We're just five days away from the start of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs that kicks off on Saturday, November 20, with the Philadelphia Union against New York Red Bulls presented by Independence Blue Cross. Kick off from Subaru Park is set for 2:30 p.m. ET with the match available locally on PHL17 as well as on Univision, TUDN and MLSSoccer.com.
Under the direction of Head Coach Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Ernst Taner, the defense has been a main focal point for the Boys in Blue as they have marched their way up the Eastern Conference over the past three seasons. Coming into the season there were question marks from pundits wondering could the Union's defense match its Supporters' Shield effort while replacing half of the backline following the departures of Mark McKenzie and Ray Gaddis.
Determination, grit and a fearless attitude has seen the Union stay amongst the top defenses in 2021 with 12 shutouts and only 35 goals conceded.
2021 Highlights | Jack and Jakob
It begins in the middle of the backline where you'll spot the Union's Defender of the Year candidates in Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes. In the Union's 40 games across the regular season and Concacaf Champions League, the defense was anchored by the duo in 39 contests. As the Union fully adapted to a high press and counter attacking philosophy both Elliott and Glesnes are sometimes left on an island to snuff out an opposition's counter attack as both the outside backs join into the attack.
Fearless tackling is required on an island with Elliott winning 36 tackles this season and adding an additional 55 interceptions to lead the way. While defense is the main objective for the pair, 2021 saw both add their name to the scoreboard with Elliott scoring for the fifth straight season while Glesnes again had a long-range golazo that continues to bounce back and forth off under the crossbar in Atlanta.
Glesnes was the leading defensive scorer however with Kai Wagner's finesse notching three goals as well in 2021 that made him an MLS All-Star for the first time in his career.
Goal | Wagner's hustle puts the Union ahead
The left back from Geislingen an der Steige, Germany, has left opposing outside backs, wingers and forward frustrated when they attack the left side of the Union since he arrived but Wagner turned it up another gear in 2021. Leading the Union defense with 44 successful tackles and 54 interceptions, Wagner also plays a key role in the offensive philosophy of the Boys in Blue. Counter attacking has been the bread and butter for the Union but when facing a defensive shape both Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo provide the width to stretch out the opposition.
Wagner racked up over 1,200 completed passes for the Union but was decisive in the final third of the pitch accounting for 53 key passes and four assists. On the other side of the pitch, Mbaizo's passing was responsible for the first Union goal of the season as the Union grab an important road goal at Deportivo Saprissa.
GOAL | Przybylko heads home Mbaizo cross
Working behind veteran Ray Gaddis for past three seasons, Mbaizo was handed the keys in preseason and hasn't given them back as his chemistry continues to grow with Alejandro Bedoya on the right side. Completing nearly 79% of his passes, Mbaizo too isn't afraid to have a look on goal either with the Cameroonian nearly notching his first professional goal late in the season against FC Cincinnati. While Wagner had over 200 crosses in the regular season, Mbaizo was the more accurate connection with 25% of his flicks from the wing into the 18-yard-box connecting with a teammate.
As the Union looks for more history in the MLS Cup Playoffs against its biggest rival, it will be a battle of the two strongest defensive sides in the regular season. What 2021 has shown for the Union's defense is not only are they able to keep a zero on the scoreboard, they're playing key roles in adding a DOOP to the Union side as well.