It was another chaotic affair for the Philadelphia Union as they made history on Sunday night. The Union beat Nashville on penalty kicks after 120 minutes had the teams tied at one apiece. This victory is yet another memorable event for the Philadelphia Union who is now onto their first-ever eastern conference final. Let’s look back at the historic night that saw the Union win their first eastern conference semifinals.
Union beat Nashville on PKs
On a cold night on the banks of the Delaware River, the Philadelphia Union played Nashville SC in the eastern conference semifinals. The match was a display of two of MLS’ best defensive teams. After each team scored a goal and played 120 minutes, PKs were needed to find the winner. Here’s how everything went down that sees the Union in MLS’ final four teams as they are on their way to the eastern conference finals.
The game began with literal fireworks at Subaru Park; Over 18,500 Union fans were at full voice waving rally towels when the ball was first kicked. The crowd’s atmosphere matched the intensity that the match would take on as these two sides fought to keep their seasons alive.
The first 35 minutes showed a lot of back and forth between the two sides who favor defensive shape. The game was on the edge of a knife, and it looked like the tipping point might actually go the way of the visitors in the 38th minute.
Mukhtar gives Nashvhille the lead
Nashville had numbers forward with seven minutes left in the first half. Eric Miller had the ball in space on the right-wing and had time to pick out a cross. MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar showed why he’s up for MVP with what he did with his run and ability to meet the cross. Muhktar had drifted wide left to try to find more space. He saw Miller was in a good spot to cross and made a darting run between Alvas Powell and Jakob Glesnes. Glesnes was busy dealing with the run of Sapong, so Muhktar was all alone at the penalty spot.
The cross was perfectly placed by Miller to that spot and Muhktar slotted a cushioned header past Union keeper Andre Blake, and the visitors had the lead. In years past, this would have been enough to kill Philly’s spirit to end a half, but this Union team has belief and doesn’t quit.
Gazdag equalizes at the death
Philly pushed and pushed to wrestle the lead away from Nashville in the last five minutes of the first half. With one added minute of stoppage time, the Union was able to win a corner. Monterio wasted no time and whipped it into the box and two Union players went up for the ball almost colliding. Jack Elliot and Kacper Przybylko rose above the Nashville defenders, and it looked like Kacper got a touch to the ball. There was no power to the header but it looped over to Daniel Gazdag who had space between him and his marker for a shot.
The Hungarian’s initial effort was blocked by a scrambling Nashville defender. The ball popped straight up in the air and Gazdag sized up the rebound as it fell to him. He hit’s the ball a bit awkwardly into the ground, but it was enough to get the ball past Nashville’s keeper Joe Willis. The ball nestled into the far right corner on the last kick of the first half and the match was tied 1-1! As the game progressed it was clear both teams wanted to push for that winner but didn’t abandon their defense-first mentality.
In the second half, bit teams spent the first five minutes mounting major assaults on the other, but the defenses were able to stand tall for both teams as they did throughout the regular season. After 10 minutes of the second half, Jim Curtin made his usual change to flip the game on its head. He brought on Sergio Santos in the 58th minute. This shifted the Union from their starting 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation to their more direct 4-4-2 diamond formation. From that point on, the Union controlled the match but missed some golden opportunities.
Missed opportunities for Philly
Just six minutes after coming on Santos had the chance to put the Union ahead. Gazdag played a beautiful ball through Nashville’s backline, and Santos was able to run onto it. He was in Nashville’s box and tried to fire a shot past Joe Willis, but the shot was not good enough to beat him. The game stay tied at one, but Philly kept asking the majority of attacking questions.
In the 79th minute, it looked like the Union got the go-ahead goal off of a corner. Kai Wagner put a ball in the box that made its way past Willis’ outstretched arm, and Gazdag tapped it home. However, there was a foul called for goalkeeper interference on the Union which nullified the goal. Inside the last 10 minutes, the Union had multiple dangerous freekicks, but they all came to nothing, and the match was headed to extra time yet again.
The Union was definitely the better side heading into extra time, but both teams and both coaches were not quick to use subs before the extra 30 minutes. Only the Union made a sub inside of the normal 90 minutes, but as the match progressed into extra time both managers unleashed subs they hoped could find the winner, or hit a good penalty kick.
Subs unleashed, but no goals
Nashville made a sub right at the start of extra time to bring on their big striker Cadiz for a spent Sapong. Through the first half of extra time, there was only one real chance, and it came from the Union. Kai Wagner mishit a cross after a great sprint forward that drifted over Willis but hit the crossbar. It was clear both sides were tired after that first 15 minutes.
To start the second 15 minutes Nashville made two more subs as Muyl came on for Leal and Anunga came on for McCarty. These subs were to give the midfield some freshness. The Union also brought on two subs to start the second half of extra time. Burke came on for Przybylko and McGlynn came on for Monteiro. Both Kacper and Jamiro were spent, but it was a bit of a gamble to take them off as they are two of the better PK takers for Philly.
As the game progressed both sides had half-chances. Philly and Nashville made one more sub each near the end. Harriel came on for Powell; this was to stop any last-minute Nashvile chance down the Union’s right side. Nashville brought on Anibaba for Miller, this was a sub for penalty kicks, as that’s where the match headed after a frantic 120 minutes of play.
The Union sported a 3-4 record in penalty shoutouts all time. A few of those losses hurt more as they were in the US Open Cup finals in this very building. Luckily, those matches were in the past, and this 2021 Union team is one full of belief.
It was a best-of-five, with things going to sudden-deat h shots if they progressed past the fifth shooter. The kicks were taken in front of the River End, where the Sons of Ben and Keystone State Ultras were in full voice to cheer on Philly and heckle Nashville. The visitors were the first ones to shoot, and it would be Muhktar vs Blake.
Hany Mukhtar had a hell of a 2021 season. He was the main reason Nashville was able to claim the 3-seed as he mounted an MVP candidate campaign. As Hanny stepped up, Andre Blake crouched down to look at the ball and get ready.
The referee blew his whistle; Mukhtar ran to the ball and hit it to his left. Blake saw it all the way and sprawled down to grab the ball. It was the tone-setter of the whole PK sequence. Blake stoned Mukhtar, and you could see the deflating feeling on the Nashville SC team. Now it was the Union’s turn to shoot.
To what is probably a surprise to no one, a Union center back was the first kick taker. Jack Elliot came to the penalty spot, placed the ball down, and looked confident. After the whistle blew, Elliot put his laces through the ball and powered a shot to the bottom left of the goal.
Joe Willis went the wrong direction and the Union were able to take the 1-0 lead in the shootout and had already come up with an important save. Next up was Nashville’s Godoy who needed to score to get them right back into the shootout.
Anibal Godoy is an MLS and Concacaf veteran. He placed the ball on the spot and backed himself up to the top of the box to give himself a running start. He looked confident enough, but unfortunately for Nashville, this was Andre Blake’s night.
As the whistle blew Godoy ran and hit the ball with power to his left. Blake sprang from his line and leaped like a salmon to palm the ball outside of his post. Andre Blake faced two shots and saved both to start the shootout. This gave the Union a huge advantage as their next taker came up.
Sergio Santos is definitely an impact sub for the Union, but he doesn’t have the best track record with taking penalties. This game was no exception.
Santos came to the spot and hit his effort too close to Willis who was able to see where the ball was going all the way. The stopped effort gave Nashville a fraction of life, they just had to rely on their shooters to hit the net, and for the Union to feel the pressure and miss more.
Nashville’s third shooter was Alex Muyl. The young yet experienced player is always a handful to deal with on the pitch, but it was clear that at this moment the pressure was solely on his shoulders to make a penalty to get his team back into things after a Union miss.
Muyl stepped up for his shot and hit it with plenty of pace and power. Unfortunately for him, the shot went over the crossbar. Three shooters had come up for Nashville and none were able to score. Next up for Philly was a teenager who could all but seal things for the Union.
Jack McGlynn is 18-years-old, but when it was time to choose who was going to take a penalty in the eastern conference semifinals, he asked coach Jim Curtin for a chance to shoot. The coach awarded the teenagers ambition, and McGlynn was the third taker for Philly.
He stepped up and showed his quality. The whistle blew and he ran towards the ball. He threw in a little stutter step in his run that showed Willis was cheating to his left side. McGlynn continued his run and slotted the shot the other way to give the Union the 2-0 lead in the shootout. He showed the crowd he had ice in his veins, and the Union knew another Nashville miss would see the Union through.
Nashville’s captain, Walker Zimmerman stepped up to try to keep his team’s chances alive for this round of kicks at least. For Zimmerman, there was no doubt on how he was going to hit the ball.
Zimmerman heard the whistle blow and ran up to the ball. He hit the ball hard looking to put it into the roof of the net past Andre Blake. The effort had the pace, but not the control. The effort landed in the River End, and the Union knew they were through to their first ever eastern conference finals!
On to the eastern conference finals!
The Union doesn’t know yet who they’ll play in the eastern conference finals. Their opponent will be determined tonight as the 1-seed New England Revolution host the 4-seed NYCFC. A win for New England would mean Philly would have to travel to New England for a chance to get to their first-ever MLS Cup. If NYCFC wins the match will be played in Chester!
Whoever the Union plays on Sunday, December 5th, they are in the final four of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Can they keep this amazing run going and show that they are truly now one of the MLS’ best teams?
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