The Philadelphia Union have a home playoff game on Sunday (5:30 on ESPN, ESPN Deportes) with a chance at their first ever trip to a conference final.
It’s a golden opportunity for the Union to add another chapter to what has been one of the best success stories in the league over the past few seasons and redefine the conversation about team building in Major League Soccer.
A formidable opponent stands in their way, however, and Nashville SC are looking to make their first ever trip to a conference final in just their second season in MLS.
And the visitors are just as good of a success story as one of the best expansion teams in league history without the massive names and fancy stadiums. While Nashville hasn’t won a Supporters Shield or an MLS Cup like LAFC or Atlanta United this decade, two playoff appearances in their first two seasons is an awfully high bar to set, especially for a team that continued form the USL. Every other club in the recent wave of expansion would take that start in a heartbeat.
Nashville has done it with savvy roster building and great coaching. The team came into the league with a resolute defensive mentality, led by the heist of Walker Zimmerman from LAFC, and this past year head coach Gary Smith has molded his roster into a rather complete squad thanks to the MVP-caliber level from designated player Hany Mukhtar.
The Union’s rise needs no rehashing here, but the opportunity for either of these teams that are not big spenders to see proof of concept as one of the league’s last four team’s standing is massive. And in a postseason devoid of the usual powerhouses outside of Bruce Arena’s Revs, and formatted for chaos–see Seattle’s first round exit–both teams rightly should believe in themselves as contenders.
The stakes are high, and the Union’s first round rollercoaster with the Red Bulls is evidence of how meaningful and intense these MLS playoffs can be. It was noticeably nervy the longer the press-travaganza wore on, and the resulting euphoria after Glesnes’ winner speaks for itself.
The Union have three extra days of rest over Nashville, and despite going 120+ last Saturday, it will have been more than a week between games by the time they suit up on Sunday. With the crowd behind them and a pleasant November evening in the forecast, the external factors heading into the game favor the Union in their likely role as the aggressor.
I suspect the Union will not change their identity too much for Sunday’s game and stick to the Christmas tree formation that has served them well over the back stretch of the season. The return of Jamiro Monteiro should be a boost in chance creation and gives Curtin flexibility in how he wants to roll out his front line. Alejandro Bedoya is penciled into the team sheet every week, as is Jose Martinez, so one of Leon Flach, Paxten Aaronson and Daniel Gazdag won’t get the start. The Hungarian is the more experienced player by miles, but I have a hunch Curtin would get more creativity out of Aaronson in the two spots behind Kacper Przybylko.
There’s always the chance that Curtin could return to the reliable diamond if he wants Gazdag up top, or two strikers with Sergio Santos or Cory Burke to play off Kacper. Monteiro is just better as a No. 8 than a No. 10, and with Flach and Bedoya providing their usual running and pressing in those shuttler roles already, I don’t see the Union starting this way. And as we’ll dive into later, I think Nashville will sit deep without the ball, which would not bode well for Burke or Santos who don’t create for themselves.
Olivier Mbaizo remains out so Alvas Powell will continue to fill in alongside the first choice backline.
When the Union go forward
The Union’s pressing is their most reliable source of offense, and their second half against the Red Bulls showed how good they are at it. The Red Bulls are a club in an organization defined by pressing football, and the Union outdid them by creating a handful of chances that all should have put the game away.
The second leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal against America revitalized the Union and their identity, pushing them from the playoff fringe to a deserved No. 2 seed. While they may not press high, they will counterpress in the midfield aggressively, and Martinez, Bedoya, Flach and Monteiro seem ready to put in another relentless shift.
Unfortunately, the sticking point of this entire tie comes down to Gary Smith, who will not want the game to open up one bit at a rowdy Subaru Park. Some teams have pressed the Union well this season, like the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United. Nashville is not that type of the team, and they defended and countered at home against an Orlando side that plays possession football under Oscar Pareja.
On the road in a one-off knockout round, Gary Smith is going to have his team force the Union to create against a low block and look for opportunities on the break.
Nashville rolled out five in the back against Orlando, which means space in and near the box will be at a premium. If Curtin wants two strikers to occupy the backline, that’s fine because it could turn into a ‘launch balls into the box’ type of night. But before it gets there, the dribbling and chance creation of Monteiro and Aaronson will become magnified, as well as the two-man game on either sideline. Alvas Powell was serviceable against New York, but does not have the same connection with Bedoya as Mbaizo. Nashville will give Powell a lot of space to launch crosses into the box, and less so to Wagner. This opens space for Monteiro, Aaronson or Flach to go at the backline,
The Union need to win those spaces right where the attacking third begins with their midfield five or four vs. Nashville’s three (or four depending on how deep Mukhtar drops) and deliver into the box from unorthodox positions. They also need to get to either end line and find cutbacks to late arriving midfielders. It’s going to be near impossible to try and play through the middle, and without many transition opportunities, the Union strikers will likely be starved of the ball.
The second sticking point of the match and the entire playoff run is if the Union can finish the chances they create. It’s been the question of the Union in this current iteration, and without a big name striker, it always will be. Przybylko and Santos decidedly did not answer those questions in round one. There will almost certainly be less chances to go around this time, but if the Union are controlling the game for most of the 90 minutes, Kacper will see at least 1-2 looks in the box.
Beyond that, if Nashville are really bunkered in, it may take a hit from distance to unlock things. Martinez is no stranger to having a go, and neither is Bedoya or Monteiro, but they’re not particularly great at it. There is one center back on the Union who has a few golazos to his name. It feels silly to suggest he needs to produce a rabbit out of a hat, but we are at that point, and the crowd will want it if he’s in range.
We’ve seen some goalkeepers absolutely steal MLS playoff games, but if you were ranking the eight starters left and their ability to do so, Joe Willis would not not be high on the list. The Union need to test him often.
Lastly, it goes without saying that in a playoff game for both teams, set pieces are absolutely vital. Walker Zimmerman is one of the best aerial defenders around, and if he pocketed Raul Jimenez in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, I don’t think The Friendly Striker is going to trouble him too much. The Union have their other threats and Kai Wagner could score one directly if it’s in the right area.
When Nashville goes forward
This section is going to be shorter, because what Nashville did against Orlando was counter with Mukhtar and Sapong and rely on their individual brilliance. Sapong is going to get plenty of long balls and his hold-up play against Jack Elliott and Glesnes is another subplot where this game will be decided. The Union could absolutely smother Nashville, but the visitors only need a few opportunities going forward to make their impact.
Obviously, Mukhtar is the danger man, and he has been nothing short of spectacular all season long, including a solo run to undress the Orlando defense for a goal that proved to be the winner on Tuesday. He is devastating in transition with the ball at his feet and can deliver the killer ball as either a shot from distance or a delivery into the box.
Outside of him though, this attack is limited. Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy are seasoned MLS veterans and capable of creating chances, as is Randall Leal, but their primary function in this one will be to find Mukhtar and Sapong and avoid dawdling. If they can make late runs to pressure the Union backline then great, but the calculus with the Union’s transition potential means their forays forward will be rare.
There are two areas on the margins where Nashville can try to boost their attack. One is in the space vacated by the Union’s offensive-minded fullbacks. Curtin might be conservative in their deployment for this reason, but any time Nashville win the ball and see two or three defenders back, they should try to get numbers forward down the empty wing.
The other idea is to turn over the Union midfielders, specifically Jose Martinez, dribbling with the ball. Martinez was too cavalier against the Red Bulls in this regard and while he can create advantages in transition, the risk/reward in this game favors the visitors. Nashville won’t press much but selective opportunities could prove fruitful for winning the ball with only 50-60 yards to go instead of 80 or more.
While Mukhtar will be keyed in on, one of his best ways to create offense in a game like this is to draw as many fouls as possible. Nashville might not be able to create much in open play, but every time Mukhtar can catch a lunge, he will earn a dangerous set piece that he can deliver to the capable threats of Zimmerman and Sapong.
As always, Andre Blake will be pivotal for the Union. If and when Nashville finds those chances on the counter, he will have to make a crucial save or two. He did against New York and saved the Union.
The changes to game state
The Union can break this open by scoring first, whereas Nashville scoring first will empower them to fully lean into their strategy. An early Nashville goal allows them to double park the bus and play for two on twos. An early Union goal would force Nashville to come out of their shell and control the ball, while the Union would be able to actually press and stretch the backline in transition.
The Union have more options on their bench to alter the game, especially if it’s tied or they are trailing. Gazdag or Aaronson provide offensive sparks, and Burke can get into the mixer while Santos can wreak havoc on a stretched defense. And there’s always the chance for an Ilsinho throwback to unlock a bunkered backline if the Union are trailing.
Nashville has Jhonder Cadiz, who scored in stoppage time to make it 3-1 against Orlando to bring on, but other than that it’s mostly fresh legs and not difference makers.
Nashville is extremely disciplined and I expect them to make life difficult for the Union and to frustrate the crowd on Sunday. I also think they won’t send enough going forward and the Union won’t have too much to deal with defensively. I’ll take the Union in penalties after a 0-0 draw thanks to some heroics from Andre Blake.