Good teams decide games in the key energy minutes—the first and last five minutes of each half.
The Philadelphia Union scored goals in two of those time periods to break the shorthanded Montreal Impact on Sunday night despite not playing like the team with an advantage throughout a majority of the first half.
The timing of the goals was significant as the Union face another difficult stretch of games while battling injuries, managing core players’ minutes, and relying on younger players to maintain the high standard that has elevated them into the MLS elite. And in what has now become a compressed season with many future unknowns, the best team may well be the one that performs when they’re not at their best.
Down 1-0 five minutes in after Romell Quioto’s free kick put the guest hosts in front, the Union were given a lifeline as Quioto turned from hero to villain ten minutes later when he gave Mark McKenzie an elbow smash more likely found in a WWE ring than on a soccer pitch. With three-quarters of the game remaining, the Union had time to assert their style with the man advantage, a style in which we’d seen them dismantle stronger opponents with precise passing and attacking combinations. Only this time, they did not. At least not immediately after going a man up.
Kacper Przybylko’s goals on either side of the half were crucial in the victory against the Impact but also for the grueling week ahead in which they play FC Cincinnati on turf Wednesday night before returning home on Sunday to face Inter Miami, which just established one of the best attacking partnerships in MLS when they signed Gonzalo Higuain to play in front of Rodolfo Pizzaro.
Przybylko scored his team leading sixth and seventh goals for the Union, earning Team of the Week for the second time this season and runner-up in the league’s Player of the Week voting. But it was the manner in which the Union scored these energy goals that will have coach Jim Curtin feeling confident ahead of this week’s fixtures.
Przybylko’s opening goal in the third minute of first-half stoppage was created by an assertive overlap and pinpoint cross by Matt Real and an exceptional run to the back post by Przybylko.
The attack began when Jakob Glesnes sent a long pass wide on the left side to Jamiro Monteiro, who had time to control the ball as two Montreal defenders backed away. Real, who held back on some of these opportunities in early appearances, attacked the space around the outside with an overlapping run. Monteiro slipped the ball to Real in stride, and the Union defender picked his head up and sought out Alejandro Bedoya, who had beaten Impact midfielder Bojan on the back post. At the moment of Real’s pass, Andrew Wooten made a move for the near post and Przybylko slipped to the back side, easily evading his defender Luis Binks.
Przybylko showed his striker’s tenacity and locked in on the ball, heading it into the net before Bedoya as Impact keeper Clément Diop scrambled to get across his line.
The goal provided a quick jab — not the Quioto kind — but gave the Union the lead heading into the break where they could regroup and come out swinging. While the Impact started the second half timid, the Union came out aggressive, and a little over a minute after the restart, Przybylko put the game out of reach when he finished off a cross from Brenden Aaronson, who’d been released down the left side by a penetrating ball from Mark McKenzie that was world-class.
The goal started from the back again as the ball swung around to McKenzie. Aaronson saw the Impact straight line and pointed to a spot between outside back Zachary Brault-Guillard and center back Joel Waterman where the through-ball was open. But McKenzie still had to thread the seam. He looked off Brault-Guillard and made a pass with perfect weight and curl that allowed Aaronson to shoot the gap and lose Waterman attacking the goal.
Przybylko beat Binks and Jukka Raitala into the penalty area, setting up a two-on-one against Diop, who did his best to challenge the shot but was helpless once Aaronson slipped the ball across to Przybylko.
Aaronson’s pass wasn’t perfect, and the Union were fortunate that it slipped past a sliding Raitala, but Przybylko couldn’t miss six yards from goal with no keeper. He settled the ball and found the opening on the far side of the goal.
If Przybylko’s first goal was the hard jab, his second was the stunner, one in which the Impact could never recover from the rest of the game. And because it occurred so early in the second half, the Union were able to dictate play and wear out a fatigued Impact team playing their third straight game in eight days with a man down. Though the Union’s performance against the Impact had room for improvement, their ability to strike at key moments sealed the game and allowed for certain players to receive some much needed rest.