Amid COVID-19 Anxiety, Union Kick off MLS Tournament with 1-0 Win

Photo credit: Jared Martinez & Matt Stith

To win in any league, your biggest players need to step up in the biggest moments. That’s exactly what Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya and goalkeeper Andre Blake did in Thursday morning’s 1-0 win over New York City FC.

Interesting Starting XI

Union head coach Jim Curtin noted in his press availability earlier this week that forwards Sergio Santos, Andrew Wooten, and Michee Ngalina had all sustained minor injuries and that the team had hoped to have them available at Wednesday’s training. None of the forwards were available for the Union ahead of Thursday’s match, forcing super-sub Ilsinho into emergency forward duty as Kacper Przybylko’s partner in Curtin’s 4-4-2 formation:

In his postgame press conference, Curtin noted that Ilsinho’s typical role as a super-sub winger in a 4-2-3-1 (as noted by Crossing Broad’s Union writer/tactician extraordinaire Kevin Kinkead) played to the team’s advantage in the 4-4-2, opening space for teammates Alejandro Bedoya and Brenden Aaronson on the right flank.

A Game of Two Big Moments

Sure, I could focus in on José Martínez’s physical play that led to one yellow card and an incident that nearly led to another, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the two biggest plays of the game.

Alejandro Bedoya talked about the team’s film study ahead of Thursday’s match focused on the availability of cutbacks against the NYCFC defense. He executed one to perfection, settling the ball with his left foot, taking a touch, and hammering home the lone goal of the game:

It’s not an easy technique to effectively deaden the ball, take a quick touch at a somewhat tight angle, and ripping one on goal with a defender closing in. It’s worth noting that while Ilsinho and his inherent gravity had been replaced minutes earlier by Anthony Fontana, Bedoya’s propensity for finding space on that right flank came in handy.

In the other massive moment of the game came in the 86th minute as Andre Blake saved what would have been an equalizer:

Upon first view, it almost appeared to be a strike that was trending wide, but it was an absolute show-stopping fingertip save by Blake, who Curtin called the best goalkeeper in the league after the game. If the Union are to advance to the knockout stage and beyond, they’ll need Blake to be at the top of his game.

Anxiety in the MLS Bubble

If you were previously unaware, Major League Soccer are in the midst of their own return to play tournament dubbed “MLS is Back 2020” taking place at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports.

Yes, it’s taking place in the same general bubble the NBA has been touting for quite some time. Yes, MLS players have had similar crappy meals delivered to their rooms as NBA players. And yes, like Joel Embiid noted in recent comments, there’s bound to be anxiety no matter how safe fans might presume the bubble to be.

It’s an anxiety that Bedoya had expressed on numerous occasions, including at the end of June when the Union captain told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman in an interview that the proposed measures within the bubble could have been compared to a luxurious prison. That was something Bedoya clarified in postgame remarks, emphasizing that those comments were made prior to arriving at the Disney bubble in Orlando.

Even so, there were questions entering play regarding how or if the COVID-19 anxiety could or would potentially impact the on-field performance of the players. Bedoya was honest and forthright noting that the situations concerning FC Dallas’ withdrawal from the tournament due to a number of positive cases of coronavirus and the potential (at the time) of a similar action being taken with Nashville SC have done little to calm the fears players had of contracting the virus:

When I asked him postgame about whether those concerns weighed on his mind once the game began, he admitted that once the whistle blew, the sole focus of the team was to take care of the task at hand and win the game.

Four Out of Five Ain’t Bad

A new rule for the MLS is Back tournament includes the expansion of the three substitution rule to five. Jim Curtin took advantage, using four of five possible substitutions, including one of center back Jakob Glesnes for attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson in the 83rd minute. The Union are strong up the middle and Glesnes, along with starters Jack Elliot and Mark McKenzie, provide Curtin one heck of an insurance policy when attempting to hang onto a one-goal lead deep in games.

Black Lives Matter Demonstrations

It’s no secret that the Black Lives Matter movement has been at the forefront of a national dialogue about race for the past few months. While many in the sports world have focused in on what the NBA and their players will do as a demonstration once the league resumes play, it’s important to note that they will not be the first. Players in the Germany’s top flight the Bundesliga began their season with a moment of silence, including players from league winner Bayern München wearing BLM armbands and pregame shirts that read “Rot gegen Rassismus” (Red against racism for you non-German speakers):

In La Liga, Spain’s top league, players like Real Madrid’s Marcelo have done demonstrations of their own taking a knee.

Perhaps no demonstration was more impactful than the one ahead of the MLS tournament’s first match between Orlando SC and Inter Miami as the teams were joined on-field by Black Players for Change, a group of players of color in MLS. The group stood together for a moment of silence that lasted eight minutes and forty-six seconds in honor of George Floyd:

Three Philadelphia Union players have played an important role in continuing to get the message out. Defender Ray Gaddis has been at the forefront of the Black Players for Change group and has been very active on his Instagram spreading the message about the fight for equality. He also noted after the game that he and his teammates of color have felt empowered thanks to the leadership of Curtin, Bedoya, and the Union organization. Defender Mark McKenzie narrated the team’s video ahead of the first match, including a segment dedicated to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Midfielder Warren Creavalle designed the shirts, custom masks, and the Black Lives Matter LED signs and icons around the MLS pitch:

The team opted to replace the names on their jerseys with the names of African Americans who lost their lives to police brutality, which caught the announcers -and likely the league- off-guard, while captain Alejandro Bedoya wore a special armband in honor of those killed. The solidarity this team has shown on and off the field are a testament to great leadership throughout the organization and should bode well for a team trying to navigate the challenges of a new tournament.

Next Up

I mentioned “at the time” referencing the potential removal of Nashville SC from the tournament and in the time since Alejandro Bedoya addressed concern at a post-game press conference, the announcement was made that Nashville will not participate:

As such, the league has opted to realign the groups, moving Chicago from the Union’s Group A to Group B. That means the Union have just two games remaining in group play:

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