- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
BERLIN, Germany — I admit it: I accidentally got drunk. It happens, right? When you’re hanging out with friends in the front of the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, it probably happens frequently.
On the final day of the 2021-22 Bundesliga season, a colleague and I were indeed loitering outside of Union Berlin’s home stadium, waiting for the team to appear on the balcony to celebrate with fans over its fifth-place league finish, the club’s best ever. It was a heavyweight showing from a historically middleweight club. A concert was arranged for later, there was a Berliner beer stand nearby, and beer was just €4 (and €3 if you return the plastic cup from your last beer), and, well, we were there much longer than expected.
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The team showed up, players addressed the crowd, the weather was absolutely perfect, fans lit flares as German fans are wont to do (no idea how there were any left after the match itself, but there’s evidently an endless supply) and a party indeed broke out.
Considering the team’s final match had been a thriller as well — after watching a 2-0 lead disappear against Bochum, Union prevailed with an 88th-minute match winner from Taiwo Awoniyi, his 20th of the season in all competitions — it was an utterly perfect sports outing, a mini-miracle of a spring afternoon.
Now they get to do it all over again. Union not only open the 2022-23 season on Saturday — they do so with a derby, looking to beat Berlin rival Hertha for the fourth consecutive time (9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN+). Awoniyi is gone, and gravity is never too far away for a team punching above its weight class, but manager Urs Fischer’s squad will be as ordered and disciplined as ever, and it gets a second crack at a European competition — the Europa League this time — after failing to clear that hurdle a year ago.
Union Berlin are, to use only a little bit of hyperbole, a miracle
“We from the East always go forward shoulder to shoulder for Iron Union / The times are hard, and the team is hard / That’s why we win with Iron Union” — Union Berlin supporters anthem.
For starters, this is barely Berlin at all. Berlin consists of countless municipalities, and Kopenick, Union’s home, is both the easternmost and largest, with much of the land area accounted for by water and trees.
It has been part of Berlin for only about 100 years now, and as you walk around the Stadion an der Alten Försterei (English translation: the stadium at the old forester’s house) on a matchday, you quickly realize this is a Kopenick club. It belongs to a community, not one of Europe’s more expansive cities. All of Kopenick’s 67,000 or so residents could fit inside derby rival Hertha Berlin’s enormous Olympiastadion. Union’s stadium holds only 22,000.
In some match environments, you feel like you are surrounded by 25-year-old dudes as you walk toward the stadium. (That is certainly what it felt like the week before my Union experience, as I took the S-Bahn to an Eintracht Frankfurt home match.) In Kopenick, it was husbands and wives and children, older men with their friends, older ladies with their friends.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the club doesn’t still have an edge to it.
“Who always plays full pipe? Iron Union! Iron Union! Who likes to score an extra goal? Iron Union! Iron Union! Who lets the ball and opponent run? Iron Union! Iron Union! Who can’t be bought from the West? Iron Union! Iron Union!”
Kopenick was a defiant place during the days of a divided Germany. Around 500 civilians there were arrested, and more than 20 were killed in the early 1930s for protesting the burgeoning Nazi government, and when fate rendered both Kopenick and Union part of East Germany, rooting for the club became a form of silent rebellion, a protest against the Stasi-influenced dominance of another East Berlin club, BFC Dynamo.
Historically a borderline first- to second-division club in East Germany, Eisern Union (“Iron Union”) made their first trip to the Bundesliga just three seasons ago. They eked out a third-place finish in the 2. Bundesliga in 2019 when Hamburg collapsed down the stretch (not the most unique occurrence in the world), then they narrowly survived a war of attrition in the relegation playoff against Stuttgart, advancing thanks to road goals after a scoreless draw at home.
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They managed only one shot on goal in those final 90 minutes against Stuttgart, and while the stats say they had 40% possession, it felt like 15%. But goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz stopped six shots, and in the exhausted final stages the frantic home crowd — which had helped to rebuild the stadium with their own hands a decade earlier as the club struggled with both money and a lack of success — pulled Union over the finish line. Then they partied for two days.
Watching Union’s crowd will the team to promotion against Stuttgart, it was easy to both get seduced by the club and its story and assume its stay in the Bundesliga would be brief. Between 2006-07 and 2017-18, only one second-division team had earned promotion after finishing with fewer than 60 points in league play: Darmstadt in 2014-15. Darmstadt narrowly avoided immediate relegation in their first season up, then meekly finished in last place in 2015-16 and haven’t been back to the Bundesliga since.
Transfermarkt valued Union’s roster at just $1.3 million per player in 2019-20 — league champions Bayern had 28 players listed above that value — and the squad was defense-heavy and attacker-short. Three years later, Union were not only still in the top division, but near the top of it.
Urs Fischer’s squad finished just one point shy of a Champions League bid last spring and, in 2022-23, will play in Europe for the second straight year after last season’s Conference League stint.
To reach this point, Union have basically done everything backward by Bundesliga standards
That the 56-year-old Fischer’s first Bundesliga squad was defense-heavy was a feature, not a bug. All of them have been built in that way. In a league primarily known for its open attacking, Union have risen up the ranks with defense. They were just ninth in goals scored last season, but they were third in goals allowed.
Operating primarily out of a 3-5-2 formation, Union expand in attack and contract in defense, like an accordion. The central-defender trio of Robin Knoche, Timo Baumgartl and Paul Jaeckel is impossibly sturdy, and wing-backs Christopher Trimmel (the 35-year old captain) and Niko Giesselmann make things a pretty compact 5-3-2 in defense. Midfielder Genki Haraguchi never suffers a stray touch, constantly helping to funnel the ball to safety after it’s been recovered.
Instead of pressing heavily, Union focus on preventing progressive passes, leveraging the ball out of dangerous central areas and keeping numbers behind the ball. Only 26% of opponents’ shots came with fewer than two defenders between the shot and the goal, second-lowest percentage in the league. Opponents actually created more touches in the attacking third than Union did and possessed the ball more, but little of the possession was of any value.
In attack, they don’t mess around. Forty-two percent of their passes were forward last season (fourth in the league), and they created among the most counterattacking shot opportunities in the league. A lot of possessions end quickly, and they don’t create a ton of shots (they were 12th in shots per possession last season), but the shots they create are typically great. Sixty percent of their shot attempts came from inside the defense’s box, most in the league.
The combination of Awoniyi and Sheraldo Becker provided more than enough transition opportunities: In what I call transition possessions — possessions starting outside of the attacking third and lasting 20 or fewer seconds — Awoniyi scored eight goals with three assists from 17 chances created in all competitions, while Becker scored four times with three assists from 20 chances. Veterans Andreas Voglsammer and Kevin Behrens contributed nine more transition goals from bench roles.
“Defend well and try to nail your counterattacks” isn’t the most shockingly innovative approach in the world, but they’re good at it and could remain so despite Awoniyi’s departure. And the approach still stands out in such a wide-open league. It didn’t work in last year’s Conference League — they laid an egg at Slavia Prague in the opener, and while they improved from there, eventual finalist Feyenoord eliminated them with a pair of defeats. But the experience can’t hurt now that they’re upgrading to the Europa League.
Sidebar: Your next German hipster favorites
By now, you’ve heard of Union Berlin and Hamburg St. Pauli. They are well-admired hipster faves for a reason. But Germany is loaded with beloved clubs and fan bases that punch above their weight class. Who’s your next favorite under-the-radar club? Here are five suggestions:
Kaiserslautern: Bundesliga winners in 1991 and 1998, they play in a massive stadium (49,850) — one that’s full when they have a reason to fill it — but haven’t been in the top division for a decade. They’ve climbed back up to the 2. Bundesliga, however, and they’ve started the season well. Get to know the Red Devils.
Rot-Weiss Essen: They were Germany’s first representative in the European Cup (after beating Kaiserslautern for the nation’s title), and they drew 10,000-plus while playing in the fourth division. Sleeping giant? Maybe not, but a sleeping above-average club, at least.
Wuppertaler SV: One of RWE’s main rivals, they finished as high as fourth in the Bundesliga in the mid-1970s before falling on hard times like RWE. They, too, are now back in the third division.
Nurnberg: A power in the 1960s, der Klub has become one of Germany’s classic yo-yo clubs despite an enormous fan base. Nurnberg collapsed late in 2021-22 and fell out of the promotion hunt, but they’ve scored multiple times in each of their first three matches and could end up near the top of the table again this season.
Elversberg: Not interested in history? Only looking for teams that play pretty sexy attacking ball? Look no further! Elversberg earned promotion to the third division last year by playing by far the best attacking ball in the fourth, and they began this season by hanging five on RWE and beating Bayer Leverkusen 4-3 in the DFB-Pokal. Attack, attack, attack!
We know how heart-warming underdog stories tend to end
“Victory before your eyes / The view far forward / Let’s move through the nation together East and West / Our Berlin together for Iron Union”
Maybe this story will last and grow. Maybe Fischer continues to field stout defenses with increasingly high-upside attackers as funds from European competitions continue to fill coffers. Maybe Union find the balance between midsized family club and heavy hitter and become a regular top-five finisher. Their rise to this height was unimaginable, and they could always keep pulling off unimaginable things a while longer.
History suggests, however, that teams generally drift back toward their original weight class. Stars get plucked away and are replaced by inferior imitations. The successful manager ends up at a larger club with a larger checkbook. The team drifts back down the totem pole (albeit with some amazing stories to tell), and another underdog story emerges to take its place. Augsburg, for instance, finished fifth in 2014 but have spent most recent seasons battling relegation, while others like Schalke fell victim to relegation soon after strong finishes.
Until it happens, however, Union have a chance to prevent it.
Awoniyi, brought to Berlin from Liverpool last year, indeed returned to the Premier League to play for Nottingham Forest, and fan-favorite midfielder Grischa Promel left for Hoffenheim. Union replaced Awoniyi with American Jordan Pefok — who scored 42 goals in two seasons for Young Boys and has recorded nearly 1,500 minutes in European competitions — and Greuther Furth’s Jamie Leweling. The hole left by Promel was filled by Sampdoria’s Morten Thorsby and Furth’s Paul Seguin. Union survived an upset bid from fourth-division Chemnitzer in the wacky first round of the DFB-Pokal, but their season begins in earnest on Saturday with the Berlin Derby (9:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+).
With the pivotal defensive pieces remaining in place and Pefok and Leweling joining the speedy Becker up front, this team might be deeper than it was a season ago. On Saturday, we will begin to find out if Fischer’s magic can continue to lift this magical club.
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