I’m still recovering from last Sunday’s extremely emotional win! The Union beat the Red Bulls 4-3, after extra time, to win their first-ever playoff match! Now four days later, the boys in blue are in Atlanta where they look to further exceed expectations. Atlanta and their 70,000 fans inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be rocking, can the Union find a way to survive and advance to their first-ever eastern conference final?
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals preview:
Expectations have been exceeded; the pressure is off Philadelphia
Before the 2019 season started, Ernst Tanner spoke about the goals that this Union team would try to achieve. Those goals were to finish in a place that ensured a home playoff game and win the club’s first-ever playoff game. Those boxes have been checked off, this Union team can now be considered the most successful team in franchise history in the club’s 10th season. Now they are playing with house money!
The Union head to Atlanta on a huge high, the pressure that they felt is gone, they now can push the envelope and try to make a shocking run at MLS Cup. With the pressure scales tipping Atlanta’s way, the Union knows they can go out and play their game in a hostile environment and have a chance to make it all the way to the conference finals if they play well enough. The injury bug has hit both of these teams hard at a crucial time
Injury Concerns for Atlanta and Philadelphia
For the Union, their goalscoring talisman, Kacper Pryzbylko has been out with a nagging foot injury since the beginning of October. Philadelphia’s captain Alejandro Bedoya has also been dealing with lingering effects of a quad injury. For this crucial match, it looks as though Bedoya is good to go after a scare in the first round of the playoffs turned out to be a cramp, not a re-aggravation of the quad injury. Unfortunately, it looks like the status of Pryzbylko will not be determined until an hour before the game tonight. Even though Kacper’s listed as questionable, it would be a surprise to see him start, or be in the 18 tonight for Philly. Atlanta’s woes come on the opposite end of the field.
Atlanta will be without centerback’s Miles Robinson and Michael Parkhurst. This is a huge blow for the five stripes as they like to play the 3-5-2 formation. This formation needs three centerbacks in the match, and will likely mean that Atlanta is forced to move midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to that role. The Union knows this will be a point of weakness for Atlanta and will try to exploit that, but they will have to be wary of what Atlanta can do on the ball.
Atlanta United is no pushover due to shuffling a few defenders around, their attack is one of the best in MLS. Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Pity Martinez, Justin Meram, Darlington Nagbe, Emerson Hyndman and Julian Gressel all can create chances for Atlanta; that’s seven of their ten field players that can create something from nothing. The weakness Atlanta has shown in the last month has been on the defensive side of the game. They have been shakey when their opponents press them and can leak goals when they are made to scramble to defend, which leads to the Union’s gameplan for tonight.
Game Plan: Go for the jugular, stifle the wing-backs and attack the back three
Philadelphia will be the underdog in this match, they’ll be more tired coming off a 120-minute match, and one less day of rest. However, they will be energized by exceding their 2019 expectations. Philadelphia won the season series against Atlanta, beating them in Philly, and drawing with them in Atlanta. Tonight, the Union will need to get after Atlanta early to dictate the match.
For the Union, the choice comes down to the formation they play. In their first match, they played in the 4-4-2 diamond and started strong. Brenden Aaronson got his first-ever goal and the Union led for most of the match. Later on, Philly grew tired and Atlanta drew fouls in dangerous positions. They equalized on a set-piece and the match finished 1-1. In the second match, the Union came out in a 4-2-3-1. They looked to stifle Atlanta out wide as the five stripes had changed their formation to a 3-5-2. Philly did this to perfection and ran Atlanta off the field late on in the match to get the win. In this win-or-go-home match. The Union will need to do a combination of the two formations as they did against the Red Bulls to secure victory.
For the Union to go for the jugular, they will need to control the game early, this will take Atlanta’s wingbacks out of the game, and put pressure on the make-shift back three. This would mean the Union should start out in the 4-4-2 diamond. With the midfielders and outside backs of Philadelphia pressing high, they should be able to stop Atlanta attacks and maintain more possession. They’ll then need to shift into the 4-2-3-1 in the second half when they bring on their subs to keep that intensity up. This has been the tactics for the Union for most of their 2019 season, it made for the most successful regular season, and now postseason in team history. If they can pull it off tonight.
On to the Eastern Conference Finals?
The Union knows what they need to do, they know they are the underdogs, they know Atlanta will be raring to go; now it’s time to put the plan into action. The stage is set, Atlanta will feel all the pressure, the Union needs to execute if they want to live to fight another day. Winner of the match knows they will host the conference final; it’s going to come down to who wants it more!
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Peace out Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports