For the second consecutive playoff match, Philadelphia Union went beyond the full 90 minutes to lock up a playoff win. Andre Blake was the hero as he stoned the first two penalties from visiting Nashville SC and allowed his teammates to do the rest in a thrilling penalty shootout win.
With Jamiro Monteiro available, Jim Curitn returned his primary playmaker to the lineup against a visitor that has proven immensely difficult to break down this year.
Early in the match, Philly played through Monteiro and sought to open the scoring before Nashville SC could organize their defense. The sides traded blows, but the Union controlled the match before Alvas Powell and Randall Leal exchanged long, looping efforts.
Next, it was Kacper Przybylko’s turn to look for a gap through traffic, but the striker ballooned his effort searching for a clean route through.
The visitors’ main source of attack, Hany Mukhtar, exploded into the right channel and looked to have a step on Jakob Glesnes before the Norwegian defender put on the afterburners, slid in, and deflected an angled effort.
The two sides fell into a rhythm that fit them both: The Union looked to create enough chaos to disrupt Nashville’s defensive lines while Mukhtar and former Union striker CJ Sapong led raiding parties into the Union end.
Mukhtar put Nashville ahead in the 38th minute when he strode into the box to nod home a cross from Eric Miller.
Philly was unbowed.
In extra time of the first half, the Union’s persistence paid off. Monteiro’s corner from the right bounced to Daniel Gazdag near the back post. His first shot was blocked, but the Hungarian attacker charged to the loose ball and acrobatically nudged it past Joe Willis and into Nashville’s goal.
After halftime, Philly again controlled play as Nashville stayed deep and protected the center with as many bodies as they could muster.
After Andre Blake scooped up a soft effort by Dax McCarty, Curtin was forced into his first change of the match with Leon Flach exiting due to an injury.
Curtin didn’t hesitate to flip the script and added Sergio Santos up front to drop the Nashville line, almost inconceivably, even deeper.
Gazdag moved to the tip of a midfield diamond with Monteiro drifting left.
The move was a calculated risk for the Union, but early returns were positive as Santos created space for others with his deep runs.
In the 62nd minute, Santos found himself through after a wonderful look from Gazdag. On the left side of the box, Santos was caught between two minds and lipped the ball around Joe Willis but into empty space.
Next, Alejandro Bedoya, who had put in a stunning shift up the right, found Monteiro alone at the far post but once again the visitors rotated to cut out the centering pass.
With the 70th minute approaching, the tactical ideas of both managers truly showed through. Manic chaos consumed Nashville’s box as the defense scrambled to put out fires. Counterattacks ran through Mukhtar, but more and more often the visitors settled for early crosses behind the back line rather than directly attacking Philly’s back four.
Late in the match, Gazdag looked to have the winner after Willis backed into a leaping Santos during a corner kick, but a foul call by Allan Chapman meant the match continued at 1-1 and looked destined for extra time.
In the final moments of regulation, Jose Martinez hunted down Mukhtar at the top of the box and had to briefly exit the match.
Deep into added time, Monteiro fired a cross in that got deflected to toward Santos at the back post but the striker could only deflect the ball wide under immense pressure.
Sapong left the match at the start of the first extra time period as Jhonder Cadiz came in up top, but little else changed between the two sides. Philly pushed, Nashville resisted. When the second extra time period began, however, Jim Curtin was fearless with his moves. Teenager Jack McGlynn and striker Cory Burke came on for Monteiro and Przybylko as the Union head coach bet on his bench to produce difference-makers.
After Santos drilled a low shot at Willis’ feet, Cadzi replied by rolling a shot past Blake’s far post with the Union goalie at full stretch.
The match went to penalties, and Andre Blake took center stage. If Nashville hadn’t shown their fear of Blake in regulation time, it came through clearly on the spot kicks. Mukhtar and Godoy were denied by two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year while Jack Elliott scored for the Union. Sergio Santos was denied by Joe Willis before Alex Muyl skied his effort.
Teenager Jack McGlynn stepped up and ruthlessly put the win within reach.
Then Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman flinched and put his shot far from goal.
Blake had proven unbeatable in the shootout and secured a first-ever spot in the MLS Eastern Conference Finals for the Philadelphia Union.
The victory means the Union now face the winner of Tuesday evening’s match between New England Revolution and NYCFC. If New England wins, Philly will travel to Gillette Stadium for an Eastern Conference Final showdown pitting the 2020 and 2021 Supporters’ Shield winners against each other.
However, if NYCFC is victorious, the Union will host the Eastern Conference final at Subaru Park on December 4th or 5th.