After a 2 week international break, the wait is finally over, It’s Philadelphia Union Playoff Game Day – and it’s a big one. A rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, but this time Union heads on the road as underdogs against MLS’s Supporters Shield Winners in FC Cincinnati. Going on the road to TQL stadium and punching your ticket to the Conference Finals is going to be no easy feat, but Union play their best soccer with their backs against the wall – maybe the idea of playing spoiler is a fitting title of the blue and gold.
In the 2 regular season meetings between Union and Cincinnati this season, it was the Supporters Shield winners walking away with the majority of the points after a 1-0 win against a rotated Union squad in Cincinnati, and a come-from-behind 2-2 draw in Chester. Overall, Union has a record of 6 wins, 2 draws, and 3 losses in 11 competitive games against FC Cincinnati, but Union has only beaten Cincinnati once in their previous 5 meetings – A 1-0 win in last season’s Eastern Conference Semi-Final.
2023 Season So Far
It can’t be understated how much Pat Noonan and Chris Albright have turned this FC Cincinnati team around since arriving in Ohio. From 3 straight Wooden Spoons, to Supporters Shield Winners in the matter of 2 seasons. With a record of 20 wins, 9 draws, and just 5 losses, FC Cincinnati ran away with the Supporters Shield thanks to incredible seasons from the league’s Coach of the Year in Pat Noonan, Defender of the Year in Matt Miazga, Goalkeeper of the year finalist in Roman Celentano, and likely MLS MVP Lucho Acosta.
FC Cincinnati scored 56 goals in 2023 – 4th most in MLS – while conceding just 39 goals, tied for the 5th lowest total in the league. Cincinnati isn’t a team that suffocates you with possession, averaging just 48.8% over the course of the season – but they’re very threatening in the moments they do find to go forward, totaling the second-highest Expected Goal total in MLS at 56.3 xG.
To reiterate the point of Cincinnati not prioritizing possession, FCC ranks in the bottom half of the league in stats such as passes into the final third, passes into the penalty area, crosses into the penalty area, progressive passes, total touches, total carries, and progressive carries. And yet, FC Cincinnati was almost unbeatable this season and absolutely ran away with the supporters’ shield. Union is going to have to be clinical with whatever chances they do get, as Cincinnati allowed just 126 shots on target this season, 5th lowest in MLS.
Picking out FC Cincinnati’s X-factor is really quite a simple one – it’s got to be Lucho Acosta, who looks to be set to collect his MVP trophy on Monday afternoon. Lucho Acosta’s 17 goals and 14 assists not only led Cincinnati to their first Supporters Shield in club history but was the most goal involvements by a single player in MLS this season.
When comparing Acosta against other attacking midfielders in the league, Acosta sits amongst the top 87 percentile in stats such as Non-Penalty Expected Goals, Assists, Expected Assisted Goals, Non-penalty Expected Goals + expected Assisted Goals, shot-creating actions, passes attempted, progressive passes, and successful take-on. Keeping Lucho Acosta at bay and forcing someone else on FC Cincinnati to make plays is going to be the key for Union, but not many teams have been able to accomplish that this season.
On the other side of the ball, Union is going to need a big performance from a number of players if they want to get the job done on the road, but Daniel Gazdag sticks out to me the most in this one.
Gazdag’s 14 goals and 11 assists leads the Union in both categories this season, but most importantly he’s got a 100% conversation rate from the spot this season – 11 for 11 in MLS play, which has the opportunity to come into play on Saturday night, as Union and FC Cincinnati are the two teams with the most awarded penalties in MLS. It’s going to take the front 3 finding some chemistry in Cincinnati if the Union wants to upset the shield winners on the road.
Let’s start with who is unavailable for Union – Kai Wagner is still suspended and Leon Flach’s season is officially over after needing a second surgery to repair the sports hernia he’s been battling all season, we wish Leon a speedy recovery. Everyone else is fit per Jim Curtin, even Jakob Glesnes – who had surgery just weeks ago. While I’m pretty certain Glesnes won’t start, and potentially not even come off the bench, it will serve as a huge morale boost to see Jakob back on the bench for the rest of the Union squad.
With the lack of options defensively, I think it’ll be back to the 4-4-2 Diamond for Union. Andre Blake in net, with Nate Harriel filling in for Kai Wagner at LB, Damion Lowe and Jack Elliott as the CB duo, and Olivier Mbaizo rounding out the backline at RB. Union will turn to Jose Martinez in the defensive midfield to slow down the Cincinnati attack, with what I’d imagine to be Jack McGlynn and Ale Bedoya on either side of him.
Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, and Mikael Uhre will man the attack up front for Union. Jim Curtin spoke very highly of Mikael Uhre’s training over the last few weeks, so look for Uhre to affect the game with his darting, shape-stretching runs behind the backline on Saturday night.
It’s going to be a dogfight. Two teams that don’t need possession in order to win, and don’t mind mucking it up in order to get across the line. But it’s also two teams playing without key players in their backline, which might suggest there are mistakes to be made and taken advantage of. Beating Cincinnati is no easy feat this season – especially at TQL stadium where they’ve lost just 2 games all year.
But if there’s anything about this Union team, it’s that they play best with their backs against the wall. They play best when people start to doubt them and what they can accomplish, and that is when they sneak up on you. Maybe being the underdogs is a situation Union thrives. Maybe spoiling the Supporters Shield Winner’s party in Cincinnati is the type of role Union relishes. In the face of doubt, this team has proved its skeptics wrong before, and it’s time to do it again – 2-1 Union on the road on Saturday night. Make sure to catch the action on MLS Season Pass via Apple TV on Saturday night at 8 pm.
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