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Jakob Glesnes and Andre Blake rising to legendary status for Philadelphia Union

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Glesnes and Blake are a big reason why the Union are still alive in the MLS playoffs

DC United v Philadelphia Union Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It’s the 122nd minute of a scoreless game, and the Philadelphia Union have seven players spread along the top of the New York Red Bulls’ box, defenders frantically matching bodies.

The fans rise to their feet, a synchronous Union chant gathering momentum around Subaru Park. The chill has intensified ever since the sun dropped below the west stands, but a last-ditch attempt at victory before penalties has brought warmth.

Kai Wagner curls a free kick to the far post, but Red Bull defender Andrew Gutman heads the ball away from Cory Burke. Jesús Bueno collects the ball by the sideline, touches inside to his left, preparing for an in-swinging cross but instead lays it back to José Martiniez, who whips in an out-swinger that’s short and low, evidence of legs that have covered a half dozen miles or more. Martinez’s cross fails to beat the first man, Gutman, and the ball falls to Jakob Glesnes, who seconds earlier was at the near post and dropped 35 yards as the ball recycled. Glesnes settles the ball off his chest.

The crowd’s urging him to shoot…

The Union had their chances to win the game. Sergio Santos hit Carlos Coronel in the legs from a sitter six yards from goal in the 107th minute and Cory Burke missed from the exact spot 10 minutes later, though he had more pressure from a sliding defender as he put his foot through the ball. This game had the makings of a prototypical upset, the scrappy road team defending until the end, only to steal it with one individual moment of brilliance. The Union were out of luck. And subs. No Przybylko daggers, no Ilsinho heroics, no Monteiro scrappers, no homegrown golazos. This was the final strike of the game, from a central defender far from goal with a bouncing ball in the cold.

In those final seconds as the game appears headed to penalties you ask yourself who’s going to take the kicks with Przybylko and Monteiro off the field and Bedoya subbed out with severe cramping. Gazdag? Yes. Glesnes? Maybe, though after the game he admitted he’d never taken a professional penalty. Elliott? Likely. Santos? Not after his awful miss in the MLS is Back Tournament last season. Burke limped off the field minutes earlier. Wagner? Probably. McGlynn? He does strike a clean ball. So our takers were three defenders, one DP still settling in and an 18-year-old?

You think about the goals Glesnes has scored for the Union. Each one on its own would be considered a career highlight. The top corner free kick against LAFC last year before the Covid shutdown. The underside crossbar against Atlanta United this season to earn a 2-2 draw in stoppage time, a shot that was still rising after traveling a quarter of a pitch. You think about how the ball jumps off his foot with the velocity of a cannonball, the sweetness of its movement, knuckling, dipping slightly but otherwise straight. You think about the hours upon hours it took to master his craft. It’s more than pingers, it’s bangers, with a purity rivaled by an Ibrahimović, a Beckham, or a Shevchenko.

You think about how he’s a center back. A former 25-year-old captain from the Norwegian first division, where he played six seasons before the Union scooped him up in 2020. You think about how many times he’s struck a ball in the cold then remember as you yell “shoot” this is exactly the guy you want on the ball.

Glesnes takes the ball off the hop, which doesn’t bounce as high on the soft autumn Pennsylvania grass. His body’s facing the corner flag. He turns his hips, whips his leg, and catches the ball with his instep. The ball starts 10 feet over the bar, knuckles, dips, tails to the outside, and drops into the lower corner of the net.

The stadium erupts. The players chase Glesnes as he runs into the corner and stops in front of the Sons of Ben and Keystone Ultras. Curtin leads the charge from the bench. Andre Blake sprints from the other side of the field. The players are covered in yellow smoke, pounding the ad boards (we later learn it was Curtin), savoring Glesnes’ moment of brilliance that will be remembered for days, years, if not a lifetime.

Twenty-eight minutes earlier, in the 95th minute, the Union have carried the momentum over the final 10 minutes of regulation and the beginning of extra time when Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis receives the ball 20 yards inside his own half and lofts a long floater over the top of the Union back line. Patryk Klimala, a second-half sub, sneaks in behind despite being offside, splitting Glesnes and Elliott and appears to pull away as the ball settles five yards in front of him. Klimala runs onto the ball, takes a touch, and looks up at goal. Elliott’s closing the distance but can’t catch him…

Those three seconds holding your breath feels like minutes underwater at the bottom of a murky lake chained to cinderblocks. The first reaction is this can’t be happening. Ninety-five minutes, plus three extra minutes in the first half and five in the second half, and the Red Bulls hadn’t recorded a single shot on target. The Union up until then had the better chances despite their own attacking troubles, but you’ve seen this game too often to know the conclusion—a road team against the run of play steals a goal and advances.

For three seconds, the trauma of last season’s early playoff exit re-emerges. The silence of Subaru Park that encompassed intense feelings of frustration, desolation, and grief. You envision boos, beverages thrown onto the field, chippy fouls that end in someone being sent off, probably Martinez or Bedoya, who carry the passion of a team and a city on their shoulders and would project the pain of 18,000 plus experiencing the same agony in this exact stadium, 369 days ago.

Klimala strikes the ball low, to the side of Blake’s feet. The shot is forceful. No doubt it’s on target. But Blake gets down to his left and pushes the ball aside with his left hand, his first save of the game, his only save of the game.

The TV cameras failed to capture what everyone else in the stadium already knew. Andre Blake was never going to give up a goal. We watched him as he backtracked, found his angle, then stepped forward to challenge the shot. By the time Klimala struck the ball, Blake set his feet and squared his body, weight on his toes, ready to move. A split-second passed between the ball leaving Klimala’s foot and smacking Blake’s hand. Some would call it a reactionary save. But Blake never stuck a leg out, never flung his body, or flailed his arm. How many times have we seen goalkeepers fall down, wave at the air, point at their center backs, point at the linesman? We’d have given him a pass. A one-on-one breakaway at full speed. Advantage to the shooter.

Blake had none of those reactions. He sunk down, locked in, and read Klimala’s body, the way he opened his hips prior to shooting. If anything, Blake made the miraculous—effortless.

Afterward, you wonder how many times Blake has been in this situation, the tens of thousands of times his teammates have tested him, bragging they’d buzz one by only to be denied by his superior positioning, instincts, or desire to stop anything that comes his way. This is the player the Union have invested their future in, both tactically and financially, arguably the best goalkeeper on the continent over the past five years. A three-time All-Star, two-time Goalkeeper of the Year. A regular for Jamaica’s national team. A former number one draft pick. The backbone of the franchise. A role model. A fierce competitor on the field and a gentleman off it.

Once the emotions of a last-second victory have calmed and the players disappear under the stands for the locker room, Glesnes jogs the length of the field to a hero’s applause and stops at the front row behind the opposite goal in which he’d just scored an incredible winner, the type of goal most people would retire after and be happy. He scoops up a small figure, it’s hard to tell from my vantage point, but the way he embraces the child and bounces him in his arms as they travel back across the field to another roar from the fans shows how much this means to him.

It’s not until 30 minutes later when Glesnes appears on the press conference that we meet his son, a miniature version of Jakob with parted blond hair and thick black-rimmed glasses. As Glesnes answers questions about the goal and the win, the smile never leaves his face as he revels in the present, embracing a moment his coach minutes earlier called “special.”

When Blake greets the media, he’s soft-spoken, reflective of his teammate’s heroics and of the probability that the game was headed to penalties. “I was starting to get in that frame of mind,” he says, “but I still believed we were going to get a goal.” He praises Glesnes, whom he calls “a great person and a great professional” before joking about the one banger he allowed Glesnes to score to boost his confidence.

The box score will show one save. One. To Blake, he’s only contributing his role on the team. “I’m the last line of defense,” he says, “and my job is to stop the ball from going into the net. So whenever I’m able to do that I’m happy because that’s my job and it means I’m doing something right.”

A week ago, I asked who would lead this team to playoff victory? One was guaranteed, the other unexpected, though not surprising. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. The Union players are motivated and experienced. They’re proven winners. And in knockout rounds, that’s all a team needs to advance. But to be the last team standing, they’ll need more.

After the game Curtin said, “The unique thing with our system that is different than Europe is how people play in the playoffs. It’s where great players become legends.”