By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
It’s all been leading up to this—the Union are set to take on their longtime rivals, the New York Red Bulls, at Subaru Park for the first game of the 2021 MLS Playoffs. Any Union fan will notice that this matchup is eerily reminiscent of the 2019 playoffs, where the Union and Red Bulls faced off, and the Union earned their very first playoff win in a dramatic 4-3 win. Can the magic be recreated in this game?
Although the Union are seeded much higher than the Red Bulls, recent history shows that 12 of the games between these two opponents have been decided by a single goal.
“The games between us are always very highly contested,” Jim Curtin said. “We’re talking very close games, one, or at the most two goal games. They’re very tight. We worked very hard to get a home game, we have more confidence here, we have a crowd that cheers us on.’
Curtin also acknowledged that although they’re bitter rivals, these teams are not dissimilar: “There’s not much separating the two teams. It can come down to something like restarts. We’re, for example, number one in scoring on restarts on the attack, but conversely, they’re number one in defending off restarts.”
It cannot be overstated just how good this Union team has been, especially as of late, which is largely due in part to the phenomenal goalkeeping of Andre Blake, who boasted 12 clean sheets in the regular season, and the center back pairing of Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes. Along with wingbacks Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo, who effectively run the left and right wings of any MLS field they step onto, the defense will be as important as ever to defend against the Red Bulls.
Another interesting matchup that could happen in this game is Homegrown vs. Homegrown. The Union, of course, possess some of the best young players in the league in Quinn Sullivan, Paxten Aaronson, and Jack McGlynn, but the Red Bulls can answer with Europe-bound Caden Clark.
“We’re not comfortable,” Clark said of facing the Union at home. “We’re a dark horse team in these playoffs that can go far. You look at how we play, we’re just an energized team who can beat any team on any day. If we have a good game, I strongly believe we can win just based on who we are and how we play.”
It should also be said that ever since they got a taste of silverware in winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2020, the Union have been hungrier than ever for the MLS Cup. Finishing in second place and making it to the playoffs wasn’t an easy journey, and in the grand scheme of the league, the Union still aren’t taken as seriously as perhaps they should be. It’s a strange limbo where they’re certainly not underdogs anymore, but they’re not viewed as a serious threat. A point to prove is always good motivation to play well, beat your bitterest rivals, and eventually lift the most coveted trophy in MLS.
Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Olivier Mbaizo, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro, Kacper Przybyłko, Daniel Gazdag
- The Boys In Blue will have to go in all guns blazing for this game, and that means putting together one of the most consistent and cohesive lineups in MLS on the field together. It’s the absolute best foot forward for Curtin and his players, and it’s the best chance they have at getting a convincing result against the Red Bulls. They, of course, have solid options on the bench, but the more minutes this lineup can play, the better.
Score Prediction: It’ll most definitely be another close game for these two, with both having points to prove with this first playoff game. The Union will edge the streaky Red Bulls 3-2, but they’ll have to be on their best game to reach the second round.