You’re not dreaming Union fans, your Philadelphia Union is hosting the eastern conference final and has the chance to make and host the MLS Cup Final. All they need to do is beat an NYCFC team without the 2021 golden boot winner in front of almost 19,000 screaming Union fans. It’s not going to be easy, but the Union should have confidence in themselves heading into this match. While the confidence and belief are high, the Union still needs to do five things should they want to beat NYCFC and play in their first MLS Cup Final.
Five ways the Union can beat NYCFC
The Union is the favorite heading into the eastern conference final, and while that is good, they’ll need to do some things well in order to get past a very dangerous NYCFC side. For the Union to make it to the MLS Cup Final, they’ll have to do the following.
- Win the battle for the midfield
- Stay alert to NYCFC’s interchanging front four
- Have better ball movement between the front three
- Exploit the spaces NYCFC will vacate at times
- Test Sean Johnson early and often
If Philly can execute these keys to the game, then this Union team should be on their way to their first-ever MLS Cup Final. Here’s a look at how this could happen.
1. win the battle for the midfield
This first key to victory is probably the most important one of the entire eastern conference final. Both these teams love to control the middle of the field and they do it in very different ways. The Union controls the midfield by using their press and high-intensity midfielders; NYCFC controls the midfield by having five players there who look to hold possession to choke their opponents out of the game. The team that does this better will most likely come away with the higher quality chances, and when that happens, that means goals are likely to follow.
The Union has been awkwardly winning more possession than they normally would through their first two playoff matches. This could throw a wrench into NYCFC’s plans as well as they cannot dominate the game without the ball as Philly can. This should play right into the Union’s hands where they’ll look to build the play up through their front three and then circulate the ball out wide to create crossing opportunities.
The Union will likely start the match in their 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation with Flach, Martinez, Bedoya, Monterio, and Gazdag as the five in midfield. If those five can come out with the same intensity they’ve had for the majority of the 2021 season, then they’ll likely be pushing the game in Philly’s favor from the opening whistle. They’ll need to do so inside of the first 15 minutes of the match if they want to disrupt NYCFC’s fast and dangerous front line.
2. Stay alert to NYCFC’s interchanging front four
The second key to victory lies in stopping New York City’s attacking flow. NYCFC is no joke when they’re allowed to play how they like. If they are able to control the middle of the field they then look to their front four to find ways to create good goals. This was evident in their conference semifinal in New England. The Revolution played a midfield diamond that was not able to press NYCFC in the middle of the field. This allowed players like James Sands, Pedro Morales, and Maxi Moralez to control how the ball flowed moving forward. It also allowed for NYCFC’s front four to interchange and make dangerous runs early on.
NYCFC’s attacking midfield of Santiago Rodriguez, Maxi Moralez, and Jesus Medina is a creative and scary bunch. They set up forward Taty Castellanos a bunch in the regular season by interchanging well to find spaces in the defense. Luckily for the Union Castellanos will be suspended for this match, but that doesn’t mean NYCFC will be any less dangerous with their movement.
Whether it’s Thiago, Talles Mango, or Heber coming back from injury up top, the attacking midfield of NYCFC is the danger when they’re allowed to move freely between the lines. It’ll be up to the Union’s outside backs and number six to track their runs all game long. There cannot be a goal scored like how NYCFC opened the scoring in New England. That type of movement would kill the Union’s style of play. Stopping this is a must!
3. Have better ball movement between the front three
The third key to victory falls to the Union’s attacking front. When the Union plays in their Christmas Tree formation, they rely on the dual number 10s to work closely with one another and the loan striker. In theory, there should always be a tight triangle of space between the three for quick passing lanes to create dangerous attacks. This has been majorly lacking in the playoff matches for the Phialdpehia Union.
Philly’s front three of Monteiro, Gazdag, and Przybylko have not combined well at all. They’ve been disjointed. Przybylko looks slow and unable to hold the ball or win headers, while Gazdag and Monteiro are at times running into the same spaces or misfiring on combination passes. Cleaning this up, and finding the best ways to combine will allow for the Union to get the better of their chances against NYCFC, even if/when they shift to a 4-4-2 diamond, the front three will need to combine better.
When the Union has two strikers on the field, they are definitely more direct, but the finishing touch or final pass seems to be lacking. If the Union shift this way at the hour mark, then they’ll need to play more balls into space for the strikers to run on to. This will be Gazdag’s job, and it will be up to Przybylko and Santos to get to the ball and figure out whether to shoot or make a final pass. Either way, this Union team’s attack has got to do better with their chances should they want to get past NYCFC and make the MLS Cup Final.
4. Exploit the spaces NYCFC will vacate at times
The fourth key to victory is all about exploiting the spaces that NYCFC will vacate at certain points of the game. New York City loves to get number forward in the midfield to overwhelm the opposition and to create an overload when the attack. This usually comes when either one of their holding midfielders joins the attack or their outside backs get forward. That’s when the Union needs to pounce and create a lethal attack.
In the middle of the park, James Sands or Alfredo Morales will at times leave their holding spots to help NYCFC gain a numbers advantage higher up in the attack. When one of those holding midfielders does that the Union will have to press in the center of the park and win a turnover. This will fall to Flach, Martinez, and Bedoya most of the time, and those three have shown they can win a battle in the middle and spring a counterattack. If they can do this and allow Gazdag, Monterio, and even Przybylko to run at just the NYCFC backline, the Union could find a dangerous chance to score. They could also find that counter-attacking space in wide areas.
NYCFC has two left-backs that have split time this season (Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Malte Amundsen), and a backup right-back (Tayvon Gray), who love to bomb forward to try to create a numbers advantage out wide for New York City in the attack. When they do that, the Union will need to take advantage and create a counter-attack through the space that’s vacated. Philly has shown this season that when they have space down a wing to exploit they take it and usually create a good chance to score. Do this against NYCFC, and put a shot on net, and anything could happen.
5. Test Sean Johnson early and often
The fifth and final key to victory is to test the netminder of NYCFC. Sean Johnson has been playing well as of late for NYCFC but has a history of spilling a save he should make. The past blunders in his career tell the Union attack to shoot early and shoot often in this eastern conference final. Whether the attackers actually do this is something that is a huge question mark.
The Union’s attack has been disjointed, and the times that the ball has ended up hitting the net, it’s been a defender scoring a golazo, a crazy acrobatic finish, or penalty kicks. It’s only a matter of time until the Union’s attackers, most notably their strikers, are able to put the ball in the back of the net right? Against Sean Johnson, they just need to keep asking the questions and think confidently.
You can see that the Union strikers have been low on confidence in the playoffs. They’ve had many opportunities to score, but have not been able to get the ball across the line for a goal. All the while, this Union team seems like one of destiny with magic goals, and hero-like goalkeeping. All these strikers have to do is get one goal, and the floodgates could open. Let’s hope that the Union’s attack puts lots of shots on net and there’s an easy goal for the taking created in this conference final.
Philadelphia vs New York City Sunday, December 5 @ 3 pm EST
The wait is almost over. Philly takes on New York City in the eastern conference final in two days’ time. Subaru Park will be the backdrop for yet another great playoff tilt in 2021. The Soob will be rocking as the stadium was sold out hours after NYCFC’s win over New England. 18,300 Union fans and 200 NYCFC fans will be in attendance to witness who will be able to represent MLS’ eastern conference in the 2021 MLS Cup. What’s more impactful is that both teams will know if they could potentially host the final based on the western conference final result which will be determined on Saturday.
Should Real Salt Lake go to Portland Timbers and beat them, then the winner of Union-NYCFC will host the 2021 MLS Cup Final. This is a historic moment that could add an extra bit of intensity to a game that will already be turned up to 11. Don’t miss the action Sunday afternoon! If you weren’t able to get a ticket to go down to Chester, you can catch the match on ABC at 3 pm EST!
I know it overlaps with the almighty Eagles, but you won’t want to miss a second of this action as a team that truly embodies the spirit of Philadelphia plays at home for the chance to make their first-ever MLS Cup! Tune in, you will witness history no matter what happens. Need more convincing? Check out the latest Doop by the River episode to get you extra hype!
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych