Unfortunately for the Philadelphia Union, the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs may always have an aura of what could have been? around it.
The Union made their first-ever Eastern Conference Final, and with a few years of playoff and Concacaf Champions League experience under the belt, were primed for this run to the championship match. They had a match against New York City FC, with the winner advancing to their first-ever MLS Cup. NYCFC were without Taty Castellanos, the league's Golden Boot presented by Audi winner, due to a red card suspension. Key starters Anton Tinnerholm and Keaton Parks were also sidelined with long-term injuries.
But then the Union got hit with an outbreak of COVID-19 at the worst possible time, leaving 11 players unavailable for selection, including starting goalkeeper Andre Blake, starting center backs Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, and captain/midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. NYCFC won a hard-fought match, 2-1, before going on to lift MLS Cup in Portland after beating the Timbers in penalty kicks.
Now on Saturday, Philly travel to Yankee Stadium to face NYCFC (1 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada) – this time with a full squad.
“I’m not going to give you guys any bulletin board material or anything like that," Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin told media when asked if there is any notion of revenge. “It’s just two good teams getting together."
Philly started the likes of center back Aurélien Collin – who had played exactly zero MLS minutes in two years – and backup goalkeeper Matt Freese – who at least played a few games while Blake was away on international duty earlier in the season – in last year's Eastern Conference Final.
“NYCFC are the deserved champion, no question," Curtin said. "But they also didn’t get us at our very best. It’s okay for both things to be true, you know what I mean? It’s not unfair or anything, it’s just unique. They’re the deserved champions, but when we played them, we were missing 11 guys. That’s just the reality. But that was last year, that moment is over and gone.”
Blake, Elliott, Glesnes and Bedoya will be available this weekend. But club-record signing Mikael Uhre, acquired this winter as a Designated Player, likely will not be. He was only able to train individually off to the side on Thursday due to recovering from a quad injury that he picked up during the Union's 2-1 victory over CF Montréal in Week 2.
"It'll be tight for the weekend," Curtin admitted when asked about Uhre's status. They will, however, have forward Julian Carranza back from suspension.
Curtin was highly complimentary of NYCFC and is looking forward to the early-season test for the Union, who are off to the best three-game start to a season in club history with seven points so far. Conversely, NYCFC are through to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals.
“NYCFC are a tough opponent, Yankee Stadium is a tough place to play," Curtin said. "They are the defending champs, it’s a really tough early test (for us). They’ve been so impressive with all the travel they have to do. They're one of the best in the league.”