MLS Cup Playoffs: Union’s historic season ends in Atlanta, but future still bright

After earning their first playoff victory in franchise history four days earlier, the Philadelphia Union (16-7-11, 55 points, 3rd in East) traveled south to visit Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the defending 2018 MLS Cup Champion Atlanta United FC (18-4-12, 58 points, 2nd in East) for an Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup.

Union head coach Jim Curtin and Atlanta United’s Frank de Boer would start with the following lineups:

(courtesy of @ATLUTD on Twitter) 

In the tenth minute, Atlanta’s Julian Gressel would open the scoring when Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez would play a ball in an open area, sending Gressel forward, and questionable defending forced Union keeper Andre Blake off his line to challenge the shooter at the 18-yard box. Gressel would place the timely chip off the crossbar.

Only a few minutes later, and looking for a quick response, Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson nearly beat Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan for the third time this season. In the build-up to attack, Sergio Santos on the left-wing side would send a well-placed ball into the box, where Aaronson was charging in from the midfield. Despite coming in one-on-one with Guzan, the lack of time to settle the ball forced the youngster into taking a sliding first-touch shot into the body of the veteran USMNT international.

For the remaining minutes of the half, the Union were strong in possession but were unable to capitalize.

Entering the second half trailing on the scoreboard for the second time in four days, one would think Philadelphia had no worries considering their track record of come-from-behind victories this season. The Union led MLS with five wins when trailing after the first half, including the 4-3 extra-time victory in the previous round against New York last Sunday.

Philadelphia’s right-wing maestro, Ilsinho, came on early in the second half, looking to generate creativity in the final third.

However, Atlanta United was not offering Philadelphia much in possession, and with Atlanta continuing to search for a second goal, Blake was forced to make two spectacular saves on Franco Escobar, then again on Atlanta’s Leonardo Gonzalez-Pirez in the 60th minute, keeping the Union in the game.

(courtesy of @PhilaUnion on Twitter)

Another nervy moment came for Philadelphia in the 69th minute, when Atlanta’s Josef Martinez was sent clean through on goal, but Union fullback Ray Gaddis hustled back to get a slight touch to the shot, sending it behind for a corner.

Still down by one, the Union were pushing players further up the pitch, and despite periods of sustained attack, the Atlanta United defense was positionally sound enough to limit Philadelphia’s high-danger chances, despite missing regular components of their back four in Miles Robinson and Michael Parkhurst, due to injury.

Then, in the 80th minute, Josef Martinez, who struggled to find the back of the goal on his earlier opportunities, would finally be the dagger in Philadelphia’s back, putting Atlanta up 2-0 when Gressel sprung the fleet-footed Martinez on the counter-attack, placing his left-footed shot into the upper 90 of Blake’s net.

Atlanta would hold on to advance to the MLS Cup Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto FC.

It wasn’t the ending Philadelphia hoped for, but the task was made harder without their leading goal scorer, Kacper Przybylko, missing again from the lineup due to injury.

Still, a historic season for the 10-year old franchise saw a number of bright spots, including:

  • Best franchise record and most points earned (55 points) – surpassing 2018 season record (50)
  • Highest ever finish in the MLS Standings (5th overall, 3rd in East) – surpassing 2011 season record (8th overall, 3rd in East)
  • Kacper Przybylko’s 15 goals led the Union in scoring, 2nd highest in franchise history for one season – 2nd most behind C.J. Sapong – 16 goals in the 2017 season
  • First-ever playoff victory in franchise history (vs. New York Red Bulls, 4-3 in ET – Sun., October 20th, 2019)

In addition to the franchise accolades, other notable team notes include:

  • Gaddis, center back Jack Elliot, and midfielder Haris Medunjanin all played a single-season team record 34 games this season
  • Homegrown players Aaronson, Anthony Fontana, Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty all received significant minutes this season. The 19-year old Aaronson was a key figure in the Union lineup all throughout the season. Fontana (20 years old) saw increased time as the regular season progressed, and Trusty (21 years old) was a regular starter earlier in the season and McKenzie (20 years old) started the season as a regular with Bethlehem Steel before earning a chance in the starting lineup consistently in the latter stages of the season. McKenzie easily was Philadelphia’s best defender on the pitch in the loss to Atlanta.
  • All four of the aforementioned homegrown players, along with left-back Matt Real, were regular call-ups to the United States international youth squads. Aaronson earned his first call up to the U.S. Men’s National Team earlier this month.

The big questions heading into the off-season for Philadelphia involve some key pieces to their lineup:

  • Jamiro Monteiro, a regular starter in the midfield, and one of the drivers of the offense extended his loan to Philadelphia from FC Metz earlier this season but is still under contract to the French side until 2021. Recent loanees from Europe to Philadelphia haven’t been able to make moves permanent, but considering the team’s success this season, Monteiro is one loanee worth pulling every possible to string to keep.
  • Medunjanin will be 35 in March, and clearly still has the engine to play every game. Ilsinho, the “super-sub,” just turned 34 earlier this month, but his skill and creativity on the ball hasn’t wavered. Will age catch up to either of them next season?
  • Mid-season signing Andrew Wooten arrived with high expectations after a spectacular career in Europe (17 goals in 31 appearances for SV Sandhausen during the most recent 2018-19 2. Bundesliga season), but failed to solidify a starting role in the Union attack, especially considering Przybylko’s impressive output for the Union this season. Will the 30-year old German-American remain in Philadelphia?
  • Designated Player Marco Fabian came to Philadelphia with high expectations, and is still under contract, but spending most of the season as a substitute may not be what the veteran Mexico international wants.
  • Finally, between the sticks, Blake’s status as the longest-serving and record-keeping goalkeeper in franchise history, as well as his international status as Jamaica’s number one, has always come with questions and rumors about whether a move abroad would happen for the soon-to-be 29-year old.

No matter the events of the next few months, with a developing young core of talent, and a recent history of smart spending during the transfer window, there will be a lot to be excited about in Philadelphia going into the 2020 MLS season.

… DOOP!

 

Full Match Highlights (via Atlanta United FC on YouTube)

 

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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