The Philadelphia Union have undergone a transformation over the last three seasons.
The first playoff victory in club history in 2019 over the New York Red Bulls brought a sense of relief to a long-suffering fan base.
The Supporters’ Shield win in 2020 proved that the model used by sporting director Ernst Tanner and head coach Jim Curtin can produce something tangible.
Sunday’s playoff victory over Nashville SC reaffirmed that the Union are here to stay as a perennial contender in Major League Soccer.
It was fitting that Andre Blake was the focal point of the penalty kick shootout victory. Blake is now the longest-tenured member of the franchise. Before he was the club's PK hero, Blake was stuck on the wrong end of a few peculiar decisions that marred the old regime in Chester.
Blake was not the preferred fit for the Union in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. At that time, the Union had a No. 1 goalkeeper in Zac MacMath. They could have used their first-round selection on a striker, like Patrick Mullins, or a center back in the form of Steve Birnbaum.
Instead, the Union brass took a risk and traded up one spot to No. 1 to select who they believed was the best player in the draft class.
Blake’s progression to the No. 1 goalkeeper spot was impeded by the tumultuous signing of Rais M’Bolhi in the summer of 2014. Transfer malpractice like that would never be committed by today’s iteration of the Union.
Even when Blake got a shot to start, he had to go through some rough moments. Blake was pulled for John McCarthy right before the penalty kick shootout in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup final loss to Sporting Kansas City.
Six years ago, the inevitable doom of a cup final loss shrouded over the club. That feeling lingered into the 2018 season, when the Union were shell shocked as the favorite to win the U.S. Open Cup. The 3-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo led to a downward spiral that ended in two straight defeats to New York City FC at Yankee Stadium.
The successive losses marked a distinct end to the Earnie Stewart era and it served as a turning point for the Ernst Tanner regime.
Tanner revamped the Union roster in that offseason and the changes led to Sergio Santos, Kai Wagner, Kacper Przybylko and Jamiro Monteiro coming into the club. Marco Fabian was signed for what turned out to be a one-year stint in Chester.
The changes led to the Union earning a home playoff game. They beat the New York Red Bulls on a 106th-minute goal by Marco Fabian. Two years later, the Union used a 123rd-minute strike from Jakob Glesnes to write another chapter in their postseason history.
Philadelphia continued to bolster its roster ahead of the Shield-winning season in 2020. The development and sales of Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson proved the club could win with its Homegrown Player strategy. The Homegrowns formed a nice mix between young players, veterans and international signings.
The Shield victory turned into a berth in the Concacaf Champions League. The Union went head-to-head with Club America in the two-legged semifinals.
Instead of crumbling after a cup defeat, like 2018, the Union went on a run that resulted in a single loss after the start of October. The run to the No. 2 seed and Sunday's victory felt like two more instances in which the club distanced itself from its previous identity over the last three years.
Every key moment of the victory was represented by a symbol of how successful the club’s roster build has been.
Daniel Gazdag was billed as the missing piece at the No. 10 position to fill the Brenden Aaronson void. He scored the equalizer right before halftime.
Jack Elliott, one of the ultimate MLS success stories as the 77th overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, scored the first penalty.
Jack McGlynn, a Union Homegrown Player, displayed the utmost confidence by finishing the only other spot kick that went into the net.
And then there was Blake. The Jamaican goalkeeper further enshrined himself in Union lore with saves on Hany Mukhtar and Anibal Godoy. Alex Muyl and Walker Zimmerman both missed high and right on the Nashville attempts that followed.
Never once in the buildup to the shootout, or during it, did the crowd inside Subaru Park feel like that black cloud from years past hung over the club.
Instead, there was the utmost confidence in Blake to get the job done and place the Union into their first Eastern Conference Final.
The path to success has not been easy, and all of the goals have not been checked off yet, but no one can question the transformation that has happened in the last three years to place the Union among the premier clubs in MLS.