In the 57th minute of the Eastern Conference Final, Maxi Moralez finished off a crafty breakdown of the Philadelphia Union defense to give New York City FC a 1-0 lead. While Moralez and his New York City FC teammates celebrated in front of the Union supporters, the diminished but audible cheers from the away fans filled the crisp air that had just sunk.
Up until that point, the Union had controlled the game, giving the visitors nothing forward by pressing high in their defensive end and crowding the midfield whenever a playmaker touched the ball. For the first time in the game, NY’s potent attacking players dictated the game.
The psychological disadvantage of conceding the first goal is momentous on many levels. For one, the Union had rarely been a come-from-behind team this season. Part of the reason is because they’ve led mostly every game, including most of their draws. In four out of five losses this year, the Union conceded the first goal. In two of those games, they self-destructed.
Adding to the concern of giving up the first goal was the realization that New York had won this game in Subaru Park a year ago, and though many factors played into those results, it didn’t change the fact that New York lifted the trophy on the Union’s field then went on to win their first MLS Cup a week later.
“Once it came off his [Moralez] foot I had a feeling it was going to hit the back of the net,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game, “and you have that human nature, right, that sinking feeling of here we go again.”
Moralez scored his third playoff goal in three successive games, and though the Union were able to limit his dangerous touches, one chance put the Union on their heels. “When you concede like that in a big spot and the place goes quiet, it hurts, right?” Curtin added.
Things could have gone bad, but what happened next is where all involved proved that the Philadelphia Union’s 2022 season was different.
58th Minute: The Chant
Following Moralez’s goal, a “Union” chant started in the Supporters section, then catching on, bellowed around the stadium for the next thirty seconds. No boos, no one heading for the exits but a fan base rallying behind its team when they needed it most. Deep down, everyone in the stadium knew this team wasn’t going out like that.
“Thank you and appreciation to our fans,” Curtin said, “who, even when we went down a goal, still stayed loud and stayed with us and never doubted even when maybe we might have on the sidelines for a little bit.”
“I always believed there’s no way one goal was going to beat us,” an emotional Andre Blake said after the game during the locker room celebrations. “I had the confidence that we’re here for a reason. We were here last year and a bunch of us didn’t get to play this game. I was just relaxed, I was free. I wasn’t worried.”
Blake doesn’t often have to pick the ball out of his own net. With 15 clean sheets on the season, tied for second-best ever in an MLS season, and another shutout in the 1-0 playoff win over FC Cincinnati, the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has been more than in the zone. His play has been historically one of the best-ever by a goalkeeper in 26 seasons of MLS.
Exactly the player you’d expect to change the game.
60th Minute: The Save
The goal by Moralez sparked NYCFC, who went right down the field again. Only this time, José Martinez blocked Héber’s shot for a corner. The Union cleared the initial attempt, but as the ball recycled back in, winger Kevin O’Toole picked out Alexander Callens at the top of the six.
Callens sent a powerful header low to Blake’s right, destined for the corner. Blake reached out with his bottom hand and pushed the ball off the goal line. Jack Elliott then cleared the rebound away.
‘The play that changes the game is actually Andre’s save to keep it at 1-0,” Curtin said. “That’s what big players do in these types of games. You need your best players to be your best players.”
“That was unbelievable,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “I held my breath on that play because as soon as I saw that ball crossed, I just saw Callens raising up, but you know, for him to make that reaction save, he’s the best goalie in the league and it showed.”
62nd Minute: The Sub
Lately, Cory Burke has been the game-changer off the bench the Union need. After scoring the winner against NYCFC in June, Burke followed up with another goal vs Inter Miami before the Union’s record-setting stretch in August where he scored 3 goals and provided 4 assists in 6 games. And although Mikael Uhre has had a fantastic debut season, it’s still been a long one for the former Danish league Golden Boot and Player of the Year. And after the NY goal, the Union needed more pressure up top, more of an edge, and Burke made his presence felt from the first challenge.
“Cory changed the game,” Curtin said, “and he was possessed. That’s the best way I can put it. He came into the game possessed, came into the game wanting to take it over.”
65th Minute: The Run
NYCFC made a substitution, bringing on defensive midfielder Keaton Parks for forward Gabriel Pereira. The moved was supposed to bring more stability for the visitors, anticipating more openness the Union’s game. But when referee Allen Chapman blew the whistle to resume play, NY was still waiting for Parks to get into position and relay instructions, and the Union caught them napping.
Julian Carranza made a slipping run between the center backs and Jakob Glesnes, the MLS Defender of the Year, played a perfectly weighted thirty-yard ball along the ground that rolled directly into Carranza’s path. The curling shape of Carranza’s run at the end allowed him to let the ball run before squaring his shoulders. From the top of the six, he beat Sean Johnson to the far post to pull the Union level and rally the crowd back into the game.
The goal, Carranza’s 15th on the season, including playoffs, was a well-deserved result for a player who’d been animated all night with his pressure on the NY backs
67th Minute: The Passes
The fans were still celebrating Carranza’s goal when the Union pushed forward again with Olivier Mbaizo and Jack McGlynn down the right. Mbaizo and McGlynn had developed more chemistry in recent games with the absence of Bedoya, who was a halftime sub after re- aggravating his previous hip flexor injury. As Mbaizo pushed ahead, threatening the NY wing, the NY center three got stretched, and when Mbaizo played the ball back to McGlynn, the Union midfielder had plenty of time to pick out Julian Carranza one-on-one at the back post with Thiago Martins.
McGlynn played a beautiful curling ball in toward Carranza, a pass that highlighted the skill and precision of a young player emerging comfortably in the spotlight, and while the NY defenders scrambled, they left Gazdag alone at the opposite post. Carranza then showed tremendous poise to pick out Gazdag with his header instead of forcing a distant shot on goal. He split the NY center backs across the six.
67th Minute: The Finish
If Andre Blake is the body of this Union muscle car, Daniel Gazdag has been the engine. The snubbed MVP candidate with a club-record 22 goals and 10 assists on the season thought he scored the opener in the first half when his header off Kai Wagner’s free kick beat Johnson, but he was a step offside and Chapman waved the goal off.
This time, Gazdag displayed the same quality of off-the-ball movement mentioned above with Moralez, allowing the play to develop before moving into a space where he could get the second ball. But when Carranza’s header bounced across, Gazdag roofed the ball with the inside of his foot where Johnson couldn’t get it. The finish highlighted Gazdag’s quality, his invincibility in front of the net, and his ability to enact revenge under the most tense moment of his Union career to date.
Subaru Park erupted into a ferocity never experienced before, stands shaking from the weight of the stomping and jumping. For several seconds, the scene was pure chaos.
For ten minutes, the Union went from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, and the shift in momentum lasted for the remaining twenty-three plus minutes as the hosts continued attacking while keeping NY at a safe distance. Burke added the third on a monstrous run through the heart of NY’s defense, beating three players before blocking Anton Tinnerholm’s clear and burying it into the top of the net. And though many will look back on the season and point to the historic goals run or the big wins and gritty draws against the MLS elite, this moment, down a goal at home in the Eastern Conference Final and the Union’s response, will go down as the single-most important ten minutes of the season, and perhaps the greatest in franchise history.
Until Saturday when the Union hope to lift another, larger trophy at Banc of California Stadium.