A View from Afar / Union

Philadelphia Union and the Statement Game

Photo: 215pix

It’s the 64th minute at Talen Energy Stadium. The score is 1-1. Philadelphia Union’s Jamiro Monteiro has just won a corner kick minutes after teammate Brenden Aaronson’s equalizer. The Union have put first place Atlanta United on their heels.

The stadium shakes with the roaring chant of the crowd.

“UNION! UNION! UNION! UNION!”

In 10 seasons of Union soccer, it is perhaps the loudest their fans have ever been. The energy is palpable, contagious, and perhaps even unprecedented. 

It is the sound and fury of a fan base that believes.

There would be no losing this game, no late collapse, no stumble-and-fall, no capitulation to the soccer gods that have cursed this team ever since the rise and fall of Peter Nowak.

No, this is something else. No history, no baggage. No dysfunction. No disbelief.

There is simply the moment, the path ahead for a determined team that knows the game is theirs to take, and a fandom that for once not only believes in their side but is just as determined to help drive them onto victory.

And that is exactly what happened.

After a back-and-forth first half in which Atlanta got the better of the Union thanks to a late Josef Martinez goal, the Union stepped out after halftime a different team, focused on possession and confident in their attacking capability against an Atlanta side whose tired legs would soon begin to show.

Ilsinho’s entry in the 57th minute cemented the turn of the tide. He did not dominate as he often does when entering the game as the most dangerous off-the-bench option MLS has ever seen, but he drew so much defensive attention that it opened space for his teammates.

Once Aaronson, the teenage rookie from Medford, N.J., scored in the 61st minute, it was on.

As the stadium shook in the subsequent minutes, as fans roared their encouragement, unleashing 10 years worth of pent-up frustration and passion, the Union drove on.

They dominated the second half, but Atlanta held and held and held.

Then substitute Sergio Santos broke open down the left in the 86th minute, found Kacper Przybylko, and the Union’s improbable goal machine one-time slammed an absolute bullet with his left foot past Atlanta goalkeeper just inside the post.

The stadium exploded.

In the stands and on the field, it was utter pandemonium, and on the face of Santos, the ear-to-ear smile of a player whose season has been packed with enough tribulation that his utter joy was as earned as that of the fans.

At any other time in Union history, you would have expected Atlanta to score a late goal to tie it.

But this is a new time.

Two minutes later, Santos and Przybylko combined again on a final goal, this time scored by Santos, to drive a stake through Atlanta’s heart and cement the 3-1 win.

Entering the toughest part of their schedule, the Union have retaken first place, knocking Atlanta out of the top perch, and they did it without their captain and team leader, Alejandro Bedoya, who was suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Though New York City FC remains ahead of both on points per game, this same NYC side has lost four of their last five against likely playoff teams and will play nothing but such sides for the rest of the year.

The season is not done. The Union’s biggest challenges lie ahead, with LAFC and NYC FC among the murderers’ row of opponents still to come.

But the Union’s win over Atlanta is as big as wins have come for them. It has informed their fans, the league, and everyone in the American soccer world that this team is for real.

Earlier this season, we saw the Union take their most exciting win in their history, a spectacular comeback over the New York Red Bulls that will be long remembered as the Ilsinho Comeback Game.

Saturday’s win was something else.

This was The Statement Game.

25 Comments

  1. In his weekly analysis Doyle writes “the Union play some of the prettiest, most effective and most flexible soccer in the league, switching from possession to pressing to transition, from the 4-4-2 diamond to the 4-2-3-1 and to a flat 4-4-2 while shuffling pieces along the back line and the front line and even in goal”.
    .
    High praise.
    .
    In a way, it is one of the few visible lasting effects of Earnie’s time (for all he has been said to have improved behind the scenes). The 4-2-3-1 possession-based structure they were so committed to before has become the fall back option for this team but Ernst has taken the chains off and Curtin is making good decisions. I read a De Boer comment saying he was expecting the 4-4-2 diamond and Curtin made the call to stay in the 4-2-3-1 even after Ilsinho was a scratch from the starting XI. It gave The Kid more space compared to the middle of the field were teams have been very physical with him lately and he rewards the move with a solid performance and a goal.

    • I was at the match, and one thing I noticed very clearly was Aaronson’s increased physicality. He squared off against Larentowicz most of the match, gave as good as he got, kept possession, and drew several fouls. The Kid is growing up before our eyes.

      Meanwhile, was Curtin planning on playing the 4-4-2 originally? Because I think that would’ve been a mistake (and said so in a comment thread before the match).

      • It sounded like Curtin was always planning on the 4-2-3-1 and that Ilsinho was going to start before picking up a little knock or soreness or something. Clearly Ilsinho works best in the 4-2-3-1 but once it was clear he was not going to start, Curtin could have went with a 4-4-2 diamond with the same players that ended up starting (Aaronson on the right of the diamond).
        .
        I read that De Boer made a comment saying something along the lines of that his plan starting Larentowicz was for him to step into the midfield to pressure the diamond.

  2. I have attended 4-5 matches/year every season since the team’s inception. I have NEVER felt the crowd like that. It was absolutely electric. Any European in the audience would’ve had respect.

    My only correction to your wonderful piece, Dan, is that the Union didn’t actually come out after halftime a new team. In fact, for the first 10 minutes of the 2nd half they were flat and Atlanta had the upper hand. Ilsinho’s entry changed the entire tenor of the match.

    • That’s a fair disagreement, but I’ll dispute that point. I felt like they were coming on stronger — or, more accurately, playing differently — before Ilsinho came in, and then Ilsinho turned it. So … we’re seeing pretty close to the same thing, but I felt a bit better about what I saw in those first 12 minutes.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        Both of you make good points, but I felt very nervous for the first 10 minutes, so I would have agree with scottso’s assessment. Either way, great article!

  3. I was at this game and agree the energy was amazing. But, maybe because it was a while ago and just my memory, I believe the first US Open Cup Final was even louder than this. The one thing I do believe is a home playoff win will be louder than both.

  4. Atomic Spartan says:

    Not sure exactly when it started, probably a little before The Kid’s goal, but there was a sequence where it looked as if AUFC’s backs and mids showed real fatigue. It was like blood in the water and the U seemed to sense it. Ilsinho can do that to you.
    .
    A few years back, opposing teams had what you might call “Aw Shit” players: late game specialists that made you say “Aw Shit” whenever they were subbed in. Ilsinho and now Santos – we finally have “Aw Shit” quality subs.

    • “Aw Shit” players. I like that. I like that a lot.

      • O captain my captain crunch is gone says:

        The aw shit moment almost came when Andre and jack got their signals crossed and Martinez hit the post then whimpered like a 7 yr old because of his miss. A few years ago that ball goes in and no one is sticking around for the fireworks. Not this year. Hopefully not next year. It’s nice to have core players returning every year. Andre, jack, ray, Harris, ale, ilsinho…it seemed like the first 6-7 years the team had massive turnover and signed terrible players. With E. Stewart and now Tanner we’ve seemed to understand the importance of keeping guys around to gel, Then added ballers like Kia and monteiro….That’s just great scouting. Hopefully we can keep this going and keep these players for a few more years. GO U!!!!

    • This is no small point. 5 years ago, we were bringing on Danny Cruz to just run up the wing and hope he could catch a long ball. To turn to the bench to bring on quality like Ilsinho and Santos is worlds away from the standards Union have been used to, really until this season. Having that depth is so crucial.

  5. I’m fine with Ilsinho not scoring last night – Atlanta was scared of him. At one point he was at the back corner of the 18 and had 4 defenders going after him. Two quick passes and all 4 were out of the play. Union were stretching their D all over the place.
    .
    That crowd is up there with the last home Open Cup Final for energy!! The place was hopping!

  6. In Tanner We Trust says:

    It’s so nice to see Santos succeed. As much as he can drive me crazy, it feels good to know that I didn’t give up on him. Had a feeling he’d be back. And MAJOR props to Curtin to send him in after missing months of MLS action. Took some serious guts.

  7. First game I had to miss all season so I watched it unspoiled tonight when I got home from a weekend in the mountains. Obviously a great result. My personal thought is that even though he wasn’t in for the last 2 goals, Aaronson was the man of the match and hopefully the future of this team. Let’s hope he gets to make some real statements in big games.

  8. Did anyone notice how Wagner owned Gressel all match?

    • They were right in front of me for the first half, and damn straight, Wagner owned him. After one face-off I turned to my son and said, “Our German beat their German.”

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I’m in 127 and I yelled at Gressel quite a few times in that first half. Good times!!

      • I was in 127 too!

        Was that you I heard telling Gressel how much he sucked at the top of your lungs in true Philly phashion??

  9. I’ve said this all season, but it is worthy of repeating again – the work Kasper does all over the field all game long is amazing. Does this guy ever tire? His finish on the second goal (left footed, one-time, top shelf) was absolute class.

    Although he was still a little sloppy, Montiero stepped up big time and looks like he is getting back to full shape.

    Three of four different times Aaronson played through physical challenges under which he was falling down earlier in the season (almost like that Wentz play where he emerges from the grasp of multiple defenders and completes a pass). Absolutely his best game of the season.

    • The Kid was right in front of me the whole first half, and I clearly noticed just how much more physically he was playing. He and Larentowicz went at it the whole time, and Brendan gave as good as he got, stayed on his feet the majority of the time, and shielded the ball with his body to draw fouls when necessary. He’s taking the next step, right before our eyes.

      And yes about Kacper — seeing the match live allows you to really see just how much defensive effort he puts in. Our press was excellent in the first half, and he was a key part of it.

  10. Great game all around. And I was not worried about a loss…they are a different team this season. Lots of depth. So nice to have! The crowd was into it! And did anyone notice Ray Gaddis on the field during the fireworks. Sitting and talking with two young kids. Class by him and whoever sets that stuff up.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Ray is just an all around amazing dude. He probably deserves to be next to LeToux one day on the Ring of Honor… and I’d be totally ok with that.

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