Smash-and-Grab: Union Score Three at Atlanta in leg 1 of CCL quarterfinals

In what could be the biggest win in club history, for now, the Union went down to Atlanta and played a little Smash-and-Grab. In a game that could be considered a tale Of two halves, Philly survived in the first half and dominated the second to score three away goals in the two-legged CCL Quarterfinal tie. Here’s a recap of the night that left Union fans surprisingly shocked with happiness!

Mandatory Credit: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire


If you are unfamiliar with the term smash-and-grab, it is an older British term that was used to describe a robbery where the burglars would break in quick and steal what they could in a hurry. Over time, this was morphed into a soccer term usually ascribed to away teams who come into a hard place to play and get a win. That is exactly what the Union did in leg one of the CCL Quarterfinals at Atlanta United. Although, it didn’t seem that that would be the case at first.

1st half

How the teams started

In the first half, it was clear that Philadelphia was going to allow Atlanta time on the ball. The Union was playing their normal high pressing style to try and win the ball in spots that would spring a counter-attack for them while Atlanta pushed number forward. Philly’s personnel on the field, however, didn’t suit that style of play early on. Cory Burke started up top in place of the speedy Sergio Santos. Burke is a determined player who can score good goals. But when he is forced to drop deeper and play with his back to goal he isn’t as effective. This was the only change the Union made after a bad loss on the weekend, and it didn’t offer much.

On the other side of the ball, Atlanta came out in an uncharacteristic 3-4-3 formation. Their star striker Josef Martinez got only his second start of 2021. Atlanta’s possession-based style of play in the 3-4-3 formation looked to exploit the Union’s narrow 4-4-2 diamond style. In the first half, it looked as though they might be able to do just that!

Andre Blake stands tall

Atlanta got nine shots off in the first half of the match. They pelted the Union goal but found no breakthrough. The Union’s defense stood tall blocking shots, but the real reason the Union was able to stay in the match in the first half was due to the amazing goalkeeping of Andre Blake. Blake made a number of acrobatic saves to keep the Union’s hopes alive in the first half. He and the Union were focused on surviving the first match after Atlanta opened up their style of play.

The match was 0-0 at halftime, and it felt like the Union were lucky to not be behind. Jim Curtin needed to give his side a motivational speech at halftime and make adjustments to get more from the match. Specifically on the counterattack when Atlanta committed numbers forward.

2nd half

A change that lead to goals

To start the second half, the Union brought on Sergios Santos for Cory Burke. Santos’s speed and the way he stretches the field were exactly what the Union needed! It didn’t take him long to find an impact on the match. Just two minutes into the second half he slipped his marker and had the chance to run at the Atlanta backline. He was tugged down giving the Union a freekick and drawing a yellow card. That’s an instant impact, and it helped the whole offense get things going.

12 minutes into the second half, the Union found an opportunity to attack. Jamiro Monteiro slipped Kacper Pryzbylko in on goal, but the Polish striker couldn’t slide the ball past Atlanta’s onrushing keeper. The Union won a corner and Kacper redeemed himself instantly. A corner was whipped into the near post, was flicked on by Jakub Glesness to the far post where Kacper was able to tap in the chance. The Union was up 1-0 from a set-piece! This prompted Atlanta to push even more for the goal they had trouble finding so far.

Counter attacking perfection!

As Atlanta committed even more numbers forward, the Union was ready to spring counterattacks thanks to their strong pressing style of play. 16 minutes after finding their first goal Philly got a second! Atlanta kept putting numbers forward but was not sharp enough with their passing. In the 73rd minute, Leon Flach intercepted a loose pass from Atlanta and the attack was on. He played the ball into the Atlanta half to Sergio Santos. Santos drew two defenders and flicked the ball back to Flach. Flach moved forward and had one defender between him, the goal, and an onrushing Kacper Przybylko. Flack found Kacper in the Atlanta box who calmly slotted home the chance to give the Union a 2-0 lead!

The second goal totally decimated Atlanta in a sequence so fast that they and their fans were utterly stunned. Things got a bit chippy as fouls were flying in the second half. Santos took an elbow to the eye that needed to be glued shut, and after the Union was up two they started milking the clock when they were fouled. As the match entered the final 15 minutes, Atlanta pushed for one goal, but still couldn’t find a way past Blake. In the 86th minute, Philly sprung another lethal counter attack off of a failed Atlanta attack. Santos sprayed a ball upfield to a streaking Kacper. Kacper was in on goal, but substitute Anthony Fontana ran with him creating a two-on-one with the Atlanta keeper. Kacper was unselfish and squared the ball for Fontana after the keeper came out, and the Union was up 3-0!

Party time and Highlights!

For the last four minutes plus stoppage time, the Union held strong. They won in a very hostile environment 3-0 in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinals! Check out the highlights of the match here:

Originally tweeted by Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League (@TheChampions) on April 28, 2021.

Three Smash-and-Grab takeaways

Here are three takeaways from this smash-and-grab match!

1. Yes, that really happened!

It was really a tale of two halves, but yes the Union really did just win at Atlanta 3-0! This is their first-ever win at Atlanta and it was done in true Philadelphia Union fashion. They defended well, pressed the hell out of Atlanta and took advantage of the chance they got! The Union only had eight shots to Atlanta’s 15, but they were able to score three goals as the chances they created were on the break. This is how the Union has played in this new pressing style; they look to turn over their opposition and are ruthless. It’s fun to watch, and Union fans can believe what they see, this is not a dream!

2. This team can bounce back fast

There were many questions about this Union team after they allowed Miami to come back and score two goals to beat them at home last weekend. The Union played that match only 48 hours before this match in Atlanta. This team seems to relish the opportunity to bounce back after falling short. It didn’t happen too many times in 2020, but it’s clear that this side will be able to bounce back in a big way after falling short. Gone are the days of a bad loss inevitably starting a losing streak for this team!

3. Huge advantage for game two

Next Tuesday, the Union will welcome Atlanta to Subaru park for the second leg of this CCL quarterfinal. The Union has the upper hand with the 3-0 scoreline. This means that Atlanta would have to win 4-0 in Chester to advance past the Union. Philly has been a very good home team, and this huge advantage they have from their away game means they are very close to the semifinals of CCL! This is history in the making! The Union could be just three successful matches away from the CCL final!!!

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Doop on Union fans!

Mandatory Credit: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire