The stats don't lie: Alejandro Bedoya is cementing himself as one of the top midfielders in MLS this season.
Bedoya's pass completion rate entering this weekend stands at 90.5 percent, the third-best mark out of 366 eligible players across MLS. It's the best in the Eastern Conference, and up significantly from his mediocre 84.0 percent rate of a season ago. And he's doing it despite high volume and responsibility (he's in the top 10 percent of MLS in passes attempted).
Bedoya doesn't lie, either: He knows he's in excellent form.
"I've done my role pretty well this year, I'm happy with it, and I think I've been one of the most consistent guys on the field every game," the Union captain said Wednesday. "I've been able to connect and link up with my teammates a lot more, be that guy that breaks up plays and gets a hold of the ball, but also that guy that relieves the pressure off our center backs."
Brought in as a designated player in 2016, the now-31-year-old central midfielder said he at first felt pressure because of his special tag to "do too much," especially on offense. That carried into last season, when he was tough on both the team and himself.
But as he's become more comfortable in Philadelphia, grown into the captaincy role, and been aided by the addition of fellow midfield DP Borek Dockal, Bedoya has, with manager Jim Curtin's backing, played slightly deeper with more of a focus on defense and distribution in 2018. "For me, I feel like I'm the type of guy who does all the little things right, not the flashy guy," he said.
That subtle change has paid dividends. Bedoya has been efficient all over the field but nowhere more than the defensive end, where his 93.5 pass completion percentage is No. 1 in MLS. He's not doing it by making easy layoffs that don't accomplish anything, either — his average pass moves the ball about four yards downfield, another category in which he ranks fairly high.
"When I win the ball or I get played the ball, I always try to position my body where I can play that first pass forward, because that helps break down teams quicker," Bedoya said. "When we do possess the ball a lot more, it's playing those simple, small passes to get a team moving, but then being able to know when to play that longer, 20-30-yard pass instead of that smaller, 5-10-yard pass."
With Bedoya playing next to Dockal and Haris Medunjanin in the midfield — a veteran unit Curtin boldly described as the best in MLS — he has helped protect the Union's young defensive players in games and sought to mentor and teach them in practice. He identified being more creative with passes, avoiding telegraphing and looking cross- and down-field for runners as key skills he's tried to teach the team's youngsters.
Philadelphia's stellar midfield unit will be challenged heartily Saturday against Portland, which is unbeaten in 14 straight league matches and deploys another of MLS's top possession creators: defensive midfielder Diego Chara.
But even Chara, 10th in the league in pass completion rate, still isn't quite in Bedoya's company. It's hard to find a single midfielder in this country who is.
"He's a guy who flies under the radar — in terms of that he doesn't always get the goals and assists that people look at — [but] he does a lot of the things that make us who we are," Curtin said. "He's our connector, he does a ton of defensive work for us, and he's been an incredible leader for us this year in the locker room."
Curtin said nothing is finalized regarding the potential departure of former Union winger Eric Ayuk, who had been playing for the USL's Bethlehem Steel but is now in Turkey reportedly seeking a new club to join there. … Ilsinho, who hasn't played since getting injured July 11, is nursing a quad injury and was not on the trip to Oregon, but could return as soon as Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal.
Union at Portland Timbers
Saturday, 11 p.m. at Providence Park, Portland, Ore.
Union's record: 8-10-3, 27 points (7th in the East); 3-6-1 on the road
Timbers' record: 9-3-7, 34 points (4th in the West); 6-0-3 at home
Series history: Union 1 win, Timbers 4 wins, 3 ties
At Portland: Union 0 wins, Timbers 3 wins, 1 ties
Portland players to watch
M Diego Valeri: The defending league MVP remains a versatile and amazingly consistent weapon. He leads the Timbers' relatively conservative offense in both goals (7) and assists (9) and orchestrates most of their attacking ventures.
M Diego Chara: Don't let his MLS-leading eight yellow cards fool you — Chara is a brilliant player in his role, frustrating opponents weekly with both his knack for winning tackles and his fiery demeanor. Portland has famously never won a game without him in the lineup, but he's expected to be manning his usual CDM spot Saturday.
D Larrys Mabiala: Since arriving in Portland midway through last season, the Congolese international has quickly established himself as one of MLS' best central defenders. He scores occasionally, too, with four goals off set pieces this season.