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The Union find resiliency, again, in a road comeback against D.C. United



Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

The Union have had a frustrating start to the 2024 campaign on multiple fronts despite an undefeated run that lasted seven matches in the league, which included four draws. 

That run ended with two frustrating losses the last two times out at home, which publicly aired out some rising tensions in the team and exposed repeated sloppy defending. 

D.C. United came out at home with the high intensity you’d expect from a team with a pressing identity and scored the first two goals on extremely direct soccer, the first of which was a routine cutback into the box, and the second of which came off of two passes, including a 70-yard punt to the head of Christian Benteke. 

The alarm bells were all going off for a team that looked on the verge of a full-fledged crisis. The goals were simply too easy for the hosts to find. But with 60 minutes left in the match, the Union’s players seemed to put their pride on the line, a response to adversity we’ve seen time and time again in the Jim Curtin era, and scrap their way back into the game on a rainy, frenetic night at Audi Park to leave with a 2-2 draw

After D.C. went up 2-0, Jim Curtin changed the flat 4-4-2 back to the diamond, which allowed the Union some better shape to press DC’s five man-backline better. And overall, the Union realized that without sharpness and a tad of patience in the build-up, it would simply give the ball back to the hosts and have it rammed down their throats. Combined with intensity and attention to detail without the ball, the Union settled into a game it slowly wrangled control over by the end.

“It sounds like a broken record, but we didn’t start the game how we should,” said Curtin. “ We decided to play in a 4-4-2 flat, because of the directness of DC United, playing forward fast to Benteke’s head and flicks running off of him. We wanted two guys to scoop up second balls, but they kicked balls over their heads, you saw that on the second goal and that can’t happen.”

Christian Benteke is a unique focal point of an MLS attack as he can absorb a lot of volume, and win his aerial duels no matter what. That forces defenses to pick up as many second balls as possible and track runners off Benteke. The Union didn’t do that until the second goal was scored, but credit to the team for meeting the challenge, limiting D.C.’s chances from open play the rest of the way. 

Alejandro Bedoya scored in the first half at a crucial time with a smart run on a set piece from 40 yards out inside the front defender at the near post on a nice pass from Kai Wagner. The goal came as the Union had stemmed the hosts momentum and found a foothold heading into the half. Quite simply, it was a gut check moment for the team answered by the talismanic captain Bedoya, who scrounges winning plays out of nothing in a way that can’t be replicated within the franchise.

Oliver Semmle made a key save in the first half to keep it 2-0 at point-blank range, and Nathan Harriel cleared a ball off the goal line in the second half, two plays that shouldn’t be overlooked in the comeback.

Mikael Uhre and Jose Martinez entered the game in the 66th minute and helped as well once the game was 2-1, with a little more stability in the midfield and verticality in an open game. After the Union had equalized, they maybe could have gone on to win the game in the last 10 minutes.

Overall, the final xG was 1.1-0.8 for DC United per MLS, which reflects, as Curtin noted, some bad finishing luck that has gone against the Union the past few weeks. 

And as the xG indiciates, the Union’s equalizer wasn’t exactly a golden chance forged from open play. It was Jack McGlynn adding another stunner to his young highlight reel with a 30-yard left foot golazo. So while Bedoya isn’t the only player who can produce a goal out of nothing, Bedoya is using every ounce of guile and nous to get by. McGlynn has magic in his left foot, which Curitn believes is at a world class level, and he pulled a rabbit out of a hat to save the day.

It was a goal of the year candidate, and as Curtin noted, an extremely important goal for the team mentally given the course of the last week.

“Really impressive goal, and you can’t score a much better one in the moment. It got us a point on the road when we really needed one,” said Curtin.

With a better start, the last 60 minutes of what the Union produced could have been good enough for a win, but it’s a step in the right direction, and evidence yet again that this team will always back itself no matter the outside noise.

“I need to stop talking about the slow starts, because they keep happening,” said Curtin. “We dig holes for ourselves. It takes a lot of effort to chase a game, physically and emotionally. It takes a lot but this group has heart and it takes a lot of character to come back.”

Curtin doubled down on his group, which has not come close to rupturing, but at least showed signs in the past week of frustration, due to injuries and bad luck coinciding with a few bad results. Saturday at Audi Park could have been a catastrophe.

And while the Union has a long road that won’t end until the fall to answer the question of if running it back with this group can work, the belief underlying the whole project is still there. It was on display once again to answer the call.

“There’s another level this group can get to,” said Curtin. “Our guys are our guys that have been here, and we still believe we can beat anybody on our day.”

Amit grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and has been a Union fan since the franchise started. He has contributed to coverage of the Union and the United States Men's National Team for this website dating back to 2017. At his previous job, Amit was a collegiate sports information director, including time with men's and women's soccer programs. He also was one half of the World Cup After Dark podcast in 2018 and 2022. He is pursuing a master's degree in data science and lives in Chicago.

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