Match previews / Union

Eastern Conference Final Match Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. New York City FC

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union (No. 2 Seed, 14-12-8 regular season) vs. New York City FC (No. 4 Seed, 14-9-11 regular season)
What: 2021 Eastern Conference Final
Where: Subaru Park, Chester, PA
When: Sunday, December 5th, 3:00PM (3:18 KO)
Watch: ABC, ESPN Deportes
Whistle: Not announced at the time of publication.

It’s been said many times this season alone, but Sunday may truly be the most important game in recent Union history.

While this summer’s foray into CONCACAF Champions League was as exciting as it was historic, it was also a foregone conclusion. Mexican teams are very good. But Sunday’s Eastern Conference Final has something those games never did- actual potential. In their first-ever Conference Final, the Philadelphia Union have the opportunity to win their way into the team’s first ever MLS Cup Final.

Attempting to prevent that from happening is City Football Group’s New York City FC, a team MLS so desperately wanted in the league that they’ve allowed them to play in Yankee Stadium for eight years (with no relief in sight). But while their stadium situation may be a joke, the team is anything but. All-time the Union have drawn two, lost nine, and won just five times against New York, while being out-scored 19 to 26.

So, not only will the Union be attempting to reach new heights on Sunday, they’ll also be striving to rewrite a rivalry that has not been particularly kind to them thus far.

Scouting report: New York City FC

One cannot overstate how important it is that Valentín Castellanos received a second yellow in the second half of extra time against New England. The young Argentinian has more than twice the number of goals of the next-most-prolific NYC FC player (19 to midfielder and designated player Jesús Medina’s 9). And with eight assists he’s just three behind fellow Argentinian and Designated Player Maxi Moralez for most on the team. He is, without qualification or contingency, the most important player in New York’s attack.

And thanks to a reckless and foolish challenge in the Conference Semi-Finals, he won’t be playing… so the Union have got that going for them.

Who will fill his shoes in the starting lineup is the biggest question facing head coach Ronny Delia at the moment. It is possible that they could restructure from the 4231 formation that’s been their go-to, but unlikely. Instead, look for Talles Magno to be in the starting XI. The Brazilian has been New York’s go-to Castellanos replacement when he’s been unavailable for various reasons. There is another option on the bench as well: Héber, another Brazilian – though at his age look for him to be used more as a substitute if New York are in need of offensive help after the sixtieth minute.

  • Injury report: Anton Tinnerholm (D, achilles), Keaton Parks (M, blood clot)
  • Suspended: Valentín Castellanos (F, second yellow against New England in the Conference Semi-Finals)
Scouting report: Philadelphia Union

If the visitors lineup has a significant question to answer, the Union one is essentially set it stone. And while that stability is a thing to feel good about, it doesn’t mean everything is rosy in Chester.

Things start off well out back with Union stalwart Andre Blake soothing his disappointment at not winning MLS Keeper of the Year by actually stopping PKs in the off-season. As well, three quarters of the back line will be the familiar and reliable faces fans have seen all season: Wagner, Elliott, and Glesnes. It’s right back where there is something of a question.

On one hand Alvas Powell’s post-season performance has been beyond reproach, and head coach Jim Curtin’s penchant for not making lineup adjustments makes it seem likely he’ll get the nod. But assuming Olivier Mbaizo is allowed on the field his offensive skills could be key for unlocking a NYC FC defense used to clogging up the narrow confines of Yankee Stadium. Since it seems Mbaizo will be available – reports say he was back with the team and training on Thursday – expect him to start.

Moving to the midfield, there are a few more questions but no obviously pressing ones. Odds are it will be the same familiar faces that have popped up through the playoffs (and most of the regular season). Of the five of them, Flach’s position is least secure, though it seems unlikely that young homegrown Jack McGlynn would be able to unseat him.

Lastly is striker, where it’s less a matter of questions and more a lack of answers. Kacper Przybyłko has been prone to streaks ever since he arrived in Philadelphia in 2018. And he’s in a cold one right now, potentially one of his most frigid and concerning. But he’s broken every streak in the past, and what better time than now? Especially considering that the last time he scored was Novermber’s Decision Day trip to the Bronx. Furthermore, the options to replace him (Sergio Santos, Cory Burke) are both better used as early subs, breaking open New York’s defense and helping to spread the game into parts of the field unavailable to the Pigeons at their home grounds.

In essence, this game will likely be played the way the two other playoff games have gone for the Union: hold on in early minutes and take what chances may come, without giving New York’s offense much to work with. Then, around the sixty minute mark, replace midfielders (and/or Przybyłko) with attack-oriented substitutes and start hunting for a game-winning goal while keeping a clean sheet.

  • Injury report: Questionable: Olivier Mbaizo (health and safety protocols, returned to team training on Thursday)
  • Suspended: None
Key matchup – José Martínez vs. Rodríguez/Moralez/Medina

Being South Americans themselves, New York’s attack-minded midfield shouldn’t be too troubled by El Brujo magic. But the Venezuelan has more than trash talk and bravado in his arsenal, and his clever challenges and strategic interceptions could go a long way towards crippling an already limping offense.

Player to watch – Kacper Przybyłko

Despite all the grief he gets online, fans know that Striker Muffin isn’t a bad player. The frustration bubbles to the surface because they also know he can, and has, and will again be a good player. Sunday, when the winning goal will quite literally be at his feet multiple times, he’ll have the opportunity to be more than good.

Prediction: Philadelphia 1 – 0 New York

Defense wins championships.

It’s a cliche, but only because it’s true. There’s every reason to believe that the Union defense, whether it’s Powell or Mbaizo out wide, can keep New York’s hobbled offense from scoring. Especially with Andre Blake in the goal.


  1. LET’S GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. We should have a PSP Tailgate before this game!!!

  3. “There’s been a lot of emotion, uniqueness this week-we were unable to train yesterday due to players going in health & safety protocols of MLS. We were able to return today. We will follow league protocol with hope of having as many players as possible for Sunday.”
    -Coach Curtin

    Anybody know more about this tweet from the Union? Don’t drop something like that without more info.

  4. Just be hopeful that it isn’t 5-0 Pigeons by halftime.

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