The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs continue on Sunday, December 5th with the Eastern Conference Finals as Philadelphia Union hosts New York City FC presented by Independence Blue Cross. Kick off from Subaru Park is set for 3 p.m. ET with the match broadcast on ABC and ESPN Deportes.
The Union are in their first Eastern Conference Final after going the distance in each of their first two postseason matches. The Boys in Blue earned the No. 2 seed after a 2021 season that saw the club finish 14-8-12 in the regular season to claim a home field advantage in the first two contests of the playoffs and it paid off in both rounds. In Round One the Union advanced after a thrilling 1-0 extra time victory over rivals New York Red Bulls courtesy of the latest goal in MLS history scored by Jakob Glesnes in the 123rd minute. The Union secured their spot in the Conference Final with a gritty comeback against Nashville SC via a Daniel Gazdag first-half stoppage time goal and then penalty shootout heroics from Andre Blake who made a pair of saves to add another chapter the his Union legacy.
New York City FC comes to Subaru Park after knocking off the 2021 Supporters' Shield Winners, New England Revolution, in a penalty shootout on Tuesday night. Santiago Rodriguez opened the scoring just three minutes into the contest but the Revs answered back just six minutes later. In extra time it MLS Golden Boot Winner Valentin Castellanos giving NYCFC the lead in the 109th minute before being sent off with a second yellow. The extra man advantage proved crucial for New England as Tajon Buchanan smashed home a far post cross in the 118th. In the shootout, NYCFC kept their calm with a 5-3 result that saw goalkeeper Sean Johnson make a key save in the second round to advance.
Physical midfield play has been the name of the game in the three regular season matches with all three games seeing one side down a man at the final whistle. The first battle took place at Subaru Park in May with the Union fully focused on their participation in the Concacaf Champions League with a trio of starters getting the night off. NYCFC came out of the gates hot and scored an early goal from Jesus Medina and then the Union found itself down a man after Jose Martinez's challenge on Valentin Castellanos was changed from a yellow to red upon a VAR check. Andre Blake was strong between the sticks, making five saves in the 2-0 loss.
The two sides then faced off against at Subaru Park in August with team captain Alejandro Bedoya picking the perfect time for his first goal of 2021 as his smashing finish from a Kai Wagner cross saw the Union pick up an important 1-0 win.The opening half lived up to the billing as the sides generated just one shot on target each in the first 45 minutes. The visitors nearly got the opening goal in the eighth minute when Valentín Castellanos grabbed a pass from Santiago Rodriguez and sent a shot crashing off the post and back into play. Ultimately the play was whistled offsides but goalkeeper Andre Blake still sent a message to his defense to tighten up the marking.
The final regular season clash took place on Decision Day with Yankee Stadium serving as the ground where the Union would secure the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Tempers were high for the home side as NYCFC looked to prove they could hang with one of the top clubs in the Eastern Conference. A Decision Day matchup in Yankee Stadium’s unique soccer conditions didn’t help with the tension in the opening minutes as Jose Martinez and Valentín Castellanos renewed their on-field rivalry. The Golden Boot leader went in with every stud showing but Martinez was able to leap out of the way.
As the teams adjusted to each other, NYCFC’s aggression crossed the line when Gedion Zelalem took out Leon Flach just outside the 18-yard box. After initially showing a yellow card, the referee was asked to take look at the play once more and after consulting his VAR monitor, he sent off the NYCFC midfielder.
The Union took advantage of their extra man in the first half with Olivier Mbaizo raced up the right flank and sent a rocket across the NYC goal that looked destined for Kacper Przybylko’s foot. After it skipped to the back post, Flach chased it down and sent a quick pass to Przybylko, now wide open, for a tap in and a 1-0 lead.
In the second half, the Union took their foot off the gas and paid an early price. After a half-clearance fell to Maxi Moralez on the right flank, the playmaker skimmed a cross to the far post where Castellanos flew highest to knock it back across the goalmouth and in.
The goal breathed life into the home side and they strode forward with purpose after winning the ball back. The Union sought to regroup and take back control of the center in transition. In the 57th minute, Bedoya’s interior support and workrate saw him break up a play then whirl out to the flank and start a break upfield. A cutback to Monteiro led to a whispered pass through to Przybylko in the box but Johnson flew out to cover.
In the 60th, Jesus Medina had a chance to threaten Blake inside the box but the Jamaican star was far too quick to be beaten. Jim Curtin turned to his homegrowns to spark his side toward victory. Paxten Aaronson and Jack McGlynn came into the crowded conditions and began poking around the top of NYC’s box. Short on legs, NYC resorted to shooting from outside the box and Blake was untroubled. In the final moments of regulation, substitute Cory Burke went up for a header and found the ball at his feet with enough time to poke it through the lines to Monteiro. Spinning to get the ball on frame, the attacker could only put a dribbler on Johnson’s net.