National Writer: Charles Boehm

Three Takeaways from Philadelphia's playoff win over RBNY

Subaru Park played host to a chilly afternoon of intense, percussive, hectic, bruising, scruffy and dramatic Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs soccer on Saturday, and it ended with the latest goal in league history:

Note that I did not select the words “attractive” or “aesthetically pleasing” on this occasion.

But it’s all about surviving and advancing at this time of year, and thanks to Jakob Glesnes, that’s what the Philadelphia Union did with a 1-0 extra-time win over the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference's first Round One game.

High-press inception

Let’s not beat about the bush: Jogo bonito, this wasn’t.

These two teams gave us a 4-3 barnburner at the same venue when they met back in the 2019 playoffs, and in retrospect maybe that was a black-swan situation considering the extent of overlap between these two clubs’ core concepts and identities. Because Saturday was a monster-truck rally that, unfortunately for the neutrals, rarely got its fireworks pushed out of midfield and in front of goal.

With the two high presses pressing one another right into oblivion, unwilling to take the risks that both systems are designed to punish, the first half was particularly grinding:

Philly head coach Jim Curtin was honest and mostly unrepentant afterward.

“I think you saw from the opening whistle two teams that kind of canceled each other out. The game was ugly,” he said. “The surface is a little bumpy, so it was tough to really put together and string together passes. So you saw a lot of turnovers, mistakes, second balls, fighting, head balls, clearances, collisions, yellow cards, it was chaos. Definitely set soccer back probably 10 years in terms of if you broke down the actual style of play.

“But the real thing, the most important thing, is no one will remember that, because we came away with the victory.”

While the Union slowly hauled themselves into the ascendancy and started creating clearer chances – chances they missed, mind you – the fact that things played out this way, and weren’t settled until the 123rd minute, is a compliment to RBNY.

The OG energy-drink soccer purveyors retain the impressive ability to goad almost everyone in MLS into fighting on their terms, and coach Gerhard Struber is probably right to say they’ll be a tougher proposition in 2022:

He only scores bangers

A couple of seasons ago Minnesota United distributed T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Bangers Only” to promote Hassani Dotson’s Rookie of the Year (now Young Player of the Year) candidacy.

It’s probably time to print another batch in Union colors, because Glesnes and his habit of a stunning long-distance blast once a year or so has now entered cult-hero territory.

The Norwegian has been sturdy at center back all season and as his attacking teammates spurned one glorious scoring chance after another, he found himself in a mood – “I was just thinking from the start, OK, I just have to end this,” he said postgame – to stave off the roulette of the penalty-kick shootout as a half-cleared ball dropped to him in the dying seconds.

“It's a moment I'll remember for the rest of my coaching life, that's for sure, one that was pretty surreal,” said Curtin, who sprinted down the touchline to join his players in celebration in front of the Sons of Ben supporters group.

“When you really go back and look at it, how he waited for the ball to drop – so many people would swing early on that, and it's basically landing in the river. But he had the patience to let it drop, to hit it in a way that it tails away from Carlos \[Coronel, a former Union player], who was excellent on the night.”

The Philly recipe

This game was a showcase of everything that Philadelphia have built over the past half-decade or so, starting with their selfless, collectivist approach to style, tactics and mentality. And with a large, loud crowd braving blustery late-fall conditions, it also showed how their fanbase has come to embrace it, and join them on the journey.

The main doubt, expressed here and elsewhere repeatedly, is whether they have the difference-makers to change games, and win them, in the one-off setting of the postseason – particularly in attack. Who can be their Raul Ruidiaz, their Lucas Zelarayan in the clutch?

Saturday provided proof of the validity of those concerns. Kacper Pryzbylko, a leading candidate to fulfill the aforementioned responsibility, was particularly luckless and frustrated in front of goal. Another, Jamiro Monteiro, was listed as out due to Major League Soccer’s health and safety protocols – which is usually related to COVID-19 exposure – just before the match after returning from international duty with Cape Verde.

But if they can keep limiting opponents’ chances at this high level, perhaps Glesnes will prove the first in a revolving cast of heroes. Because this group as a whole is fearsome.

“It was a gutsy performance, and we knew the game wasn't going to be a pretty one, an easy one,” said goalkeeper Andre Blake, whose continued excellence is integral to the Union’s ambitions. “But the guys were ready and I'm very proud of the guys tonight. We stuck to the task. We fight, we scrap and we came out on top, so I'm very happy for that. And Jakob, what a moment, what a player, what a guy. I'm just happy for him and I'm just happy for the team and we're looking forward to enjoying this win, and keep going.”

The aesthetics of this match didn’t exactly seduce casual viewers, but that’s not really Philly’s problem. In fact, it’s becoming apparent that Curtin, a native son, relishes his team’s rugged, obstinate, defense-first personality and the difficulties it poses to the opposition. They’re on home turf again in the next round, and rest assured, they’ll be a tough out.

“We had three point-blank, really good looks, and we thought maybe it would be one of those days where the ball doesn't go in for us. But overall through the 120 minutes, I think we deserved what we got, which is to survive and advance, move on to the next one,” said Curtin.

“With the center backs that we have and Andre Blake in goal, we're going to be annoying for the rest of the league for a long time.”