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Matchday Preview: Philadelphia Union

The Red Bulls test themselves against the best in the East tonight in Harrison

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
The Red Bulls and the Union have split many of their recent fixtures.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that most car crashes happen when the driver is wearing red? It’s not true. But you didn’t know it.

Tactics Board

The New York Red Bulls have officially turned a corner with a gritty 1-0 win over Montreal, arguably the second-best team in the East and a powerhouse that New York can measure their season by. It was the type of performance the team needed, three points where it mattered, and perhaps signals a new turn of form for the Red Bulls, looking to get back on track right before the playoffs start. Their reward? A game against the best team in the East, and arguably the best in the entire league.

The Philadelphia Union are the closest thing that the Red Bulls have to a cousin in the league, a young, high-pressing team with a fruitful academy and an affinity for scouting for low-budget, high-quality players rather than going the flashy route. Geographical proximity has made for some animosity between the two sides, with the organizations often competing for academy players and past playoff encounters causing bad memories on the pitch.

The Union have been the class of the East for most of the year, the first in the Conference to clinch a playoff spot after their 4-1 demolition of Atlanta United last Wednesday, and currently tied with LAFC for the Supporter’s Shield lead. They’re the top scorers in the entire league with 61 goals, and also boast the best defense with only 21 goals conceded. Currently in ridiculous form, they’ve scored 16 goals in their last 3 games, and have only lost twice in their last 10. They’re very much contenders for an MLS Cup, and will probably be the toughest test New York has faced this season.

Stylistically, head coach Jim Curtin has implemented a system very well known to Red Bulls supporters. Despite playing a notoriously dull formation in the traditional 4-4-2, Curtin has instructed his team to play direct, high-energy soccer for the duration of his tenure. The Union are second only to the Red Bulls for the lowest pass completions and attempts per 90 in the entire league, and again are only surpassed by New York for the lowest touches per 90. Philadelphia have very one-track minds on the field, players always have their head up to play progressively, and the packed 4-4-2 midfield means that there are always willing runners to play the ball to. When the ball is lost, the young team’s energy is taken advantage of, as the Union boast the second most pressures in the league (You would not believe who’s first), and the fifth most successful pressures in the league. While the Union have not been as extreme as the Red Bulls, there’s no question that it’s turned out a lot better for the Chester-based club.

Squad Superlatives

Most loyal - Andre Blake

In MLS it’s hard to stay on a team forever, having to manage roster limitations, salary caps, and trades make it difficult for players to stay in one place. Even the most loyal servants are just a day away from being shipped off in the cruel league, just ask Dax McCarty. But Andre Blake has defied the odds, the Union’s longest tenured player after being drafted in 2014, and the 11th longest serving active player in MLS. But of anyone on that list he’s arguably one of the most successful, having earned the Union starting job rather quickly and building a great career in the league and his national team. A model servant to the club, and one that will probably get traded this winter now that I wrote all this.

Most upstanding - Alejandro Bedoya

No jokes here, just a good guy.

Most mystical - Jack Elliot

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to think of an appropriately clever dig for the center back, but then realized that he’s 6’6 and I should keep my mouth shut.

Something about the Englishman’s aura is so jarring, he looks mad in every single photo, his chiseled jaw giving him a very medieval look. It’s almost beautiful, but horrifying at the same time. Astounding stuff.

SOCCER: JUN 26 MLS - Philadelphia Union at New England Revolution

Most likely to steal your girl - Paxten Aaronson

The younger Aaronson plays with this boyish confidence and swagger that probably translates off the pitch to something you simply wouldn’t compete with. It’s ok.

Honorable Mention - Jose Martinez

Predicted Lineups

New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1): Coronel, Tolkin, Long, S. Nealis, Duncan, Edelman, Yearwood, Luquinhas, Fernandez, Morgan, Manoel

Philadelphia Union (4-4-2): Blake, Wagner, Elliot, Glesnes, Mbaizo, Flach, J. Martinez, Bedoya, Gazdag, Uhre, Carranza

Players to Watch

Andre Blake

The first overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, Blake has built his entire career with the Union, having just made his 200th appearance for the club last Wednesday. A four time MLS All-Star, and two time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, he’s been a centerpiece for the club’s rapid rise to the top, and has been the lockdown starter for his native Jamaica for years now, leading the Reggae Boyz to two Gold Cup silver medals in his time. A traditional shot stopper, Blake has a lengthy career of highlight-reel saves that showcase his exceptional reactions and positioning. The Union’s stern defense has been one of their strengths for years, and being the last man Blake is a big contributor to that. A big performance against the Red Bulls spells real trouble for a New York attack that has had its ups and downs throughout the year, with Lewis Morgan being the lone consistent piece. Expect to scream Blake’s name in frustration as he makes some jaw-dropping save on a crucial chance this Saturday.

Carlos Coronel

Likely to be minding the other net will be the Brazilian brick wall that is Carlos Coronel. Arguably the Red Bulls’ best player in his debut season for the club in 2021, the former Union man has not quite hit the heights he did last campaign. Although the much diminished defense is mostly due to blame for the downturn in fortunes, Coronel has come into criticism in recent weeks for some concessions that may or may not have been his fault. Regardless of this, he’s still come up time and time again with crucial save after crucial save. His one-on-one ability is invaluable for the Red Bulls, who are good at limiting opportunities for opponents but are prone to letting huge chances through at least once a match. Against the rampant Union attack, the Red Bulls defense will have their hands full, and Coronel will most certainly be called on to come up big on whatever shots make their way through. It’s not going to be easy to simply score more goals than the Union, the Red Bulls can’t afford to play like they did against Austin or Colorado. Coronel will have a big responsibility to keep the score down if the Red Bulls want a realistic chance at coming out of the matchup with a result.

Final Prediction

Everything about this match screams trouble for the Red Bulls. Disturbingly good attack. Rock solid defense. Poor home form. Struggles against teams with similar playing styles. But this season New York has made very little sense, often losing winnable games and randomly coming up with big performances against teams many thought would stomp them. I’ll try and predict the madness, and go for a 2-1 win in Harrison.