to be successful and we have a solid chance of winning,” said Jennifer Schloo, 33, of Telford, who was attending the game. “ I feel like there’s just more cohesion among the players.”

After the match, Curtin singled out Gadzag as another player for MVP considerations, highlighting the midfielder’s defensive contributions as well this season. He compared Gadzag’s chances against the likely front runner, Nashville SC midfielder and league top scorer, Hany Mukhtar, who the Hungarian came just one goal shy of matching.

“Mukhtar, I respect a ton. Incredible season, I’m sure it’ll be close, the voting,” Curtin said. “But obviously I pull for my guy and Dániel’s been amazing. It starts with the defending. it starts with his humbleness in the locker room and he’s just such a great kid and I’ll just say a guy I want here for the long haul.”

A club and MLS record 7-0 win over D.C. United on July 8 kicked off a streak of dominance from late summer into fall. Philadelphia only lost three matches out of 15 and outscored their opponents by a combined 46 goals to 12 going into Decision Day.

Perhaps the biggest stumble in a stellar regular season came last weekend with an uncharacteristic 4-0 drubbing at Charlotte FC, allowing the Los Angeles FC to clinch the Supporters Shield.

Going into the close of the regular season, the only team that could have spoiled the Union’s Eastern Conference party was a CF Montréal side that had found its own rich vein of form, holding a five-game unbeaten streak since Sept. 4. Montreal finished the day as 3-1 winners, but it was too little, too late.

Next up, the Union can sit back and await its next opponents in the conference semifinals; either the New York Red Bulls or FC Cincinnati.

Last season’s playoff run ended painfully short of an MLS Cup appearance when the Union — missing 11 players, six of them likely starters, due to the league’s COVID Health and Safety Protocols — lost 1-2 to eventual champions New York City FC in the conference final.

A couple pose for a photo outdoors.
Patrick Shelly Jr. and Shannon Klein stand outside Subaru Park. Shelly worked for the Union and says he has followed the team since its inception. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

“I think we finally have the gods looking in our favor, we don’t have COVID to worry about,” said Patrick Shelly, Jr., 33, of Souderton, who previously worked for the Union and has been a fan since the team’s inception. “We have a lot better set up and I expect nothing less than the cup.”

Curtin said that, despite the record-breaking season and clinching the first round bye, the team doesn’t plan to rest on its regular season accomplishment in the playoffs.

“Literally every team in this league can beat us if we’re not on our game,” Curtin said. “As nice as it is, the real season starts now and we know with our own experience, with the others experienced in the league, the teams that have finished one, two doesn’t guarantee success in the playoffs because a team that gets hot at the right time can beat you.”

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