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Match preview: Philadelphia Union vs Nashville FC

Photo: Stephen Speer

Who: Philadelphia Union (2nd seed in the Eastern Conference) vs. Nashville FC (3rd seed in the Eastern Conference)

What: 2021 MLS Cup Conference Semifinals  

Where: Subaru Park, Chester, PA

When: Sunday, November 28 at 5:30 p.m. (Eastern)

Watch: ESPN

Whistle: Referee: Alan Chapman, Assistant Referees: Ian Anderson, Cameron Blanchard. 4th Official: Victor Rivas, VAR: Jorge Gonzalez, AVAR Chris Elliott

With laurel crowned as conqueror

There he lyueth in joye and honour

 – Geoffrey Chaucer

As Philadelphia Union fans come down from the high that was Jakob Glesnes’ 123rd minute golazo sweeping their side into the Eastern Conference semifinals, the memories must be short and the focus upon the game at hand. The Union and their fans must jones for another win and a move to the next round.  Heed the advice from Shelley as he responds to Chaucer some 400 years later.

Nothing wilts faster than laurels that have been rested upon 

Percy Shelley

The Union meet up with Nashville FC on Sunday in a battle for the right to play the winner of Tuesday’s New England-NYC FC match in the Eastern Conference final. Kick off is at 5:30 p.m. in the comfortable – but sure to be loud – confines of Subaru Park.

The two teams split their regular season meetings, both 1-0 affairs.  They first met on July 3 in Nashville with former Union striker C.J. Sapong scoring the game’s lone goal in just the second minute. In late October the Union answered by putting the ball in the net early via a Kacper Przybylko penalty kick.  

This nationally broadcast game should be an epic battle between two of the best defensive teams in the MLS. Not so ugly as Saturday’s Red Bull’s game – but don’t expect Barcelona vs 2004 Arsenal.

Scouting Report: Nashville FC

Nashville earned their way into the semifinals by virtue of defeating Orlando in the playoff’s first round.  The 3-1 final score does not necessarily reflect what was actually a close and competitive game, but Nashville was able to do what they do best – not lose. With only four losses in the entire season (but 18 draws) Nashville tied the Union in total points but fell to third place on the first tiebreaker of game won.

Nashville comes on the pitch with a strong foundation of Walker Zimmerman, Anibal Goday, Dax McCarty and goalkeeper Joe Willis. Their defense is anchored by centerback Zimmerman who has had a tremendous season in both the MLS and for the USMNT. Nashville led the MLS with only 33 goals allowed in all 34 regular season matches. (The Union have allowed just 35).  Zimmerman is flanked by longtime defender Daniel Lovitz and helped with excellent goalkeeping by Joe Willis.

In their last matchup, the Union caught a break as Hany Mukhtar, Nashville’s leader in both scoring (18) and assists (10) and a serious MVP candidate, missed the game due to yellow card accumulation.  No such luck this time as Mukhtar comes in hot after scoring a brace against Orlando. Former Union striker CJ Sapong will do his thing alongside him. Sapong was on a torrid goalscoring pace earlier this season, has since cooled off but still ended with 12 goals and 5 assists. Dax McCarty, another longtime veteran accruing 16 years in the MLS will hold down the center of the midfield.

Injury report:  Not available at time of publication

Scouting report: Union

Even though this match is a semifinal, it will be hard to match the intensity and excitement following last week’s Red Bulls match.  In the Union’s two playoff games previous to last week’s they have come out flat following big moments: last year vs New England following winning the Supporter’s Shield and in 2019 against Atlanta after another huge overtime win against the Red Bulls. It is incumbent for the players and coaches (and the fans) to enter this game ready to play. All teams in all sports play better when their intensity levels are high – but this truism seems especially salient with the Union and their style of play,

Last week, the Union came out in their now favored 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation, changing back to the diamond when they brought Sergio Santos in as a second forward in the second half. This worked well as Santos with his speed was able to stretch the tired legs of the Red Bull defense.  Expect the same approach this match and with the return of Jamiro Monteiro from Covid protocol, he along with fellow #10 Daniel Gazdag will be able to continue what had become a productive partnership.  

Defensively, Alvas Powell will likely resume his spot at right back as it appears Olivier Mbaizo will also miss this game. As Powell was exceptional against New York there should be no drop off at that position.  Nashville’s biggest threat is Mukhtar so expect Jose Martinez to be pestering him throughout the match.

Injury Report: Olivier Mbaizo (Covid Protocol)

Suspension Report:  None

Key Matchup:  Jose Martinez vs Hany Muhktar

Mukhtar is Nashville’s top scoring threat and Martinez will work to get in his kitchen. Expect a yellow card or two as the two go head-to-head. 

Player to Watch: Kacper Przybylko

Przybylko has been on a bit of a bad run of form. Last week against the Red Bulls besides missing a sitter, he also foundered at his ancillary talents i.e. winning 50-50 balls and hold-up play. But it seems that every time we are ready to write him off and resume dreaming about that mythical DP striker, he comes back with a big game or two. Let’s see if this is where he turns it around.  

Prediction:  Philadelphia 2-0 Nashville FC

A brace by Przybylko. Andre Blake has an easy clean sheet and the Union can wear their laurel crown for another week.


Philadelphia Union:    +115

Nashville, FC:             +280

Draw:                           +230


Note: see above prediction


  1. El Diablo is indeed key. Crush Muhktar, and we win this game. Great article, Andrew. Thanks.

  2. To the soccer gods I say, let our defenders defend well, let our strikers strike often – let the ghost materialize and our god of speed be fleet of foot – let the coach coach better than ever before and let us send Nashville back to the music city singin’ the blues…

  3. I’m floored by the betting line here. Home field is wildly advantageous in MLS, but not for the hearts of Union fans.

  4. Did they sell standing room tickets for this game? There are no $27 parking passes left. Show up early.

  5. Hope everyone down the park is well oiled, rowdy, and ready to give Nashville a Philly welcome! Have phun everyone and go get em boys!

  6. RSL’s stoppage time upset of SKC ENSURES the East champs will HOST the final. So beat NSH and the winner of NYCFC-New England, Subaru Park will host its first MLS title game.

    #2W (2 wins away)

    • Portland would still host the Union or NYCFC (thanks to the Union’ draw rather than win with the man advantage at the baseball field).

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