By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
The setting really couldn’t have been better—a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, a win against Orlando under the belts of the Union, and injury-stricken Atlanta United as their opponent. By no means did anybody peg this to be an easy game for the Union, but once the whistle blew for kickoff, it became clear that the home team would not be intimidated by their past with Atlanta.
Sergio Santos wasted no time in getting the offense going, making a threatening run up the field in the first five minutes of action. A defensive turnover in Atlanta’s final third saw the ball at the feet of Kacper Przybylko, who flicked it over to Santos, but goalie Brad Guzan was able to make the save.
Although some of their strongest attacking players weren’t in the starting lineup, Atlanta still showed flashes of their notable offensive prowess. George Bello was able to make his way into the box, and a scrambled clearance from Andre Blake only went as far as another Atlanta attacker, who failed to put together a dangerous shot, keeping the game scoreless.
Center back Jack Elliott became an unusual fixture up front, making a run from the center of the field into Atlanta’s box. Elliott was able to send a perfectly weighted ball to Santos, but Guzan got his hands on the shot. Shortly after Elliott’s cross, Kai Wagner was able to send a ball in Santos’ direction, but Guzan once again had it handled.
Przybylko got involved in the attacking action thanks to a cross from Daniel Gazdag. The Polish striker maneuvered past an Atlanta defender, only to be denied by Guzan. In a back-and-forth passing run with Jamiro Monteiro, Gazdag tried a shot of his own, but Guzan once again pushed the ball away.
The beginning of the second half saw no change in the Union’s persistent attack. Leon Flach nearly opened up the scoring after catching Guzan off his line, attempting to float the ball around the goalie, but Guzan was able to get his hands on it.
Just two minutes after replacing Gazdag in the 57th minute, Paxten Aaronson had Atlanta’s defense on skates as he picked out Santos in the center of the box. Santos took his shot, but it deflected off of Przybylko and out of play.
While it may have been surprising that Philadelphia stayed scoreless for so much of the game, their goal came from none other than Przybylko, although much of the credit for the build-up and orchestration can be given to Jose Martinez. Coming up the right side of the field, Martinez swerved around two Atlanta defenders, sent a low cross to Przybylko, who easily tapped the ball in past Guzan.
It was then time for Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn to enter the fray, with McGlynn employing some skilled footwork well beyond his 18 years in an attempt to assist a Santos goal, but the Brazilian striker couldn’t capitalize on his chance.
Santos came off shortly after, seemingly due to leg cramps, which made room for Anthony Fontana to see the field for the first time since sustaining a head injury earlier in the season. Fontana had an immediate impact, linking up with fellow youngsters Sullivan, Aaronson, and Flach to start seeking out an insurance goal.
Atlanta’s only other significant scoring chance of the half came from a free kick that made it comfortably into Blake’s arms, securing the 1-0 victory for the Union.
Man of the Match: There was cause for some concern when Alejandro Bedoya wasn’t featured in the starting lineup or on the bench (he has been listed as “questionable” on the injury report), leading to some questions over how well the midfield was going to be able hold their own against Atlanta’s renowned attack. However, the midfield was the star of the show, and Martinez’s brilliant run up the right side was the entire reason the Union’s goal happened at all, so MOTM will have to go to him.
The Main Takeaway: This win propelled the Union into fourth place, just one point behind third place NYCFC. As the playoff race begins really heating up, every point will be crucial in securing a comfortable spot in postseason play. Beating a historically difficult team like Atlanta will do wonders for the confidence of the entire team, and will add gasoline to the fire needed to stay competitive in the Eastern Conference table.