Listening to the English-language broadcast of last night’s Philadelphia Union Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal, you’d have thought the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners were the Little Engine That Could, David and Rudy all rolled into one.
This practice of underestimating the Philadelphia Union by lavishing endless praise on their opponent isn’t anything new. I’ve been known to underestimate the Union myself and in fact predicted a 1-0 loss at halftime last night.
In my defense, after a first half in which the Five Stripes looked like past Atlanta teams that actually won something to get into Champions League (this version fell on its face and got in because they won an Open Cup last decade), it looked like the Union were going to have to cling to Andre Blake and a prayer to not have a deficit heading back to Chester.
Then something so many of us got used to never happening happened — the Union scored off a corner kick thanks to the ball traveling a fortuitous path through traffic and poor back post marking — and the “underdog” that finished 2020 with the best record in MLS were off to the races.
As they did against Saprissa in the second leg of the Round of 16 and they did in multiple lopsided wins in 2020, the Union took full advantage of their fortune to be up a goal and piled on with two more goals inside a 30-minute span.
By the time the full time whistle blew, Atlanta had suffered their worst home defeat and fans on social media were firing off missives about the referees, gamesmanship, luck and pretty much anything but the tactical naivete of a team treating the front end of a two-leg quarterfinal as a go for broke knockout match.
“Over the 90 minutes, we have a tendency to not concede a lot, and we can grind things out and wear teams down,” head coach Jim Curtin said after the match. “I think that you saw us do that this evening against a really good opponent that played well, that spread us out and made it as difficult as possible.”
Andre Blake standing on his head in the first half with seven saves when Atlanta sent wave after wave of attack was ultimately just as important in the second half as it was in the first.
With Blake turning away their best chances and the diamond midfield wearing them down, Atlanta’s failure to adjust their approach after conceding the first goal off a corner that Kacper Przybylko earned with the first shot on goal of the night played right into a strength of the Union approach.
“I have to admit that Atlanta was doing a great job in the first half and we were really struggling in the beginning,” said Przybylko, who Curtin said he was as hard as he’s ever been on his striker in an exchange at halftime. “We knew as long as we keep the zero, then we’d get our chances, especially to counter attack in the second half.”
Curtin’s halftime change was also key in the turnaround. Cory Burke was as ineffective in the first half as Sergio Santos was effective in the second. The Brazilian combined with Leon Flach to set up Przybylko’s dagger off an Atlanta mistake and then saved a counter attack with a line-splitting pass to set up Anthony Fontana’s easy finish for the third.
Curtin, who couldn’t be missed on the sideline sporting a bright yellow hoodie, had a strong emotional reaction to the second goal for good reason. Two and now three away goals with the back five of the Union can’t be undersold.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our players for sticking to the principles that we have, and then trusting that eventually the floodgates would open,” Curtin said. “When we got our chances we were very clinical and credit to Kacper for that.”
As unlikely as Atlanta scoring three or more goals in Chester next Tuesday is, the Philadelphia Union will be without Jose Martinez and there’s no reason to trust in anything but chaos when it comes to Concacaf competition.
For now though they can bask in a victory that did not only the diehard fans who made the trip a favor but the entire competition, which really should be renamed this season to the Concacaf Champions League and Atlanta Invitational.