The Philadelphia Union have advanced to the Eastern Conference final on the backs of two nervy but thrilling contests at Subaru Park despite dominant second halves.
In the preview for Union-Nashville I predicted a tense 0-0 draw with the Union advancing in penalty kicks thanks to heroics from Andre Blake. Not bad!
The game went about as expected, but Nashville taking an early lead on a fantastic team goal was a surprise. I can’t take credit for saying that set pieces are important, but the Union goal was crucial to head into halftime tied, and it came from a great corner kick from Kai Wagner that importantly avoided the head of ball magnet Walker Zimmerman. Gazdag should have had his brace in the second on another great delivery to the back post that was disallowed for soft contact.
Nashville did not have a lot going forward outside of Hany Mukhtar, but his movement on the goal was sublime. It’s fair to say the Union didn’t close down Eric Miller, but that’s a minor quibble. Alvas Powell letting Mukhtar run inside of him was the crucial error, but credit CJ Sapong with a great run and Miller for delivering an pinpoint cross from 30 yards out. It’s not good defending, but at some point you tip your hat when it’s appropriate.
Of course it's Hany Mukhtar!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 28, 2021
The MVP candidate scores his third postseason goal in two games to put @NashvilleSC on top.#PHIvNSH // @Audi #MLSCupPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/ArlWeaIEXO
Otherwise, the Union had a slight edge in proceedings with Nashville proving hard to break down. That changed in the second half, however, as Curtin’s subs changed the game.
Sergio Santos came on for Leon Flach in the 57th minute, and the Union morphed into a two-striker system with the reliable diamond midfield. Despite the five-man Nashville backline, Santos broke the game open with his speed, particularly with his movement on the left channel.
By leaving Gazdag as the 10, Jamiro Monteiro was able to stay as the more effective shuttler on the left side, and he and Kai Wagner were ruthless in releasing Santos into space. The Brazilian was able to get in behind and force Nashville to scramble in the box.
The issue, however, for the second straight week, is that Santos couldn’t finish numerous golden chances. Per Fotmob, he racked up a 0.97 xG by himself on this shot chart.
The Union should have won this game in regulation. It’s the second straight playoff match where that was the case. Look at these xG charts from MLS at the Union’s second halves (ignoring penalties in the Nashville match).
As I said in the preview, and as everyone is saying, the Union have a massive finishing problem with their forwards. A lot of that falls on Santos. I don’t need to post all the lowlights, but this one was particularly bad.
That’s the sign of a striker being indecisive/too cute in front of goal. The square ball from Cory Burke against the New York Red Bulls that he couldn’t finish was particularly egregious as well.
The optimistic take is that Santos continues to put himself in productive positions and bad finishing can sometimes be bad luck, and he’s “due” to regress into some goals. The other view is that the Union needed a 123rd minute golazo and penalty kicks to win two games they dominated at home, and at some point if you don’t finish your chances the ruthless MLS playoffs will burn you. Look no further than Seattle bowing out to Real Salt Lake.
The bigger picture view I’m choosing to take is that the Union’s depth is one of their biggest assets, and they have more effective options to change games than almost anyone.
In crunch time, Gary Smith stuck with his squad and did not make a sub until the 91st minute. Nashville was noticeably pressed back in that second half. As national MLS writer Matt Doyle noted, Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City have a serious problem with depth down the stretch of every season and have bowed out of the last three playoffs.
Peter Vermes is one of the greatest managers in MLS history but his refusal/inability to develop/use any sort of depth keeps costing his team, which is invariably worse at the end of the season than they are at the beginning and middle.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 28, 2021
His side lost to an upstart Real Salt Lake team that saw two goals from subs Anderson Julio and Bobby Wood and massive contributions from another in Justin Meram. Wood is (or was) a USMNT-capable striker and Meram and Anderson are the real X-factors off the bench as some of the best super subs in the league.
Curtin has a similarly deep bench that I alluded to in the Nashville preview, and that’s without Ilsinho, who was the best supersub in the league in 2020. He’s now at break in case of an EXTREME emergency status.
Santos and Burke are both capable forwards who play their roles well, and we discussed how game-changing Santos is. Paxten Aaronson and Jack McGlynn are talented homegrowns. While I don’t see McGlynn as a difference maker right now, he doesn’t get overrun and his coolly taken penalty speaks for itself. Aaronson is a great dribbler and can shoot from 20-25 yards, unlike anyone on the roster right now save Jakob Glesnes.
Everyone else is cover, but if Olivier Mbaizo starts, Alvas Powell is as good as an outside back as any to have on a bench in MLS. And if Curtin wants to keep Powell in, Mbaizo is obviously the type of player that changes a game as well.
The strength of depth of the Union, constructed without traditional star power, is no surprise to Union fans, but the playoffs are magnifying how important it is. Furthermore, Curtin’s in-game adjustments allowed by the flexibility of his personnel are another advantage the Union have.
Against New York City FC, the Union will face their stiffest test yet, led by stars Maxi Morales and James Sands. (I would include Taty Castellanos, but he will miss the conference final after a red card in extra time against New England.) But the Union are solid at every position, and continue to play their high-energy style deep into games. The Union out-pressed the Red Bulls in the second half and found a way to stretch Gary Smith’s compact Nashville to multiple breaking points.
The caveat is the finishing, and it will decide the Union’s fate in the semifinals and beyond. They’re good enough and adaptable enough to create chances against all three other teams left, and if they put just a few of them away, there could be more history in line.