CHESTER, Pa. — Losing five regular starters and six other players to Covid-19 health and safety protocols was always going to be a tough task for the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference Final even in front of a friendly standing room-only crowd Sunday afternoon in Chester.
Starting the center back pair of Aurelien Collin and Stuart Findlay meant head coach Jim Curtin had a defensive spine of two players who had never played together in an official match before and who had started a combined four games this season (all starts by Findlay). It also meant deploying rookie back Nathan Harriel on the left side for the first time in front of Matt Freese.
Given the saga that led to this scenario in a week where training had to be canceled on Thursday because of health and safety protocols, Findlay and Collin answered the call for much of the afternoon and made sure that NYCFC was going to have to earn a trip to the MLS Cup final in Portland. There would be no blowout or easy sailing for the conference rivals from the Big Apple.
In fact, the Union looked the more likely side to score first through much of the game and the goal that was seemingly coming came in the 63rd minute when Daniel Gazdag made a beautiful curling pass into the box trying to find Kacper Pryzbylko that Alexander Callens deflected past Sean Johnson for an own goal.
The jubilation in the stadium was short-lived though as a Maxi Moralez leveled the game about 90 seconds later in front of the River End. Freese saved the initial shot on the play by substitute Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, who was able to get to the rebound and take another swing that turned into a cross to Moralez. Moralez took a touch and volleyed it off his foot past Freese.
NYCFC nearly took the lead in the 75th minute when Freese came up with a big stop to deny Callens and Nathan Harriel went high to head a cross from José Martínez that just missed over the bar.
Down the other end of the field it was a giveaway from Olivier Mbaizo near the end line in the box to Gudmundur Thórarinsson that handed the visitors a lead they would not relinquish in the 88th minute on a pass from Thórarinsson finished off by Talles Magno.
The Union had six minutes to try and find an equalizer with Paxten Aaronson and Anthony Fontana subbed on in the 89th minute but the Union’s first trip to the Eastern Conference final came to a heartbreaking end.
Similar to the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal here in September and the two U.S. Open Cup finals lost to Sporting Kansas City (2015) and Seattle Sounders (2015), the scenes of away supporters celebrating will leave a bitter taste for the team and fanbase heading into the offseason.
Now the clock starts ticking to February 26, the Union’s first game of the 2022 regular season against Minnesota United, which will be played at Subaru Park.