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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
The Union came into Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta with a lot to prove.
They were entering the first leg of this CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal without a win in MLS, an uncharacteristically lackluster offense, a defense that relied heavily on the heroics of goalkeeper Andre Blake, and a certain sense of dread of having to face Atlanta United, a team that they’ve struggled immensely against. It seemed like a fairly cut-and-dry matchup—Atlanta would dominate like they usually did against the Union, bursting the bubble of success that Philadelphia has been enjoying in their first season of international competition. It’s not the ideal situation for the Union faithful, but hey...there’s not a ton of shame in losing to a team like Atlanta, right?
Then, in true Philadelphia sports fashion, the Boys in Blue showed up when nobody expected them to.
It didn’t happen right away. The first half of the game was all Atlanta, who turned the Union’s usual strategy of heavy pressing, good ball movement, and holding the majority of possession against them for a dominant performance in the first 45 minutes. Atlanta maintained 60% of possession, had four corners to the Union’s two, and recorded five shots on goal, while the Union didn’t have any. In an all-too-familiar narrative, the only reason the Union were able to scrape together a scoreless tie at halftime is because of Blake’s spectacular saves.
It’s safe to say that expectations for Philadelphia were low going into the second half. However, cracks started to appear in Atlanta’s armor, and the Union were able to capitalize. In the 55th minute, Kacper Przybyłko was left unmarked in the box, and while his initial shot didn’t make it into the goal, it did garner a corner. A low cross skipped past everyone to land at Przybylko’s feet, who was able to translate it into an easy, but essential, goal.
This goal was what the Union needed to get things going, and just like that, the offensive jets were turned on. Some beautiful link-up play came when Leon Flach soared past Atlanta’s defense to find Przybylko with space in the box yet again, leading to the Polish striker’s second tally of the game.
For the final nail in the coffin, Przybylko had the opportunity to bag a hattrick in the 86th minute of play, but played it a bit safer by opting to set up freshly subbed-on Anthony Fontana for the Union’s third goal of the night. The defense was able to hold on for the rest of the game, resulting in a 3-0 victory for Philadelphia.
In looking at the entire 90 minutes, one could argue that the Union came into a bit of luck with their second half performance. They were able to find chances in Atlanta’s mistakes and miscommunications rather than managing to create them out of their own offensive prowess. The forwards did what they needed to do for this game, but it was far from showcasing the skill, precision, and ingenuity they’ve proven themselves capable of in past performances. A win is a win, and going into the second leg at Subaru Park up 3-0 on aggregate is a fairly comfortable position to be in. However, while beggars can’t be choosers, it’s frustrating to see the Union’s game plan come across as scrounging for a win by whatever chances fall into their lap rather than displaying the calm, tidy, razor-sharp abilities of this team.
Man of the Match: It has to be Przybylko. While Blake could’ve easily gotten it (as is the case in most games he features in), the offense was essential in this particular game. Przybylko had a hand in all three goals that night, and he took advantage of the space he was given, even if it was more luck than skill that he was able to find himself unchecked in several situations. He’s deservedly been the centerpiece of the Union’s offense, and it’s doubtful that the Union would have had such a fairytale run in the CCL so far if it wasn’t for Przybylko.
The Main Takeaway: The Union can never be completely counted out, no matter how bleak their chances at victory look. However, being a second half team will not do them many favors going forward. It shouldn’t take an abysmal first half to give them motivation to play a quality second half. They need to show up from kickoff to the final whistle if they want to achieve the success they’re yearning for.