FINAL WHISTLE: Union go head to head with the best in the east

Before Sunday afternoon’s showdown against Red Bulls, Jim Curtin said he wanted his team to show they could hang with the best in the Eastern Conference. They did that, but a VAR-driven penalty handed three points to the visitors and leave the Union needing a win next weekend in Yankee Stadium to lock up a home playoff match.

Control of the match

The Union had it. For most of the first half, Philadelphia was able to work the ball through the Red Bulls’ vaunted press with relative ease. Quick, one- and two-touch play, along with confident dribbles by Mark McKenzie, Auston Trusty, Ray Gaddis, and Ale Bedoya meant Philly could work through the first wave of New York’s press and take time to pick their heads up.

A big key was Medunjanin’s first half positioning, which made it impossible for the Red Bulls to create equal numbers in their front pressure. Philly dropped Medunjanin into deeper positions across the back line and pushed fullbacks beyond the Red Bulls wingers, allowing them simple passes to spread the pitch and avoid getting pinned into one area by the suffocating athleticism of the visitors. As time wore on, New York created a few turnovers in the Union half. But, notably, the Red Bulls only had two recoveries in Philly’s half between the 16th and 45th minutes.

Physical forces

Cory Burke against the Red Bulls center backs; Bradley Wright-Phillips against Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie; and Fafa Picault against Michael Murillo. With a rough pitch making play stilted and a ground game difficult, the match involved a lot of aerial challenges and fights for bouncing balls. Burke both got the better of and was well-handled by New York’s excellent defenders, and it was fun to see how both sides adjusted to the difficult playing conditions as the match progressed.

Early on, Red Bulls were satisfied with booting the ball long and competing for second balls in the center, but as the Union managed to turn some of those loose balls into quick combinations that set the in down the channels, New York became more careful about how and where they played long.

Philly increasingly turned to the CJ Sapong-vs-Connor Lade matchup in the air, though Red Bulls did well to surround Lade with bodies so Sapong had to cleanly win the ball to control play for his team.

At the end of the first half, Kaku was naughty and tried to fall heavily on Bedoya on the ground. Unlike later, when he would deem a play he had clearly seen live a handball on replay, Ted Unkel was unmoved when he reviewed Kaku’s fall.

The song remains the same

This was a hard loss to swallow since the Union showed the could match up well with a team assumed to be their superior. Much like the loss in Atlanta earlier this season, it took a wonky turn of events to truly put the game into the opponent’s control even though the Union looked very able to compete.

Still, Philly’s goal for these last two matches of the season was to secure a home playoff match and they can still do so on the final weekend of the MLS regular season. By defeating New York City FC in Yankee Stadium, the Union will end up in third place in the Eastern Conference. Alternatively, even if they fail to secure three points next weekend, Philly can lock in fourth place as long as they end up equal on points with DC United and/or Columbus Crew.

The Union face New York City FC at 4:30PM ET next weekend in Yankee Stadium.   

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