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Eastern Conference Final Preview: Reworked lineup means different match-ups vs NYCFC

The Union will have at least six starters available, but beyond that there are a lot of question marks with 11 players in Covid-19 health and safety protocols

Philadelphia Union

Let’s not kid ourselves. The Philadelphia Union Covid situation is bad. Real bad.

The Union have thrived on continuity all season. Jakob Glesnes has played every minute of the 2021 season. Jack Elliott has played almost every minute. Kai Wagner was the Union’s only All-Star. Alejandro Bedoya is the people’s captain and an incredible leader. And Andre Blake (holding back tears), is poetry between the pipes.

With that being said, the Union even if all 11 players listed as out yesterday fail to clear protocols will still have at least six regular starters (Olivier Mbaizo, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Daniel Gazdag, Jamiro Monteiro, Kacper Przybylko) and three reserves (Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, Matt Freese) who’ve shown tremendous growth and have played in key moments this season. Stuart Findlay is a lock at center back. The former Kilmarnock and Scottish youth international is no rookie and has only played minuscule minutes because of the outstanding partnership between Elliott and Glesnes.

The only spot that will still be a toss-up prior to game time will be the second center back, depending if Union coach Jim Curtin opts for the veteran Aurélien Collin or the youthful Nathan Harriel, who did play some center back for the Union 2 last season.

Projected lineup

Freese

Mbaizo Harriel/Collin Findlay Flach

Martinez

Monteiro McGlynn

Gazdag Aaronson

Przybylko

New York City FC will be without key starters as well. Taty Castellanos is a huge change for this side, who had their dips of form throughout the season as well and were saved by Castellanos’ MVP-like season. They do have a number of adequate reserves to take his place. Héber is an established striker coming back from injury while Talles Magno and Thiago Andrade are promising and offer more of what New York will want against a shaky center back pairing. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has scored 7 goals this season and typically plays in the wide striker position. Anton Tinnerholm is one of the better outside backs in the league and Keaton Parks was a mainstay in central midfield. Prior to the playoffs, both players had been ruled out for the season due to injury. Midfielder James Sands limped off in the game against New England and Tayvon Gray finished the game on one leg, so with a short rest, the matchups could be more even that we’d expect. Here’s a breakdown of what we could see this afternoon:

Goalkeepers

Sean Johnson is an established veteran. The U.S. National Team reserve keeper has played in 321 games over 12 MLS seasons, recording 76 clean sheets, and nearly 30,000 minutes. His counterpart, Matt Freese, a U.S. youth international, has played in 13 games over three MLS seasons, with one clean sheet, a heroic effort in the 1-0 Decision Day victory over New England last season to secure the Supporters’ Shield. Johnson’s played in too many big games to be rattled and has earned the respect as one of the best in MLS. Freese, though talented, athletic, and as promising as any young keeper in the league, had one shaky outing this season and carries a 1.33 goals against average, which can’t be ignored until he repeats a performance like last year.

Edge: NYCFC

Union backs vs New York strikers

Jesús Medina (9 goals, 4 assists) and Santiago Rordríguez (3 goals, 1 assist) are both dynamic strikers who enjoy the ball at their feet. They’re skilled, make terrific runs in the box, and create all kinds of havoc. They’re ability to counter and punish lagging outside backs means Mbaizo and/or Flach/other won’t be able to push forward as much as the Union are accustomed. And the new back pairing of Stuart Findlay (4 starts) and other (Harriel-2 starts, Collin-0 starts) will have their hands full against any of the trio of Brazilian strikers whether it’s the veteran poacher Héber, the shifty Talles, or the blazing Thiago. Age and experience vs youth does not bode well for the Union back four. If Mbazio can get forward, he will force Rodríguez to work more defensively, but that will depend on the Union’s possession in the midfield.

Edge: NYCFC

NYCFC backs vs Union strikers

Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens are both experienced and have been New York’s preferred back pairing since 2017. Chanot, the Luxembourg international, has been as solid as Glesnes this season, with over 2,600 minutes in 29 starts. Callens has played in just over 2,000 minutes in 25 starts despite missing time while playing for Peru in the Copa América. Kacper Przybylko will be responsible for pushing the center backs and forcing disorganization.

Przybylko has scored 17 goals in all competitions this season, including a number of big-game winners. But he has a habit of cold streaks and is currently in one. Gray is a former U.S. youth international and Malte Amundsen played in the Danish Superliga before transferring to NYCFC, but both are mainly reserves and could be exposed if the Union are able to attack the flanks with their diamond overloads. The chemistry between Dániel Gazdag (4 goals, 5 assists) and Jamiro Monteiro (2 goals, 6 assists) has been getting better each game. The Union attacking midfielders bring big-game experience. Gazdag was Hungarian Player of the Year last season for Honvéd and Monteiro just led Cape Verde’s World Cup qualifying campaign to the brink after a 1-1 draw on the final day of group play. Both players will prove vital for the Union going forward if they can test the New York center backs by getting in the seams. There is a strong possibility that Paxton Aaronson could play higher up, pushing Monteiro further back to provide more stability and work rate. Aaronson has 3 goals in 14 appearances this season and also played for the U.S. U-20s in November’s Revelations Cup.

Edge: Even

Midfield

New York will play a pivot with the veteran Alfredo Morales and youngster James Sands with Maxi Moralez playing as a true 10. Morales spent over a decade in the top German divisions and has appeared for the U.S. national team over a dozen times. Sands, is one of the U.S. National Team’s more promising players. He led the academy teams to multiple championships, was a 2021 MLS All-Star, and helped the U.S. to win this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup. Moralez is a former MLS Best XI and Italian Serie A regular and has been one of the premier playmakers in MLS since arriving in 2017. The Union will counter Moralez with José Martinez, Venezuelan international, road-grinder, and straight up badass. Martinez will play the most important role in this matchup, forcing New York to play away from Moralez by disrupting his dangerous touches and exerting a physical presence on the smaller playmaker. Monteiro could drop back into the midfield as has been done earlier in the season to exert more of his own physical presence. If so, the experience of Martinez and Monteiro should neutralize the influence of Moralez. Jack McGlynn will likely play the left side, where his passing and poise could prove vital in a matchup with Sands. McGlynn played in 19 games this season, 7 as a starter, and also recently represented the U.S. U-20s in the Revelations Cup in November. The Union could also go with Martinez, Flach, and Monteiro through the midfield, hoping to significantly outwork their counterparts.

Edge: Union

Bench

The Union bench is still largely up in the air at this moment. Losing Santos, Burke and Ilsinho would be massive blows as would the loss of Alvas Powell. Davó has played 18 minutes this season after arriving from Brazil this summer and wasn’t spotted training with the team on Saturday. Jesús Bueno could be called into action as starter. The Venzuelan international would be a suitable reserve as well to add stability through midfield if the Union go up a goal first. The Union called up keeper Greg Ranjitsingh and homegrowns Brandon Craig and Anton Sorenson. That leaves the role of Anthony Fontana and Matt Real (who didn’t train yesterday) a mystery as they’ve largely been excluded for months since logging significant minutes in preseason and the early games of the season. New York has multiple scorers off the bench as mentioned above in addition to young midfielder Andres Jasson with experienced Gedion Zelalem and Tony Rocha through the central midfield and Gudmundur Thórarinsson on the wing.

Edge: NYCFC

Intangibles

The Union have been very good at home this season (13-3-3) and have been even better against playoff teams (8-2-1). The home crowd will be as jacked up as ever with the recent news of missing players and will be a factor in reviving the Union lineup. It’s also not guaranteed that the New York players who carried knocks in Tuesday night’s game will be fully healthy after playing extra time and only having four days to rest. The Union hold an edge in set pieces as well as the benefit of playing defensively and forcing New York to outplay them on the road. Plus the game will be played on a soccer field, which should benefit the Union.

Edge: Union