Alejandro Bedoya is the link-up man for the Philadelphia Union. He’s the No. 8. The hidden playmaker. He’s the club’s captain, leader and chief schemer. He’s a conduit on the field from back to attack, doing “what I do best: moving the ball from the defense to the front.” He’s a link between personalities and teammates in the locker room, “managing egos and pridefulness.” And he’s a link to a bigger world – one he met head-on, with no promises of success, when he set off for Europe at the tender age of 20.
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“I was just out of college where I had a kind of free role, and at that level what matters is if you’re better than the guys around you. You don’t learn much about tactics in the college game,” said Bedoya who, after visiting his friend and Boston College teammate (future U.S. National Team and Union teammate too) Charlie Davies in Sweden during his senior year, knew what his next step would be. “Pretty quickly, I realized there was a lot more to the game than getting into a good spot and demanding the ball. Over there [in Europe] we’d watch game film for hours after training and before games. I learned about how to move in certain formations, how to move when you have the ball, when you don’t. When to step up. I got an overall education in tactics there.
(Bedoya during his years with Nantes in France's top flight)
Soccer Education in Europe, Not College
Bedoya’s not the best player in Major League Soccer. He’s not the fastest. He’s not a genius born to make art with his feet. What he has, and what he is, came with measured decisions, considered outcomes and chances taken. He’s not boastful when he sizes himself up; he’s confident. “I consider myself, tactically, one of the most intelligent players in the league [MLS] and all of that came from my time in Europe.”
There were many decisions to make before his debut in a Svenska Cup game with Orebro in Sweden. There were many questions to ask: Will I be homesick? Will I miss my family too much? Why not take one of the other roads open as a top collegiate prospect? “I always dreamed of playing over in Europe, even from when I was a little kid. When you play FIFA you never pick your local team, you always pick a team from over there,” said Bedoya with a laugh.
He went from strength to strength in his seven years across the Atlantic. He acclimated quickly in Sweden’s top flight, moved on to Rangers in Glasgow to taste the roar and howl of Ibrox and the blood and thunder of Old Firm derbies against Celtic. In France, with Nantes, he played in one of the top five leagues in the world. Each step was a part of a school of soccer where he took extensive mental notes and rarely got caught daydreaming. Along the way, Bedoya broke into the U.S. National Team and fulfilled another lifelong dream: playing in the World Cup – all four of the USA’s games in Brazil in 2014. “I’ve always been an ambitious person. And I guess I took the road less traveled, but I hope it becomes the path more American players take in the future because there’s a lot of great play over there. It was a big learning curve but it helped me tremendously.”
(The Union captain struck early in the 2018 Open Cup Quarterfinal against Orlando City)
Bedoya grew up in the game. First in New Jersey, then in the western part of Florida. His father, born in Colombia and a former professional with Millionarios, made his family in America. And while Alejandro remembers supporting Colombia and “wearing my Carlos Valderrama wig” while a seven-year-old during the 1994 World Cup, something tugged him back to the States after seven years abroad. He’d passed on a chance to start his career in Major League Soccer, but in 2016, with a second child on the way, he felt the pull of home. Again, he measured the pros and cons. He had a list of reasons and many things to consider.
Philly the Right Fit for Homecoming
“I met Jim [Curtin – Philadelphia Union head coach] while I was still in France when he was over scouting a teammate of mine at Nantes,” said Bedoya about his decision to join the Union and return to MLS as a Designated Player, a title he puts in air quotes in the Union locker room in Chester, Pa. a few weeks before the 2018 U.S. Open Cup Final against Houston Dynamo (7 p.m. CT on Sept. 26; ESPN2, UDN). “I liked the things he was saying. I liked the plan they had here, their youth academy and the fact that they wanted me to play as a No. 8, a defined role. And it all just kind of fit. I love living on the East Coast. Philly is close to New York and New Jersey, where I have a lot of family. And people say I’ve got the right attitude for Philly!”
It wasn’t an immediate marriage made in heaven, but the Bedoya-led Union is clicking now in 2018 after the club failed to reach the league playoffs last year and went out early in 2016. They’re on the cusp of reaching the MLS post-season and they’re back in the Open Cup Final again. “I reached a Cup semifinal in France, but we lost so I never played in a Cup Final,” said Bedoya, who came to the Union just after the club’s heartache of a pair of Open Cup Final losses on home soil in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015. It was a chance for the Union, founded in 2010, to win its first trophy. “I’m sure those losses hurt for the guys who were here, but there’s no looking back really, and it’s about what’s in front of us. We have a great opportunity to lift a trophy now.”
(Bedoya played in all four of the U.S. National Team's games at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil)
Bedoya, 31 and closer to the end of his career than its start, is an old campaigner in a Union side that relies on youth and Homegrown talent. He’s a steadying influence on those younger players and they look to him to lead the way. He scored an early lone goal in the Open Cup Quarterfinal against Orlando City – one of those sloppy games you just need to grind out if you want to get to the Final. But in the Semifinal, against Chicago Fire, there was no hanging on for a result. It was a performance in which the Union were as good as they could be. “In games like that you need your best players to be your best players and Alejandro [Bedoya] just took the game over,” remembered coach Curtin about the 3-0 win at home that put Philadelphia into the Final, and gave the club another chance to lift a trophy for the first time in its history.
The opening goal didn’t come until ten minutes into the second half, but it was snapshot of what Bedoya does best. Receiving a return ball from Borek Dockal at the edge of the penalty area, he was faced with a wall of red defenders. There wasn’t an obvious way through or around. So it had to be over the top. Bedoya’s delicate chip cleared the wall but dropped too far from Chicago goalkeeper Richard Sanchez for him to claim it. Union forward Cory Burke collected the pass and fired home. It set the stage for a comprehensive 3-0 win. “We dominated them and we should have scored more,” said Bedoya, the orchestrator and split-second decision maker. “The pressure was on and we came through.”
Cup Momentum Leaks into League
It wasn’t just a convincing win that put the Union into a Final. It was a turning point in the league too. It turned the year around and changed the atmosphere in the locker room. They didn’t drop a result in the entire month of August. Burke got on a roll in attack, the confidence of CJ Sapong, veteran of the 2015 Cup Final loss, returned with his goal. Everything clicked, and all of it, in no small way, came from the link-up play of the team’s quiet captain. “When things like that happen, the spirit in the locker room just picks up,” said Bedoya about the upturn in good vibes that can come with a deep Cup run. And while things haven’t all gone their way in September, the Union will arrive in Houston for the Final on Sept. 26th with justifiable confidence. “Everybody’s happy and the banter is flying left and right. The guys are talking more and joking. You can just feel it.”
(Bedoya, who's been with the Union since 2016, can be the club's first captain to win a trophy)
When asked what his last minutes before kick-off in the away locker room at Houston’s BBVA Stadium will be like, Bedoya doesn’t describe pep talks and rallying cries. “It’s a trophy we’re playing for. And that’s all the motivation you need,” said the skipper, the man brought to Philadelphia to link the young and youthful Union with silverware. “This club has only been around since 2010 but we have no trophies, and we want them. That’s a big reason I came here. We’re playing some good stuff this year, but we haven’t won anything yet. A trophy, though, that’s something no one can take away.”