Playoff Match Recap: Chris Donovan sends Union to 3rd consecutive Eastern Conference Semifinal with late winner in New England

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

After a convincing 3-1 win in Game 1 at Subaru Park, it felt like Union finally had their mojo back.  But then the news of Jakob Glesnes needing surgery, Kai Wagner being suspended for racial remarks, and 11 days between games 1 and 2 brought the momentum Union had built to a screeching halt. 

Still, if they could somehow manage to go up to New England and scrape out a win, Union would punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the 3rd consecutive year.  But it’d be no easy feat on the road, and a loss would send the series back to Subaru Park for a decisive Game 3, where you never know what can happen.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Starting XI

It was the 4-4-2 Diamond for Union up in Foxborough, the formation Curtin says is Union’s strongest configuration when healthy.  Despite missing a few key players Wednesday night Curtin stuck to his guns, with a backline of Olivier Mbaizo on the right, Damion Lowe and Jack Elliott as the CB duo, and Nate Harriel in place of Kai Wagner on the left.  Jose Martinez at the bottom of the diamond, with Jack McGlynn and Ale Bedoya on either side of him. Daniel Gazdag took his spot at the top of the diamond, with Mikael Uhre and Quinn Sullivan leading the charge up top with Julian Carranza missing out due to injury.  Of course, Andre Blake took his place between the posts.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union weather storm in first half

Union knew going into this one that the Revs would come out on the front foot.  New England felt slighted by the officiating in Game 1, their star Carles Gil was back in the lineup, and they were back at home in front of their fans where they play their best soccer – keeping New England off the board in the early going would be important for Union.  

The Revs got in a few threatening positions early on, but Mark-Anthony Kaye failed to test Andre Blake on either of his two opportunities in the opening 20 minutes.  New England would end up getting behind the Union backline at one point, but the move was called offside.  Andre Blake made one of the most incredible saves I’ve ever seen on the play, but because it was offside, it’ll likely be forgotten about.  

After the first 20 minutes or so, Union started settling into the game and finding opportunities to move the ball forward themselves.  Quinn Sullivan had a good opportunity around the 25th minute when he found the ball in space one-on-one with New England’s Henry Kessler.  Sullivan cut to his right foot and let a shot fly from just outside of the penalty area, but Kessler was able to muffle the shot with his foot, which sent the attempt just wide of the far post. 

Union almost found the breakthrough on the ensuing corner kick, when chaos in the box led to the ball finding the feet of Nate Harriel around the 6-yard box.  Harriel was able to control the ball and get a shot off with his right foot, but the attempt rang the post and fizzed out of bounds.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Hey New England, what were you saying about Targeting?

Right before half-time, the landscape of the Best-of-3 series changed.  It’s funny because before the game a quote from New England’s Matt Polster surfaced with him vocalizing his unhappiness with the officiating in Game 1.

“Maybe we need to do something similar. Start targeting their players, obviously not to hurt them like what happened to Carles, but protect him and make sure that it is not okay to keep hitting our players”.  

I think Matt’s warning to the refs worked out perfectly with what happened next.  Daniel Gazdag and Mark-Anthony Kaye got intertwined while waiting for a ball to fall to the ground near the sideline, and Gazdag fell to the ground amidst the contact.  With Gazdag on the ground, Mark-Anthony Kaye appeared to have deliberately stomped on Gazdag’s chest while stepping over him. 

At first glance, I thought Kaye might have been a little unlucky to receive a straight red, but after watching it a few times and from different angles, it does feel like there was at the very least a bit of recklessness from Kaye, if not intent behind the action.  Matt Polster did say they should target Union’s players, but I didn’t think it would be as deliberate as that.  

Union would go into the locker room with the game 0-0, and a man advantage for the final 45 minutes.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union finds the breakthrough off the bench 

For whatever reason, Union tends to struggle with a man advantage – it’s like they get confused with the extra space.  And the second half almost started as badly as it could, with Gustavo Bou getting a chance on net minutes after the re-start, but Andre Blake was positioned perfectly and had no issues making the save.  In the 50th minute, Jack McGlynn had an opportunity to strike from a freekick just outside the box, but his attempt on net was denied by the post, and the rebound stuck under a diving Earl Edwards Jr before it could fall to anyone else. 

In the 74th minute, New England had their best chance of breaking the deadlock and back into the series, when Andrew Farrell ripped a shot from inside the penalty area, but Andre Blake was once again positioned perfectly and palmed the rocket from Farrell over the bar. In the 76th minute, Farrell would let another shot fly from almost the same spot on the field, but this time the attempt struck the outside of the net and out for a goal kick.  

Just as it was approaching the 80th minute and feeling like Union might need to get this one done in PK’s, Union would get another free-kick opportunity from Earl Edwards Jr’s left-hand side. 

Jack McGlynn lined up over the ball, which was set up outside of the penalty area but only 12 yards or so away from the end line, and sent in a low cross from a tight angle.  Chris Donovan, making a run to the near post, got the slightest touch on the ball, deflecting it towards the far post and into the side netting to break the deadlock and give Union a 1-0 lead late in the game. 

What a big goal from Chris Donovan off the bench, and a great assist from Jack McGlynn as well – filling in on set pieces for a suspended Kai Wagner.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Man Of The Match 

It’s hard to give it to one player tonight, so I’m going to give it to a “collective” if you’ll allow me to.  To me, the Man of the Match award should go to all the Union players who are being asked to step up during these playoffs. 

Nate Harriel playing LB for Wagner, Damion Lowe in for Glesnes, Jack McGlynn taking freekicks for Wagner, even Chris Donovan coming off the bench and scoring while Julian Carranza is out – it was a big performance from the fringe guys on this team, the guys that don’t get talked about nearly enough. 

When you’re top 3 don’t have it going, performances from those guys are what takes good teams over the line.  It was great to see some of those guys contribute in such a big way tonight.  Proud of the growth those guys are showing.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Looking Forward

That was all Union would need to get it done in Foxborough on Wednesday night.  A gutsy performance for Union, going up to New England without several key players and handing the Revs just their 2nd loss at home all season, and their first playoff loss in regulation at home in 14 years. 

On top of that, it’s a clean sheet for this make-shift backline, something Union has to feel good about moving forward.  Now they’ll have a 2-week international break before heading to Ohio, where they’ll face off against the Supporters Shield Winners, FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. 

It’ll be the 3rd consecutive year the Union has reached this point in the playoffs, and they’re hoping to keep the trend of finishing higher each year going, with only MLS Cup left to achieve. It’s wild to think that after all the ups and downs this season, Philadelphia Union is 3 wins away from lifting their first-ever MLS Cup. But we can’t get ahead of ourselves yet.

It won’t be easy out in Ohio, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this team this season, it’s that they play their best when their backs are against the wall.  Go ahead, keep doubting this team – but it’s exactly what they need to keep the belief going.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union