The Philadelphia Union took more than three away goals from Atlanta in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal last week. They also took a piece of Atlanta’s dignity, reducing the Five Stripes into Four.
Outplayed for much of the first half, withstanding barrage after barrage of Jürgen Damn and Marcelino Moreno down the flanks and the overall speed and intensity of Atlanta’s attack, the Union escaped with a 0-0 score going into the break thanks to numerous big saves from Andre Blake. But when the second half opened with a bit of the same one-sidedness, the Union dug deep into their training ground tricks and pulled out a piece of magic with a well-executed corner in the 57th minute that knocked the breath from every Atlanta fan in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and stole the psychological edge from a team that likely deserved more. The Union changed the momentum of the game, the tie, and perhaps even their season with a crushing goal that may go down as the biggest in club history to date.
The Union’s corner followed a successful foray into Atlanta’s penalty area. Przybylko, who would have earned Man of the Match honors in any game if not for Blake’s heroics, found a pocket of space at the top of box and nearly rolled a through ball from Jamiro Monteiro past Brad Guzan for the game’s opener. The real damage occurred less than a minute later when he tapped home a redirected header from Jakob Glesnes to silence the home crowd.
The goal, one of two on the night for Przybylko, who has three goals in three Concacaf games, exemplified the many ways in which the Union can batter an opponent. Jim Curtin wants his team to be aggressive on the counter-press and push the ball forward after turnovers, but whenever the Union see that space at the front of the six on corners, they attack with a low-driven ball, hoping for a redirected header to squeak through traffic to runners on the far post. Last season, Przybylko scored the same exact goal against D.C. United on August 29, and the Union almost took a second-half lead off a similar design in the late-season 2-1 loss to Columbus. In a number of games, the cross either missed the target or the header never made it to the back post, but the set-piece was always dangerous.
This one struck at the perfect time with a lethal amount of venom. Before Kai Wagner took the kick, Atlanta had the Union outnumbered eight defenders against six attackers, with two of those defenders covering the front post and top of the six. Alejandro Bedoya was the main target on the front six last year, but so far this season Jakob Glenses has been all but perfect in his aerial duels and was the target in the Union’s near-goal against Columbus in the season opener from a similar form of misdirection. Glesnes beat his mark from the jump, attacked the open space, and reached Wagner’s accurate cross with a diving header angled down with enough force to catch the defenders flat-footed.
At the time of Glesnes’ header, every Atlanta defender was watching the ball, which allowed Przybylko and Jack Elliott to slip into the back post anticipating that deflection.
Sergio Santos had a role in the goal as well. The Brazilian striker jump-started the Union attack as soon as he was introduced after halftime for Cory Burke and put the Atlanta defenders under pressure with his pace and ability to maneuver. In this goal, he did the dirty work, sealing off one Atlanta defender and goalkeeper Brad Guzan and forming a lane for Glesnes’ header to get through. With Santos’ physical presence, Guzan had no chance of challenging for the ball.
Przybylko still had to finish. The ball took a generous bounce off the turf but the angle and positioning of his body after he escaped his mark meant he had to swing across his body, which required timing and poise even from close range. The goal jolted his play as well. He scored the Union’s second, set up Anthony Fontana for the third, and turned around what had been a quiet first half for him. Przybylko’s game was his most productive since the aforementioned D.C. game where he also had two goals and an assist.
As the Philadelphia Union continue their stretch of 7 games in 22 days, which include Saturday night’s 2-0 loss to NYCFC, the second-leg against Atlanta, and a revenge game against New England, they’ll need to continue finding creative ways to beat opponents off restarts as the minutes pile up, the legs get heavy and the chances carry greater weight. With Przybylko finding his form, Santos battling in the trenches, and Fontana performing as the league’s most efficient super-sub, the Union are becoming more of a multidimensional threat going forward. Which means a reduction of pressure on a meshing back line and less reliance on an MVP goalkeeper to win every game.