After 120 minutes in Sunday's first Eastern Conference Semifinal of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, it took a penalty shootout and a huge performance from Andre Blake to separate the Philadelphia Union and Nashville SC.
Here are three takeaways from the dramatic encounter.
When it comes to playoff soccer, we all know the game comes down to big players making big plays when it counts. Our minds usually go to the DP attacking mid or the fox-in-the-box goalscorer, but on Sunday in Pennsylvania, arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS made the biggest plays to send his side to the Eastern Conference Final.
His two saves to start the shootout set the stage for Nashville to ultimately fail to score with any of their four kicks, allowing the Union to advance.
I don’t think anyone can truly question the talent or overall consistency of Blake. Questions have been raised over one or two untimely errors he’s made in the past, but in this game, when it most counted, he reminded us when a play needs to be made and his number is called, he usually responds. There are some top 'keepers in MLS and any attempt at a top-five list would just lead to an endless debate on Twitter. But I think it’s safe to say for the past couple of seasons, most of us would have had Blake in our top five. Jim Curtin even believes this may be the best Blake has ever played in his career.
"He's become Goalkeeper of the Year – I think he's actually had a better year this year than even last, but sometimes the way things shake out, people sometimes overlook it when you're that good," Curtin said afterward. "He did an amazing job tonight. I'm proud to have him wear the Philadelphia Union shirt. I hope he wears it for the rest of his career. But he's a special person, a winner and, again, I didn't watch any of the PKs, but they told me he made two really good saves and two missed the target."
If New England dispatch NYCFC, as expected, in the other Eastern Conference Semifinal on Tuesday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes) and set up a date with the Union, there’s no doubt Blake would be needed again, and perhaps in an even bigger way. But I think I speak for everyone associated with the Union when I say no one would love for that to be the case more than Blake. He’d fancy himself to come up big once again when needed.
After losing two of their best players last offseason in US men's national team regulars Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, we would have understood if the Philadelphia Union remained stagnant, or took a slight step back in 2021. That isn’t quite how it's played out.
Although they’d have loved to truly challenge New England for the East's No. 1 seed, no matter what happens this postseason, the Union can look back on the 2021 season and call it a success.
"We lost two Best XI players this offseason, which is always difficult," Curtin said. "We lost Ray Gaddis, we lost a lot of key pieces to this franchise. But guys have seamlessly stepped in and done a job for us. This is the furthest we've ever been, it's a huge accomplishment for us.
"You could see the smiles and the happiness [with] the fans as you walked around the stadium with the players and that's, again, as electric and loud as I've ever seen this place – Club America game included. That was wild tonight. And it just kept getting louder and louder as we walked around as a team. It's something I'll never forget."
Truly great teams don’t just have one or two good seasons, they build a four- to five-year run that includes a lot of silverware and a lot of firsts. That’s what the Union have been doing for the past couple of seasons. They’ve won their first-ever Supporters' Shield, made it to the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League and have now reached their first-ever Conference Final. Those are signs that point to a club on the cusp of a good run of success, and they're 8W-1L-4D since that CCL ouster.
All of this success has been achieved without assembling an expensive squad. With only one DP (Jamiro Monteiro), and a strong need for improvement in the No. 9 role, they’ve managed to keep winning more often than not. Curtin is clearly a good coach who knows what he’s doing. I wonder how much more he could do, and the Union could achieve, if he was able to truly invest in and slightly upgrade his squad this coming offseason.
Nashville have been a success since entering MLS in 2020, there’s no debating that. In many ways, they’ve even overachieved when compared to the average expansion side. In spite of that, there’s something that feels very incomplete about their 2021 season.
In Hany Mukhtar, they have a player who's a worthy MVP finalist and is one of the most unique attacking threats in MLS. And in Walker Zimmerman, they have a center back who knows how to lead his teammates and play at a high level consistently. Yet I feel they could have, and maybe even should have, gone further this season.
One of their strongest regular-season qualities came back to bite them in the postseason – their ability to avoid defeats and at least get a draw. So many times over the past couple of seasons, I’ve lauded their ability to avoid defeat, but on the other side of the same coin, that also highlights an inability to grind out a few more wins. And in the end that’s what it came down to, a team that doesn’t lose too many, but also doesn’t turn enough draws into wins and failed to find the winning goal in their biggest game of the season. Nineteen of their 36 regular-season and playoff games ended in draws.
The nucleus for a team capable of sustaining success is already there, but we'll see if Mukhtar can maintain this level when teams begin to game-plan for him even more than they already do. And like most teams, they could use two or three solid additions.
Another attacking threat is always welcome, but maybe they could upgrade with a defender who's good at commanding the box on set pieces aside from Zimmerman. For such a good defensive team, they have been quite poor at defending set pieces and that’s how almost half the goals they conceded occurred.
"One of the biggest takeaways of the year I would imagine for coaching staff and players to re-evaluate, analyze how we can do better in that area," said Zimmerman of Nashville's issues defending set pieces. "So if you fix that and you become even an average team rather than a below-average team defending set pieces, we're probably a few points higher and we're now hosting a playoff game or closing out a playoff game. These are big moments that probably if I was gonna pick one thing that was frustrating this year, it’s probably set pieces."