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Despite rusty performance, Philadelphia Union earned valuable minutes in 115-minute preseason match

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Breaking down the Union’s first streamed match of 2021

Philadelphia Union

The headlines will read that Javier Casas scored the only goal in the 101st minute of the extra 25 minutes as the Philadelphia Union fell to the Chicago Fire 1-0 Saturday afternoon at the Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex in Clearwater, Florida. But the reality is that the Union players earned much needed playing time in a rusty second preseason game that finished 0-0 after 90 minutes.

The Union started the same lineup as in last week’s 1-0 loss to Orlando City with a center back pairing of Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes, Anthony Fontana in the number ten role, and Jack De Vries up top alongside Kacper Przybylko while Sergio Santos and Cory Burke recover from injuries. The Chicago Fire, who beat New York City FC 2-1 last week, came out with its top XI, which included Robert Berić, Ignacio Aliseda, and Francisco Calvo, the Costa Rican international who had a first-half red card in the Union’s 2-1 win over Chicago last October at Subaru Park.

Chicago dictated a majority of the action in the opening thirty minutes with Berić getting behind the Union defense, forcing Andre Blake to make several wide angle saves. Calvo had a dangerous header over the bar fifteen minutes into the game during a five-minute stretch where Chicago applied pressure to the Union backline. In the game’s best chance during its early minutes, Berić broke free and slipped the ball by Blake, who caught a piece before Jack Elliott was able to clear it off the goal line.

Jose Martinez was in mid-season form early, picking up a yellow card in the eighth minute for a late challenge and establishing a thwarting presence in the middle as Chicago controlled possession. But Union fans held their breath as Martinez rolled his ankle on a counter attack just over twenty minutes in and had to exit the game in favor of Cole Turner. Martinez’s status will be closely monitored with competitive early season games against Saprissa, Columbus, and Inter Miami within the season’s first month.

The Union gained momentum around the thirty-minute mark and had their best chance of the game when Olivier Mbaizo found space down the right side and cut the ball back to Fontana, whose shot from close range was pushed off the crossbar by Bobby Shuttleworth. The Union had a series of corners late in the first half, with one the Union headed at the near post across the goal that De Vries missed and Przybylko hit into the side netting.

It’s only the Union’s second preseason game, but with the Concacaf Champions League opener against Saprissa less than three weeks away, the Union had a few positive moments as well as some concerns. Andre Blake was the best player on the field for the first 60 minutes, which means he’s overcome his late-season finger injury and is fully healthy. He made a number of difficult saves look routine, including a long range sixty yarder in the second half from Gastón Giménez that he tipped over the bar, then a blast from Giménez from just outside the box that sent him sprawling to his right with both hands. Chicago had the better chances throughout the game with Blake’s stop on Berić the stop of the game. Union fans may also breathe a sigh of relief that Joe Bendik looked sharp as he made a strong diving save from close range in the second half and added a couple others in the extra twenty-five despite conceding from inside the six. With Matt Freese out with the U.S. Olympic team and Blake looking at time away this season with the Jamaica national team, Bendik is certain to see meaningful minutes in the foreseeable future.

Once again, the issue with the Union moving forward will be its ability to penetrate in the final third. Anthony Fontana wasn’t much of a factor in the first sixty minutes, and the partnership between Przybylko and De Vries appeared lackluster, leading to an out of sync attack reminiscent of the Union’s late season struggles in 2020. De Vries had a good chance blocked in the 60th minute for the pair’s only threatening shot. The Union certainly missed Santos and Burke, but will they have enough time to create a suitable partnership capable of stealing an away goal in San José, Costa Rica?

The final 55 minutes was highlighted by a lot of nervous energy, giveaways and a fair share of dispossessions and busted counters. Ilsinho led the attack with Paxten Aaronson off his shoulder and Jack McGlynn tucked behind, but the Union were unable to thread a final pass to break anyone free. Aurelien Collin and Brandan Craig faced plenty of action in the back, and Nathan Harriel and Quinn Sullivan were busy down the right side where the Union found most of its success going forward. Cassas’ goal came after a bad giveaway from McGlynn just outside the Union penalty area. Matej Oravec almost tapped home an equalizer late in the extra session and Collin nearly snuck one under the bar in the closing minutes.

With two more tune-ups in the coming week, Union coach Jim Curtin will be looking to build on his side’s solid defensive performance while giving his young reserves opportunities to adapt to the MLS game as quickly as possible. The Union will be back in action on Wednesday against Orlando City before returning to Subaru Park on March 31 to host D.C. United.