“Play the kids,” has been more than a mantra for Philadelphia Union fans in recent years. Led by 36 year-old captain Alejandro Bedoya and 32 year-old Andre Blake, the Union’s average squad age is 26.0 years according to Transfermarkt, the 18th oldest team in MLS.
As experienced as the Philadelphia Union have been the past three seasons, Wednesday night in Foxboro, the
kids made the difference in a hard-fought 1-0 victory on the turf at Gillette Stadium. The result wasn’t due to a one-off performance but a steady progression of Jim Curtin’s philosophy of playing the kids at the right moments and the right times.
With a focus on scaffolding, the kids came through. Substitute Chris Donovan scored midway through the second half off a Jack McGlynn free kick to give the Union a sweep over the ten-man New England Revolution and earn a matchup with Shield winners FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Semifinals Thanksgiving weekend. Nathan Harriel switched to left back in place of the suspended Kai Wagner and had one of his best games of the season, while Quinn Sullivan made a spot start and created numerous quality chances to keep the Union on the front foot before a first-half red card to Mark Anthony Kaye decided much of the flow for the second half.
Donovan, the 23 year-old former Drexel and Union 2 poacher, has had a limited role in his second year with the Union, that being part of a rotating cast alongside 19 year-old Sullivan as Cory Burke’s replacement. Donovan’s 1 league goal and 1 assist falls well below Burke’s 7 goals and 5 assists from the 2022 season, yet his extra time goal against Queretaro took the Union into the Leagues Cup semifinals and one step closer to their eventual Concacaf Champions Cup berth. And his winner Saturday night sent the Union into the next round, arguably the biggest goal of the Union’s season. One cannot ignore his growing impact.
The Drexel Dagger!!#DOOP
— Philadelphia Soccer Now (@phlsoccernow) November 9, 2023
On the 79th minute goal, Donovan met McGlynn’s in-swinging free kick with an important touch that fooled keeper Earl Edwards Jr. “It’s something we practice on matchday minus one,” Donovan said after the game about the play.
“The subs will run the set pieces from the other team, so we can defend it properly on game day, and one of the set pieces is the wide free kick from the side of the 18.”
The depth of the free kick and the angle made it possible for Donovan to beat his man to the ball, which he did with awareness and determination, leading to a massive goal in a game in which a Union winner felt inevitable even with penalty kicks looming. “I have certain instructions when I go into the game on where I should be making my runs on set pieces, but on that one it’s just kind of instinct and decided to make a darting run right in the middle of the goal.”
Donovan scored his first Union goal in the 2-1 win over New York City FC in July, which also became a winner after the Union conceded a late goal from NYCFC’s Andres Jasson. All three of his goals have been game winners, and he credits his improvement this season to his environment. “Just being able to practice around really good players every single day, it’s going to make anyone better. It comes down to the rest of the guys pushing everyone, trying to be the best players each of us can be.”
“I say it all the time to the group that the hardest thing to do in pro sports is end another team’s season,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game. “We took their best punch on the road, and we move on.”
Best punch on the road indeed. Saturday marked the Union’s first-ever road playoff win. Their first road playoff game came in 2011 when they fell 1-0 to the Houston Dynamo in the second-leg of the home and away series. Since then, they dropped games at Toronto in 2016 (3-1), at NYCFC in 2018 (3-1), at Atlanta in 2019 (2-0), and at LAFC in last year’s MLS Cup Final.
“Overall, we were disciplined. We were composed, and we found a way to win,” Curtin added. “I understand it wasn’t the beautiful, you know, attacking transitions where we’re scoring three or four good goals, but we grinded out a win on the road. And that’s all it’s about.”
McGlynn’s free kick, however, was a sign of a beauty. The 20 year-old midfielder made his fifth playoff start Saturday and showed why his minute totals have doubled each of the last two seasons. His precision and ball movement adds a another layer of danger around the box, something regular free kick taker Wagner lacked.
“He had five or six really great passes tonight that we actually fouled up in the attacking third of the field and could have been assists or real good chances,” Curtin said about McGlynn’s play.
And though McGlynn hit the post earlier in the second half on a free kick and excelled in possession, Curtin said his defensive play met its greatest test with the overload of Carles Gil down the left side throughout much of the game.
“He gets better and better on the defensive side of the ball, really showed an improvement. When you get one-on-one isolated with Carles Gil, I talked about him trying to force him to his right foot as much as possible. I think he took that information well, led him into double teams, led him towards help.”
Sullivan, filling in for injured Julian Carranza, made an immediate impact with 3 shots, 2 of them blocked despite being on target and potentially finding the back of the net. Both of Sullivan’s goals this season came in September, his first against Charlotte FC in the 2-2 home draw, and the second in the 1-1 draw against FC Dallas, the fourth draw in a string of six over the Union’s final eight games of the regular season.
“Quinn has had, probably his best five block week of training that he’s ever had with us, so his confidence is high,” Curtin said. “He worked really hard tonight, did a good job buzzing around defensively.”
Sullivan has started 4 of the last 7 games and came on twice in two other, serving as the next man up in what has been a frontline trying to rekindle its excellent 2022 form. With Carranza battling a hamstring injury in which Curtin said would have been good for Game 3 had it been necessary, the long start gave Sullivan a chance to show that he could deliver in big game minutes.
“Obviously, Julian’s out,” Sullivan said after the game. “He’s been a very key part of the team and scored some big goals, but basically go in and play my game. There was no fill this, fill that, they trusted me to play my position and do what’s best on the field.”
26' | Great effort from Quinn with a near chance as his shot is deflected for a corner.
— X – Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) November 9, 2023
Although Sullivan had a strong defensive game and was a presence in possession, his biggest contribution was creating chances. In the 26 th minute, he received the ball with space on a counter and ran at Revs defender Henry Kessler, but after he cut in, Kessler deflected the shot with a lazy leg drag that was unlucky not to find the far corner.
“I definitely had some freedom at the nine position to drop in a little bit and create overloads in the midfield with Daniel. I definitely think I grew into the game a lot more. The first 15 minutes or so was definitely slow, but as the half went on, I felt a lot more comfortable and started creating some chances and got some good shots.”
Sullivan’s role may have been altered with the arrival of Tai Baribo, who will be away on extended international duty with Israel, but the combination of Baribo’s difficulty adjusting and Sullivan’s improved performances has put the young striker in an important position heading into the massive conference semifinal, where the Union will need a 90-minute effort pressuring the experienced Cincy defense.
“I gotta continue to build on it,” Sullivan said, “because obviously we have a break now, and it’s important to keep sharpness and keep ready for a huge matchup against Cincinnati.”
The Union will be back in action Saturday, November 25 th at TQL Stadium with a chance at reaching their third-straight Eastern Conference Final. With a long layoff and a number of players out on international duty, the kids will again play a vital role in whether the Union can keep the season going. But their progress goes back to a season-long commitment to patience, which is beginning to come to fruition when the games matter most.