The return of “second half scaries”
The Philadelphia Union played arguably their best half of football this season during the first half of yesterday’s game. Jim Curtin’s side came out in a high press and successfully forced NYCFC’s defenders into turnovers or into playing the ball long. The Union were able to capitalize by generating four quality chances within the first 20 minutes of the game. If it weren’t for the heroics of NYCFC and USMNT goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the Union might have entered the locker room for halftime up two or three goals. NYCFC also came out in their traditional high press, but the Union responded quite well to it. As the Union aren’t a team that looks to connect millions of short passes per game and dominate possession, the breakthrough came on a lovely long ball from Jack Elliot in behind for Alejandro Bedoya, who slotted a cross in for Mikael Uhre to tap in.
That same Union side did not come out of the tunnel for the second half, however. Either because of a tactical change or fatigue, the Union shifted away from their high press and began to commit more numbers behind the ball. NYCFC quickly began to settle into the game and find pockets of space to pass into. While NYCFC still weren’t able to create any clear chances on Andre Blake’s goal, the Union didn’t either until Cory Burke’s late chance in stoppage time.
While I understand the inclination to protect a lead, moving away from what worked in the first half and allowing a team like NYCFC to dominate the ball is what allows for one unfortunate mishap like Wagner’s 89th minute handball to impact a result. Not scoring a second goal has cost this Union side so many times over the last 8 matches, and it almost did again on Sunday.
Giving the back line its flowers
It is probably odd from an outsider’s perspective to see Andre Blake screaming at his defenders at the top of his lungs each time he collects the ball on a half-chance. Yet that screaming is an embodiment of what the club’s philosophy has become: the team is only as good as its backline.
Andre Blake demands excellence from his defenders, who have helped him concede the fewest goals in MLS this year. In his postgame presser, Jim Curtin praised center-backs Jack Elliot and Jakob Glesnes for working hard to keep the ball out of Valentin Castellanos’ feet. Castellanos, the Argentine striker and 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner who has been linked to numerous Premier League sides, only managed 30 touches on the day, many of which took him away from goal.
Curtin also called yesterday’s game “the best game [Jose Martinez] has had” all year and was not hesitant in labeling him the best defensive midfielder in the league. Right back Nathan Harriel has also continued to prove he’s among the MLS’ elite at age 21. He did a fantastic job containing 19-year-old Brazilian star Talles Magno, already a top winger in MLS and certainly a prospect on the radar of European clubs.
While this almost certainly won’t be the case, it wouldn’t be outrageous for all of Andre Blake, Jack Elliott, Jose Martinez, and Kai Wagner to be selected as all-stars this year in Minnesota. They have all set the standard for the league at their positions and will be indispensable pieces of the Union’s run toward the MLS Cup this year.
Yes, this is a real rivalry
The players on both sides of the field now have quite a familiarity with each other after playing several important matches against each other over the past two seasons. There’s no doubt that the way the Eastern Conference final played out last year has left a sour taste in the Union players’ mouths, and they are certainly out for blood this year as a result.
The match was being played at a high intensity all game, with the slightest push, shove, or collision bound to start a flare-up late in the match. This time, though, athletic trainer Paul Rushing was willing to participate in the madness, earning himself a red card in the process. Moments like these are why we love the game. Hopefully the Union receive the ultimate opportunity for revenge against the Blues in this year’s playoffs.
The Bottom Line
It is massive for the players’ and coaches’ confidence to get their first 3 points in a month. Still, this game followed a familiar trend of high intensity first halves with an early goal followed by sluggish second halves and the concession of a late goal. We should always celebrate 3 points against a team like NYCFC, but I come away from this match cautiously optimistic as the team travels to Chicago for a meeting with Kacper Przybyłko and the Fire on Wednesday.