A sign of a good team is the ability to earn points when they’re not at their best. And the Philadelphia Union have proven that countless times over the past few seasons.
“Not the beautiful game tonight,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after last Sunday’s 1-0 win over D.C. United. “No one will remember how ugly it was, it’ll just be three points in May.”
The same could be said of Kacper Przybylko’s goal-scoring form as of late. The Union striker has scored seven goals in eleven games this season and passed Jack McInerney as the Union’s third-leading scorer all-time with 30 goals in all competitions. Przybylko is now eight goals behind C.J. Sapong, who achieved his tally of 38 in 135 games. At 28, Przybylko has played in only 64 games, which puts him on pace to surpass Sapong and leader Sebastian Le Toux if his run continues.
Eleven games into the season, Przybylko is one goal away from matching his total from 2020, disrupted with a pandemic shutdown then his own Covid-19 diagnosis, which likely contributed to his slow start following a lengthy layoff. After scoring 15 goals in 2019, Przybylko started 2020 with one goal in the Union’s first nine games, then had a streak of six goals in six games mid-way through the season before his tally dropped off.
More importantly for the Union, the German-born striker has overcome his struggles at the end of last season when he scored one goal in the final twelve games, a penalty kick in a late-season 2-1 win over Chicago. He fought through inconsistency in a compressed schedule in which he logged the second-most minutes of the team, trailing Mark McKenzie by five minutes.
His 2021 has already been impressive. His five goals in the Concacaf Champions League leads all players, and the Union reached the semifinals in their debut, the lone MLS representative remaining, an accomplishment that often goes unnoticed outside of the Philadelphia area because the manner in which they win games and score goals.
Przybylko’s four game-winning goals in all competitions may be his biggest contribution to the Union season, which has been a grueling two months. Although his build-up and target play has been inconsistent, there’s no denying his ability to finish. He’s scored at times when the Union needed a player to change the outcome of tight games, and he and Andre Blake are largely responsible for the team’s rise in the conference standings after several sluggish performances to start the MLS season.
The types of goals Przybylko has scored this season won’t make many end-of-the-season highlight videos but prove he’s found his confidence in front of goal where his talent is best utilized. Each goal has been a classic poacher’s goal, demonstrating his ability to get into the right place at the right time and finish with composure and technique.
His latest goal against D.C. United may have been his best of the season because of the way he slipped through the back line and controlled Monteiro’s pass before tucking it inside the near post at the end of the first half of a scoreless game.
“We always talk about can we penetrate centrally in behind rather than play the balls out to the corner flag to get crosses where it’s a lower percentage,” Curtin said after the game about the goal. “They got the timing just right, even caught the referees off guard.”
In this attack, the Union had balanced width and support, which allowed for space to penetrate the gaps despite D.C. defending with eight players. Prior to this, Martinez, Wagner, and Monteiro kept possession in a mini 3 vs 3 at the top of the box, which opened up the defense.
Przybylko’s ability to slip between the defenders allowed him to go unnoticed by D.C. back Tony Alfaro but not to Monteiro, who recognized the space with Cory Burke as a target against Andy Najar as well. Przybylko only made a ten-yard run, five across and five deep, an ideal example of how he can be dangerous in the penalty area when he moves dynamically.
From the side view it’s easy to see how Przybylko flirts with the offside line just enough to penetrate the space. Fortunately, defender Brendan Hines-Ike fails to step up or track him.
The timing of Przybylko’s run and the shape and weight of Monteiro’s pass were perfect for breaking down a congested defense, something the Union will see all season long.
“We have enough dynamic attackers that they’re going to make a couple plays during a game,” Curtin said. “The goal that we scored is a good goal. It’s an incredible ball by Miro.”
Against D.C. United, the Union were able to walk away with the result they needed, even if the performance wasn’t as pleasing to the eye. “We’re not going to win a lot of games four and five-zero. We’re built to grind things out. Tonight was an example of that.”
In order to catch Le Toux, Przybylko will need more dynamic runs like this one to evade opposing defenders, but with the Union pushing for dominance in multiple competitions, he’ll have numerous opportunities to find the back of the net. This season, every Przybylko goal has been big, and after the Union return from the international break, he’ll continue to have his chances with the addition of Dániel Gazdag, another attacking player who can change a game.
RSG=Regular Season Goals
MiBG=MLS is Back Knockout Goals
CCLG=Concacaf Champions League Goals