Eastern Conference Semifinal Recap: It Was the Night Things Changed

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.

Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview: Union vs. Nashville SC

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Playoff Recap: Jakob Glesnes For President!

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

Playoffs are already an exciting event as it is, but the Union decided to really kick off the postseason in quite literally the most dramatic way possible. There was extra time. There was a game-winning goal that rocketed off the foot of a center back in the 123rd minute of play. And, once again, the Union beat their bitterest rival to advance into the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Let’s recap.

Even before kickoff, the energy in Subaru Park was both tense and hopeful. The Sons of Ben filled out the River End, chanting expletive-filled messages to drown out the prominent opposition fans that occupied the section right next to them. Every touch of the ball garnered an emphatic reaction from the crowd, as blood pressures rose to touch the planes flying overhead, the incessant pounding of drums echoed the hammering of fans’ hearts, and even the biggest non-believer sent silent prayers upwards that their team would come out of this game victorious.

The Red Bulls tested the Union early on, easily controlling the opening minutes of the game. The visitors almost exclusively held possession, and didn’t allow breathing room for any Union player that managed to get a hold of the ball. Despite the offensive pressure, the backline of Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, and Alvas Powell (replacing Olivier Mbaizo, who was out for medical reasons), along with Andre Blake, kept the Red Bulls scoreless.

Powell would have the first scoring opportunity for the Union, catching a header from Kacper Przybylko and firing it at the goal, but Red Bulls’ goalie Carlos Coronel was able to make the save.

As the game progressed and neither side being able to break the scoreless deadlock, things naturally began getting physical. Powell and Omir Fernandez found themselves going at it more than once, and, of course, Jose Martinez got in the middle of a couple of altercations of his own. Somewhat controversially, only Red Bulls midfielder Dru Yearwood received a booking, having been shown a yellow card for a high elbowing of Paxten Aaronson.

Speaking of Aaronson, who took over the No. 10 role for Jamiro Monteiro (also unavailable for medical reasons), the Homegrown once again showed his creativity and maturity in midfield. After Alejandro Bedoya sparked a counterattack, Aaronson found himself with a scoring chance that went just wide of the net.

He wasn’t done, however, as he employed some of his signature clever footwork to maneuver out of a tight space and send a laser of a pass to a waiting Daniel Gazdag, who couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.

Time ticked away, and both sides were becoming noticeably more tired and frustrated with the lack of goals. Not even substituting on Sergio Santos, Cory Burke, and Jack McGlynn seemed to inspire the Union’s offense, as chance after ideal chance missed the net. At the end of the standard 90 minutes, the scoreboard still showed goose eggs for both teams, meaning that extra time was upon them.

In the first half of extra time, both teams seemed to mirror each other in terms of attacking styles, which only made for a continuation of the stalemate. The tired legs were evident for the Union, as Santos, Burke, and Gazdag all put pressure on to find a goal, but nothing came to fruition.

As the second half of extra time commenced, Burke and Santos linked up once again, but Coronel stopped the shot. Burke once again came close in the 117th minute, but the ball was taken off of him by a Red Bulls defender.

There were mere seconds left in extra time, and a dreaded penalty shootout was looking inevitable when an unlikely hero stepped up to score a goal. Glesnes was standing outside the box when the ball came right to him, and in a move of perfect control and calmness, he chested the ball down to his foot and sent a trademark rocket past Coronel.

It was a reaction that nobody can articulate, as it’s nearly impossible to capture the relief, the disbelief, the excitement, and the stunned realization that the Union were moving on unless you were there. Surely the fans could be heard all the way in Center City as Coronel jumped to save the ball just a second too late, and every Union player faced the crowd, passionately yelling and gesturing for them to get louder, rowider, crazier. Even Jim Curtin couldn’t keep his cool, as he sprinted from his technical to celebrate with his players. And honestly...who can blame him?

Man of the Match: Jakob Glesnes, surprisingly enough. Scoring the latest goal in MLS history and getting Subaru Park rocking the way he did is a pretty solid case to get MOTM.

The Main Takeaway: It was an exciting win, but it was far from the Union’s best performance. Against a Red Bulls side that squeaked into the playoffs, as opposed to the Union getting in only behind the New England Revolution, they simply needed to be more assertive, have better communication with each other, and play more cohesively. One of the biggest reasons the Union were able to get seeded so highly is because they have an almost telepathic connection when it comes to passing, spotting runs, and setting up goals. Maybe it was nerves or pressure or the cold temperatures, but the Union weren’t on their game. If they want to advance past the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they’ll need to beat either NYCFC or Atlanta United, neither of which will be as forgiving as the Red Bulls.

Playoff Preview: Union vs. New York Red Bulls

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Week 34 Recap: Let the Games Begin...

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The Union’s outing against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium marked the end of the regular MLS season, along with seeing the Boys In Blue clinch second place in the Eastern Conference.

The first half of the game saw tempers flare on both sides, proving just how much this Decision Day matchup meant to both teams on the field. The Union’s Jose Martinez and NYCFC’s Valentin Castellanos were the first ones to see tensions boil over, with Castellanos making an early tackle on Martinez with his studs up, but Martinez was able to avoid the brunt of the contact.

Later, in the 21st minute, Leon Flach was on the receiving end of NYCFC’s aggression. The 20-year-old was wiped out by Gedion Zelalem just outside the 18-yard box, causing Zelalem to initially receive a yellow card from the referee. However, after the play was reviewed on VAR, Zelalem received his marching orders with a red card.

Now a man up, the Union offense were off the races. Olivier Mbaizo made the most of his right wing, sending a laser of a pass to Kacper Przybyłko, who couldn’t get his foot on it. The ball skittered to the back post, where a waiting Flach recovered it and sent it back to the Polish striker, who was able to tap it in to put the Union up 1-0.

The defense was also on point for this final game, with center backs Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott proving why they’re one of the most efficient and solid duos in the league. A myriad of well-timed blocks and toed-away clearances ensured that Andre Blake wouldn’t have much to do in the first half, and kept the home team without a goal.

As the first half ticked away into stoppage time, the Union almost nabbed a second goal. Glesnes made a routine clearance on an NYCFC counterattack, which found Daniel Gazdag in NYCFC territory. Gazdag stayed on the ball during a one-on-one faceoff, but pressure from the defender marking him forced a weak pass off the Hungarian’s foot.

Despite the lack of power on the cross, Przybylko didn’t let a potential goalscoring opportunity go to waste. Although he was able to gain possession, the small, tight angles of the Yankee Stadium pitch proved to be too difficult to navigate, and neither Przybylko nor Gazdag could find the back of the net.

The Boys In Blue went into halftime up 1-0, but they quickly squandered that lead once the second half kicked off. A poor clearance found NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez, who sent a ball skipping across to Golden Boot-contender Castellanos, who was able to head it past Blake to draw NYCFC level at 1-1.

It was anyone’s game at that point, but the Union’s workrate immediately went up after losing their goal advantage. Alejandro Bedoya displayed an impressive bit of skill, intercepting a counterattack before dancing out to the flank and finding Jamiro Monteiro. Monteiro floated a pass to Przybylko in the box, but it failed to lead to a goal.

Jim Curtin, in true Curtin fashion, made a trifecta of substitutions to bolster the offense in the last third of the game. Homegrowns Paxten Aaronson and Jack McGlynn entered the fray, along with Cory Burke, but a second goal wasn’t to be for either side, as the match ended in a 1-1 draw.

Man of the Match: It was a good team performance, and everybody did their part to pick up the away point, but Przybylko’s goal (his 12th of the season) made a strong case for him to be MOTM. His lone goal made the draw possible, but a special shutout also needs to be given to the midfield, who created a multitude of goalscoring opportunities throughout the entire game.

The Main Takeaway: Although a win would’ve obviously been the most ideal outcome, clinching second place was the ultimate goal, and it was achieved. The Union now have a home playoff game (against the New York Red Bulls, no less!) and can go into the playoffs motivated by a series of exemplary performances. Now, it’s all eyes on the MLS Cup.

Week 34 Preview: Union vs. NYCFC

Embed from Getty Images

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

It’s the last game of the regular season, as the Union look to head into the playoffs with a win and a second place finish.

Jamiro Monteiro’s absence was a big surprise for Union fans in the game against FC Cincinnati, especially given his previous transfer drama, but Jim Curtin assured fans that him being left out of the squad was due to a knee injury, and that Monteiro is back in full training.

“He’s back and trained fully and no real issue with the knee,” Curtin clarified. “I’ll be honest, when the initial MRI was read, it was listed as a potential grade 3 strain, which is ‘you’re done.’ He’s bounced back in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense and the strength of his knee is stable and he’s trained fully the last couple days and looks great. Knock on wood, it’s a good spot for Jamiro.”

It’s a good spot indeed, seeing as the Union will need every bit of strength they can get, as this is the third time this year that they will be battling NYCFC for second place in the Eastern Conference. It’s a three-way fight between Philadelphia, New York, and Nashville, and the Union are hungry for that spot.

“The importance of home field comes up and it’s something that is in our hands,” Curtin said of the possibility of having a playoff game at home. “We’ll have to be at our very best. [Yankee Stadium] is obviously a very difficult place to go and play. They play very well there against all teams in our league, it has unique dimensions obviously.”

Playing in a baseball stadium could present some challenges for the Union, as the field is narrower and NYCFC are much more comfortable playing in that environment than most teams in MLS are.

“With the way the field dimensions are, New York City has become very comfortable and used to it,” Curtin said. “For us, we can replicate it and make the dimensions tighter, but we’re going to have to solve the problems on our own. Their record in Yankee Stadium speaks for itself.”

At this point, it’s up in the air as to whether Curtin will deploy his preferred 4-4-2 formation, or continue to use the 4-3-2-1 shape that he’s been favoring recently. With Monteiro back to full fitness, fans could very well see him and Daniel Gazdag share the No. 10 position in an effort to generate as much offense as possible for the Boys In Blue.

Although the Union’s back line is one of the best in the league (if not the best), they’ll face a significantly difficult opponent in forward Valentin Castellanos, whose 18 goals have put him at the front of the race for this season’s Golden Boot.

Speaking about the counterattacks his trusty defensemen will face, Curtin said, “Right up the center of the field is where it becomes critical to cut off the service to those guys as best we can. We want to try and limit their touches. Tough matchup, tough field, tough dimensions. But there’s no excuses now going into the last game and trying to get a result.”

Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Olivier Mbaizo, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro, Daniel Gazdag, Kacper Przybylko

  • With limited options for a second striker, seeing as Sergio Santos is questionably fit at best, and Cory Burke is still easing back into the squad after an injury of his own, a 4-3-2-1 formation is looking optimal. Monteiro and Gazdag share the creator role surprisingly well, and both Flach and Bedoya have proven that in this midfield shape, they’re capable of handling the offensive and defensive responsibilities in midfield. As stated before, this back line and goalie combination is the best of the best, so Curtin will be putting his best possible foot forward for this game.

Score Prediction: It’ll be a close one, and while the Union are going into the playoffs all guns blazing, they simply don’t have the best away record. Especially playing in a stadium with such unfamiliar and awkward dimensions, they probably won’t make the necessary adjustments as quickly as they need to. A 2-2 draw is looking most likely to finish out the season.

Week 33 Recap: Union Homegrowns > Every Other Player in MLS

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The Union employed a 4-3-2-1 formation at the start of this game, and the high press style of play quickly put FC Cincinnati in a spot of trouble. The visitors made it clear that their strategy was to try and work the right side of the field, but the Union snuffed that candle. Olivier Mbaizo easily found a counterpress on the right side, lifting a pass to homegrown Jack McGlynn, who showed the fearlessness and drive of a much older player when he forced an early save from Cincinnati goalie Kenneth Vermeer.

Mbaizo found himself at the center of the attack again, after Alejandro Bedoya collected a ball from a deflected Union corner kick and passed it back to Mbaizo. The right back made his shot on goal, which Daniel Gazdag headed in for good measure to put the Union up 1-0.

The Union attack didn’t stop there, with Gazdag nearly getting himself a brace just ten minutes after his first goal. Paxten Aaronson shot a beautifully weighted pass towards the Hungarian midfielder, who sent it just wide of the net. Gazdag then almost bagged an assist as he set up McGlynn for a heart-stopping shot on goal.

McGlynn and Gazdag showed off their chemistry once again in the last minutes of the first half, with Gazdag making a run in central midfield to pull the defense away from marking McGlynn. This allowed space for the homegrown to get his second shot on goal, which bounced off the post.

Despite not having a shot on goal in the first half of play, and their offense didn’t look all that threatening in the second either. Brandon Vazquez and Alvaro Barreal tried to create options in the Union’s box, but Andre Blake wasn’t fazed in the slightest.

Aaronson commanded the midfield yet again, beating out former Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin to put on a stunning display of footwork in the opposition’s box. Some truly genius back-and-forth from Gazdag and McGlynn set him Aaronson up for an absolute screamer of a goal, one in which the set up play and pure creative ability cannot be overstated.

The Union continued controlling possession as the clock ticked on, with Kacper Przybylko moving in on the action as well. (It’s a shame he didn’t end up scoring—the amount of Halloween puns that could be made with his name if he had gotten a goal would’ve been hilarious.) Gazdag and McGlynn continued banging in shots on goal, but couldn’t find the back of the net.

Jim Curtin made some typical late-game subs, one of which saw Cory Burke see some playing time after struggling with an injury for the most recent slate of games.

Thankfully, the game would finish with a 2-0 result, putting the Boys In Blue back in second place, along with securing an astounding 12th clean sheet for Blake.

Man of the Match: Paxten. Aaronson. At this point, referring to him as a “kid” or a “youngster” just doesn’t cut it anymore. He routinely displays skill, talent, and a soccer IQ that infinitely exceeds his 18 years of age. His performance in midfield, although against one of the weaker defenses in the league, wasn’t reminiscent of his brother’s outings for the Union—it was so much better.

The Main Takeaway: It’s too easy to make a “the kids are alright” joke, so it’ll just be said that the Union as a whole look better than alright headed into Decision Day against NYCFC. This was a dazzling team performance, and proves that while they struggled a bit with formation changes and players switching positions in the past, they can handle just about any change Curtin throws their way now. They’ve made it to the playoffs five out of the last six seasons, but 2021 is different. This time, they look undoubtedly like a playoff (and even championship-winning) team.

Week 33 Preview: Union vs. FC Cincinnati

Embed from Getty Images

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The Union have officially clinched their spot in the playoffs, but that doesn’t make their match against FC Cincinnati any less important. The home stretch of the season will provide the necessary momentum and see just how prepared the Union are for a playoff run this year.

The Boys In Blue put their best foot forward with three goals against Nashville FC in their last match, but Jim Curtin isn’t brushing that off as some amazing offensive feat—it’s merely what should be expected of a team in playoff contention.

“They are still a very dangerous attacking team,” Curtin told reporters. “To score three goals against Nashville is not easy. There’s no easy games in this league. If you don’t bring your best, you’ll get beat.”

“The best” games for the Union have been the ones that have seen the 4-4-2 formation, but the latest stretch of games has seen Curtin favoring a 4-3-2-1 shape instead. While it’s taken some getting used to for the players, there’s a good reason by the shift in formations.

“We have to have some flexibility with the team, and certainly playing this formation does that, as opposed to the 4-4-2 diamond, which still remains my preferred formation.” Curtin explained.

Injuries have, unfortunately, played a part in the need for the shift, and the Union haven’t made it out of the woods with hurt players. Sergio Santos was tentatively returning to play against Toronto FC, but suffered a quad injury and will not be available against Cincinnati. Cory Burke is back in full training, while Ilsinho is slowly getting back to full fitness after struggling with injuries all season. According to Curtin, “He’s still got some work to do, but I want him to push as hard as possible to help this team, whether it’s in New York City or maybe the playoffs. I want it to end with him on the field.”

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that Cincinnati is one of those dangerous teams that is going into this game with absolutely nothing to lose. They’re currently on a 10-game losing streak, and pretty much guaranteed to finish the season with the worst record in MLS. It’s been an abysmal year, but again, teams with nothing to play for can be the ones that the opposition needs to be the most cautious of.

As the postseason draws nearer, Curtin needs to figure out who his key players are going to be, and how much he wants to play/rest them with the remaining regular season matches. It’s safe to say that essential men like Kai Wagner and Alejandro Bedoya could use a game to rest their legs and give the younger players some more minutes (it’s uncertain how much time Curtin would give the homegrowns in the playoffs). However, players like Leon Flach and Kacper Przybyłko won’t be able to do the same. They’re like sharks—if they stop swimming, they’ll die. If their play is suddenly interrupted, it could negatively impact their performance when it matters the most in the playoffs.

Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Olivier Mbaizo, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Paxten Aaronson, Jamiro Monteiro, Cory Burke

  • Not everyone is a huge fan of the 4-3-2-1 formation, but Curtin has heavily implied that he’s going to be using it more often to keep his players on their toes. It’s a useful strategy, and will help strengthen the squad by exposing players to new positions and increasing versatility. Since this Cincinnati game is one of the less challenging ones in the Union’s schedule, Curtin will probably start some Homegrowns, along with giving Przybylko a bit of a break as the lone striker up front.

Score Prediction: It’s FC Cincinnati. The Union are playing at home. They’re on a hot streak, just clinched their playoff spot, and are at pretty much full strength in terms of squad depth. A 3-0 win should be light work for them at this point.

Week 32 Recap: The Union Draw on the Road, and Also the Sky is Blue

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

It’s another away game and another draw for the Union. A win would have secured their spot in the playoffs, but a draw welcomed in a bunch of complicated scenarios and relying on other teams to win and lose in order for the Boys In Blue to clinch.

The Union got off to quite the ideal start, with Alejandro Bedoya collecting a pass from Daniel Gazdag and scored just 37 seconds into the game.

Despite having the advantage on the scoreboard, Toronto FC controlled most of the possession after the Union scored. The Union’s back four showed why they’re considered one of the best back lines in the league, calmly shutting down any Toronto counterattacks before they could reach goalie Matt Freese.

The rest of the first half remained fairly quiet, save for some promising offensive runs from Kai Wagner and Leon Flach that unfortunately didn’t turn into anything.

In the 63rd minute, Kacper Przybylko lost the ball after a scoring chance, and Toronto were quick to seize their chance to attack. Jozy Altidore grabbed a loose ball from the crowd of bodies in front of the net and rocketed a shot past Freese to put the home side level 1-1.

Things went from bad to worse, as Toronto’s Jacob Shaffelburg attempted to put a low cross into Altidore’s path. Union defender Jack Elliott tried to intercept the pass, but ended up putting it into the net for an own goal.

Jim Curtin then substituted Sergio Santos for Gazdag, and it proved to be the right move. Just seven minutes after falling behind, Wagner picked Santos out in a pocket of space and sent a laser of a pass that Santos was able to deflect into the net to even everything up 2-2.

It was game on as the Union hunted for the game-winning goal, including a brilliant run and pass from homegrown Jack McGlynn to Przybylko, but the Polish striker sent the ball just over the crossbar.

In the dying moments of the match, Jamiro Monteiro weaved through Toronto’s defense to pick out Przybylko in the middle of the box. The shot deflected off of Toronto’s Michael Bradley, and the Union argued for a handball and penalty to be given, but the referee didn’t indulge their request.

Continue reading "Week 32 Recap: The Union Draw on the Road, and Also the Sky is Blue" »

Week 32 Preview: Union vs. Toronto FC

Embed from Getty Images

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

After an essential win over Nashville SC to propel them into second place, the Union will be looking to continue the pressure heading into the postseason. A road game without an ample amount of rest won’t make this an easy trip, but an ideal playoff position will make it all worth it.

“We want to reach our goal of hosting a playoff game at Subaru Park, where we’ve been tough to play against, and that starts with a difficult road trip to Toronto,” Jim Curtin told media during a pre-match press conference. “This is a team that has a lot of talent and a lot of strong players. We have to treat it that way with the right mindset and mentality to try and get a result and bring some points back to Philadelphia. The table in our league at this point in the year doesn’t matter in terms of anybody can still beat anybody.”

As the ever-important playoffs draw nearer, the health and fitness of players remains a paramount concern, especially in the case of the Union, where a number of players have been utilized nearly every minute of the season. Curtin hit the jackpot with his 4-4-2 rotation, featuring, for the most part, the same players week in and week out across all competitions. While that could conjure up problems of overworked and fatigued players, Curtin has insisted that his players haven’t saddled a burden they couldn’t handle.

“I can’t stress enough, whether our guys are young or old, they work towards this and we knew what the schedule was long ago,” Curtin said. “We knew they’d be able to take the load.”

Curtin also continued to drive home the point that his team is treating every game as a must-win, and that they’re not counting out any time. With the New England Revolution already clinching first place and the Supporters’ Shield, maintaining second place is the top priority.

“We’re going to go after these points 100% against Toronto,” Curtin told reporters. “It’s not a situation where I’m going to say, ‘Let’s rest against Toronto and then go chase Cincinnati.’ We want to take care of business now when it’s in our hands and chase every point.”

The big question, then, is which players start. Andre Blake will not be available for selection against Toronto, as he will be in Jamaica following the loss of his grandmother. However, Sergio Santos will be able to play for “at least a half of regulation play”, which will be a saving grace for Kacper Przybyłko.

“Another striker in the stable to give Kacper a little bit of a break down the stretch would be great,” Curtin explained. “We need both [Santos and Cory Burke] to score goals if we really want to do something this year. We need another striker to step up in those big games, that’s the reality of the sport.”

However, as Jonathan Tannenwald of The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, the biggest challenge falling on the Union for this match is winning a game they’re expected to win. Toronto are second-to-last in the East, and not even powerhouses like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley have been able to salvage this season for the Reds.

The Union have suffered some disappointing results against teams that are admittedly beneath them in terms of quality and production. Curtin pointed out how the team is “trying to guard against letdowns”, along with “guarding against never getting too high, and when things are going tough, the group to get too low. I think the maturity of our group, even with the young players, I think we’re past that.”

Predicted Lineup: Matt Freese, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Olivier Mbaizo, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Daniel Gazdag, Kacper Przybyłko, Sergio Santos

  • Freese has proven himself to be a worthy No. 2 goalie, and as long as Curtin sticks with arguably the best back line in MLS, he shouldn’t face too much pressure from the home side’s offense. In the midfield diamond, Gazdag’s hot streak has made an excellent case as to why he should snag the No. 10 position when the formation doesn’t allow that role to be shared, leaving room for Santos to start and take some scoring responsibility off of Przybylko upfront, even if he’s only on for one half.

Score Prediction: If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times—there are no easy games in MLS. However, Toronto are extremely vulnerable, and the Union have been given an invaluable boost of confidence after the Nashville game. A 3-1 win would be the perfect statement to let the other playoff teams know that the Boys In Blue mean business.