After a historic season, the Philadelphia Union earned the first seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Cincinnati took care of the Red Bulls and were the next visitors to be welcomed to Subaru Park, a place where the Union have yet to see a loss. AATSports was live in Chester for the match coverage!
Flach, Gazdag, McGlynn, Martinez
Wagner, Elliott, Glesnes, Mbaizo
Barreal, Moreno, Nwobodo, Powell
Murphy, Miazga, Hagglund
First Half Summary
Some unfortunate news before the match started. Alejandro Bedoya was ruled out before the game, which means that Jack McGlynn slotted into the right side of the diamond. We have seen the right back play higher up the pitch with Jack in the lineup, and we expected him to facilitate out of the back again. In the press conference, Jim did not give a timeframe for when Alejandro would return, but he hinted at an Eastern Conference Final appearance.
The Union's first shot on net came in the sixth minute. After Cincy hung around the Union box to start the match, Kai sent a beautiful ball to Carranza. Julian was able to get it close to the keeper and put a shot on net. It was a relatively easy save from Celentano, but it gave us a good look that Kai was ready to roll after his suspension.
The Union continued to knock on the door. After a corner kick found Olivier on the right side of the pitch, Mbaizo sent a perfect ball into the box. Gazdag was completely alone in front of Celentano, but he did not time his header correctly, and the ball was flicked wide left of the net. An uncharacteristic miss from Daniel after the precision we saw all season long.
I was more critical of Flach last year, but he had a few mishaps in the first 20 minutes of the match. A poorly directed cut-back pass, beaten off a ball by a defender from behind, and then a turnover that led to a shot on Blake. He offers so much defensively, but his offensive woes were on display to start the half.
The first yellow card of the match was given to Haaglund in the 25th minute after he stopped a promising attack from the Union. The ref had been on the end of some fan heckling before hand, as Philly was called for a few ticky tack fouls. The crowd gave a nice round of applause after seeing the booking.
Speaking of missed calls. The ref missed a call around the 30th minute, and Cincy began to plot their attack. The ball was knocked around and eventually found the right foot of Nwobodo, who sent a great chance at net. Blake was forced to dive for the ball, but fortunately for the MLS Keeper of the year, the ball went wide of the net.
Next, we had an uncharacteristic blunder from the Jamaican keeper. Glesnes sent a routine pass back to Andre, but Blake muffed his right-footed clearance and the ball remained by the box. Fortunately, the Philly D held strong and kept the visitors off the board.
Tensions were already high between the two clubs, but they grew even more before the 40th. First, Julian got into a small shoving match and was then hit in the back by a Cincy defender. Next, Kai was given a hard slide tackle on the left side of the field, which caused both teams to be separated. The head official did not ask for VAR, however, as it seemed the sliding foot caught the ball beforehand.
The fourth official called for three minutes of stoppage, and there was some sense of relief from Subaru Park when we heard the whistle. The Union were not as dominant as we've seen in past weeks. Not only was Cincinnati getting opportunities on Andre, but the passing was not as precise as we would have liked to see.
Second Half Summary
After a bit of back and forth to start the second half, Andre Blake was called into action in the 51st minute. The Union turnover led to a Cincy counter, which gave Moreno a great shot at net. Thankfully, Andre dove well to his left and kept the ball out of the goal. The crowd then erupted with "M-V-P" chants.
Cincy had some opportunities over the next ten minutes, but an unlikely hero rose to the occasion. The Union did well to push the ball into opposing territory, and Mikael Uhre found Leon Flach wide open in the box. Flach then sent a left-footed one-timer straight into the back of the net. The crowd exploded, and the entire Union bench stormed Flach as he ran to the sidelines. What a moment for Flach in such a pivotal part of the match.
After the match, Jim Curtin joked that Flach doesn't like the shooting drills in training, and that both he and Leon's teammates get on him during those drills. It looks like the hard work paid off, as Flach earned his first goal of the season.
The first substitution of the match came in the 68th minute. Burke replaced Mikael Uhre, which was also beneficial because of Cory's physicality. The Jamaican forward could be more aggressive with the Cincy backline showing yellow cards. As skilled as Mikael is, Cory offers that defensive and bruising presence that is needed to close out games.
Speaking of yellow cards, Oliver earned his card right before Burke came on. A Cincy player went down after a foul, and Mbaizo's clearance at the whistle unfortunately hit the fallen opponent. It seemed a bit harsh, but not surprised to see Olivier given the booking.
Andre Blake made another save in the 71st minute. A shot was sent from the far right corner of the box, and Andre dove to his right and made an excellent save. With Cincy continuously flirting with a goal, the Union needed their star player to be on point. After the match, Curtin said that Blake eliminates plays before they turn into shots. Jim commended his elite keeper for stepping up tonight and calls it an honor to coach Andre.
The Union saw a familiar face take the pitch in the 75th minute. Sergio Santos, who was traded away earlier this season, returned to Chester for the first time.
Things began to get extremely nerve wracking for Union fans. Two blown calls on the right side of the pitch led to a Cincy counter. Another missed call came by the Philly box, when a Cincy player knocked the ball out of bounds, but the visitors were awarded the corner. After Daniel got knocked down for several moments again, Jose Martinez made a risky slide tackle and earned himself a yellow. Thankfully, the free kick went well over Andre's head. After the match, Curtin hinted that it was Tim Ford's first playoff game, and then stopped himself from saying anything more. You never want to blame the ref for controlling the outcome of a game, but Ford's calls were extremely questionable throughout the evening. Hopefully, we won't be seeing him again until next year.
Let's stay on Blake for a minute. What a heroic performance from Andre in the second half. He made two spectacular saves when the Union's backs were against the wall. The poor officiating gave the opponents excellent chances at net, but Andre made the impossible look easy. I know Daniel should have been an MVP finalist, but Blake proved tonight why he also belongs in the conversation.
The next Philly sub came in the 86th. Matt Real earned a call and replaced McGlynn. We don't get a chance to see Matt very often, but with Alejandro not in the lineup, the options were thin for Curtin. Real did not do anything overly impressive, but he stood tall defensively and did not let the moment get too big for him. A promising sight for fans considering Kai's likely departure over the winter.
After Kai Wagner had some close opportunities with his set pieces, the side ref showed 6 minutes of stoppage time. Way too much for comfort as Subaru Park collectively held their breath. Cincinnati continued their desperate attack, and as luck would have it, Leon had the final block before the whistle blew.
The Union had beaten a team who they drew and lost to during the season. As Coach Curtin mentioned in the post-match presser, it was a good but not great performance. The Union will now have 9 days to review the film, get rest, and prepare themselves for either Montreal or NYCFC. Although Curtin did not want to say which team he preferred, I believe most fans would like another chance at New York City. I know I do.
-Mike Barrera (mbarrera1323)