For most of this season, and pretty much his entire career, Andre Blake has bailed out his Philadelphia Union teammates with big save after big save.
In Sunday’s 4-3 playoff win over the New York Red Bulls at Talen Energy Stadium, it was his team’s turn to return the favor.
Following a terrible first half full of uncharacteristic mistakes, the Union rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to pull out the unlikely victory.
Alejandro Bedoya, Jack Elliott, and Fafa Picault scored to pull the Union even in regulation, and Marco Fabián tallied the game-winner in the 105th minute of extra time.
However, the Union probably would not have required anything beyond the 90-minute mark had Blake played, and looked, more like himself in the first half.
He made poor decisions on the first and third goals, and while New York’s second goal was not his fault, the former first-round pick failed to make a momentum-turning save he has been known for.
“I hate to make it simple, but Andre has won us games and points in the past,” Union coach Jim Curtin said. “Errors happen all the time all over the field. They just get magnified more at the goalie position.”
Typically, Blake is the most reliable player on the field. When the team suffers a defensive breakdown, the Jamaica international has developed a strong reputation for thwarting many dangerous situations and opportunities with acrobatic saves and smart decisions. They were on short supply at the start of the game.
“I don’t think he was bad today,” Elliott said. “He made a mistake. He did his job.”
It’s hard to argue with Blake’s center back downplaying his lackluster performance in the first half and sticking up for his teammate. Still, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t one of the worst games of his career.
It’s also difficult to blame the gaffes on inexperience or playoff butterflies, since he has appeared in playoff games in the past and on the international stage with the Jamaican national team. That is what made it so baffling how out of sync Blake looked in the first half.
The Red Bulls went up 1-0 in the sixth minute as Josh Sims hammered home a corner kick past an out-of-position Blake. The cross was sent long and went over Blake’s head. In the 24th minute, Tim Parker got a step on Kai Wagner and let loose a rocket from just outside the 18’. It was not an easy save, but again, one Blake has found a way to stop before.
Bedoya cut the deficit to one in the 29th minute, finishing off a cross from Haris Medunjanin. On the fourth goal of the half, which came in extra time, Blake couldn’t hold on to a ball served into the box by Marc Rzatkowski. Instead, it bounced off his gloves and rolled to a wide open Tom Barlow, who casually tapped it into the net as if he were in pre-game warmups.
“He knows what happened, he is a pro,” Bedoya said. “Before we came out for the second half, I just tapped him on the back and told him we had his back. That’s all you can do in that situation. He went out and made some good saves for us in the second half and he has saved us so much in the past.”
Blake regained his composure in the second half, and the Union mounted their comeback. They had the Red Bulls on their heels for most of the final 45 minutes of regulation and cut the deficit to 3-2 on Elliott’s marker in the 52nd minute and Picault tied it in the 78th.
Then, Fabián put the Union on course to their first playoff victory in team history, and in the process, took Blake off the hook.
“The players stressed that they had his back and wanted to pick him up,” Curtin said. “He’s picked us up so much in the past when we used to give up 30 shots a game – I am kidding on that – but we definitely had Andre’s back.”
The Union play Thursday, when they travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to take on Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference semifinals.