Playoffs, Pandemonium & Penso – Union Advance to Eastern Semifinals

You see what had happened was…

Where to begin? The gamut of emotions experienced by fans on both sides Sunday afternoon is hard to describe. Highs and lows all over but Philadelphia Union fans ended on the high side, while those of the New York Red Bulls had to settle for the low. Things did not start that way, to say the least.

The first home Union playoff match in eight seasons would be played in a cold, rain-soaked Talen Energy Stadium. To add to the gloomy atmosphere, Union goal-scoring leader, Kacper Przybylko, still hadn’t recovered from a foot injury suffered during warm-ups a few weeks earlier. Not only would the home team be missing his 15 goals and 4 assists, but also the double-teams that Przybylko consistently draws, leaving room for other teammates to operate. Coach, Jim Curtin, chose to replace him with two strikers, Sergio Santos and Andrew Wooten, who combined on the season for 4 goals, 2 assists, and less than 1,000 minutes of field time.

You all saw what happened. There was way too much going on in this one that a recap, at least on my part, may bore you. Yes, the Union won 4-3 in extra time, exorcising some demons of the past. But more importantly, let’s take a look at what went right, what went wrong, and what was just flat out ugly.

What Went Right

The Union rallied, the players played their hearts out and Jim made the right subs. Mandatory Credit: MLS Multiplex
  • Curtin’s substitutions. Granted, I would have subbed in Fafa Picault for Wooten at the half, as stagnant as the offense looked the majority of the first forty-five minutes. But when two of your subs account for two goals and an assist in a 4-3, come-from-behind victory, you have to tip your cap to the coach.
  • Jamiro Monteiro/Alejandro Bedoya/Haris Medunjanin. The work-rate from this trio was ridiculous today, particularly from two of the “senior” members of the club. Monteiro looked as sharp as he’s appeared in months.
  • Although he didn’t score, Santos had an assist on the game-tying goal, and the best match he’s played in a Union kit. With Przybylko’s status for the match in Atlanta on Thursday being TBD, according to Curtin, Santos being in good form right now couldn’t have come at a better time.
  • To come back from two goals down, playing as poorly as they did for several portions of the match, and without arguably their best player this season, the Union now knows they can overcome almost any circumstance.
  • The Union supporters. Talen Energy Stadium was literally shaking. No place like it.

What Went Wrong

Kai Wagner was shut down by New York on the offensive side of things
Mandatory Credit: AP/Chris Szagola
  • Andre Blake. If this wasn’t the worst match of his MLS career, it has to be in his top 3. I don’t fault him much on the first goal allowed as he did get his fingertips on the shot, and was without any help from the Union defense. But the second goal, taking a horrible angle at blocking Kaku’s corner, and not succeeding in punching out the initial shot before allowing the third goal, it was flat-out-ugly.
  • It was clear from the outset that the Red Bulls were going to take away one of the Union’s weapons and they succeeded. The offense is at it’s best when Kai Wagner is able to push the ball up the left side and is free to attempt one of his signature crosses. Wagner tallied 8 assists in 2019, which led all outside backs in Major League Soccer. New York kept him quiet on the offensive side of the ball the entire night. Ray Gaddis played well but much of his offensive push was due to all the focus that was placed on Wagner.
  • A bad start and turnovers galore. Not only did the Union go down two goals at home in the first 24 minutes, during that time there were also a handful of unforced turnovers on their part. If they start like that against Atlanta, coming back on the road against a club a level better than the Red Bulls will be a very tough ask.
  • Wooten. He was slow to the ball and actually looked more in the way of the offense than anything. I was preaching for him to get pulled at the half and Curtin will be hard-pressed to start him again.

And Finally for Obvious Reasons, “Referee”, Chris Penso

Penso decided to let the game play out on many occasions in this thrilling match.
Mandatory Credit:

Anytime you don’t think MLS can top itself with another deplorable job of officiating, they show you they are as reliable as death and taxes. It’s well known the level of officiating in the league is adequate at best, and that might even be a stretch. Chris Penso, in my opinion, is one of the “least bad” referees in MLS, and usually calls them right down the middle.

That’s why I was even more befuddled at his complete lack of perspective, objectivity and hate to say it, knowledge of the game during this one. Many times he either didn’t care or forgot that he could go to VAR. I’d say 75-80% of calls that you could describe as “close”, he awarded to the Red Bulls. From players pulled down directly in front of him to not realizing how unevenly he called the match. And it kept going and going and going. To top things off, after a highly physical match, he waited until, and this isn’t a typo, to hand New York its first yellow card caution in the 107th minute. Kudos on waking up before minute 120.

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Peace out Union fans!

Mandatory Credit: MLS Multiplex