Week 32 Preview: Union vs. Toronto FC

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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.

Week 31 Recap: First is the Worst, Second is the Best

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

They might have had to give up the Supporters’ Shield this week, but the Union were able hold a clean sheet against Nashville SC and move up into second place.

Jim Curtin slightly shifted his formation against Nashville, employing two players—Jamiro Monteiro and Daniel Gazdag— in the No. 10 position. Besides, the side was relatively unchanged from the matchup against Minnesota United.

The strategic attacking combination first showed their prowess in the 10th minute, with Kai Wagner gaining possession of the ball before passing it off to Monteiro. Monteiro then unselfishly threaded the ball through to Gazdag, who, unable to find space for himself against the Nashville defense, headed the ball to Kacper Przybylko, who had his tap-in denied.

A 17th minute free kick gave the Union another scoring opportunity, with Wagner and Monteiro both standing over the set piece. Monteiro ultimately ended up taking the free kick, sending the ball near the goalpost. A goal wouldn’t come from the kick itself, but a handball off of Nashville’s Taylor Washington handed the Boys In Blue a penalty kick.

Przybylko would be chosen to take the PK, and calmly sent a laser directly past the goalkeeper to put the Union up 1-0.

The Union didn’t sit back after taking the lead, with Leon Flach nearly assisting a second goal in the first half. Flach intercepted a ball in the midfield circle, kicking off a Union counterattack. Utilizing a lethal combination of pace and a powerful left foot, Flach’s cross nearly found Gazdag before a sudden block cut off the scoring chance.

It was largely a defensive game after that, with both sides not allowing each other to carry the ball too far into their opposing halves. Curtin attempted to bolster his offensive by swapping Gazdag for Paxten Aaronson, but the home side would have to be satisfied with the final 1-0 result.

This win saw the Union move above Nashville into second place, along with being Andre Blake’s 11th shutout of the season (a career high).

Man of the Match: Przybylko scored the goal, so credit has to be given there, but Gazdag deserves an honorable mention for putting in another dazzling offensive shift. His abilities have been questioned for nearly the entire season, but his recent displays have proven just how capable and valuable he is to this team. He seems to have finally settled into MLS, and is showing his doubters that he isn’t the “waste of money” he was being coined as.

The Main Takeaway: At this point, it’s not a question of whether or not the Union will make it to the postseason, but who they will face when they get there. While the focus should absolutely still be on the remaining regular season games, significant thought needs to start being given to how the Union can break their curse of not being able to make it past the first round of the playoffs.

Weel 31 Preview: Union vs. Nashville SC

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

It will be a battle for second place as Nashville SC come to Subaru Park on Saturday, as just three points separate the two teams in the Eastern Conference standings. The Union will be looking to redeem themselves after a disappointing loss against Minnesota United earlier in the week, and continue their push for a playoff spot.

Jim Curtin further emphasized the importance of this game, acknowledging that playing Nashville won’t be a walk in the park.

“You see the table and you know what is on the line,” Curtin said. “They are all big at this stage, but it’s a really tough matchup against a really organized, tough team to break down that doesn’t give up a lot of chances or goals.”

It was also confirmed that Sergio Santos is healthy enough to be available for selection, although it wasn’t specified whether he would return to the Starting XI or ease into the game off of the bench.

“It’s great to get another striker back, especially with the speed that Sergio provides,” Curtin said of Santos’ availability. “Sergio was in really good form and then picked up a little bit of an injury and that hurt us a great deal. We manufactured some results along the way and have tried some different things; some worked really well and some we can improve on. To get another striker back certainly helps us now, especially with the unique skill set that he has to run in behind and stretch the field for us, which is very important.”

The Union will enjoy the absence of Nashville’s top offensive player, Hany Mukhtar, who will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.

The Boys in Blue will also enjoy the newfound form of Daniel Gazdag, whose brace against Minnesota cemented his hot streak, and furthermore, his place in Curtin’s team.

“Goals always give confidence, but he’s been doing a lot of those things in training, so we know it’s in him,” Curtin told media. “I cannot stress enough that he has 50+ games in his legs, so he’s still getting acclimated to his team, but you saw the quality, especially on his first goal, that is in him. I’ve also played him out of position and asked him to play as a second striker a lot. He’s best suited to be a true number 10 and we’ve tinkered and played with two 10s, and I thought they complimented each other well. We are asking him to do a lot of things, whether it’s in his comfort zone or not, but those two goals give confidence and will propel him down the stretch of the season. I say it to the guys all the time, people remember the end of the season the most, so let’s have a really strong finish in our last four games because we can finish from second toward the bottom, so it’s all to play for.”

The Union have been experiencing a solid stint of chemistry within the team, especially the midfield, as Curtin has gotten more comfortable trying out new formations and putting players in different roles. While trying players out in positions other than their natural ones has, for the most part, worked out in the Union’s favor and shown the versatility of the team, the formation changes have not. Nearly every time Curtin has strayed away from the 4-4-2 setup, things have gone awry (case and point: the Minnesota game earlier this week). At this point, it’s not so much the players and their positions that matter, rather it’s the way they’re arranged that will make all the difference. With a prime opportunity to grab the second place spot, this game is not one for experimentation.

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

  • With Santos’ fitness still tentative, Gazdag will likely be called upon to fill that second striker position. This lineup has served the Union the best this season, and as stated before, this game isn’t the right time to make significant changes to the Starting XI. Curtin can make substitutions if legs start to get tired (ones prior to the 80th minute would be preferable), but this is going to put the Union’s best foot forward against Nashville.

Score Prediction: It’s going to be a hard-fought battle, but the Union’s performance quality has been on the upturn. They have a point to prove, and the playoffs are close enough to taste. A simple 2-1 win is all that’s needed to bring them one step closer to a playoff spot.

Week 30 Recap: Bad Things Happen in Minnesota

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The Union’s singular visit to a Western Conference team in 2021 ended in a whole lot of disappointment, complete with suboptimal soccer weather, Jim Curtin deciding to switch to a 4-3-2-1 formation, and a loss smack in the middle of the Union’s playoff hunt.

Curtin’s decision to go with a 4-3-2-1 setup was meant to utilize the wider spaces in the field and emphasize the creative abilities of the Union. In the beginning minutes, all seemed to go to plan as Olivier Mbaizo was able to make a speedy run into Minnesota’s half. With no clear shot on goal himself, Mbaizo crossed the ball over to Kacper Przybyłko, who headed the ball safely into the hands of the keeper.

While the first half hour of the match was largely uneventful, the Loons jumped on a threatening counterattack in the 41st minute. Chase Gasper was able to race past the Union’s defense and find Emanuel Reynoso at the edge of the box. Reynoso found space for Franco Fragapane to assist Adrien Hunou to give Minnesota the opening goal.

The Union made the most of the time left in the half, with Leon Flach kicking off the press with a pass up the left side for Kai Wagner. Wagner easily found Jamiro Monteiro, who connected with Daniel Gazdag to give the Hungarian his first goal of the night.

Gazdag would find the net a second time in the 57th minute, thanks to a corner kick from Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya’s kick initially was knocked away by Minnesota goalie Tyler Miller, but Gazdag was waiting, and a perfectly-timed header put the Union up 2-1.

However, the Loons found their equalizer not long after, after a misplaced pass from Mbaizo found Reynoso, who crossed the ball into the box for Robin Lod to put into the back of the net.

Gazdag was frustratingly close to a hat trick as the 65th minute rolled around, but his header fell just wide of the net.

Minnesota would get a third goal in the 67th minute, after a turnover left the Union’s defense thoroughly bamboozled and scrambling to reorganize. Fragapane took advantage of the confusion and drove home a routine header from the back post.

In the 75th minute, Gazdag was once again involved in a dangerous attacking run, but his linkup with Monteiro failed to get past Miller.

Jack Elliott found himself getting involved on offense, nearly getting a header past Miller off of a corner kick, but the goalie was able to palm the ball out of danger.

As the 77th minute rolled around, Minnesota’s Romain Metanire was shown a red card after a bizarre and flurried use of elbows, along with purposefully throwing the ball at Wagner.

Trying to make the most of the man advantage, Bedoya caught a pass from Wagner at the back post, but the ball deflected off of a Minnesota defender.

The Union kept up the offensive pressure until the very end, but couldn’t find a third goal, dropping the final game of their road trip 3-2.

The Main Takeaway: Stop straying away from the 4-4-2. Just stop.

Week 30 Preview: Union vs. Minnesota United

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

After a devastating late tie against CF Montreal, the Union will travel farther west on Wednesday to face off against Minnesota United for the first time this season.

Some of the most positive news coming into this match is the fact that midfielder Jose Martinez and goalkeeper Andre Blake will be available for selection, which will bring a sense of familiarity back into a squad that Jim Curtin has been forced to rotate due to injuries and international break.

Defender Alvas Powell and striker Cory Burke are out and questionable for this game, but Curtin isn’t worried about having to fill those gaps against Minnesota.

“We have a good group of guys to choose from and we’ll put the strongest group on the field and try and get points,” Curtin said. “Everyone has to be ready when they are called upon to contribute to the team.”

Curtin also admitted that the scouting report on Minnesota, and any Western Conference teams for that matter, is not as thorough because the Union don’t play them as often.

“Both teams need points,” He emphasized. “It’s a little different playing a Western Conference team, but the points are still valuable. When you’re not playing the teams, there’s a lot less detail in the scouting. You’re not as tuned in to the Western Conference teams because the only time you meet them is in MLS Cup.”

Regardless of what team they’re playing, the Union are focused on one thing and one thing only—clinching a spot in the playoffs. With five games left in the season, every game is a must-win. A newfound trust in the current group of Homegrowns, finding a formation that has, for the most part, been infallible, and having a diverse group of goalscorers are just some of the advantages the Union have on their side as the postseason draws nearer.

Speaking on the offensive contributions of the defensive players in recent games, Curtin said, “We have found ways to to manufacture goals off of set pieces when you look at our last 10 goals as a team, a defender is contributing in one way or another in a lot of them. Whether it is scoring them directly themselves or getting an assist or leading to the goal. Kacper [Przybylko] is the one who hit double digits, but after that there is a pretty big drop off so we have to score by committee.”

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

  • Blake is back between the goalposts, and Curtin’s preferred backline is fully intact now that Kai Wagner is returning from a red card suspension. Martinez will relieve Leon Flach of his defensive midfield duties (that he did exceptionally well in) so that Flach can return to his normal position of patrolling the wings of the field. Although Paxten Aaronson has been giving Monteiro a legitimate run for his money (and proving that he will be a worthy replacement when Monteiro almost inevitably leaves in the near future), Monteiro is fit to play, and he is the better option at the moment.

Score Prediction: The Union are in fine form right now, and with a Minnesota team that’s not exactly lighting the world on fire, a 2-0 win should be well within reach.

Week 29 Recap: So. Freaking. Close.

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

Playing in Canada for the first time since 2019, the Union nearly grabbed all three points against CF Montreal, but were forced to split the points after a dramatic stoppage time goal by the home team.

The first half of the match largely saw a push-and-pull between the midfielders on both sides, with neither the Union or Montreal able to progress very far into each others’ halves. Montreal heavily relied on their wingers to try and break through the Union’s defense, but Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo shut down any attacks by the Canadian side.

Wagner got a scoring opportunity about 14 minutes in, but it was Montreal who would open up the scoring in the 33rd minute. The home team enjoyed a plethora of set pieces, and were eventually able to capitalize off of a combination between playmakers Djordje Mihailovic and Matko Miljevic to go ahead 1-0.

In the second half, Jim Curtin rearranged his formation to more resemble a 4-2-3-1 that put Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan take on wider midfield positions. This formation shift allowed Alejandro Bedoya to push forward and try to find Kacper Przybyłko in the box, but no one materialized on the other end of Bedoya’s cross.

The second half also saw a lot more Union control of the game, and consequently, their equalizing goal. Jamiro Monteiro stood over a free kick from far out, and Jakob Glesnes made a perfectly-timed run near the goal. The ball found its way through the defensive wall on the edge of the 18-yard box and glanced off the foot of Montreal goalkeeper James Pantemis into the goal, officially credited as an own goal.

This didn’t deter Montreal from trying to find their go-ahead goal, but Homegrown goalie Matt Freese did a spectacular job of knocking the ball out of danger for the Union’s defense. In a save worthy of the great Andre Blake, Freese held up a 67th minute counterattack by expertly following the ball, getting his hands on it, and safely falling on the ball to stop another scoring chance.

A go-ahead goal would be scored shortly after, courtesy of a beautiful Wagner free kick. The left-back stood over the set piece from a tight angle on the right side of the box, and was able to send a streaking shot directly into the opposite side of the net to put the Boys In Blue ahead 2-1.

All seemed to be going well for the away team, and as the game ran into stoppage time, it was looking pretty certain that they would come away with all three points. However, their hopes would be dashed by Sunusi Ibrahim, who beat out Wagner to find space on a shot that Freese had no chance of saving to bring the final scoreline even at 2-2.

Man of the Match: Wagner did what he does best and largely controlled the left side of the field, which helped immensely to take the pressure off of the young and relatively inexperienced Freese. His free kick would’ve (and, frankly, should’ve) been the game-winning goal, which only further proves his invaluable abilities as an equally talented defender and attacker.

The Main Takeaway: A point on the road isn’t terrible, but it’s frustrating that the match slipped out of the Union’s hands in the dying moments of the game. However, the performance overall was solid. Homegrowns Freese, Aaronson, and Sullivan continued to show the league that the Union academy is still churning out convincing young talents. Union players that were returning from international break integrated seamlessly back into the team. It’s a disappointing result, but it’s good that this team isn’t satisfied with a mere point and a positive performance. Every point matters, every game is a must-win, and that mentality showed in this game, which will only fortify the Union as they finish out the rest of their road trip.

Paxten Aaronson Isn't His Brother

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

When your older brother is basically a Philadelphia Union icon, it leaves some big shoes to fill.

Brenden Aaronson only played about two seasons for the Union, and traded in Philadelphia for Austria when he was 20, but his journey is the stuff of local legend. He burst onto the MLS scene with a kind of skill, creativity, energy, and soccer IQ that few people expected out of the Philadelphia Union academy at the time. He quickly established himself as a starter in the first team. He was part of the squad that won the Union their first trophy—the 2020 Supporters’ Shield.

To this day, the Union still treat Aaronson as if he still plays for them. There’s a certain level of parental pride in the way people speak about Aaronson within the Union organization. It’s like sending a child off to college—you know they can’t stay at home forever, but even with all of their independent accomplishments and individual growth, they never quite stop being your child. It’s like, “Yeah, Brenden is doing amazing things over in Europe and for the national team, and we’re so happy for him...but he’s still one of ours. We’re where it all started for him.”

The wonderful thing is that the line didn’t end with Brenden. There was another Aaronson honing his skills in the Union’s academy—three years younger, same mop of curly hair, same height and build, but—according to many of the Union’s youth coaches—more talented.

It may sound hard to believe, considering the fact that Paxten Aaronson hasn’t been given quite the same level of belief as Brenden was when he first signed his Homegrown contract. Manager Jim Curtin seemingly threw much of his trust behind Brenden, while he’s looking to be a lot more cautious with Paxten. The younger Aaronson mainly comes off the bench, if he features in games at all. He’s most comfortable playing in the No. 10 role, a position he has to compete with mainly Jamiro Monteiro for. He’s part of a Union team that is no longer much of an underdog, that has been validated, that knows their worth. It’s much more competitive, especially when Aaronson is coming from what has now been coined as the best youth academy in the United States. And, of course, there’s the herculean task of breaking out of Brenden’s shadow.

Merely having his name on the first team roster is a testament to Paxten’s skill and ability. As Curtin once said in a press conference, “With the young guys, nothing is ever handed to them. We don’t just hand debuts out; we don’t just hand them minutes. They earn everything. And Paxten has earned every opportunity that he’s got through hard work in training. He’s been excellent in practice day in and day out…”

And make no mistake, Curtin rates the younger Aaronson highly.

“I do think Paxten is a kid that when he plays with our top group, our first group of players, our starters, it makes him that much better,” The Union manager said. “Similar to how you saw Brenden kind of start to thrive. Where games with Bethlehem Steel were almost difficult for Brenden, when you surround them with real talent and high-end talent, they’ll put them on the ball in the right spots.”

The brother-to-brother comparisons are inevitable, if done to death. Kacper Przybyłko admitted that “[Paxten’s] body movement [and] language is like his brother’s” and that it was “so funny to see.”

Although Curtin has also admitted to comparing the two, he also emphasized the fact that he’s not trying to bring in Paxten simply to fill the Brenden-shaped hole in the Union’s heart with another Aaronson.

“I’ve been trying to avoid the natural thing that everybody is going to do,” Curtin admitted. “He’s his own person, he’s his own player, he’s a great kid, and he deserved [his MLS debut]. It’s just the beginning, and he’s going to leave a big impact on the Philadelphia Union, and even beyond that.”

There are clearly big plans for Aaronson, and with Monteiro looking to leave the Union at the next available opportunity, the 18-year-old’s breakthrough season could be just over the horizon. For someone so young, he’s shown some incredible flashes of brilliance. (Could he have asked for a better debut goal?) As badly as fans might want him to prosper in the same fashion as his brother, forcing Paxten to grow up before he’s well and truly ready won’t do anyone any good. A player already bursting at the seams with talent can’t be burnt out before he has a chance to really show what he’s capable of.

Because, at the end of the day, he isn’t Brenden. And fans shouldn’t want him to be. He’ll grow at his own pace, he’ll play the way that suits him the best, and he’ll become the best version of the player that he was meant to be.

Week 28 Recap: Ohio Has Been Conquered!

By Siobhan Nolan

Although they were missing eight players due to red card suspensions and international duty, the Union were able to handle FC Cincinnati, largely due to the Homegrown influence on the field.

The Homegrowns showed their prowess early on, with Paxten Aaronson and Jack McGlynn combining to set up Sergio Santos in the second minute, but the attempt was knocked aside by Cincinnati goalie Przemysław Tytoń.

Right after Santos’ chance, Cincinnati were able to grab the ball. Alvaro Barreal took advantage of the high Union press and raced towards the Union’s half. Barreal lifted a pass to Luciano Acosta, but Jack Elliott was able to track back and stay on Acosta to prevent the home team from scoring.

As the fifteenth minute rolled around, Jim Curtin was forced to make a substitution when Santos went down with an apparent injury. Quinn Sullivan entered the game, making for a total of five Homegrowns on the pitch.

Matt Freese showed some heroics in the first half, namely when former Union player Haris Medunjanin found Isaac Atanga for a shot on goal, but Freese controlled his space well and was able to push the ball away.

As the first half went into stoppage time, McGlynn opted to fire the ball towards the endline, where Aaronson was able to pick it up and move in behind the defense. Aaronson then found Kacper Przybylko in the box, who held control of the ball and sent it streaking into the back of the net to put the Union up 1-0.

The start of the second half saw Curtin revert his players back into a 4-4-2 formation, stationing Elliott at the base of the midfield diamond and Leon Flach at left back.

The Union’s second goal was a full Homegrown effort, with Nathan Harriel picking out Aaronson towards the back post. Harriel curled the ball towards the 18-year-old, who sent a low shot past Tyton for a 2-0 scoreline.

Cincinnati began creating problems for the Union’s defense, and after creating two chances in about three minutes, Matt Real was sent on to reinforce the back line.

In the 82nd minute, Medunjanin managed to get a foot on the ball in the center of the box to put one past Freese and make it a 2-1 game.

In the last gasps of the game, Sullivan got one final offensive press going, beating out Brenner to pass the ball off to Aaronson. Aaronson was looking to set up Flach for a third goal, but his shot was deflected. There was no worry, however, as the game closed with a 2-1 Union victory.

Man of the Match: All of the Homegrowns seriously stepped up to run this game, but Aaronson in particular was dazzling. He thrived in the playmaker role, showing off creativity and technical ability well beyond his years. When he linked up with McGlynn and Sullivan, it looked like the connection of seasoned professionals, and proved even further that they’re capable of making magic happen on the field.

The Main Takeaway: The Union’s squad depth has been a point of concern all season, but this game showed that even with a thin bench and the majority of their starting 11 not being able to legally drink yet, these players can get results. Curtin knows now that he absolutely can call upon the less experienced players and trust them to get the three points they need to stay competitive in this playoff race.

Week 28 Preview: Union vs. FC Cincinnati

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

Coming off of a thrilling 3-0 win against Columbus Crew, the Union travel to Cincinnati to add three more points to their standings, where they currently sit in third place.

The big roadblock for the Union in this game is the significant absence of starters. Kai Wagner won’t be available for selection due to a red card suspension, while the rest of the unavailable players are away with their national teams for World Cup Qualifiers. Andre Blake and Alvas Powell have been called up for Jamaica, Jose Martinez for Venezuela, Daniel Gazdag for Hungary, Olivier Mbaizo for Cameroon, and Jamiro Monteiro for Cape Verde.

Jim Curtin stated, “We’re going quite a bit shorthanded with missing 6-7 starters. Others will have to step up as they know they will be called upon to do.”

With Wagner’s suspension, it’s entirely likely that Curtin will switch up his normal backline formation, changing from a back four to a back three. Whichever one he decides to go with, it’s clear that Leon Flach will be the man tasked with covering the left side of the field as a left-back or wing back.

“His versatility was part of his appeal when he came here,” Curtin said of Flach’s ability to play different positions. “We know wherever we put him on the field he’s a no-nonsense player that does his job and really executes.”

The midfield will be shaken up even further with the absence of Martinez, leaving Curtin to possibly fill the number six position with Alejandro Bedoya, who normally runs the center of the midfield.

“If [Bedoya] does play the six, it is something he’s done,” Curtin said. “His versatility again helps us a great deal.”

While there are a substantial number of options Curtin could employ to fill in the gaps (resting almost entirely with the Homegrowns), the Boys In Blue know that they’re in for a battle in Cincinnati. Although their opponents have only collected 20 points in 27 matches, Curtin is by no means counting this game as an easy win.

“We have a tough task,” The Union manager admitted. “They have an incredible fan base and a beautiful stadium, so that alone will be enough for the guys to know it will be a hostile environment. The guys in Cincinnati are going to want to impress [their interim coach] and are fighting for contracts next year. They are able to play a little more free whereas we are fighting for every point. They’ve played a lot better soccer than their record shows.”

Predicted Lineup: Joe Bendik, Matt Real, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Stuart Findlay, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Quinn Sullivan, Paxten Aaronson, Sergio Santos, Kacper Przybyłko

  • Bendik will get a look in net while Blake is out, and 22-year-old Real and Findlay will mind the wings. A back four has always been the more reliable option for the Union’s defense, so it would be unwise to stray from what has worked so well for them this season. Flach will take the number six role, while Bedoya will keep his position in the center of the midfield to guide Sullivan and Aaronson as they handle the attacking side of things. With Santos and Przybylko up front, the offense will be in safe hands.

Score Prediction: The Union have tons of momentum after their thrilling victory against Columbus Crew, but they’ll be playing mostly with the B team for this game. It probably won’t look as smooth and uniform because many of these players haven’t been able to stretch their legs on the field in a while, but a 2-1 win is more than enough to keep the fire hot.

Week 27 Recap: Three Goals, Three Points, Third Place

By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The Union only had 36% possession, went down to 10 men, and were forced into several formation shifts against Columbus Crew, but still put on a dazzling display of skill, dauntlessness, and ambition to propel themselves into third place in the Eastern Conference standings.

In true Sergio Santos, the Brazilian striker wasted no time in getting the offense going right after kickoff. Santos was able to create space between Columbus’ back three, allowing for Kacper Przybylko to find Alvas Powell within that space. Powell’s cross was saved, but was fouled by a Columbus defender to set up a Union free kick. Kai Wagner stood over the set piece, but his shot was also saved.

Santos was at the heart of another threatening run, this time combining with Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya’s pass to Santos did not immediately alert the Crew’s back line to any danger, but Santos was able to collect the ball and lure goalkeeper Evan Bush off of his line. Columbus were able to track back and thwart Santos’ attempt on goal, but it was clear that they were quickly becoming outpaced and outsmarted.

The Crew’s attack was relatively quiet throughout the first half. The pressing simply wasn’t there for the opposing team, giving the Union’s back four relatively unadulterated freedom to roam farther up the field. This would prove useful, as, rather surprisingly, center back Jack Elliott was the one standing over another free kick. Elliott’s shot was low and choppy, but it managed to sneak past Bush to put the home team on the board.

The second half couldn’t have started better for the Union, as less than a minute into play, Przybylko took the ball and broke into a full sprint, keeping a look out for options to pass to. Both Santos and Daniel Gazdag were able to stretch the opposition’s back line thin, allowing for Przybylko to fire a low cross to Bedoya, who scored off of his first touch to put the Union up 2-0.

A grim air of desperation settled onto Columbus, as they sought out some sort of counterattack to no avail. Leon Flach shined in the number six role, effortlessly working with Powell and Bedoya to keep the Crew’s offense quiet. Elliott and Jakob Glesnes held strong in front of Andre Blake, who hadn’t been forced into any of his signature Superman saves thus far.

Trouble began brewing, however, when Wagner was shown a second yellow card for a tackle that shut down a Columbus counterattack in wide open space. The call stood, cutting the Union down to 10 men, and forcing Jim Curtin into a tactical shift that moved Flach over to cover the left back position.

More formation shifts occurred when Bedoya and Monteiro shifted to prioritize patrolling the central midfield, while Quinn Sullivan came on for Gazdag and taking over duties on the right wing.

The Union found themselves in another troubling spot after a collision between Powell and Gyasi Zardes drew a penalty kick for the Crew. Pedro Santos stepped up to take it, but became the latest victim of Blake’s superhuman goalkeeping abilities. Blake dove in the right direction and shoved the ball out of danger, keeping the scoreline at 2-0.

Shortly after the failed PK, Columbus found themselves with another set piece opportunity. Lucas Zelarayan stepped up to try and put his team on the scoresheet, but put the ball wide of the post instead.

Aware of the mounting threat from the opposition, Curtin, who usually favors substitutions that bolster the offense, switched Santos for Stuart Findlay in a bid to strengthen the defense. Almost immediately afterward, Darlington Nagbe rocketed a shot that seemed destined for MLS Goal of the Week contention, but Blake was able to leap into the air and palm the shot away in another awe-inspiring save.

Columbus remained on a steady decline, growing noticeably more exhausted and sluggish as the minutes ticked away. A 2-0 was looking to be a final comfortable result, but the Union weren’t done just yet. Sullivan made a genius run up the field, boldly chasing a pass none of his teammates went after. The Homegrown lofted a cross over to Flach, who knocked it into the back of the net for his first MLS goal, and secured a well-deserved. 3-0 win.

Man of the Match: This game was a spectacular team effort, and every single player put in a determined shift. However, Flach was particularly impressive. He was called upon to fill a position that he doesn’t normally play, and he held down the base of the midfield diamond with grace and ease. Even when he was shifted again to cover the Wagner-shaped hole on the left wing, the 20-year-old handled it like a veteran. It’s also admirable that he continued grinding for a third goal, even when the Union were already pretty much guaranteed a comfortable win. All that, and it’s his first MLS goal? MOTM is definitely deserved.

The Main Takeaway: This match was a true testament to the discipline, work rate, and sheer ability to overpower other teams. This performance shows just how serious they are about making it to the postseason, and how they’re now a serious contender for trophies. Columbus are the defending MLS Cup champions, and came into this game off of winning the Campeones Cup, so the fact that the Union put them in their place the way they did goes to show not just fans, but other teams that they’re not afraid of anybody coming into the playoffs.