Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview: Union vs. Nashville SC

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The Union started off their 2021 playoff run in the most sensational fashion, complete with a packed Subaru Park, a plethora of chances that couldn’t be capitalized on by either team, and the latest goal in MLS history—a 123rd minute strike by the Union center back Jakob Glesnes. Despite the win, the performance against the New York Red Bulls was far from their best, and they will be facing an incredibly dangerous Nashville SC at home.

Head coach Jim Curtin is well aware of Nashville’s defensive capabilities and how their prowess at the back will interact with the Union’s own excellent back four.

“I don’t anticipate a high-scoring game,” Curtin predicted. “You have two great defensive teams. The chances will be few and far between. They are excellent at playing forward quickly and they can really pick you apart with their passes. They are really clinical on their transitions.”

Nashville head coach Gary Smith commented on how in-form the Union are, along with highlighting how much of an advantage they have playing at home.

“Philly’s home form is very good,” Smith said. “I mentioned tongue-in-cheek on Tuesday night that, in any other league in the world, it’d be us playing at home, but we do understand the rules.”

He also acknowledged, “The fact they’re at home will give them an advantage, there’s no two ways about it. They’ve proven, not just this year but the last four to five years, their system, style of play, and players they’ve brought through, it makes it extremely difficult to play against.”

Difficult indeed, seeing as the Union have won six straight home games, keeping a clean sheet in the last five. In fact, they have allowed a mere five goals in their last 15 home matches, tying the fewest in any 15-match home span in a single season, including the playoffs, with the Colorado Rapids stretch in 2016.

On the flip side, however, the Boys In Blue have scored just eight goals in eight playoff games. Somewhat even more perplexing, only two of those goals have come from strikers (Sebastian Le Toux in 2011 and Cory Burke in 2018). In the last four postseason games, no striker has netted a goal.

There is also the issue of history repeating itself. The Union’s first playoff win came in 2019 in overtime, at Subaru Park, against the Red Bulls. They have yet to win a playoff game beyond the first round, and this Nashville team will undoubtedly do everything in their power to keep it that way. However, Curtin is choosing to look on the bright side of things.

“Little by little, we’ve progressed each year,” Curtin stated. “We haven’t done it in a flashy, loud, obnoxious way. We’ve done our talking on the field. The players deserve all the credit for consistently improving, being a team that punches above our weight a little bit. But we don’t fear anybody.”

Although they don’t fear anybody, Nashville’s premier playmaker Hany Muhktar will be a player to keep an eye on. He’s the biggest threat to the Union’s offense, and will likely keep Jose Martinez and center backs Glesnes and Jakob Glesnes occupied for most of the game.

For the home team, their usual main man in offense is Kacper Przybyłko, but the Polish striker has been noticeably absent from the field—even though his name has been in the starting lineup. With Curtin favoring a 4-3-2-1 formation as of late, Przybylko is supposed to be the main target in front of the goal, but he hasn’t proven himself to be all that reliable in doing his job. That being said, Przybylko seems to come alive when people start doubting him, so it’s possible that he’ll find his form again on Sunday.

Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Alvas Powell, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Daniel Gazdag, Jack McGlynn, Kacper Przybyłko

  • Olivier Mbaizo is still unavailable for selection due to medical reasons, which will see Alvas Powell once again step up on the right side. In an effort to not overexert tired legs, Curtin will likely try out Daniel Gazdag in the No. 10 spot for this game, and continuing to pair a playmaker with a Homegrown, will let Jack McGlynn show off his skills. While Paxten Aaronson had an okay outing against New York, McGlynn’s substitute performance showcased a dazzling display of maturity, focus, and a disciplined but creative skill that has quickly become the 18-year-old’s signature.

Score Prediction: These two teams are incredibly similar, which, like Curtin predicted, will cause a low-scoring game because the defenses on both sides are just that good, and they can anticipate the other’s movements and tactics all too well. It won’t be easy or pretty, but the Union always seem to find a way to win when circumstances are tough. A 2-0 win sees the Union through further than they’ve ever gone in playoffs, because they just love making history this year.

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