MLS Recap: Union Claim Top Spot in the East with Commanding 2-0 win

Following their 1-1 away draw at Vancouver on the weekend, the Philadelphia Union came into their mid-week match having moved up from fourth place in the Eastern Conference to third on 14 points, with a chance to claim first place in the East with three points against FC Cincinnati.

Union players celebrate after Fafa Picault scores his first of the season.
Photo courtesy of: DJ Reider,

Cincinnati were without left back Greg Garza (calf), midfielder Corben Bone (shoulder), forward Fanendo Adi (leg) and winger Kenny Saief (ankle) — all left out of the eighteen. With the visitors coming into the mid-week matchup winless since losing their first match against Philadelphia in late March, and goal-less in their last three matches, Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch made a season-high six changes from his previous lineup.


The Union entered the game with issues of their own due to injuries and suspension and dealt with an early scare just after nine minutes when rookie goalkeeper Matt Freese sprawled out to make a save at his near post, over-extending and appearing to injure his left abdomen. Despite battling through the injury, and seeing little threat the rest of the half, Freese was noticeably in constant pain, eventually coming out in the 41st minute and heading straight to the dressing room.

Kacper Przybylko opened the scoring in the 70th minute.
Photo courtesy of: DJ Reider,

Sporting their heavily adjusted lineup, FC Cincinnati was out of sync and simply outclassed on the day, relying on Union turnovers and their own counter-attack to generate any offense in the first half, with their best chance coming on the aforementioned play in which Freese was injured.


Despite the 0-0 scoreline after the first 45 minutes were complete, Philly was not without their own chances. In the opening 20 minutes, striker Kacper Przybylko came close on two successive chances in the box (see below: courtesy of @PhilaUnion Twitter).

At the end of the first half, things started to get a bit heated between the two sides, with Cincinnati defender and captain, Kendall Waston getting physical with Przybylko in the midfield. Waston’s play throughout the game was his normal physical self, and the veteran’s presence certainly helped his team stay in this one as long as they could. Still, the home side ended the half with 63% possession and looking more a threat to open the scoring.


Philadelphia continued to pile on the pressure after the break, with early chances from 18-year old Brenden Aaronson, and a long-range attempt from Przybylko that was tipped over the bar in the opening minutes of the half. Then, in the 54th minute, the Union had a goal called back when forward Fafa Picault put the ball in from in-close, but was clearly offside on the play. Picault would have another in-close chance in the 60th minute saved, after a terrific curling shot from the top of the 18-yard box by midfielder Jamiro Monteiro was stopped, but this one would not have counted anyway, with Picault in an offside position again.


Still, there was not much to worry about, with Philadelphia continuing to control the tempo and pace of the second half. In the 63rd minute, with Monteiro dictating play, a well-played ball lofted into the box from right back Olivier Mbaizo found Przybylko for a wide-open header to open the scoring.


A few moments later, Union head coach Jim Curtin would substitute off Aaronson for the veteran Ilsinho, who would make an immediate impact, sending a well-played through ball into the box to help Picault open his account on the season with a strike from inside the 18-yard box (seen below – from @PhilaUnion Twitter); his first goal in 10 appearances this season. The celebration for Picault wouldn’t last long, as he was substituted off in the 74th minute for David Accam, after appearing to pull up with a leg injury.

The final 15 minutes of this one saw Cincinnati finally begin to pose a threat in the second half with a couple of quality chances in the final four minutes plus stoppage time. With a two-goal lead, the Union sat back to defend and counter, closing out the game comfortably.


The win puts Philadelphia (5-2-3, 17 points, +5) into first place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of D.C. United (+3) and Montreal (-2) on goal differential. FC Cincinnati (2-2-6, 8 points, -8) drop to 11th in the East, only ahead of New England (-9) on goal differential, and now four consecutive games without a goal and still winless since a 2-0 victory over New England on March 24th.


After the game, Curtin praised his team’s effort and squad depth, especially after the injury to Freese.


“That’s kind of been the story of our season. I think we’ve used now 25-26 players in the squad, and we haven’t just used them. They’ve contributed. I’m happy with them, proud of them and our training staff, and all the work that they’ve done,” Curtin said.


With attacking options aplenty, and the Mexican international Marco Fabian looking to return from injury this weekend, Curtin will certainly have choices to make moving forward. Przybylko and Monteiro are two players who have stood out the last few games, making the most of their opportunities in the lineup.


“[Przybylko has] been excellent. You can argue who was the man of the match for us, was it Jamiro [Monteiro]? Was it Kacper? I thought both of them were exceptional for us tonight. I thought Kacper, his movement in the box, ability to hold up the ball, [with Cincinnati defender] Waston hanging on you the entire night. It’s not an easy task,” Curtin said.


About being in first-place, Curtin made a point to say, “No one really remembers who is in first place in May. It’s nice to be in a good spot in the table, but I’m focused on, and the team is focused on, our games that we have coming up at home. Tonight was a big step in that, but you certainly don’t celebrate being at the top of the table in May.”


He later added, “I love this group. I think they’ve shown their potential. I think they’ve showed they can play with any team. I still think it’s to be determined [how good this team is]. There’s too much of the season left to make predictions and tell you exactly what I think of the group. Usually after ten games you have a pretty good feel for what you got. We certainly have a team that is going to be in every game the rest of the way.”


(See more from Jim Curtin’s post-match press conference below)


Final Thoughts:

  • Brenden Aaronson, a local Medford, New Jersey native and homegrown player, is clearly getting more and more comfortable game-by-game. His creativity and confidence is evident every time he touches the ball, and it would not be surprising if he translates this confidence into contributions on the scoresheet soon. In 66 minutes of action tonight, Aaronson completed (final stats).
  • The striker experiment continues for Fafa Picault. Picault saw plenty of chances in this one, and finally buried his first of the season in the 70th minute to give the Union a 2-0 lead. If there was one game where he needed a goal to find his mojo, this was it. Cincinnati’s struggles and heavy lineup changes made the possession numbers in this matchup easy to predict in Philadelphia’s favor, and the speedy winger-turned-striker made the most of it after looking out of position for parts of this game. There were chances in the game where you could see a more experienced striker putting away some of Picault’s chances, with the second-year Union attacker reacting to balls at his feet in the box as opposed to anticipating and setting himself up better positionally. Still, Picault’s versatility as a forward gives Curtin options going forward.
  • Midfielder Jamiro Monteiro continues to look strong on the left wing and despite no contributions on the scoresheet, was arguably Philadelphia’s best creator on the field.
  • Depending on the severity of Matt Freese’s injury, the Union can expect tonight’s replacement, Carlos Miguel Coronel, to make the start in at least this weekend’s match against New England Revolution until either Freese or Andre Blake can return healthy.
  • Marco Fabian has been training this week, and could make his return to the lineup this weekend.


The Union will host New England Revolution to cap off the third and final game of this eight-day stretch this Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium. Kickoff at 7:30pm EST.


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