2019 MLS Playoffs: Union shock Red Bulls with extra time thriller

CHESTER, PA - OCTOBER 20: Union Forward Sergio Santos (17) celebrates with Union Forward Fafa Picault (9) after a goal in the second half during the MLS Playoff game between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union on October 20, 2019 at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After a disappointing slip from first in the Eastern Conference to third-place entering the MLS Cup Playoffs, the Philadelphia Union (16-11-7, 55 points, 3rd in East) looked forward to putting the last month of the season behind them, entering the organization’s first home playoff matchup since 2011 against their conference rival New York Red Bulls (14-14-6, 48 points, 6th in East), and seeking the club’s first ever playoff victory.

Here’s how the teams lined up to start the matchup, with the host Union deploying a 4-4-2 formation, and the visiting Red Bulls starting with a 4-2-3-1:

(courtesy of @PhilaUnion on Twitter)

(courtesy of @NewYorkRedBulls on Twitter)

The Union started Sergio Santos and Andrew Wooten at the top of a 4-4-2 formation, with the team’s regular season goal-scoring leader, Kacper Prbybylko, missing from the 18 due to a metatarsal injury suffered in the final regular season game. However, the return of captain Alejandro Bedoya in the midfield was a welcome sight after missing the regular season finale due to a strained quad.

It would be New York’s English loanee Josh Sims in the sixth minute who would open the scoring with a strike from just outside the 18-yard box, beating Union goalkeeper Andre Blake to his lower left side.

Not long after, in the 14th minute, Philadelphia would earn two chances from corners, only to be denied by solid defending within the 18 from the New York backline. The match was physical from the opening kick, with a healthy amount of clutching and grabbing from both sides.

The Red Bulls would make it 2-0 in the 24th minute off their own chance from the corner, when Blake would mis-time the ball in from the corner spot, and the ball would eventually be headed in by center back Tim Parker.

Before the Red Bulls could barely finish celebrating, a ball into the Union box would result in Blake and Sims colliding, angering the home faithful, but leaving Sims the worse for wear, as he would be subbed off for Alex Muyl in the 29th. The lull in action would give Philadelphia’s players and coaches a chance to regroup.

When play resumed, Philadelphia used a set piece to quickly strike back and bring the home crowd to their feet. Haris Medunjanin’s lofted free kick into the box would sail past his intended target and a few defenders, allowing Bedoya to pick up the loose ball on the right side of goal before beating the veteran New York goalkeeper, Luis Robles, to the opposite side.

Emotions were running high throughout the stadium, and a shout for handball in the box in the 45th minute off a diving block by Parker on a Brenden Aaronson chance would not ease the frustration. Play would resume with no VAR review, much to Philadelphia’s dismay. The block would be one of a sequence of blocked shots by the Red Bulls.

(courtesy of @NewYorkRedBulls on Twitter)

Before the half could end, New York would take advantage of a mis-timed punch out by Blake and a missed assignment in the Union backline, leading to a wide open opportunity for striker Tom Barlow, who would put the visitors up 3-1 in the closing moments of the half. At the end of 45 minutes, Philadelphia only managed two shots on target on 10 total attempts, while New York’s three goals came on four shots on target out of eight total attempts.

For the two teams, memories of the mid-season clash here at Talen Energy Stadium would have been fresh in mind. Back in June, the Red Bulls led the Union 2-0 at the end of the first half, but the hosts fought back to claim a 3-2 victory thanks to an incredible off-the-bench performance by Ilsinho. New York certainly would not want to repeat that performance on this day, while Philadelphia would need to start strong in the second frame for any chance at deja vu.

“That was the first line out of my mouth at halftime. We’ve been here before against this team, but it’s not easy and whoever scores the next goal in this game, the momentum is going to swing in their direction,” head coach Jim Curtin said during the post-game press conference.

The Union would indeed start the second 45 minutes off on the right foot. In the 52nd minute, center back Jack Elliot would knock home the rebound, bringing the home team within one on the scoreboard again.

Ten minutes later, Ilsinho, would come on for Wooten, adding fresh legs and creativity to the Union attack. The “super-sub” would make an impact from the moment he stepped onto the pitch, forcing Red Bull defenders back with his skill on the ball, and opening up space for his teammates on the field.

Physical play would dominate the early moments of the second half, and a strong clearance by Elliot would result in what looked like a serious knee injury for New York midfielder Kaku, who had to be subbed off for Sean Davis.

The Union would make their second substitution in the 72nd minute, taking homegrown player Brenden Aaronson off the field for striker Fafa Picault. Seven minutes later, Picault would make his presence known, bringing the Union level on a header crossed in by Santos from the right side of the box.

(courtesy of @PhilaUnion on Twitter)

With the score tied 3-3, the second half would end nervously for New York, who were forced to fend off a number of Union corners in the waning moments of the 90. As it did in June, the second half belonged to Philadelphia again, but extra time was necessary.

The Union would not let up in the extra time periods, showing the same attacking mentality and momentum when play continued as they showed throughout the entire second half. Then, in the 105th minute, another Union substitute would pay off, as the Mexican international and designated player, Marco Fabian, would attempt a cross from the left side of the attacking goal, but a slight deflection off a defender would send the ball into the upper 90 of the New York goal.

(courtesy of @PhilaUnion on Twitter)

Fabian’s goal would stand to be the most important goal in Philadelphia’s franchise history, as the final minutes would tick away, and despite a fifth Union goal getting called back for offsides, Philadelphia would indeed complete the comeback earn it’s first ever playoff victory with a 4-3 final scoreline.

“It means a lot for everybody. We talked about it, [being in a] situation where we could cement ourselves in Union history getting the first playoff win,” Bedoya said post-game.

“We can enjoy it tonight. Have a nice bottle of wine… well, not a bottle. A glass or two. [Then] it’s on to Atlanta,” the 32-year old captain continued.

With the victory, Philadelphia shifts focus to the trip south to Audi Field for their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup with Atlanta United (18-12-4, 58 points, 2nd in East).

The two teams met twice during the regular season. In the early weeks, at Audi Field, the points were shared in a 1-1 draw. Philadelphia then hosted Atlanta United on August 31st, winning the second meeting between the two sides 3-1. The win was Philadelphia’s first franchise win against Atlanta, who have a 3-1-2 record all-time against the Union, and have yet to lose to Philadelphia at home.

“Are we playing with the house’s money a little bit now? We are. Going to Atlanta in front of 60,000 is a difficult task. It suits us a little bit,” Curtin remarked.

“Now we’re back in the role we like:  the underdog.”

The Philadelphia Union will continue their MLS Cup Playoffs against Atlanta United this Thursday night at 8:00 pm EST.

Ed Palumbo
About Ed Palumbo 14 Articles
Ed is a 2010 graduate of Temple University with a degree in Sport and Recreation Management. A New Yorker at heart, he now resides in Philadelphia and supports the NY Giants, NY Mets, NJ Devils, West Ham United, and the Philadelphia Union. A former hockey coach and amateur scout, Ed is also the founder of the Prospective Hockey Central mobile app, connecting scouts and players in the recruiting process.

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