It’s a little hard to believe given their history with penalty kick shootouts in big games throughout the team’s history, but Philadelphia Union have won back-to-back matches from the PK spot in the Leagues Cup knock-out rounds. It wasn’t easy and took Union climbing back from an early deficit to force kicks from the spot in the first place, but a Big save by Andre Blake and a series of clinical PKs send Union through to the Leagues Cup Quarter-Finals, where they’ll have a rematch against group-mates Queretaro from Liga MX.
A slow start burns the Union
Tuesday night’s match against Red Bulls wasn’t an easy one, and we know it probably wouldn’t be. In their last 7 meetings, only 1 game has been decided by more than 1 goal, with the Philadelphia Union beating Red Bulls on the road 2-0 last season. Almost every game these two teams play is tight and low-scoring, and Tuesday night wasn’t any different.
The starting XI was a bit different than expected, with a back 5 of Wagner, Lowe, Glesnes, Elliott, and Harriel, a midfield of Martinez, Flach, and McGlynn, with Carranza and Gazdag up top, and Andre Blake in net. Newly Acquired Tai Baribo wasn’t quite ready to go in this one, so I believe that’s why we saw Carranza as the lone true striker in the starting XI, with Uhre as an option in the attack off the bench. Even with the game being at Subaru Park, a place Union rarely sees defeat over the last two years, they knew it was going to be a tall order getting through Red Bulls and onto the next round.
The task of punching their ticket to the Quarter-Finals got even tougher just minutes into the game, when an arrant pass fell to Luquinhas who carried the ball through the space in the midfield in front of him, played the ball to Omir Fernandez to his right in the box, who squared the ball to Elias Manoel waiting in front of an open net to give Red Bulls a 1-0 lead on the road, and that’s exactly what he did in the 4th minute to make it 1-0.
A really disappointing start for Union given how tight these games usually are. At that point, Union knew they’d have to get forward a bit to find an equalizer that might leave space behind them for Red Bulls to capitalize on, and they almost doubled their lead 1n the 14th minute. Red Bulls picked up an errant clearance attempt in the midfield and quickly sprung Dante Vanzier through alone on goal with two quick passes and a 2 goal lead on his foot. But Andre Blake cut down the angle just enough, forcing Vanzier to pull his attempt wide of the post, keeping the game at 1-0.
It wasn’t really until about the 30th minute of the game that Union finally found their feet a bit, with the first signs of life coming when Julian Carranza poked free a ball to spring Union on the attack very close to Red Bulls’ net. Gazdag found the ball, lined up the shot from outside the box, but sent the attempt just wide of the post.
Later in the 38th minute, Kai Wagner, Jose Martinez, Julian Carranza, and Daniel Gazdag put together a remarkable string of one-touch passes to find Nate Harriel open along the right side of the field inside the penalty area. Harriel leaned towards goal, switched the ball to his left foot, and fired at the net, but the attempt was muffled and Coronell was able to make a decent save on the deflection, that would take Union into the tunnel down 1-0.
Second half push is rewarded with Harriel Equalizer
From the start of the second half on, it was mostly all Union. Red Bulls might have out-possed Union by a total of 53% to 47% in the second half even with Union chasing the game, but it was Philadelphia out-shooting Red Bulls 11-3, out-hitting the target 4-0, and created more Big Chances by a count of 3-0 all in the final 45 minutes. Jakob Glesnes had a really great opportunity to level the score in the 58th minute when a corner kick found him wide open in the box. Glesnes attempted to volley the cross while he was in the air mid-stride, but the ball just sailed inches over the top of the bar.
The Union would continue knocking on the door for the equalizer in the 60th minute when a ball over the top sent Kai Wagner down the left side of the pitch with an attacker making a run into the box.
Wagner was able to find Carranza in the penalty area, whose one-touch redirect attempt was blocked. The ball fell in the middle of the penalty area, to which Jesus Bueno was the first player to get to. Bueno collected and quickly shifted the ball back and forth between his feet splitting the defenders, but before being able to get off a shot he was interfered with by Reyes and went to ground while losing control of the ball, but the ref and VAR wanted nothing to do with the shouts for a penalty by both Union and fans alike and the score remained level.
But in the 68th minute, from a Kai Wagner corner kick, Nate Harriel rose above all and slammed a header past the diving hands of Coronell to level the game at 1 all. It was Harriel’s second goal in the Leagues Cup, both from headers, and just his 3rd goal for Union’s first team in his career, and what a big one it was, leveling the score of a knock-out match with a spot in the Quarter-Finals on the line.
There might have been a smaller crowd on scene at Subaru Park last night, but you could feel the energy that goal put into the stadium. Before the two teams would decide the game on PK’s, Harriel almost called game in the 85th minute with a right-footed strike from 25 yards out that was heading for the far bottom corner, which was impressively pushed aside to keep things level at the end of 90.
Big Blake Energy
Alright, we know the Union’s history of PKs in big games, it’s not one filled with a lot of joy and success. But after beating D.C. on pens just a few nights ago, you could sense there might be a bit more confidence going into this one than there was before.
One of the best moments of the night for me personally, was Red Bulls and game commentator Steve Cangialosi making it a point to specifically sub on Lewis Morgan for his impeccable PK form, only for Andre Blake to grant Red Bulls the opportunity to shoot first, and immediately turning around and stone-walling Lewis Morgan on the first kick from the spot.
It was one of the most bad-ass things I’ve ever seen Andre Blake do, and after Jack Elliott stepped up and slotted his attempt away, Union had a 1-0 advantage. Frankie Amaya and Mikael Uhre would score in round 2. But in round 3, Daniel Edelman’s attempt sent Blake the wrong way, but hit the underside of the crossbar, and stayed out of the net. Jack McGlynn would miss his following PK attempt, but it still meant Union had a 2-1 advantage going into the 4th round.
Both Sean Nealis and Julian Carranza calmly slotted their attempts away, as did John Tolkin for Red Bulls in round number 5. But with a 1-goal advantage, and in the final round, Red Bulls needed a save from Carlos Coronell to extend the shootout and keep their hopes alive. But young Jesus Buneo stepped up, calm as can be, and tucked the dagger inside the post past a diving Coronell to send Union to the Leagues Cup Quarter Finals.
Takeaways from this hard-fought match
I didn’t expect it to be easy, and it took Union battling back from a 1-0 deficit and getting their second straight win in PKs, but Union got the job done and advanced to the Leagues Cup Quarter Finals where they’ll have a rematch against their Group Stage mates in Queretaro. Here are a few takeaways I have from Union’s Penalty Shootout win against Red Bulls on Tuesday night
1) Jesus Bueno deserves to stay in the starting XI.
Jim Curtin has been rightfully criticized for his sub-patterns in the past, but he was bang on the last bringing on Jesus Bueno and Mikael Uhre in the 55th minute, even if part of the reason was due to a Gazdag injury precaution.
Those two changed the game once they came onto the pitch. On top of Uhre stretching the defense with his runs behind the backline, the energy, aggressiveness, and ability to clean up in the midfield and start the attack from Bueno in the 35+ minutes he got last night was enough for me to say that Bueno deserves to start until he loses the spot. The kid is electric.
2) Tai Baribo was a really good signing, even if we have no idea what he looks like yet.
It’s been so clear that Union needed another forward in the mix and one that can bring some serious threat to the rotation. And while he wasn’t in the lineup last night to prove how important of a pick-up he was, I think the evidence was there to show how needed it really was.
Having just Carranza and Uhre and a few days rest, with the Quarter Final coming a few days later if you win means you’ve got to find some rest for them somewhere, which means you’ve got to stick someone you don’t fully trust in the position at some point during a win-and-go-home game.
So yeah, without even seeing what Baribo looks like, just having the option of another forward with experience in a similar league is going to be so comforting and allow for so much more flexibility and option for the rotation.
3) Don’t count Gazdag out for the Quarter-Finals just yet.
Gazdag came out of the game in the 55th minute down 1-0 in a win-or-go-home game, and it wasn’t for the purpose of rotation and rest. Gazdag minutes before being subbed off slid for a ball in the box, and appeared to jam his knee into the ground while doing so.
During his post-match press conference, Head Coach Jim Curtin said immediate testing looked suitable for Gazdag, though he was feeling really nervous having never experienced that type of discomfort before. Gazdag was set to receive an MRI on Wednesday to further determine his eligibility moving forward. Being Union’s second all-time leading scorer, he’d surely be missed for the Quarter-Finals if it came to that.
4) I don’t care if it’s premature, get the Andre Blake statue ready.
This man is one of the best athletes and leaders this city has ever seen, and it’s a shame he’ll likely never get the true city-wide appreciation that he deserves to get. But that’s why Union needs to do it for him and build a statue, ready to be cemented in place at Subaru Park for eternity the day of his final match. And last night’s PK save against Lewis Morgan did nothing but confirm my feeling even more.
5) At this stage of the tournament, A Champions Cup berth and lifting the Leagues Cup trophy should be the expectation for Union.
While a Concacaf Champions Cup (formerly CCL) spot is clinch-able through the 3rd-pace game, Union should be looking to do nothing more than reach and win the final with the teams left in the tournament ahead of them, and with at least the Quarter and Semi-finals being held at Subaru Park. There really is no excuse at this point. Go and get it done, and put all the people that have said Leagues Cup is worthless to rest.
Now Union will turn to Queretaro on Friday, a team they beat handedly in the group stage portion of the tournament. Queretaro put a good performance in against the Revs to reach the Quarter-Finals, but if Union can be assertive and move the ball with purpose, they should be on their way to a Semi-Final appearance. And who knows, maybe Friday night is the night we get to finally see Tai Baribo. Make sure to look out for a match preview and all things Union coming later this week from Philly Sports Network.
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