The top seeded Philadelphia Union emerged from a very physical match against 5th seeded FC Cincinnati with a 1-0 victory Thursday evening to gain their second consecutive berth in the MLS Eastern Conference Final. Uneven officiating and escalating physicality from both teams led to a rolling boil of tensions both on the field and in the rowdy crowd at Subaru Park which stepped up their intensity for the playoffs.
The first half was a hard nosed defensive affair on both sides, with Cincinnati goalie Roman Celentano saving all three shots on goal. The best chance came in the 9th minute with Olivier Mbaizo sending a cross from the right side to Julian Carranza in the box for a header from close range which just missed to the left. Tensions grew throughout the first half but only one Yellow Card was issued, to Nick Hagglund of Cincinnati in the 25th minute. In the 40th minute Matt Mizaga of Cincinnati elbowed Carranza in the back and Obinna Nwabodo made a questionable slide tackle on Kai Wagner but neither incident issued a card, only raising tensions further as the teams went into halftime scoreless.
The halftime break did not quell the tensions as Mizaga earned a yellow card in the 58th minute for pushing down Jose Martinez in the box during a setup for a corner kick. Shortly afterwards in the 59th minute, Daniel Gazdag fought a sea of Cincinnati defenders for the ball in the right side of the box which found its way over to Mikael Uhre, who tapped it to a wide open Leon Flach at the center of the box to fire a left footer past Celentano into the top left corner of the net for the only goal of the game and the first of Flach’s MLS playoff career.
Tense play continued for the rest of the game with the Union earning three Yellow cards in the second half. Mbaizo kicked a ball simultaneous with a referee’s whistle which went off a Cincinnati player’s face, and two additional cards were issued to Gazdag and Martinez in the 81st minute, eliciting a humorously vulgar chant from the Subaru Park faithful directed at the referee which lived up to Philly’s long reputation for fan intensity.
In the postgame chat, Coach Jim Curtin said of the intense game:
“The game was very intense, very physical. There will be lots of bumps and bruises and knocks on guys, but those heal up quicker when you win and advance. Really proud of the group, it’s a hard fought playoff win. A game that could have gone either way, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best defensive team in the league keeps a clean sheet in the playoffs.”
Leon Flach said of his goal:
“I was not thinking much, I think that helped a lot. I just tried to hit the ball first, and then I just saw it flying in the right direction and right height, and it was an incredible moment.”
MLS Goalkeeper of the year Andre Blake recounted his speech to teammates in the locker room before the game:
“When it gets to games like this there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of emotions…for me, that’s when you need to calm down. So I just said ‘listen, everybody needs to be relaxed, be confident, and have fun!”
Next up, the Union will play either Montreal FC or NYCFC in the Eastern Conference Final at Subaru Park on Sunday October 30. NYCFC controversially defeated the Covid-depleted Union in last year’s Eastern Conference Final on the way to their MLS Cup Championship.