Alejandro Bedoya has been with the Union for just more than a year now, and Philadelphia is starting to feel genuinely like home for him.
That is no small statement for a player who was born in northern New Jersey, grew up in south Florida, played college soccer at Fairleigh Dickinson and Boston College, and has been a pro in Sweden, Scotland and France.
Bedoya and his Norwegian wife have a place near Fishtown. They have two children, one of whom was born in July. He gets recognized around town every once in a while.
“I definitely love the area where I live,” he said. “Philly feels like it’s going through a renaissance. So much construction going on everywhere, renovations, rebuilding, cool restaurants, cool cafés.”
Life on the field has not been as easy. After making the playoffs last year, the Union have sunk to 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Bedoya, the Union’s captain and most vocal presence, isn’t shy about his frustration.
“I came here to try to have a major impact, to try to put this club on the map, make it more respectable within the league,” he said. “It’s mixed emotions. … Growing pains is the best way I would put it.”
Bedoya recognizes that Union fans have suffered through “growing pains” through the team’s entire history. And he knows Philadelphia well enough to know that the city’s other teams have compounded that suffering.
“I feel like this whole Philly sports climate is, you know, with the Sixers’ trust-the-process-type thing, people are kind of tired of maybe hearing that,” he said. “But with this group, I feel like that’s kind of where we are. We’re still in a transition period. I know people hate hearing that.”
Some fans’ criticisms have landed on Bedoya’s shoulders directly. Shouldn’t the team’s highest-paid and highest-pedigreed American be a leader in goals, assists and other tangible statistics that fill up a box score?
The thing is, that isn’t really his job. Bedoya isn’t an attacking playmaker. He was cast in the role early in the season because Roland Alberg arrived at preseason training camp 15 pounds overweight. But it isn’t where he’s best.
He’s a deep-lying central midfielder whose primary job is to link attack and defense, helping others more than himself.
“That’s where you’re going to get the best out of me, where you’re going to get the most work out of me,” he said.
This is not to say Bedoya is satisfied with the attacking side of his game. He isn’t. In particular, he said, his “final pass has been lacking.”
He also acknowledged a tendency to drift to the right side of the field, because “that’s where I try to find space in between the lines” to collect the ball and pass it.
A lot of his most important work is done off the ball. Which means — and he knows this might not go over well — some fans might not always see what he does best.
“You might be following the ball, but it’s me that’s making that run that you think is stupid or something, running for no reason,” he said. “It’s not me opening up space for myself, being selfish. It’s me trying to open up a passing lane for another guy to get free.”
It would help if the Union had a top-tier playmaker pulling the strings of the attack, with Bedoya sitting deep in support. That’s his role with the U.S. national team, and it works well.
“We really don’t have that one game-changer that many of the top teams have,” Bedoya said, adding that such players are ones “that other teams have spent money on.”
Bedoya knows his bosses have said publicly that the team needs to open its checkbook to acquire such talent. He’s happy to hear it.
“To want to really compete and be toward the top of this league, there is a correlation with spending on quality,” Bedoya said.
He believes change is coming.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing a big transition in the off-season,” he said. “I’ll be ready for next season, to do a lot better than we did this year.”
Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire
7 p.m. Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium
TV/online streaming: TCN, MLSSoccer.com (paid subscription)
Union's record: 8-12-9, 33 points; 10th in the East (7-4-3 at home)
Chicago's record: 14-9-6, 48 points; 3rd in the East (3-7-4 on the road)
Series history: Union 6 wins, Fire 7 wins, 5 ties
At Talen Energy Stadium: Union 4 wins, Fire 2 wins, 2 ties
Chicago players to watch
Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger: It isn't often that World Cup winners come to Chester, much less one from the reigning champion. The veteran German has been a spectacular addition to MLS, bringing goals, assists and charisma on and off the field.
Forward Nemanja Nikolić: There might be no better example of the importance of spending big money on a striker. He has been worth every cent of his $1.9 million salary and $3.2 million transfer fee, with 18 goals in 29 games this esason.
Midfielder Dax McCarty: Union fans know him well from his long tenure with the New York Red Bulls. A consummate glue guy, he provides the defensive steel that lets Schweinsteiger and Nikolic shine.