MLS Decision Day featured six teams jockeying for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference while the Philadelphia Union and New York City FC sought a finish anywhere between second and fourth. But the biggest decision of the day came when referee Guido Gonzales Jr. handed New York’s Gideon Zelalem a red card in the 21st minute, leaving Kacper Przybylko to play the role of hero once again when he scored five minutes later to give the Union a 1-0 lead. Taty Castellanos’ equalizer eight minutes into the second half brought New York City back into the game and secured their first-round home playoff berth as well.
The Union came out in a 4-3-2-1 formation with Jamiro Monteiro and Dániel Gazdag playing behind Przybylko while their reliable central defense pairing of Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott kept Castellanos and company in check except for a fifteen-minute spurt in the second half when Castellanos, whose 19 goals tied Ola Kamara for the league’s Golden Boot prior to the late-day kickoffs, found the chemistry with Jesus Medina and Maxi Moralez only after falling to 10-men.
On a sloppy field with multiple players losing their footing throughout the game, New York took control from the start with Malte Amundsen pushing forward often, causing problems down the Union’s right side. Despite neutralizing NYCFC’s attack, the Union still couldn’t hold the ball up high with Przybylko committing multiple turnovers.
The game’s first suspect challenge came in the 12th minute when Castellanos dove in with two feet on Jose Martinez. Though Castellanos missed Martinez, the challenge was dangerous enough that it warranted at least a card for intent but only resulted in a verbal warning. But there was no question about recklessness in the 21st minute when Zelalem was sent off for a studs-up challenge on Leon Flach, handing the Union a man advantage for the remaining 70 minutes. Zelalem was originally given a yellow, but referee Gonzales Jr. changed the card after video review.
The Union wasted little time punishing the shorthanded New York side when Przybylko scored the opener minutes after going up a man. As the Union gained some rare possession going forward, Olivier Mbaizo’s cross curled behind the back line, putting the NYCFC defenders on their heels. Przybylko missed the initial attempt from the doorstep, but Flach put the ball back across and Przybylko tapped it home into the empty net. The goal was Przybylko’s 12th of the season and seventeenth in all competitions.
The Union gained more possession with the man advantage, and the match resembled the two teams’ first encounter when New York played a majority of the game with an extra player. NYCFC spent much of the first half trying to convince the referee to even up the sides but did little to change the game in their favor until after the break. New York pushed the game again from the start of the second half and showed a sense of urgency while the Union let down as they’ve done at times throughout the season up a goal.
Alfredo Morales almost flicked a Moralez corner on goal in the forty-ninth minute, but Blake was able to catch it with a sprawling save. New York finally equalized in the fifty-third minute when Castellanos got on the end of a Moralez cross, beating Glesnes and Mbaizo for the ball to head it into the far corner.
With the game even in score, play opened up more but New York still created more of the dangerous chances despite being down a man. Medina nearly nicked the go-ahead goal in the 60th minute after Castellanos headed down a Moralez free kick in front of goal, but Blake again made an outstanding save on Medina to preserve the tie.
Union coach Jim Curtin attempted to inject some energy as he brought on Jack McGlynn for Flach and Paxton Aaronson for Gazdag with 25 minutes to play, but the Union still mounted few attacks going forward, and Monteiro had the Union’s only shot of the second half as they played content with the draw. As the final minutes ticked away, the Union accomplished their goal of securing a top seed though leaving questions about whether this effort on the road will be enough to make an impact in the playoffs.
The Union are 5-6-5 against playoff teams (Minnesota included) and will benefit from having home field advantage until the Eastern Conference finals where a potential revenge meeting with New England could erase last season’s shocking defeat. However, the Union are 0-4-4 on the road this season against playoff teams and will need to reverse their fortunes to reach the MLS Cup for the first time in franchise history.
The Union will host the New York Red Bulls at Subaru Park in the first round between November 18-20.
PHI: Przybylko 26’
NYCFC: Castellanos 53’
NYCFC: Zelalem 21’
PHI: Glesnes 25’
PHI: Wagner 31’
PHI: Martinez 50’
NYCFC: Medina 82’
Union: Blake, Mbaizo, Glesnes, Elliott, Wagner, Martinez, Bedoya, Flach (McGlynn 66’), Gazdag (Aaronson 66’), Monteiro (Bueno 90’ + 3), Przybylko (Burke 81’)
Unused subs: Bendik, Powell, Harriel, Findlay, Bueno, Sullivan
NYCFC: Johnson, Sands, Chanot, Callens, Amundsen, Morales, Zelalem, Medina, Moralez, Rodríguez (Gray 89’), Castellanos
Unused subs: Barraza, Gloster, Latinovich, Thórarinsson, Jasson, Rocha, Thiago, Talles