CHESTER, Pa. – Andre Blake set the beat that Subaru Park sang to. Literally, in fact.
After the Philadelphia Union’s 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Semifinals Thursday evening, Blake manned the big ol’ bass drum at midfield. The orchestrator for the raucous crowd to cap the night with a few more cheers.
Blake set the beat during the game, too.
Fresh off winning his third Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award this week, becoming the first in league history to do so, the shot-stopper was the star of the show with five saves, including a few finger-tip deflections to preserve his clean sheet.
“We’re fortunate to have [Blake]. ... It was a great game from him, he keeps you in it when you need it most,” Union head coach Jim Curtin told the media after the match. “Any playoff run, you need big saves from your goalkeeper.”
The Union defense led the way against a Cincy team that scored 64 goals in the regular season and boasts one of the most fearsome attacking trios in the league. Thanks to Blake and that group – including Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes – the Union, the East’s top seed, are advancing.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best defensive team in the league keeps a clean sheet in the playoffs,” Curtin said. “The lost art of defending, I’m still a believer. That’s what wins championships.”
An unexpected goal-scorer
Philadelphia have preached a team-first ethos all season long. Thursday evening was yet another prime example of that, with an unlikely player scoring the game’s only goal.
Industrious midfielder Leon Flach, who had scored just one goal in 5,400 regular-season minutes, stepped up with a clean finish in the 59th minute to give the Union the lead. It was all they needed.
“The feeling [of scoring] is a little bit unusual, maybe,” Flach said with a smile. “I was not thinking much, which helped a lot. I just tried to hit the ball and saw it flying in the right direction.”
Flach joined the club from Germany's FC St. Pauli in 2021 for a nominal transfer fee. The American-born midfielder is yet another example of the Union finding undervalued talent who fit their system. The 21-year-old has appeared in every single Union MLS game since he was signed, starting all but four of the 68.
“Leon does so much that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet for this club, this team,” Curtin said. “Maybe because he’s so mature and intelligent, people think he’s a 28-year-old, but he’s young. He does so much work – ok, I said the nice things, now I’ll say the other things. When we do shooting exercises, Leon doesn’t love the shooting part of things. For him to score the goal he did, it was incredible.
“Maybe the one God I believe in is the soccer God,” Curtin quipped.
Survive and advance
With the stadium erupting and stands shaking as Flach’s shot rippled the net in front of the Delaware River, Flach sprinted from the 18-yard box straight to the sideline, where he jumped into Curtin’s arms. All 11 players on the pitch followed, as did the bench.
The celebration felt symbolic, with the group all in, all together. They all defended together for the rest of the match to see out the result.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” Curtin said. “The name of the game is surviving and advancing.”
Now, the Union head into their second Eastern Conference Final in as many years against either New York City FC or CF Montréal, who meet in the other Eastern Conference Semifinal Sunday (1 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN3 in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada). Again it will be at home, in front of their fans. They’re banking on some better luck this time around.
The Union dealt with a rash of players placed in health and safety protocols last year in the days leading up to the game. Eleven players were unavailable, including Blake, Glesnes, Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott, Alejandro Bedoya and more. They fought and gave NYCFC all they could handle, but lost 2-1 and went home thinking about what could have been.
Nothing is guaranteed in this sport. They’re happy to be back a year later with another chance.
“I look forward, I’m excited,” Blake said. “We get another shot. It’s not very often you go to the Conference Final two years in a row... The guys are hungry, the guys are motivated. Hopefully this time around we’ll have everybody and give it our best shot.”
Bedoya, who missed Thursday’s win with a hip injury, should be back to play a part, too.
“I’ll just say this: I don’t think he’ll miss it," Curtin said. "That’s the best way I can put it."