The Philadelphia Union are back up. Sort of. For one night at least, they looked like the team that played in the MLS Cup Final. In a three-goal first-half outburst, the Union took down the New England Revolution 3-1 to win Game 1 of the new best-of-three opening round format and edge closer to a massive battle with FC Cincinnati.
Entering the playoffs with one win over their final eight games, the Union weren’t exactly world beaters, going 1-1-6, missing a top-two seed in the playoffs, and losing out on a top-four spot in the final Supporters’ Shield standings by 1 point, which would have earned a spot in the 2024 CCL even though they already qualified. Seven of those eight games came against playoff opposition, including two home draws against FC Cincinnati and LAFC. Playing their 49th game of the season with mounting injuries, the Union came out firing against New England then held on until the end in typical Union fashion.
“The good thing is we don’t get beat either,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game about his team’s lack of results over the past two months and the transition into the playoffs. “Of course we want more wins, and we know fans feel the same way, but the fact that we don’t concede a lot, we can push teams to the limit, and keep a clean sheet, that might be all it takes this next game.”
The Union’s only loss in that stretch came against New England over a week ago on the final day of the season in Gillette Stadium, where the series continues on November 8. A Union win will put the Boys in Blue into the Conference semifinal. A loss would mean a quick turnaround November 12 for a winner-take-all Game 3. None of that worries Curtin. “It’s a group that’s capable of a breakout and can beat anybody, so we like that part of things,” he said.
New center back pairing for the foreseeable future
The hosts absorbed some early pressure thanks to a heroic sequence from Damion Lowe, who blocked two shots in front of goal in between Noel Buck’s shot off the underside of the bar that bounced out. Lowe’s playoff start came at the expense of Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes, who Curtin said underwent surgery for a sports hernia that will likely rule him out for the remainder of the season. Glesnes led the team in minutes each of the past three seasons and played in his 100th consecutive game against Cincinnati in September, a streak later snapped due to his nagging injury.
“Obviously Jakob’s a huge miss for us as we know each other very well by now,” defender Jack Elliott said after the game. “But I think we can all pick up the slack and just play as a team. When everyone plays their role we’re always going to be okay.”
Glesnes and Elliott (2790 league minutes each in 2023) appeared more than any other center back pairing in the league over the previous three seasons, but the addition of Lowe gave Curtin a healthy rotation as well as a tactical adjustment in which all three played as a back three.
Lowe started 14 league games, compiling 1231 minutes, and started another 9 games in CCL, Leagues Cup, and Open Cup play, so his insertion into the lineup doesn’t shake up the back four as if he were being thrown into the fire.
“Damion understands the role very well. He’s a good player and we understand each other, and I think it works out well.” Elliott added. “The consistency obviously is one thing that can lead to good results, but I think versatility in these sort of times is something that is important, too.”
“Jakob’s a great leader,” Union defender Nathan Harriel said after the game. “He’s very present on the field, like a security blanket back there. Damion steps in and plays very well in all the opportunities he gets to play, so it’s a lot of matching of mentalities.”
While the Union will miss Glesnes’ distribution and leadership, Lowe’s athleticism and physicality will be a factor in tight playoff games determined by single plays in the box at either end. The Union will need outstanding defensive performances like the one Lowe gave Saturday night in Game 1 and in most of his starts throughout the season.
Uhre finds the net
Julian Carranza earned a decisive penalty that Daniel Gazdag buried for the 18th time this season, continuing his outstanding form from the spot, but Mikael Uhre scored his first playoff goal with a commanding run in the box aided by a little luck. Kai Wagner’s dangerous cross bounced off defender Dave Romney’s chest before keeper Jacob Jackson pushed it into Uhre’s path for a tap in. Uhre’s goal was his 11th of the season in all competitions yet only his 2nd over the past 11 games and his 5th since the start of July.
“You have to be in the right area to score those easy goals sometimes,” Uhre said after the game. “I was just happy to take the right position. It’s hard getting into the box and then sometimes things happen, sometimes you’re lucky sometimes you’re unlucky, and today it landed right on my feet.”
The game also marked one of the first times we’ve seen the regular Union front six since early in the season. With captain Alejandro Bedoya out for a long spell due to injury and a rotating number of injuries from each of the Union midfielders and forwards, the Union may finally be gaining some of their much needed rhythm.
“Last year, we didn’t switch that much, so obviously it’s been a bit different,” Uhre said. “But then again, when you play as many games we did, injuries are going come at some point and suspensions are going to pile up, so it was great to see the front six playing together.”
Moving forward, Uhre’s form may be the most important among the front three. Gazdag (14g, 11a) and Carranza (14g, 6a) have been near the top of the league leaders in goals and assists for much of the season. Gazdag’s and Carranza’s longest dip in production occurred in the near-meaningless Leagues Cup, but otherwise both have hit the target whenever the other hadn’t.
Last year, the trio combined for more goals and assists than almost half the league, so there is still concern about the rhythm and production heading into the most important games of the season.
Kai Wagner’s contributions/loss
On the field, Kai Wagner impressed again as one of the best left backs in MLS, contributing in two of the Union’s three goals. His cross to Uhre for the Union’s second goal had the entire Revolution back line out of sorts, but his free kick to Nathan Harriel showed why he could be the biggest loss for the Union next season.
“When he gets the ball we know what he can do,” Uhre said about Wagner, “and he had a solid game tonight, so that was great to see.”
Though Wagner won’t be credited with an assist on Uhre’s goal, he earned his 11th assist in all competitions this season, second best on the team and a year removed from his 15 league and 1 playoff assist season. The two-time MLS All-Star and 2022 Best XI has been a fixture in the Union lineup, and one of the most consistent high-level performers since 2019.
Off the field, Wagner will be under intense scrutiny. After The Athletic reported Wagner is under investigation by the league for using an anti-Asian slur toward the Revolution’s Bobby Wood, the Union left back’s status for the next game remains in doubt. While the Union await the completion of the inquiry, Wagner continues to train with the team, however, should the comments be determined founded, Wagner’s consequences could mirror recent examples within the league. D.C. United’s Taxi Fountas was placed on leave for a similar incident in July, and his contract was terminated over three weeks later. New York Red Bulls’s Dante Vanzeir was suspended six games in April then returned to action before missing the final month and a half of the season due to injury.
Wagner’s status for the future has also been a big question mark with the German defender already nearing DP status with no contract renewal agreed upon with a club known for its stinginess. After spending money to acquire reserve forward Tai Baribo, who’s been as close to a flop as possible, the likeliness of Wagner returning lessens by the day.
The Union could be looking at Olivier Mbazio on the right side, shifting Harriel to the left side, or a spot start for Matt Real, whose minutes have been limited and unimpressive to say the least.
The absence of Carles Gil
Early in the first half, Uhre fouled New England’s playmaker Carles Gil. At full speed, it was certainly a harmless foul, a questionable card, but the resulting injury forced Gil out minutes later and changed the Rev’s entire dynamic. Gil was seen gingerly limping off the field at halftime, which doesn’t bode well for the Rev’s chances in Game 2 without him.
“Carles is a very special player,” Harriel said after the game. “A lot of assists, a lot of goals created for them, so it’s a different look when he came off. They’re still dangerous and still had a bunch of chances, but we dealt with it pretty good.”
Gil, the 2021 MLS MVP and All-Star each of the last two seasons, has been one of the league’s best players since arriving from Deportivo la Coruna in 2019. His 11 goals and 15 assists ranks him among the league’s top-5 in goal contributions, and his versatility and creativity make him nearly impossible to stop. His absence leaves a sizeable drop off for a New England team on the verge of elimination. Despite the turmoil surrounding the departure of head coach Bruce Arena and assistant Richie Williams, Gil had been one of a number of consistent players giving Revs fans hope.
“We have to re-evaluate Carles in the next day or two and see where he is,” interim coach Clint Peay said after the game. “He just took a knock and it was enough to limit him, so he had to come off for it. But no real prognosis yet.”
Gil, who had an assist in the 2-1 win over the Union over a week ago, also came off in the first half of the Union’s 3-0 win at Subaru Park in late May.