Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 1–2 New York City FC

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

That match was a lot. There’s a lot to get through, but the analysis both starts and ends with a simple fact: this was not the Union team we were expecting just a handful of days ago. With 11 players held out due to Covid-19 health and safety protocols, the Union fielded a nearly unrecognizable back five, played without their stalwart captain, and had no forwards on the bench.

But you want to know the craziest part? It almost didn’t matter.

Personnel changes were not at fault for the loss . . . sort of

Aurelien Collin had not played in 2021, and played only one minute in 2020. He’d last started a game in 2019. And yet, he marshalled the makeshift Union backline as well as anyone could have hoped. With the younger but much less tested Stuart Findlay beside him, Nathan Harriel playing wrong-footed at left back, Olivier Mbaizo returning to the lineup after missing several games, and Matt Freese in goal—who, lest we forget, was red carded for a DOGSO the last time he played this team— rather than Andre Blake, the Union defense was about as unsettled as it could have been. But, led by Collin’s confident, front-foot defending and communicating, the unit performed admirably for most of the game.

Further up the pitch, things looked more familiar, with only Jack McGlynn not a normal starter, and even he has seen significant minutes of late. There was some talk that he may have started this game, regardless. But with Jamiro Monteiro wearing the captain’s armband, and the team very aware of their handicapped status, it was clear from the opening whistle that the team was going to play somewhat differently. They pressed more intensely; Monteiro, Leon Flach, and Jose Martinez were everywhere, forcing the City midfield to play around the outside, minimizing the influence of Maxi Moralez. Daniel Gazdag and Kacper Przybylko ran and harried the New York defense, probing for pockets of space. For more than an hour of game time, the Union looked like the Union of 2020 or 2019, giving up possession but nevertheless dictating the game state.

What was problematic was not the play of the replacement players. Instead, what became difficult was maintaining the energy of the press, with no obvious replacements on the bench. When, in the 63rd minute, the Union managed to tally through an own goal, the hope was they would find a way to hold on. City’s immediate response made that less likely, and as the game went on, it became increasingly clear the Union needed to hang on until extra time. Should Jim Curtin have brought on Paxten Aaronson and Anthony Fontana sooner?

Substitution theory

With no Sergio Santos or Cory Burke to enter and run at the defense, the options off the bench were imperfect. Przybylko may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and he has certainly underperformed, but he has also been asked to carry a heavy load, mostly alone. With no other strikers to bring on, but Przybylko obviously tiring, Curtin was in a tough spot. Without an outlet with speed, Przybylko’s height and strength were needed to give the midfield a pass forward. Replacing him with Fontana on maybe one full day of practice wasn’t definitely the right call. Making the change at the end of full time might have given the staff and Fontana a chance to emphasize what was really needed from him. In the end, Przybylko never even came out, with Fontana instead replacing Harriel. Aaronson replaced Flach, and the team went whole hog to try and force a goal at the death.

So, in hindsight the question becomes, with no like-for-like substitutes available, what do the substitutions do, had they been made sooner? Do they change the complexion of the game in a way that harms the Union? The Union had done exceptionally well to hold NYC at arm’s length for 85 minutes. Perhaps swapping Aaronson in for Gazdag made sense, but that was the only obvious change. Jesus Bueno had already replaced McGlynn. If Curtin didn’t want to take out his only striker, there wasn’t much else to do. Monteiro and Martinez can’t come off. Flach is a possibility, but he’s a big part of what had kept New York out; taking him off increases the team’s ability to be goal-dangerous, but gives away a lot of midfield security.

There were no easy answers for Curtin.

A game of mistakes

In the end, all three goals could be said to be the result of individual mistakes. An own goal is never a desired outcome, obviously, though in this case Przybylko would have had to make a somewhat difficult finish—certainly not guaranteed given recent history. Alexander Callens had to challenge for the ball, but it might have been better for him to miss.

As for the New York goals, both of them, sadly, are largely down to Olivier Mbaizo. On the first, he ball-watches and stands static after Freese makes the save, allowing Moralez to attack the ball unchallenged. It’s possible that Moralez would have gotten into scoring position anyway, but Mbaizo was yards away, rather than touch-tight. On the winner, it’s unclear what Mbaizo is trying to do as the ball drops out of the air. He is aware of Gudmundur Thórarinsson on his outside, but rather than put his body between Thórarinsson and the ball, he moves aside and tries to take it out of the air with his foot, which allows Thórarinsson to easily win the ball, waltz in and lay the ball on a platter for Talles Magno to score.

In a game where everyone had to be perfectly focused, Mbaizo’s mind wandered twice, and it cost the Union. The frustrating irony is that, aside from those two moments, Mbaizo played great! He’d be proud of his match if he could erase those few seconds from the record.

What could have been

I said above that the loss was not the result of the huge changes enforced on the Union lineup, and that’s true. What is also true is that, based on what we saw on Sunday night, the full-strength Union team could have gotten the win. As well as the makeshift defense did, having the starters there would have given the team a more stable base, and allowed them to be more dangerous going forward. The two chances NYC had? They likely never happen. NYC would have had to do more running, more chasing of Union possession. The game would have been played further into New York’s half of the field.

It’s a tough pill to swallow.

A personal note

Mike Servedio’s match report has a lot of comments on it. Many of them are fans grateful for what the team gave us this season. Many of them are full of anger—at MLS; at the Union; at the players who might have gotten themselves held out of the game due to questionable behavior; at Olivier Mbaizo or Kacper Przybylko for their faults (real or perceived); at Jim Curtin for not getting something right.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to feel, or whether their anger is legitimate. What I want to do is remind all of us in Unionland that behind everything at the Union are people. None of them intended to harm the team’s chances on Sunday, whether that be through their behavior away from the team, playing on the field, coaching, or anything else.

So, be angry. Be sad. Cancel your season tickets, if that’s what you think is the right choice for you. But remember that these are unprecedented times. I believe with all my heart that, no matter what mistakes were or were not made this last week, everyone associated with the Union acted with good intentions. I’m proud of this organization, and proud to be a fan of the Union.


  1. Great post Jeremy. And i couldn’t agree more. I’m proud of this team, this coach, and this organization. They deserved a better end result than 11 guys missing out on an Eastern conference final for covid. I’ve added a seat to my season tickets and talked a friend into getting a half season plan for his family,so I’m in the opposite camp from those talking about canceling tickets. February 26th can’t come soon enough.

    • Agreed! The run-in and playoffs seem to have turned my daughter into a fan of more than just the cotton candy and ice cream. I added a second seat to my season tickets for next year, too. It was a lame way to finish a surprisingly excellent league season, but was still great overall.

  2. Great closing remarks, Jeremy. More than anything, I’m proud of this team. This was a Philly team — tenacious, relentless and committed. They did better than all but two other teams in this league and likely would have been off to the finals if not for Covid protocols gutting the team. I appreciate this post season run. It was a thrill.

    It would be interesting to hear Curtin talk about why he didn’t make a change in the last 20 minutes of the match. Hindsight is always 20/20, I know, but what I saw was an attack that desperately needed an infusion of pace to keep that NY backline honest. As helpful as the Xmas tree has been, it’s really left Przybylko high and dry. I’ll die on the hill that a significant part of his struggle to score has been a lack of quality service. If anything, the performance of this team showed us that Curtin probably does not trust his reserves enough. They did a great job and should probably be given more opportunities, not only to develop themselves, but to keep starters more fresh for late season pushes.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Lost iin the tumult of player failings, league failings etc etc etc is the failure of the coach to read the situation accordlingly in my opinion.
      For thjos ewho think its revisionist or hindsight… t wasn’t hindsight for me…I have first person account of telling my SRO buddy from the 70th minute on weighing the unfolding potential of 30 more minutes of extra time on top of the remaining 20…..”it’s too long to just defend. it’s too long to just defend. it’s too long to just defend. He needs to attack.”

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Sorry for spelling errors. Misplaced my glasses for that post. SHIT.

      • Spot on, NYC was squeezing us out of the match. We could not build with any possession and had resorted to lumping it up to KP who then had to fight 2-3 NYC defenders for the ball.

        I love Curtin, he’s a fantastic person and a very good manager. Unfortunately, one of his notable flaws is that he has always stuck with his core group of players too long and fails to make needed subs. Sure, he had a short and mostly unproved bench to choose from on Sunday, but ignoring what was playing out in front of us on the pitch was the wrong move.

        FWIW – I’m a Union STH from Day 1 and have no plans on canceling my season tickets. It’s been too fun over the last few years and I’m excited for what’s next.

  3. Curing absolutely needed to make subs earlier.
    Why Aaronson didn’t have a bigger role in the playoffs will be a mystery to me.

    • Look at Aaronson’s pace of play after the 25th minute in the first game of the playoffs against Red Bull.
      To my eyes and borrowing a phrase formerly in Earnie Stewart’s time as Sporting Director, Aaronson still needs to build his engine. He is 18.3 years old only with six major league starts only. He is where his brother was in 2019 not 2020.
      By the end of NEXT season your question about mystery should make sense for Aaronson the younger, not this.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff Jeremy.
    As I argued again in Peter’s article about missteps.. I would be willing to bet, in Jim’s inner circle- if pressed- he would accept responsibility for playing too conservative.
    He’ll never admit it out loud, but if he isn’t admitting it to at least himself- it is a bummer. It is a teachable moment for a manager still looking to grow as a manager.
    What do I know, I’m just an RN. What I do know is I watched it very intently from SRO and the team was WAY to methodical and too slow- in the few moments they had possession. Their was a reluctance to use the outside channels effectively particularly on the left with Harriel – who played well but had minimal to zero offensive impact.
    Jim needed to try and steal that game in regular time. When New York answered right back the collective air in the stadiium went out because we could al sense it was a matter of time until NYCFC broke through again… and damn it—- I would have rather gone down ….with guns blazing then hanging on for dear life. trying to keep that team off the scoreboard again for almost 55 full minutes including stoppage time.

  5. Really great article and that final paragraph is a really great sentiment. If Curtain’s failure is that he was too conservative then completely understandable. I can’t fire the Union because I can never replicate the feeling I had for the 60 seconds after the goal in the River end anywhere else!

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Boy that was something.
      I appreciate on Missanelli yesterday, Tyrone- who I saw all daper two times on sunday- said it was the loudest he had ever heard a Philadelphia Sporting venue… obviously to scale.

  6. The Union Jack says:

    Jim Curtin had nothing to turn to. The League protocols gutted the bench. It looked like the scene in Lord of the Rings in the battle of Helm’s Deep when they were giving helmets and clubs to young boys. NYCFC was able to pull a sub in whose transfer fee was more than the entire Union team’s salary while we could only turn to (see Helm’s Deep).
    I think the biggest misstep by the team was not to have someone pull the players aside after the Union were awarded the own goal and make sure they play within themselves. They were handling what ever NYCFC threw at them. The biggest battle at that time was between the ears.
    In the end I went into the game Sunday expecting them to not win but wanting whoever was put on the pitch to battle and fight for everything and represent the team with pride. I got my money’s worth and I’ll be proud to attend my 13th season as a STH next year.

  7. Matt Custer says:

    Thanks, Jeremy, for being a voice of reason and healing. And thanks to all who responded to you for recognizing the objective reality of such a messy situation.
    To all those of us who joined together Sunday in sending out waves of support to the team, who celebrated the highs and lamented the lows; who exulted with every pass and reception and bemoaned every miss and misstep: Wasn’t that really something? History. The condensation of the very essence of Philly-on-Chester? One for the books, and the kind of gallant failure that legends and motivation are built upon. Impetuous. Homeric.
    And to all who say they are ready to cut their emotional losses and walk away from the Boys, the coach, the team, the league: You knew what you were getting into. We know the coach’s flaws The team is far from perfect, and so is its ownership. The league lets a flock of Columbidae fowl the nest on a baseball field. The stadium’s in the wrong place – heck, it can’t even handle the concession throughput or the sanitation needs of a capacity crowd. And don’t get me started on the refs.
    But we’re Philly and we’re Union. We’ve been through worse. A lot worse, and most of us are still here. Because we’re Philly and we’re Union. There are good days and bad days ahead. We can take it and I’m sure you can too. Because we’re Philly and WE ARE SO UNION! See you in February.

  8. Join, or die.

  9. I know I’ll say this again later on down the road but I’m really glad to have this site! It’s been a wonderful way to engage with other fans who’s insight and commentary has truly helped me to better understand the beautiful game! My season tickets have gone down a seat since our youngest went to college. My bride and I really have enjoyed the ride this team has taken us on! See you in February!!

  10. Just wanted to comment on this bit “Matt Freese in goal—who, lest we forget, was red carded for a DOGSO the last time he played this team”
    Matt Freese only has one red card in his career and it was against NYRB, not NYCFC.

  11. First comment, and I know I am late to the exchange here, but I was frustrated with Flach. I was watching from the North Stands and it seemed like he was tentative to get outside to challenge any NYCFC possession to the Union’s right side. M’Baizo was covering the upfield NYCFC player and Flach gave the ball carrier too much space to advance before he eventually stepped to pressure.
    I do allow that the Union seemed to be playing a two-thirds or three-quarters press in the game but too many times NYCFC advanced to 25-30 yards from the Union endline before Flach would challenge. Monteiro was barely counter pressing as well. I was happy they managed to hold NYCFC scoreless and without a shot on target in the first half but I was worried that the team was not coordinated in their team defense.

  12. I pointed out to my son the difference in play between Gazdag and Monteiro in possession.
    Without a doubt, Monteiro is silky smooth in possession and he trusts his foot skills to keep the ball. Unfortunately, he seemed to slow down the play every time he touched the ball as he tried to control the ball and the dribble the defenders, no matter how many of them were around. There were a number of opportunities where he ignored passing options and then tried to advance the ball himself. if those dribbles had resulted in scoring opportunities, I wouldn’t complain but they did not.
    While Monteiro would dribble to the outside to try to beat the defense, Gazdag was surgical with his direct passing play. throughout the game Gazdag would backtrack to the ball, turn quickly, and play a ball through the lines forward to Kaczper or another runner. The Union attackers were consistently late to his passes or slow to take a shot when these passes came to them in dangerous spaces. In fact, the Union took too long to shoot throughout the game.
    Both Gazdag and Monteiro were impressive but it seemed like Gazdag’s attempt to use his teammates was closer to what the Union wants to do.

    • You really got see the talents of Gazdag in the Red Bull match after Santos came on and there was someone capable of making a quick and decisive run (we will leave out the obvious inability of Santos to finish off any of those chances). I do think that with a new striker and a full year for Gazdag and his teammates to get on the same page, that the Hungarian will be a very dangerous man in 2022.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: