Commentary / Union

Union hosting an Eastern Conference final? What needs to happen in Atlanta

Photo: Earl Gardner

Coming off its historic playoff win this past Sunday, Philadelphia Union now have a glorious opportunity to host an Eastern Conference Final.

Thanks to Toronto’s big upset of New York City FC last night, tonight’s clash with Atlanta United is an even grander occasion. Win, and it’s back to Talen Energy Stadium for the biggest match in club history.

Here’s what needs to happen in Atlanta:

Jim Curtin’s lineup

First and foremost, Curtin’s lineup needs to be right. His subs came on and won the match for him against Red Bull, but you can’t bank on that happening again — especially on the road in Atlanta. He very well may not have that luxury.

He confirmed in his weekly press conference that Kacper Przybylko almost certainly will not play, which means he has a decision to make up top. Andrew Wooten didn’t produce much in the New York match, and Fafa Picault was electric off the bench. Do they switch roles in this one? Does Sergio Santos play alone in the middle with Fafa out wide? Atlanta set up with three in the back in its first playoff match, so there could be some space outside if they opt for that again.

Is Brendan Aaronson up for a match of this magnitude? We all know Curtin loves him and he’s even played well in that building before, but this is the biggest moment in Philadelphia Union history. Nerves would be understandable. Even if Marco Fabian isn’t top choice right now, his experience could play a factor.

These will be some of the toughest decisions of the season for Curtin, but he has to get them right. He can’t afford to rely on subs to save the day. The starting XI is vital.

The crowd

Regardless of who is out there, they’ll need to combat the crowd. What is already Major League Socccer’s top atmosphere will be that much louder and that much more involved tonight. The Union have to play through it. Don’t let a mistake fuel their fire or don’t let an early Atlanta goal end your season. Any crowd can be quieted.

Guys like Alejandro Bedoya will understand this. Even something as simple as keeping possession for a couple minutes can help keep the crowd at bay. Play your game, and don’t let one of Atlanta’s biggest advantages overwhelm you.

Easier said than done.

Andre Blake

What exactly happened in the first half of the New York match? Was it the weather? Blake was borderline shocking and if he performs like that again, Philly has little to no chance. It may have been his worst-ever match in a Union shirt, so you’d certainly expect him to get back to his usual ways in this one, but you primarily worry about his confidence after letting in three goals at home like that.

It almost goes without saying, but Blake needs to be on. He needs to be the best keeper in the league. He’ll be facing one of the best attackers in MLS and there’s no room for error. One keeper mistake could mean the crowd exploding, confidence evaporating, and the season collapsing. On the contrary, one big save early could propel the Union into a result. Keep an eye on Blake tonight.

Josef Martinez

Speaking of one of the league’s best forwards, Martinez (27 goals on the season) will be starving for a score. It’d be almost trivial to say the Union need to “take him out of the match,” but the back line must, at the very least, contain him. Don’t let him get in behind and don’t give him even a sliver of space around the 18.

Simply put, he’s going to create some chances and he may even net one. That’s where Blake comes in. That’s where combating the crowd comes in. It’s nearly impossible to completely shut down Josef Martinez, but preventing one of his scoring sprees could be the difference between a narrow road win and a United blowout.

Nothing to lose

The Union do, of course, do have something to lose. There’s an entire season to lose, but you simply can’t play that way. You can’t play with something on the line — this needs to be an all-out onslaught for a win. Do not change your game plan one bit if Martinez makes it 1-0 in the 16th minute. Don’t be discouraged if your first-half tactics don’t work.

If you steal an early goal, don’t sit back and invite Atlanta’s pressure. Keep going at them. Play for the right to host an Eastern Conference final, not for the right to only lose by a goal. Playing to win instead of playing not to lose is one of the biggest cliches in sports, but the Union’s mindset and attitude will unquestionably play a role tonight. Yes, Curtin will have tactical calls to make and they will matter, but more than ever, Philly will need to play like the higher seed and play they like belong.

If they don’t, the Atlanta crowd could eat them alive.

A season to remember

This season is different than any other we’ve seen. It’s different because no one is saying that Atlanta are flat-out better than Philly anymore. It’s not about the Union somehow competing with such a juggernaut on the road. Instead, it’s about the Union being on their day. On their day, we know this team can beat Atlanta. In two matches against them this year, the combined scoreline was 4-2 with a win and a draw for Philadelphia. They’ve done it before. On their day, they can beat anyone.

It’s now Curtin’s job to select the right group and make sure they approach the match the right way. The players need to perform and avoid shrinking in the moment. Things will certainly need to fall in the Union’s favor.

Ultimately, though, what needs to happen in Atlanta tonight is something we’ve seen many times this season. It’s not a miracle or the biggest upset of the playoffs. That already happened.

What needs to happen is simply the Union playing well, and that’s more likely than ever.

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