By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
The Union only had 36% possession, went down to 10 men, and were forced into several formation shifts against Columbus Crew, but still put on a dazzling display of skill, dauntlessness, and ambition to propel themselves into third place in the Eastern Conference standings.
In true Sergio Santos, the Brazilian striker wasted no time in getting the offense going right after kickoff. Santos was able to create space between Columbus’ back three, allowing for Kacper Przybylko to find Alvas Powell within that space. Powell’s cross was saved, but was fouled by a Columbus defender to set up a Union free kick. Kai Wagner stood over the set piece, but his shot was also saved.
Santos was at the heart of another threatening run, this time combining with Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya’s pass to Santos did not immediately alert the Crew’s back line to any danger, but Santos was able to collect the ball and lure goalkeeper Evan Bush off of his line. Columbus were able to track back and thwart Santos’ attempt on goal, but it was clear that they were quickly becoming outpaced and outsmarted.
The Crew’s attack was relatively quiet throughout the first half. The pressing simply wasn’t there for the opposing team, giving the Union’s back four relatively unadulterated freedom to roam farther up the field. This would prove useful, as, rather surprisingly, center back Jack Elliott was the one standing over another free kick. Elliott’s shot was low and choppy, but it managed to sneak past Bush to put the home team on the board.
The second half couldn’t have started better for the Union, as less than a minute into play, Przybylko took the ball and broke into a full sprint, keeping a look out for options to pass to. Both Santos and Daniel Gazdag were able to stretch the opposition’s back line thin, allowing for Przybylko to fire a low cross to Bedoya, who scored off of his first touch to put the Union up 2-0.
A grim air of desperation settled onto Columbus, as they sought out some sort of counterattack to no avail. Leon Flach shined in the number six role, effortlessly working with Powell and Bedoya to keep the Crew’s offense quiet. Elliott and Jakob Glesnes held strong in front of Andre Blake, who hadn’t been forced into any of his signature Superman saves thus far.
Trouble began brewing, however, when Wagner was shown a second yellow card for a tackle that shut down a Columbus counterattack in wide open space. The call stood, cutting the Union down to 10 men, and forcing Jim Curtin into a tactical shift that moved Flach over to cover the left back position.
More formation shifts occurred when Bedoya and Monteiro shifted to prioritize patrolling the central midfield, while Quinn Sullivan came on for Gazdag and taking over duties on the right wing.
The Union found themselves in another troubling spot after a collision between Powell and Gyasi Zardes drew a penalty kick for the Crew. Pedro Santos stepped up to take it, but became the latest victim of Blake’s superhuman goalkeeping abilities. Blake dove in the right direction and shoved the ball out of danger, keeping the scoreline at 2-0.
How much do we love Andre Blake, Union fans?? pic.twitter.com/b1ZemPr7Jh— PhilaUnion🛡 (@PhilaUnion) October 3, 2021
Shortly after the failed PK, Columbus found themselves with another set piece opportunity. Lucas Zelarayan stepped up to try and put his team on the scoresheet, but put the ball wide of the post instead.
Aware of the mounting threat from the opposition, Curtin, who usually favors substitutions that bolster the offense, switched Santos for Stuart Findlay in a bid to strengthen the defense. Almost immediately afterward, Darlington Nagbe rocketed a shot that seemed destined for MLS Goal of the Week contention, but Blake was able to leap into the air and palm the shot away in another awe-inspiring save.
Columbus remained on a steady decline, growing noticeably more exhausted and sluggish as the minutes ticked away. A 2-0 was looking to be a final comfortable result, but the Union weren’t done just yet. Sullivan made a genius run up the field, boldly chasing a pass none of his teammates went after. The Homegrown lofted a cross over to Flach, who knocked it into the back of the net for his first MLS goal, and secured a well-deserved. 3-0 win.
Man of the Match: This game was a spectacular team effort, and every single player put in a determined shift. However, Flach was particularly impressive. He was called upon to fill a position that he doesn’t normally play, and he held down the base of the midfield diamond with grace and ease. Even when he was shifted again to cover the Wagner-shaped hole on the left wing, the 20-year-old handled it like a veteran. It’s also admirable that he continued grinding for a third goal, even when the Union were already pretty much guaranteed a comfortable win. All that, and it’s his first MLS goal? MOTM is definitely deserved.
The Main Takeaway: This match was a true testament to the discipline, work rate, and sheer ability to overpower other teams. This performance shows just how serious they are about making it to the postseason, and how they’re now a serious contender for trophies. Columbus are the defending MLS Cup champions, and came into this game off of winning the Campeones Cup, so the fact that the Union put them in their place the way they did goes to show not just fans, but other teams that they’re not afraid of anybody coming into the playoffs.