Coming off their best season in team history, having such high hopes for 2023 after returning their entire starting 11, and adding multiple MLS-tested depth pieces, Union is off to a rocky start with the fixtures coming in quick succession. Six games into the MLS season and Union find themselves with just seven points and sitting in 8th place in the eastern conference.
Despite their less-than-ideal start to the ‘23 campaign, Union have an opportunity to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League Quarter Finals if they can get through LIGA MX’s Atlas F.C. A strong performance in the first leg at home on Tuesday night would be exactly what Union need to jump-start their season before they head to Guadalajara next Wednesday night for the second leg.
Union use depth and tactical flexibility against Atlas F.C.
After a 0-0 draw at home on Saturday night against Sporting Kansas City that saw Union strut out their best XI sans Left back Kai Wagner, rotation was needed with the number of matches Philadelphia has coming up. Union head coach Jim Curtin elected to start Leg 1 at home in the 4-3-2-1 Diamond. Andre Blake started his second consecutive game after returning from a groin injury that saw him miss a handful of games.
With Kai Wagner now out of the lineup, Nate Harriel would take over at Left Back, with Olivier Mbaizo on the right, and Jakob Glesnes and Damion Lowe at CB. The midfield consisted of Jose Martinez in the 6 with Jack McGlynn and Ale Bedoya on either side of him, and Daniel Gazdag, Joaquin Torres, and Julian Carranza leading the attack.
Union ask questions in first Half, but Atlas has answers to all of them
It was a beautiful night for Soccer on the Delaware River in Chester, PA, not something we can say often in April, especially as of late. Despite being a midweek match-up, the nicest weather of the season thus far saw a respectable attendance at Subaru Park, including an impressive contingency of Atlas Supporters, though not as heavy as Club America’s in Union’s last Champions League run.
The first chance of the match went Atlas’ way when a ball to the top of the box found the chest of Julian Quinones, who controlled the ball well with his back to the goal and fired off a bicycle attempt, but the ball sailed high of the goal.
Quinones would find himself with another opportunity in the 10th minute with the ball just outside the penalty area, but his attempt was knocked away by a diving Andre Blake for his first save of the night. After the first couple of minutes, Union settled into the game with the intent of being on the front foot and found themselves in good positions early, though couldn’t find an opportunity to test Atlas Keeper Camilo Vargas.
The Closest chance for Union in the first 20 minutes presented itself when Daniel Gazdag whipped a ball across the front of goal from Vargas’ left behind the backline, but it nearly escaped the outstretched leg of Julian Carranza.
The first sign of caution for Philadelphia came in the 25th minute when Julian Quinones received a through-ball behind the Union defense with just Andre Blake in front of him. Damion Lowe did really well to recover and rush the attempt of Quinones, whose attempt was muffled by an outrushing Andre Blake, resulting in a collision that sent all three players to the ground.
Quinones recovered the loose ball quickly, took Blake out of the play with a shot fake, and had a wide-open and a 1-0 lead on the road staring him in the face. But standing in the way of the visiting team’s ever-important away goal was Damion Lowe, who cleared the ball off the line to keep the game scoreless.
Union continued to probe at the Atlas backline, getting in really threatening positions and forcing Atlas to deal with the pressure, which resulted in numerous penalty shouts for Philadelphia, having each waved off, including a visit to the VAR screen for head referee Hector Martinez.
But the landscape of the game changed in stoppage time of the first when a botched play by an Atlas defender allowed Daniel Gazdag to collect the ball speed towards the goal with no one in front of him.
Just before Gazdag entered the penalty area, Atla’s #5 Anderson Santamaria shoves Gazdag from behind, sending him to the ground and ending the goalscoring opportunity, but this time Said Martinez got the card out and sent Santamaria to the locker rooms early with a straight red. The half ended with a freekick just outside Atlas’ box, which was fizzed just wide by Julian Carranza. Half over.
Second-half man advantage and penalty see Union find late winner
Despite having a man advantage, Union continued to struggle to create goal-scoring opportunities in the opening 10 to 12 minutes of the second half. Atlas chose to sit really low and defend, which has given Union a difficult time breaking down in the past.
Progressing through the second half, you started to see the Union attackers receiving the ball much closer to the goal, as opposed to higher up the pitch in the first half, which allowed Philadelphia to get in much more threatening positions and get some looks on goal.
The first real attempt on goal for Union came in the 67th minute from Mikael Uhre, who shifted the ball from his left to his right foot in the box and ripped a shot to the nearside but was denied by the post. Union forced Vargas into two saves minutes later, when a Glesnes free kick in the 70th was muffled by the wall and collected by Vargas, and a Jack Mcglynn shot from range a minute later took a deflection in the box and was also snagged by the Atlas Goalkeeper.
Jack Mcglynn was at the forefront of a lot of Union’s attacking opportunities and had the best chance at breaking the deadlock in the 75th minute from a left-footed blast at the top of the box, which was narrowly touched over the bar by the fingertips of Vargas. Union continued to push the Atlas defense, who did well to deal with the pressure even being down a man for the entire second half.
But in the 86th minute, a ball over the top to Juliana Carranza sent Atlas Keeper Camilo Vargas rushing out, barrelling over Carranza and earning Union a penalty and a chance to finally break the deadlock. After a long delay of Atlas FC doing everything they could to ice the kicker, Daniel Gazdag stepped up in the 89th minute, knowing Union would surely head into the second leg with an advantage if he could convert from the spot.
Vargas did his best to get a palm to the shot, but Gazdag’s attempt squirmed past the left side of the keeper and into the side of the net, giving Union a 1-0 advantage heading into stoppage time. Atlas would earn a late free-kick set up to Andre Blake’s left side, but the ball across the face of goal escaped any efforts of desperation from Atlas attackers, as Said Martinez blew the full-time whistle, giving Union the 1-0.
Building off a positive result and taking the 1-0 advantage to Leg 2 in Mexico
Union fans can let out a huge sigh of relief after finding the last-minute winner, narrowly avoiding their second straight match without scoring a goal despite having a man advantage in the final 45 minutes. Head Coach Jim Curtin is happy with the outcome of tonight’s match and praised guys like Jack McGlynn who stepped into the lineup and played a pivotal role, especially in the attack.
Head Coach, Jim Curtin
He’s a young guy that’s brave and will make forward passes. I encourage him to do that. If he makes mistakes, he has the green light to do it because he can play the special ball that leads to chance for us.
Though Union can walk away with a smile on their face and a 1 goal advantage heading down to Mexico for the second Leg, the team recognizes the need to keep improving, especially if they want to return to Philadelphia with a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League Semi-Finals.
“We need to get our whole front three clicking. It’s not ever just one guy, but when we do that I’m confident that we’ll get going in the right direction.”
Tonight’s outcome probably didn’t pan out the way Union had planned and hoped it would, but it’s a positive result and something to build off amidst a run of struggling form. First and foremost, priority #1 was achieved tonight with two clean sheets on the bounce with Andre Blake back in net.
Denying Atlas of the ever-important ‘Away Goal’ could play a big part in who advances from the second leg down in Mexico, but either way, Philly knows they’ll need to bring their best if they want to see themselves through.
“We have another whole 90 minutes and we know we’ll have our hands full going there.Jim Curtin
Our group worked hard to get here. I think sometimes we forget how hard it is. All the teams in this are champions and are here for a reason. it’s important to remember that whether we’re inform or whether we’re out of form, we still have it in us to play big in an elimination type of atmosphere.”
Union will take their 1-0 advantage down to Guadalajara for the second leg with a chance to advance to the Champions League Semi-Finals next Wednesday, April 12th @ 10 pm EST at Jalisco Stadium.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union