This past Saturday, the Philadelphia Union made the relatively short commute up to the Bronx to take on NYCFC. The Union were looking to gain their first ever win at Yankee Stadium as well as get revenge for the 0-2 loss they were handed from their Eastern Conference foes at home earlier this season thanks in part to David Villa’s contender for goal of the year in the waning moments of that match. The Union were riding a four-game winning streak and six-game unbeaten streak until they suffered a defeat the previous week to Real Salt Lake. With only one change to the starting 11 since Alejandro Bedoya was away with the national team, Jim Curtin was hopeful the continuity would provide to be a success.
Early on, it was obvious the narrow field played into the game plan. The fullbacks weren’t pushing up on the attack very often in order to prevent fast counter attacks from NYCFC. The first half hour saw no real clear-cut chances for either side. The Union were very strong defensively as they kept their shape and used their physicality to their advantage getting between their man and the ball on several occasions. This proved to be a useful strategy as NYCFC were trying to find that home run ball over the top. It also helped that Andre Blake was aggressive coming off his line to put out any fires before they could ignite.
Things started to turn however after the 30-minute mark. NYCFC saw much more of the possession, especially in the midfield. Their skill became on full display at times with good link-up passes and quick, one-touch give-and-go plays within the final third. NYCFC’s first real chance to take the lead came on a corner kick in the 32nd minute. The ball was poorly cleared off the back post by Chris Pontius, who headed it softly and straight down. This setup Alexander Ring for a shot that he struck off the post. The ball came right out to Villa for a shot that tested Blake but was ultimately saved. The pressure continued much of the half from NYCFC and they almost buried one right before half. Well into stoppage time, Jack Harrison took a ball down on the right edge of the box, beat Fabinho to the end line, and then played the ball back towards the penalty marker to Villa. This time, he rocketed a shot right at Blake who again made the stop.
The first half saw limited chances for the Union getting forward with the midfield unable to obtain any sustainable possession or find their targets up top in CJ Sapong or Fafa Picault. The best chance to get on the board came in the 24th minute when Ilshino had a great strike from long range that challenged Sean Johnson.
The second half started much different and in a positive way for Union fans watching. Whatever Curtin said to his team during halftime seemed to give them more of a sense of urgency and commitment to getting numbers forward. The midfielders started to see more of the ball and put the pressure on NYCFC’s back line by running at defenders. This led to a few dangerous set pieces and counter attacks for the away team. In the 55th minute, Ilshino on the counter found Pontius to his left who got a solid shot off forcing Johnson to come up with the save.
The Union finally saw their breakthrough come in the 69th minute when Picault sublimely finishes a ball assisted by Sapong. Sapong ended up shedding off a few tackles, caught Picault in stride with a perfectly weighted ball, and then Picault took care of the rest cutting inside on his defender then slotting the ball to the far-side netting for the goal.
After taking the lead on the road, the Union went into a defensive shell no longer providing much pressure on NYCFC’s back line, which was a problem since that is where they like to build their attack from. The cliche of playing not to lose instead of playing to win seemed evident with the Union, which led to some huge chances for NYCFC.
The home team at this point was unlucky to have nothing on the scoreboard to show for their efforts. Their first threat to score in the second half came off a Fabinho turnover. His pass attempt went right into Maximiliano Moralez who quickly took the ball to the top of the box, turned, and then found a trailing Villa. Villa’s shot seemed destined for the top corner, but it rang off the crossbar and over the net. Not long after the Union took the lead, Harrison for NYCFC danced around a few defenders on the touch line and then found Villa just beyond the 6-yard box, who again got a shot off. This time, Blake made the save with his leg and gave up a rebound. The ball came out to the top of the penalty area for Ring. He was running onto it and sent a shot low to the near corner where Blake went down again and made the sure-handed stop.
NYCFC finally found their equalizer in the 80th minute off a Moralez corner. He played in a well-placed in-swinger that was met by Maxime Chanot as he beat his man to the spot and put home a point-blank header. Just a few moments later though, the Union almost regained the lead. After winning a free kick from about 25 yards out, Roland Alberg struck it low around the wall and off the post.
The game winner was just a few minutes later and rewarded to the home team off another corner. After a scramble for the ball in the box and thanks to many Union players ball watching, it came to the magnetic feet of Villa who forced an incredible reactionary save from Blake at close range. But Alexander Callens was in the right place right time to pounce on the rebound and give NYCFC all three points.
It was a tough loss for the Union, who saw another lead taking away late in the second half. They will have some time to regroup now with the international break and won’t be back in action until Wednesday, June 14th for an Open Cup battle vs the Harrisburg City Islanders. Their next league fixture will be against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, June 18th. Both of those matches will be at home inside Talen Energy Stadium.
(Photo: Philadelphia Union Twitter/ @PhilaUnion)