Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 1–0 FC Cincinnati

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

There are a thousand and one ways to look at this game.

It appeared, from many angles, to be quite even. Both teams approach the sport in similar ways. Both play with two forwards and a relatively unconventional shape. They know each other well. One could look at the game and say it was two teams nullifying each other, taking away what the other does best—forcing the attackers away from the things they like to do—and asking a role player to step up. And that would be true. But, taking a step back, the Philadelphia Union’s one-goal win over FC Cincinnati in the MLS Cup conference semifinals was, in fact, a much more comfortable and one-sided game for the home team.

In the end, the Union out-executed Cincinnati, their skill players were able to create much more danger, eventually leading to the winning goal, and the Union’s defense made a single mistake in the whole game. But theirs was the better goalkeeper, who erased said error and any hope Cincy had of getting a result.

First half

The opening stages of the game were, indeed, even.

Neither team wanted to give anything away, so neither team went full-bore in attack. What this meant was that the Union were comfortable, as their forward line is used to playing without the ball and applying defensive pressure. With 11 players defending, Cincy didn’t have much to do. Their danger men, Brenner, Brandon Vazquez, and Lucho Acosta, were all quiet, Acosta forced to drop deep to hunt the ball.

For the Union’s part, even feeling the game out, they nearly took the lead in the 8th minute. Olivier Mbaizo sent in a cross after a Union corner was cleared to him, and Dániel Gazdag had an open header inside the six-yard box. On another day, his attempt finds the back of the net rather than glancing wide, or Julían Carranza calls him off and buries it instead, and the game changes right then.

As it was, the rest of the half was relatively uneventful, with the Union holding Cincy at arm’s length without ever getting fully at them up the other end. If there was a criticism to be made, it was that Jack McGlynn barely featured. The Union never got him the ball in the first period, and their ability to get behind the Cincy defense suffered as a result.


In the second stanza, the Union got Jack on the ball more and he played a key part in creating the goal.

The homegrown combined with Gazdag to get high on the left, putting Dániel on the ball running into the box. Carranza joined in and found Gazdag with the return pass. The Hungarian was swarmed by three defenders, losing possession, but Mikael Uhre was lurking. He snatched the ball and found Flach free. Flach was actually side-on to the goal, but Uhre’s pass set up perfectly on Flach’s let foot such that he could basically just swing and the ball was through. As Flach said after the game, he didn’t have time for thinking, only action.

Flach deserves a lot of praise, not simply for scoring a huge, huge goal, but for his overall performance. He was everywhere, making 17 pressures, five blocks (a game high), and generally ensuring Cincinnati had to play anywhere else on the field than where he was standing to make anything happen.

That he scored a spectacular goal to win a playoff game is just icing on the cake.

A story of three saves

Andre Blake made history before the game was ever played by winning his third MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. He celebrated by making three crucial saves.

The first, in minute 50, prevented Cincy from taking the lead when the game was still even. José Martínez, perhaps too concerned with the danger presented by Acosta, got sucked too far back in defense, allowing Junior Moreno to step forward into the void and hit an uncontested curler from the top of the Union box. Blake, obstructed and wrong-footed, dove and tipped the ball around the post.

The second, in the 71st, also came as the Union backpedaled. A switch from Cincy’s left to right found Acosta, whose quick feet cut across Kai Wagner and opened a shooting lane. His hard left-footed drive forced another dive from Dre, this time to his right, but he got two hands to it and the ball was pushed safely away.

The final save was perhaps the best. After Jack Elliott swung and missed on a clearance in the 83rd, Vazquez was seemingly in. Elliott did well to stay connected to the big striker, but Vazquez had a shoulder in front clear shooting opportunity with just Blake to beat. The moment was too much for the striker as Blake got down again and cleared away the danger.

It was a true superstar performance from the Union’ superstar keeper.

Professional finish

With the game widing toward its conclusion, the Union had a couple of opportunities to solidify the outcome. Substitute Cory Burke nearly brought the house down by dispossessing a Cincinnati defender inside the opposition box, but his curled shot sailed wide.

Perhaps even more impressive, though, was the way Burke and Carranza continued to press through the six minutes of added time, forcing Roman Celentano to kick the ball out of bounds from a goal kick after being forced out of possession. It was but one way the Union saw the game out with calmness and professionalism.

In years past, the Union might have take the ball to the corner, but ended up giving it up instead. Or, rather than playing it safe, might have made an ill-advised attacking pass and had it picked off. It was just earlier this season when the Union seemed allergic to holding a lead, giving up late goals to drop points on more than one occasion.

But not on this day. Not with this team. Something has changed. The Union have grown up. Even without their talismanic captain not in uniform, the Union know how to hold it together. They know how to play with pressure. They know how to protect their house.

And they get to do it again.


  1. Yea.
    I don’t think we looked very good this game.
    In no way should we have to rely on Andre Black and a goal by Leon Flach to win it.
    Sure we ground them down in the end but we should have looked better overall.
    The only real knock I have against Curtin is the Union always seem to come out flat in the playoffs.

    • See, I don’t think they looked flat at all. They beat a very difficult opponent, one that they had not beaten this season, and having Blake is part of the plan. He made good saves, yes, but honestly wasn’t that troubled. We doubled them up on xG. It was tense, but committed and professional. Playoff soccer is hard.

    • I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to the opponent. Cincy has kinda been our kryptonite this season, and with 3 ex-Union players, Noonan coaching, and Albright as GM, it’s easy to see why. I have been more worried about that team than any other in the Eastern Conference.

      That they took care of business as well as they did shows some significant character. Final score probably should’ve been 2-1 (if Blake misses on one of those excellent saves, and Burke puts in that sitter on the doorstep late), but the 1-goal victory was earned.

  2. Probably coulda shoulda scored a few more times. But I’m personally loving that Flach gets the credit he has deserved all season.

  3. Was very impressed with Cincinnati. They came out flying and it was a big challenge for a rusty Union team to weather the storm.

    I thought the defense did a great job, especially under pressure in the second half. While Andre made some solid saves, his only truly amazing one came off Jack’s error. Otherwise everything was very manageable.

    If Gazdag is having his normal game, he scores or assists at least one of those counter-attack chances. Expecting a big return to form on Sunday.

  4. soccerdad720 says:

    certainly not predicting this, but would love to see a multiple goal dismantling of NYCFC, ala DC United.

    It would be amazing to hear the chant “Can we play you every day?” in the Eastern final.

    Just my 2 cents — great year by the Union.

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