For Pete's Sake / Union

In an empty Subaru Park, the Union are firing on all cylinders

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

It remains strange, this business of MLS matches in empty stadiums.

The stadiums were, after all, specifically designed for atmosphere, to avoid the painful early days of 10,000 fans swallowed up by a 60,000-seat football stadium.

It turns out, of course, that zero fans in 20,000 seats is much worse. No matter how many sharp innovations the Philadelphia Union have deployed — digitally superimposed snakes on one end, a tifo welcoming visitors to Jurassic Subaru Park on the other — they remain, ironically, nothing more than a mask of the fans’ absence.

And it’s a shame, really, because the Union kicked off their home slate this season — however many games that will be — with two solid wins, a 4-1 blowout of D.C. United following a tighter, hard-fought 1-0 victory over New York Red Bulls.

What’s clicking? 

Three things have stood out to me as sources of the Union’s success in recent games:

First, Kacper Przybylko looks like himself again. Striker Muffin looked more like Striker Hardtack in an MLS is Back Tournament run that saw him frustrated, tired, and not affecting games in the knockout stages. He’s looked livelier, though, in the two games at Subaru Park, knocking in three goals and adding an assist en route to MLS Player of the Week honors. All three goals showcased Przybylko’s knack for finding the empty space in the defense — and making no mistake with the finish if the ball comes to him. (The second goal against D.C. was one of the classier finishes we’ve seen from a Union striker.) When Sergio Santos and Brendan Aaronson are buzzing around as well, defenses have their hands full with the Union attack.

At the other end of the pitch, team defense has been exceptional. Jim Curtin said before the D.C. match that the Union’s team defense has been as good as it’s been in his tenure, and it’s tough to disagree. How’s this for a stat: in the nine games since the restart (Orlando knockout rounds included), the Union have allowed just six goals, and more than one goal in any game just once (the semifinal loss to Portland). Credit for that starts with a trio of central defenders that rarely put a foot wrong in Mark McKenzie, Jakob Glesnes, and Jack Elliott, and goes up and down the roster from there. Curtin specifically pointed to the hard work done in the defensive third by the entire team, and it’s striking how quickly the Union recover when someone in the back line makes a mistake or an opponent works the ball into dangerous territory. Plus, it helps to have Andre Blake in form.

Finally, Curtin has pushed the right buttons recently. After a disappointing end to the Orlando tournament where the manager was (rightly) criticized for poor squad rotation, Curtin has changed tack in the three games played since. Instead of running his backline into the ground, he’s shown trust in his depth, giving nights off to stalwarts like Mark McKenzie and Ray Gaddis. The latter’s replacement, Olivier Mbaizo, stood out on Saturday night, sparking the final goal with a scintillating sixty-yard ball that sprung Przybylko past D.C.’s defense. In a sprint to the finish where the games will come thick and fast, getting the most out of players 12-18 on the roster might make a big difference in the run-in.

What’s ahead

With the caveat that we still don’t know what the rest of the regular season will look like, tomorrow’s game should be a big measuring stick for the Union.

Columbus has been one of the league’s biggest surprises this year, with their 17 points good for second place in the Eastern Conference.

While Curtin & co. will probably be happy to leave MAPFRE Stadium with a draw, a win would be a real statement that the Union should be considered a favorite to emerge from the East this season.

There would be a certain irony if the Boys in Blue made their first-ever legitimate assault on MLS Cup, after years of frustrated waiting, without their diehard supporters available to watch.

For now, though, Union fans have to be pleased with what they’ve seen from their club — even if there’s a screen in the way.

8 Comments

  1. I’m definitely excited for tomorrow’s match. It should be good.

    The only worry I have for this team right now is Bedoya. I don’t see how he can be asked to go out and give 90+ every match. I think his importance on the field is as much psychological (leadership) as his skill. He’s still an excellent midfielder, but he needs a break.

    • We’ll need Bedoya out there to help contain Nagbe tomorrow, but we absolutely need to start subbing him out occasionally if we want him around for playoffs.
      .
      The few minutes we’ve seen of Fontana tells me he’s more than capable, so hearing Jim’s comments today on Anthony was a little disappointing. He should have had some serious minutes in the bubble. Hopefully we start seeing more of Fontana on the field.

  2. So… in a few camera angles from Saturdays game… there appeared to be a smattering of fans (?) in the stands?

  3. As a first responder / front line worker, I appreciated the moment before kick off.

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