By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
On a chilly November night in Chester, two teams faced off in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. The energy in Subaru Park was unlike anything seen before at the stadium—the Sons of Ben marched proudly into the stadium while waving flags and beating drums; there was no shortage of pyrotechnics as the teams made their way onto the field; every touch of the ball warranted a roaring reaction from the packed stadium. This game had everything—golden scoring opportunities that strikers missed, overtime that couldn’t be ended with a Jakob Glesnes rocket, and a penalty shootout that ended in one team making club history.
Jamiro Monteiro returned to the starting lineup for this game, and immediately showed why he’s the primary playmaker. The Union were able to skip through Nashville SC’s defense on multiple occasions early in the game, largely controlling possession and scoring chances. Alvas Powell tried his luck with a long-range shot, while Kacper Przybyłko’s effort missed the net trying to find a clear path in a sea of bodies.
Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar made sure to give the Union’s defense some trouble, racing down the right flank and trying to maneuver around Glesnes, but the defender was able to stretch his leg out and deflect Mukhtar’s shot.
The possession and attacks on both sides evened out, as both sides looked to break through the other’s steadfast defense. The Union did their best to utilize the skill of Monteiro and Daniel Gazdag, bringing balls up the sides of the field and crossing into the box, but it wasn’t in the Union’s destiny to strike first.
Mukhtar would break the scoreless deadlock, catching a pass from Eric Miller, and catching the Union’s back four and Andre Blake in an uncharacteristic moment of inattentiveness. Subaru Park fell almost completely silent as the Nashville players celebrated, and suddenly, the game was really on.
The Boys In Blue didn’t look fazed by falling behind, continually persisting for a goal like they had been doing for the entirety of the first half. A corner kick from Monteiro found the feet of Gazdag, whose first effort was blocked by Nashville goalie Joe Willis. Gazdag stayed on the ball, picking it up when it rolled loose and knocked it past Willis to draw the Union level in first half stoppage time.
Early in the second half, a scuffle in the Union’s box saw Leon Flach go down with an apparent knee injury. Jim Curtin was forced to sub on Sergio Santos to fortify his offense, which paid off, as Santos instantly started pressuring Nashville’s defense.
In the 62nd minute, Santos’ first real look on goal came off of a spectacular Gazdag cross. However, the Brazilian striker found himself caught in traffic and looped a shot just wide of the net.
The chances kept coming for the Union, as Alejandro Bedoya found himself getting involved. Bedoya lifted a ball to a lone Monteiro at the far post, but Nashville intercepted the cross before it could reach him.
As the clock ticked down, counterattacks on both sides grew more and more chaotic and aggressive. Philadelphia bombarded Nashville’s defense with an intricate web of passes and shots and rebounds from all sides, while Mukhtar’s speed forced the home team to sprint to track back in order to prevent Nashville from getting into a dangerous area.
Gazdag seemed to be the heroic goalscorer once again, netting his second goal of the game, which looked to be the crucial game winner, but referee Allan Chapman disallowed the goal after pronouncing that there had been a foul on the goalkeeper.
The regulatory 90 minutes were up, and the Union found themselves in overtime for the second consecutive playoff game.
The Union stayed aggressive in their pressing on Nashville’s defense, but the visitors held strong and kept the Union goalless. Monteiro and Santos were the main players in the Union’s counterattacks, but their efforts were fruitless. Curtin then made an ambitious double substitution, swapping Monteiro and Przybylko for Cory Burke and Jack McGlynn. Although the fans told every player to shoot when they got anywhere near the box (hey, it worked last time!), no dramatic rocket of a goal could save the Union this time around. This semifinal was going to penalties.
All eyes were on Blake as Nashville stepped up to take the first penalty. Mukhtar, naturally, was the choice to start off, but he was brilliantly denied by the Jamaican keeper.
Center back Jack Elliott was first for the Union, and he calmly sent his shot past Willis to give the Union the advantage.
Anibal Godoy was the second penalty taker for Nashville, and the second one to be denied by Blake’s excellent directional awareness and agile reflexes.
It was then Santos’ turn, but his PK was saved by Willis.
Alex Muyl gave Blake a break by kicking a ball more worthy of a field goal than a soccer goal, putting the Union even closer to victory.
McGlynn stepped up in the third slot, and the 18-year-old perfectly executed a stutter-step penalty kick that most professionals nearly twice his age can’t pull off.
Walker Zimmerman had the world on his shoulders as he stepped up for Nashville, but couldn’t convert.
Every fan in the stadium was on their feet. The Union players stopped for a second, almost not believing what they had just witnessed. It was only when Blake began sprinting towards his teammates that the realization finally hit—the Union were advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in club history.
Man of the Match: ANDRE. JASON. BLAKE. He didn’t need to do anything more this season to prove that he is the best goalie in MLS, but it will be a cold day in hell before he gives anything less than 110% for his team.
The Main Takeaway: Once again, the Union fall victim to failing to capitalize on relatively easy chances, and have to find their wins in overtime. They’ll be taking on the winners of the NYCFC vs. New England Revolution, and one could bet their life savings that neither of those teams will allow the finals to go past regulation time. The Union performed better than they did against the New York Red Bulls, and remained consistently undeterred by a tough Nashville side, but the real test of their abilities will fall in these finals. Either team they’ll face will be hard (but not impossible!) to beat, and they might not have the home field advantage that they’ve enjoyed so far this postseason. The Union need to step into their power, and show just how sure of themselves they’ve become. They are capable of beating any team they face. They need to start playing like it.