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Philadelphia Union vs New York City FC: Keys to the Game

Union host NYCFC in the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday, December 5th

MLS: Playoffs- Semifinals-Nashville SC at Philadelphia Union Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports

There is plenty to be optimistic about as the Philadelphia Union prepare to host New York City FC in the Eastern Conference Final Sunday afternoon at Subaru Park. No Taty Castellanos for one, who took a second yellow on a studs up challenge against New England after scoring the go-ahead goal in extra time. Castellanos, the league’s golden boot winner and MVP candidate, had been a menace to the Union and nearly every opponent in 2021 and will be missed by New York, who are also making their first appearance in a conference final. Andre Blake proved that he is in peak form and more than capable of winning games. The Union keeper saved two penalties in the shootout against Nashville and willed two more over the bar. In 8 penalties against Blake this season, only 1 has beaten him.

The Union have also maintained home field advantage, where they are now 13-3-3 at home and 8-2-1 at home against playoff teams. They’ve received hero performances by Jakob Glesnes, Dániel Gazdag, and Andre Blake and have been the fresher team in both playoff games even in extra time. All of this projects to a favorable result against an opponent that has challenged the Union’s weaknesses in every matchup this season. Despite trading wins and a drawing on Decision Day, the Union and NYCFC have been as evenly matched as two teams could be, so a spot in the MLS Cup Final will come down to a few key areas for the Union.

Defensive Transitions
A big factor in this game will be the Union’s ability to transition from offense to defense. New York has an explosive front four, even without Castellanos, who could be replaced by Thiago Andrade, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, or Talles Magno to compliment Santiago Rodríguez, Jesús Medina, and former MLS Best XI Maxi Moralez. The Union were comfortable maintaining possession against Nashville, who often dropped and waited for opportunities to gain possession or counter. For much of the first half, the Union contained MLS MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar, but Mukhtar slowly had his looks, and his first one in the 28th minute came from a Union turnover that started a ten-minute spell when Mukhtar influenced the game.

Mukhtar’s first clear chance started when Kai Wagner gave the ball away on the left side while the Union were stretched and pushed up the field. With Elliott on the ball and Glesnes twenty-five yards away, Mukhtar had a gap the size of I-95 to counter. José Martinez was the closest defender to Mukhtar, but he failed to track, passing him on to a central defender who would normally be there but wasn’t.

(MLS/BG Twitter)

With Glesnes in a full recovery sprint and Elliott trailing behind, Mukhtar had a clear goal scoring opportunity until he took an extra touch at the top of the box and cut his own angle, allowing Glesnes to block his shot. The play ended safely for the Union but could have been disastrous, allowing the best player on the field to run free at goal.

Defending Dynamic Attackers
Losing Mukhtar happened on more than one occasion, and another concern against New York will be how the Union handle multiple dynamic strikers inside the box while defending zonally. Mukhtar’s goal is a poor example because he didn’t do much to get open, but he certainly asked questions of the Union’s man-marking.

In the leadup to the goal, Nashville cycled the ball wide to Eric Miller, who had plenty of time to whip a dangerous cross into the box. Inside the box, Glesnes covered CJ Sapong while Alvas Powell had Mukhtar. One would expect the two strikers to cross each other or rub the others’ defender, but neither happened. Sapong broke for the near post and Mukhtar found the penalty spot, met the ball, and headed it into the far corner, leaving Blake with no chance. Plenty of blame can be given to Powell for not playing tighter, but Mukhtar was able to expose a weakness in the Union defense that will be tested repeatedly Sunday as the New York front four try to exploit the gaps between the central defenders and between the central defenders and wing backs.

The next example came in the 100th minute when Mukhtar evaded the Union defense once again. Physical and mental fatigue could have been an issue in extra time despite the Union carrying most of the energy and the play, but this was another instance of movement causing the Union back five problems. After receiving a pass in midfield, Mukhtar turned Gazdag and broke for goal, where he was met by Martinez. Mukhtar played the ball wide to Miller then went untracked into the box where he was open again on the penalty spot. Martinez let him go, and Elliott gave him too much space. Fortunately for the Union, Miller’s cross went to the far post where Glesnes was able to challenge the header. But Mukhtar was open.

If the Union struggled with simple movements from two strikers, there’s more concern for how they’ll handle New York’s dynamic front four, who interchange positions often, creating spaces and filling those spaces all over the field. NYCFC was fourth in goals scored with 56, and Castellanos (19 goals), Medina (9 goals), and Moralez (11 assists) were among the league’s leaders.

Much like the second Mukhtar example, New York’s first goal against New England had similar qualities. Santiago Rodríguez collected the ball from a combination down the left side, turned, and switched play to Jesús Medina on the opposite side. Rodríguez drifted inside the box unmarked, finding the gap between the back line and the midfield. One of the aspects that makes New York’s attacking players so difficult to cover is their comfort with the ball at their feet, allowing the wingbacks to get around and attack isolated outside defenders on two versus ones.

Against the Union in the first meeting in May, NYCFC found success attacking the wings, and they had the same opportunity early in this game while applying pressure to New England. Medina held the ball up, and Gray overlapped around the outside. The pace of the attack caused the New England defenders to focus on the ball and lose their marks, especially as Castellanos, Rodriguez, and Moralez drifted across the field prior to the service from Tayvon Gray. Both Moralez and Rodriguez were left open, and Gray had his choice of who pick out. He found Rodriguez at the penalty spot, and Rodriguez buried the first-time shot into the upper corner for an early lead.

New York is a team that likes to push the ball forward quickly and change the point of attack, which will challenge the Union’s defensive structure and transitions the entire game. Even though the last meeting ended in a 1-1 draw and both teams backed off after securing home field in the first round due to results in other games, New York outplayed the Union while down a man for much of the second half and should feel confident coming into the game knowing that they can cause confusion. How the Union organize and communicate when there’s an unbalanced attack with multiple options will be a test that could decide the outcome of the game.

Creating Chances on Set Pieces
If the Union need to contain New York’s dynamic attack, then the visitors will need to control the Union on set pieces. Against Nashville, the Union had their chances and should have scored before penalties, but they didn’t. And now that they’re playing elite teams with more at stake, each miss carries more weight. Here are the Union players’ Expected Goals + Expected Assists (XG+XA) vs Nashville:

Santos .97
Martinez .54
Gazdag .45
Bedoya .45
Monteiro .29
Elliott .27
Powell .1
Wagner .09
Przybylko .07
Flach .01
Glesnes .01

Sergio Santos’ number was obvious after coming on as a sub and having the best chances of the game, but the lack of chances for Przybylko and Glesnes were puzzling. The Union have improved in the attacking third since the middle of the season and created plenty of shots from open play, but some of their best chances came from set pieces. The Union have been dangerous on corners all season, and their front six targets have been nearly unstoppable. They scored 9 goals this year off corner kicks, and 5 have come from front-six targets. Dániel Gazdag’s goal against Nashville was a textbook Union front-six corner.

Before Jamiro Monteiro played the ball, he targeted the space in front of the six, mostly the corner. Flach and Przybylko jockeyed for position, establishing a seal, while Bedoya attacked the space, and Elliott and Glesnes waited at the penalty spot to crash. Monteiro’s ball was late and Bedoya’s run took him away from the target, but that allowed Elliott and Przybylko to find the ball at the corner of the six where Przybylko won the header. But the beauty of this set piece is that the header was not meant to score. It’s a diversion, allowing the lone attacker at the back post to sneak in and win the second ball. Four Nashville defenders made half-attempts to challenge Przybylko, but every Nashville defender was watching. No one was watching Gazdag, who was left alone at the back post. Gazdag’s first attempt was blocked but with a great second effort, he found the back of the net at a crucial time before the half when the Union had just gone down a goal.

The next dangerous corner came late in the game when the Union players packed the six yard box, crowding Joe Willis prior to Kai Wagner’s inswinger into the goalmouth. This play ran like a youth basketball stack on the inbounds. As the ball whipped in, intended for the mixer, Gazdag was left alone on the back post and Monteiro crept in at the top of the six. But with Wagner’s cross sailing to the back post, the Union had plenty of bodies to cut off any attempt by Willis, leaving Gazdag free to finish from close range. The play was executed to perfection until Santos was called for interference on Willis, a weak call made easier by Santos jumping into Willis instead of going straight to challenge or simply holding his ground.

Two corners resulted in goals though only one of them counted. The Union have become masters at using their size and adapting their corners to avoid monotony, which makes them an extremely difficult team to defend when the margins are slim. New York has two capable center backs in Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot, but the Union will have the upper hand if they vary their corners and take a couple shots at the front six.

Here’s a rundown of the Union’s free kicks from within 30 yards against Nashville:

36th minute- Monteiro into the wall.
80th minute- Elliott over the bar.
95th minute plus 4- Monteiro over the bar.

Monteiro deserved a look at goal on the first one. He’s demonstrated he can hit the target from close range. But he hit the wall in a miserable effort and two minutes later, Nashville went down the other end and scored. Jakob Glesnes doesn’t have to hit every free kick within range, but he wasn’t even over the ball for any. We’ve seen the way he shoots, numerous times. He’s likely the Union’s best ball striker. Even if Glesnes stepped up and tanked one, were there any negative consequences? Worst case scenario he’s hits the target and forces a save or obliterates the wall and leaves others to finish the deflection. If the Union can be creative at changing the point of attack on corners, they should be able to do the same on fee kicks. The biggest question mark for me after Sunday was how Glesnes never had one crack at any of the direct free kicks. It’d be like the Sixers down two letting Joel Embiid take the last three over Seth Curry to boost his confidence. Wouldn’t you rather have the guy who’s done it countless times before?

The Eastern Conference Final against New York City FC will be tight, and the Union’s success may come down to how well they transition defensively and contain the NYCFC front four. On the offensive side, the Union should be able to create chances during open play from counter presses and counters, but it will be their set pieces that do the most damage. And if the game stays tied late, it’s also reassuring to know that they have Andre Blake and his .88 goals against average on PKs this season.