The Philadelphia Union came into their match with Atlanta United on Saturday afternoon having won their last five matches in a row. A win for the Union in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they have historically struggled, would clinch the top-seed in the Eastern Conference for MLS Playoffs. Not to mention, three points for the men from Chester would go a long way in extending their lead over LAFC in the race for the Supporters Shield and securing home field advantage throughout the MLS Playoffs. Meanwhile, a win for Atlanta would position themselves in the sixth seed in the East, heading into the last couple weeks of the regular season. Simply put, there was quite a bit on the line Saturday.
The first half was a fairly sloppy affair. Neither side garnered a single shot on goal and, besides a missed header from Atlanta center back Juan Jose Sanchez Purata from a corner, the match had no genuine chances whatsoever. It was a cagey half, with a lot of chippy fouls in the middle of the park and some jawing from each side. José Martinez and Dom Dwyer got into a couple of verbal confrontations, and the tense atmosphere to the match resembled a postseason encounter. Unfortunately, the quality of play on the pitch in the first half did not match the intensity of the players. The two sides entered the locker room deadlocked at 0-0.
Early in the second half, the match began to produce chances. Well, for one side that is. In the 50th minute, Atlanta were on the doorstep as a Luis Araújo cross found the feet of Brooks Lennon, who shot the ball on target. What ensued was pure pandemonium. Lennon’s shot was saved by Andre Blake but directly into the feet of Dom Dwyer, whose effort on the rebound was saved off the line by Jakob Glesnes before being scooped up by Blake. Somehow the Union came out of the chance without having conceded. But that wouldn’t be all for the Union’s clutch defending.
In the 73rd minute, a loose ball bounced out to Atlanta’s Edwin Mosquera, who took a couple of touches before unleashing a shot headed straight for the top bin until Andre Blake made another miraculous save. With his outstretched right arm, Blake pushed the ball over the bar and kept the match scoreless. And somehow, Blake’s heroics were still not over.
In a last-gasp attempt to leave the match with all three points, Atlanta threw everything at the Union and looked like they were on the verge of a winner. In the second of six (!) allotted minutes of added time, Atlanta looked like their winner was finally captured. Brooks Lennon curled a cross in from the right wing directly into the path of one of the MLS’s most prolific goalscorers ever, in Josef Martínez. The Venezuelan MLS legend broke free from his marker and delivered a powerful header on frame, but Andre Blake again played the hero as he somehow slapped the ball off the goalline before Jack Elliott cleared the ball away for a corner. As we have seen time and time again, Blake rose to the occasion when the Union needed him most, and rescued the team from an embarrassing away defeat. He, along with the Union’s stout backline, are the reason that the Union will still be confident in their chances to hold the Supporters Shield when the regular season comes to a close.
However, while Blake and the Union’s defense were a silver-lining in Atlanta, the Union’s offensive display was shocking. Julián Carranza, Mikael Uhre, and Daniel Gazdag never seemed to be on the same wavelength, and their failure to garner a single shot on target meant that Atlanta goalkeeper Raúl Gudiño could relax in net. Also, an injury to the hamstring of super-substitute Cory Burke is something to watch heading into the international break, as the Union are already dealing with an injury to their captain Alejandro Bedoya.
With all that being said, going into Mercedes-Benz Stadium is always going to be difficult, and for the Union to go in, play that poorly offensively, and still get a result is fairly remarkable. Coach Curtin has to be over the moon about the stoutness of his defensive unit heading into the postseason stretch. He now knows that even if everything seems to go wrong for his group on the offensive end of the pitch, his backline and goalkeeper will always provide a brick wall to rely on.
The Union’s next chance to get three MLS points will be in two weeks against Charlotte FC at Bank of America Stadium. In the meantime, they will play Pachuca FC in a Club Friendly on Saturday, Sept. 24. To the international break, we go.