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Union’s rotation gamble comes up short at Cincinnati in 1-0 loss



Photo by Katie Stratman | USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Jim Curtin knew he was taking a risk with his lineup on Saturday night in Cincinnati — and it almost worked.

Almost, however, has been the story of the Philadelphia Union’s 2023 MLS campaign, and it proved true again in the 69th minute. As FC Cincinnati pushed into the box, goalkeeper Andre Blake saved the Orange and Blue’s first shot but couldn’t save the second without giving up a penalty. That proved to be the opening that Luciano Acosta needed, as he buried the spot kick just past Blake’s dive, lifting Cincinnati to a 1-0 win over Philadelphia and condemning the Union to their third defeat in four domestic matches.

“It wasn’t our night; we had a mistake on the goal,” Curtin said. “We didn’t concede a ton, and with that, you hope for a 0-0 or at least a point on the road. But with the injuries and the way things are going right now, things are just not going our way.”

It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, as Union (2-1-4, 7 points) finished with more shots on target than Cincinnati (5-2-0, 17 points) and created more dangerous chances over the first hour of the match than Cincinnati. Philadelphia opted to prioritize the upcoming trip to Atlas in the CONCACAF Champions League, which led Curtin to go deep into his bench and experiment with a 3-5-2 formation, catching Cincinnati off-guard.

“I thought tonight, we changed quite a bit,” Curtin said. “We got some good performances from Quinn Sullivan, who I thought was very positive and proactive. Matt Real stepped in and did a good job, and Jesus Bueno hasn’t played much and did a great job for us. The guys stepped on the field and executed, and they got us to that 0-0 point at 60 (minutes).”

The Orange and Blue had no fixture congestion issues, but they initially couldn’t adjust to Union’s differing shape. From the opening minutes, it was clear Cincinnati hadn’t prepared to face what Philadelphia showed, throwing off Cincinnati coach Pat Noonan’s charges.

“They played a formation that we haven’t played against and really didn’t anticipate,” Noonan said. “That obviously threw us off tonight. When they’re playing in the diamond, you’re looking to get in the wide areas, but in those wide areas, the space wasn’t there. It was more difficult than maybe we anticipated.”

Instead of the calamity that Union fans might have expected, Philadelphia actually created the first real dangerous chance. In the 53rd minute, Bueno got an excellent look at goal, but couldn’t put the ball on frame with Cincinnati keeper Roman Celentano in no position to make a save. Instead of the 1-0 lead Union deserved, it served as the wake-up call Cincinnati needed to unlock Philadelphia’s defense.

“He goes for the near post and maybe mishit it,” Curtin said. “Maybe that should have been on the ground, and when chances on the road are few and far between, you really have to execute. Right now, goals are really tough for us to find; there’s no secret there.”

Philadelphia tried to take advantage of the opportunity the reserves created at the 60th minute by bringing on regulars Alejandro Bedoya, Daniel Gazdag and Mikael Uhre, but by that time, Cincinnati was fully into the match. The Orange and Blue still had their problems with Union’s formation change, but after Bueno’s miss, Cincinnati seemed to recognize the danger and stepped up its urgency.

“It was probably going to be a matter of one moment making the difference in this game,” Noonan said. “I was really pleased with our guys’ ability to get a goal and see the game out.”

Now it’s Philadelphia that’s got to step up its urgency with another tough week ahead. Not only do Union have to head to Mexico to protect their aggregate lead against Atlas F.C., but they’ll jump right back into MLS with another tough road match against a resurgent Chicago side.

“It’s early in the season, but we have to have that sense of urgency,” Curtin said. “We know we don’t want to fall too far behind in the standings.”

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