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Dominant early, stagnant late: Union reclaims east’s top spot in strange NYCFC clash

The Union clawed their way to three points in a drama-filled rivalry match Sunday night at Subaru Park

Morgan Tencza

The Philadelphia Union came into Sunday’s matchup with the Eastern Conference’s top team, New York City FC, as the fourth-placed team in the conference. However, when the final whistle (eventually) sounded at Subaru Park on Sunday evening, the Union saw themselves climb back into the top spot in the East. A gritty, and for the most part ugly, 2-1 win in 101 minutes of soccer made that possible.

The start of the match was favorable for the Union. They capitalized on NYCFC’s sloppy passing in possession and were constantly dangerous on the counter attack. They were getting in behind the NYCFC backline, and in the ninth minute, Mikael Uhre broke the game open when he knocked in an Alejandro Bedoya cross to give the Union the lead.

The goal began with a brilliant long-distance pass from center back Jack Elliott into the feet of Bedoya, who made a darting run behind NYCFC’s left back Chris Gloster before cooly slotting a cross into the waiting toe of Uhre. The Union continued to be dangerous for the rest of the half, with Uhre, Elliott, and Julian Carranza all missing chances that they are more than capable of putting away. When the center referee blew his whistle to end the half, the Union must have been gutted not to be up two or three goals.

The second half was a different story on both sides.

The Union became stagnant and lost their counter attacking flare, and NYCFC’s possession-based style began to take shape. The Union were essentially chasing the ball for the majority of the second half. The game lacked flavor until a massive scuffle in the 77th minute involving the Union’s athletic trainer Paul Rushing. After a blow to Carranza’s head that saw the game take a halt, and the medical staff come onto the pitch, Rushing engaged in a pushing match with a couple of NYCFC players as they pleaded with Carranza to get back up. One of which, (you probably guessed it) Valentín Castellanos, has been a perpetual thorn in Union fan’s backs. Whether it be scoring on the Union or creating absolute havoc and mayhem on the pitch, Castellanos always seems to spark an altercation when he plays Philly and this time was no different. Rushing was given a red card for the incident, and Castellanos received a yellow.

After that, the game became a war. Chippy fouls, verbal altercations, and controversial refereeing took the game over. This began with a questionable penalty given to NYCFC after an Anton Tinnerholm cross hit the arm of Union left back Kai Wagner. Whether or not Wagner’s arm was in an unnatural position as he slid to block the cross is certainly debatable, but not in the eyes of the referee. And, of course, it was Castellanos who stepped up to the spot to slot home the equalizing penalty for NYCFC in the 87th minute.

However, the match’s drama was not quite over yet. In truly Union fashion, they left the match-winner to the dying moments as José Martinez ripped a volley that deflected off of substitute Cory Burke’s thigh and into the back of the NYCFC net. The goal was originally deemed offside by the assistant referee, but after a quick VAR review, the goal was given and Subaru Park erupted as their side went back ahead.

But this game still had one more controversial moment left. On the last play of the match, a possible Nathan Harriel handball at the top of the box resulted in another long stoppage in play, as the center referee consulted with his VAR crew before deciding that the play was not illegal. He shook his head, blew the final whistle, and the Union regained the top spot in the East. Exhale.

Hopefully the Union will have to rely on less drama and uncertainty in their next match against a struggling Chicago side that currently sits in the last spot in the East.