For an entire season, we’ve tasted this Philadelphia Union team as if it were a succulent steak, maybe not a filet but a decent strip or porterhouse, a little on the rare side, juicy, chewy, filling, with an aftertaste that lasts for days as we pick tiny pieces from between our teeth.
Perhaps this team was something more complex. Like pasta salad. A soft base of cooked spirals, tomatoes, basil, carrots, bell peppers, celery, cheese, a little oil or maybe even a splash of balsamic. Flavorful, hitting our tongues from different angles with enough substance to satisfy our hunger. It was never the Michelin five-star meal that would reduce all future meals to mush but good enough to rave about it for weeks, share with our friends, or post on social media.
The benefit to preparing a dish is that one bad flavor doesn’t ruin the meal when it can be balanced with another ingredient. Add a bit more pepper, some sharp provolone instead of cheddar, some extra Worcester. For most of the season, whenever the Union had a slow start, played sloppy, or missed assignments, they made up for it with outstanding goalkeeping, a timely goal, or a sprinkle of Ilsinho or Anthony Fontana. The problem, however, was that in Tuesday night’s game against the Revolution, all that could have gone wrong, did.
This was not the dish we wanted to prepare for holiday dinner, and it’s hard to say if one game overpowered the joy of the Union’s best season in franchise history, but these flavors, tastes, and ingredients, though familiar, had never been compiled in such a dish as the one created against the Revolution.
Step 1) Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Then abruptly turn the oven off.
Jamiro Monteiro was the best player on the field to start the game. He was everywhere. Tackling, pressing, creating. In the fifth minute, Brenden Aaronson broke down the right side, beat his defender, and slid the ball back to Monteiro, who was crashing at the top of the six. Monteiro had to take it off a bounce, but there was no mistake it should have been on target, should have been the game’s opening goal, and altered the way the next twenty minutes were played.
Step 2) Assemble ingredients but lose the flair
After a good start, it appeared as if the Union were energized as they built possession and sustained the Revolution’s counter attacks the way they’d done in each of the previous five meetings. Then they stopped playing. After controlling the starting twenty minutes, from the 20th to the 25th minutes, the Union were out possessed 70%-30%. They gave the ball away (several times from Martinez, once from Santos and McKenzie) and allowed Carles Gil to assert his presence. And in the end, this five-minute stretch proved to be the difference in the game.
Step 3) Add ½ cup of silly fouls and ½ cup of poor defending in a sauce pan
In a moment of frustration, Kai Wagner fouled Carles Gil outside the box after his own bad giveaway. Out of context, it was a silly foul because it put the Revs’ best player on the ball where he could curl it into the box with his left foot. In context, the foul occurred after the Union conceded possession, then a corner, and had two potential penalties in the box from José Martinez waved off (one an obvious handball, the other a late challenge). On the free kick, the Union drew a high line, creating space in behind for Gil’s in-swinger. In a crowd of bodies, Adam Buksa got the better of Mark McKenzie and his header found the top corner. The momentum for a New England goal was coming, and the Union have had a history of trouble defending free kicks.
Step 4) Place pan over medium-high heat for two minutes then let it rest.
Down a goal, the Union were still in the game. Their corresponding attack resulted in a corner, which led to a quick clearance, more Gil, a Bou shot, and another giveaway out of bounds, this time from Ray Gaddis. The throw-in took place inside the Revs’ own half. Not dangerous, but we’ve seen multiple times this season where the Union switch off. Before the throw, Bedoya, Martinez, and Monteiro covered no one, and Gil was all alone in the middle of the field with Wagner pointing for someone to pick him up. Where before have we seen the most dangerous player in the game all alone? It doesn’t matter how the ball got to Gil because it did. By then Wagner was playing one against two with Tajon Buchanan charging down the right side. Wagner dropped rather than stepped, and Gil led Buchanan out wide, still faced with a wide angle and low odds of beating Blake. But Wagner overcommitted, missed the tackle miserably, and left Buchanan free to blast the ball toward Blake’s right, at his surgically stabilized broken hand, from close range. With the Revolution two goals up, thirty minutes in, the game was still not over. But it sure felt that way.
Step 5) Combine poor play from Aaronson and Martinez
Brenden Aaronson is a talent, as exciting a young player as any in the league. The Revolution borrowed FC Cincinnati’s tactic of pushing him around, denying him space out wide, and with the exception of his early run, Aaronson couldn’t find the game. Martinez had too many giveaways, the hand ball-foul combo inside the box, over-committed, lost Gil free to roam, and all of this justified his halftime substitution.
Step 6) Dilute with Przybylko
Kacper Przybylko failed to score a goal in the run of play in 12 games. And his last goals came against a disorganized Montreal team playing with ten men. Stats don’t always tell the whole story. He put together a string of games and Team of the Week performances between a quiet start to the season and a nearly invisible last six weeks. Despite leading the league in scoring, the Union’s greatest concern going forward had been its inability to find consistent play from its strike partnership, which just reiterates how good the midfield had been. And in a game in which the Union needed two goals, Przybylko’s inactivity and ineffectiveness were magnified once again.
Step 7) Add in Subs
I’ve never criticized Jim Curtin’s substitution history. He’s called on the right player at the right time, often with positive results. Ilsinho for Martinez was bold but necessary. The Union needed a game changer, and for much of the second half, Ilsinho was the best player on the field. But with thirty minutes to play, down two goals, and the season on the line, Curtin swapped Jack Elliott for Aaronson and Burke for Santos. I understand the logic. Elliott’s a big target who can steal a goal off a free kick and Burke has scored off the bench since his return.
But Przybylko should have come off and Aaronson should have stayed. Weeks ago, when Alejandro Bedoya was forced to play the six role with Martinez and Creavalle out, the Union looked like a more decisive attacking side. They needed Bedoya’s experience on the field as much as they needed Aaronson’s creativity. Instead, Ilsinho was left all alone down the right side with few to combine with, lacking the Ilsinho-Aaronson, mentor-mentee relationship that had proven effective countless times this season. Burke for Santos was a like-for-like swap, so in reality, nothing changed after 60 minutes, which is why the Revs were so comfortable sitting back and forcing the Union to play through. We’d never seen a Santos-Burke combo, but neither have the Revs. And given the fact that the two teams had played 510 minutes, there’s plenty of familiarity that favors the team with the lead. The Union’s predictability made a two- goal deficit feel like five.
Step 8) Let ingredients settle
For a majority of the game, while the Union pushed into the attacking third, the player on the ball had his head up, looking for the forwards who stood on the high line, raised a hand, and did nothing to influence the pace or direction of play. In the first minute of extra time, Anthony Fontana hit a long ball over the top to Cory Burke, who had the defense beat if not for half-bicycle kick clearance by the Revs’ Andrew Farrell. Unfortunately, the clearance went to a Revs players who was then fouled. But the point is that the Union failed to adapt to the conditions of the game. A majority of the runs behind came from midfielders pushing through the gaps down the sides. Rarely did we see a striker penetrate the back four, which was partly due to the Revs’ withdrawn line but also due to a lack of movement.
Step 9) Forget to add seasoning
There’s something about playing a team six times. In most of the previous meetings, the Union were the better side, and the Revolution had to adjust. Bruce Arena knew the Union’s weaknesses but his team was never good enough to exploit them. Bruce Arena may complain a lot but he’s seen this game before. He followed the Columbus, Cincinnati, and Toronto blueprint for keeping the Union offense bland. Matt Turner only had to make four saves and all of those shots were at his body.
Step 10) Place pan in the oven and bake for 90 minutes
The ingredients of this Union team were not designed to come from behind but to maintain a lead, something the Union had been fairly successful with throughout the season. They’ve rarely been forced to play from behind, with the Timbers loss, The Fontana game against the Revs, the draw against D.C. United, and the first Columbus game as their sample size. The second Columbus loss and Toronto loss were decided late, so the Union had never been in a position where defenders had to be wingers and center backs had to be center midfielders. The worst possible scenario for this team was to go down early by two goals.
Does the loss against the Revolution change the taste of a memorable 2020 season? For now it does, but in time, as we allow ourselves to let go, we may look back on the Decision Day celebration and remember that our team was once the best, is still trending in the right direction, and be thankful. But the Philadelphia Union are out, and after a memorable season with the MLS is Back semifinals, the Supporters’ Shield, the Champions League, and the postseason accolades, the one trophy that matters most in MLS will not be coming to Chester on December 12th, and leaves us with the unsettling feeling of an underwhelming meal that may last for some time.