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Flach an unlikely playoff hero with game-winning goal to beat Cincinnati

In a game that featured two of the league’s best attacking trios, with a combined 106 goals this season, the player who stole the spotlight had one goal in two seasons entering the match

Carl Gulbish

No one yells “shoot” when Leon Flach has the ball around the box. I have a feeling some may yell “shoot” next time he does. Okay, maybe no one will yell “shoot,” but the thought will cross our minds now that he’s scored a banger for a playoff winner.

The Philadelphia Union midfielder became the improbable hero Thursday night when his crossbody volley found the back of the net in the 59th minute. Flach’s goal held up as the Union fought past a late FC Cincinnati surge to win 1-0 and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In a game that featured two of the league’s best attacking trios, with a combined 106 goals this season, including playoffs (Gazdag-22, Carranza-14, Uhre-13/Acosta-20, Vazquez-19, Brenner-18), the player who stole the spotlight had one goal in two seasons entering the match and 11 shots in 2022, 4 of them on target.

“I was not thinking much,” Flach said after the game about his moment, “so I think that helped a lot. I just tried to hit the ball first and then suddenly saw it flying in the right direction, right. height, at a critical moment.”

Flach scored his first Union goal last October in a 3-0 home win over Columbus, a shot that was. well struck, like tonight’s, but slipped through the hands of keeper Evan Bush. The gritty Union midfielder, who’s been honest about his offensive play in the past, joked about the goal’s significance. “I told my dad I probably saved my goals for the playoffs,” he said.

The Union goal came after a strong spell of possession from FC Cincinnati, who came out of the break pressuring the Union, forcing Andre Blake into several saves, and sending the Union defenders scrambling to make several key blocks. Flach’s goal came from a strong build-up with a dangerous entry ball from Jack McGlynn to Gazdag inside the box. Gazdag laid the ball off to Carranza, who was dispossessed, and Uhre stole it back off the counter-press and slipped it across to Flach, who was waiting just inside the eighteen. Flach whipped a volley with his left that screamed past Cincinnati keeper Roman Celentano, sending the Doop faithful into a frenzy as he raced toward the Union sideline to join his coach and teammates.

“I was just excited to see the ball go inside the net,” Union keeper Andre Blake said about the goal. “I’m very excited and very happy for Leon.” Blake, the game’s other hero, and more expected, had five saves on the night, including a strong top hand save to deny Júnior Moreno in the 50th minute and again two sprawling bottom hand saves late to deny Acosta in the 70th and Vazquez in the 83rd. The MVP finalist added another stamp on what has been one of the best individual goalkeeping season performances, leading the league in clean sheets (15), goals against average (.76), and save percentage (79.4). Tony Meola is the only goalkeeper to win the MLS MVP, which he did in 2000. That season, Meola posted 16 clean sheets, a .94 GAA, and an 81.7% save percentage,

“Leon does so much that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet,” Union coach Jim Curtin said when asked about Flach’s goal. “He’s young and he’s playing every minute of every game. And he does so much work defensively for our group.” Flach ranks 6th in tackles (53-MLS stats) and 14th in interceptions (50). According to FBREF, he ranks 2nd in pressures (701), 4 th in successful pressures (190), 2 nd in mid-third pressures (370), and 5th in tackles plus interceptions (157). All this is to say that he’s been a beast defensively in a defensive-driven system predicated on slowing down the opposition’s midfield and springing the Union’s counter-attack. Day in and day out, Flach has been one of the most reliable Union players on a team full of consistent performers.

But with all the time he spends around his players, even Curtin was pleasantly surprised by Flach’s strike. “When we do shooting exercises, I’ll just say Leon doesn’t love to do the shooting part of things, but for him to score the goal that he did was incredible.” Flach had gone 45 games since his last goal, and had an average of .13 shots on target per 90 minutes entering the game. His last shot on target came in the May 18 th home draw against Inter Miami, so Curtin joked if there was some higher-level power at work before dialing it back to his core beliefs.

“He didn’t score a goal or come close to a goal really in a lot of the 5-0, 6-0, 7-0 games, but in the biggest moment, I believe your best players step up.”

And step up he did. Flach ensured the Union will play in the second-straight conference final at home, facing the winner of CF Montréal and New York City FC, who beat the Union in the Covid-stricken final last year and went on to win the MLS Cup. With unfinished business ahead, Flach called Sunday’s game the next step. “It’s not the final step yet,” he said, “so we have to make sure that we are as focused as today for that game. And we also maybe have the chance to host the MLS Cup at home, and I think that’s the ultimate goal.”