MLS Playoff thoughts

Breaking down Philadelphia's big 1-0 playoff win over Cincinnati

It was far from a pretty game, but Philadelphia is back into the Eastern Conference Final after Leon Flach's heroics and Andre Blake's phenominal effor delivered a hard-fought 1-0 win over an good Cincinnati team. ASN's Brian Sciaretta offers up his thoughts and postgame quotes from Jim Curtin. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 20, 2022
9:55 PM

THE PHILADELPHIA UNION are through to the Easter Conference Final after a 1-0 win over Cincinnati at Subaru Park in Chester, PA. While Philadelphia has a had a number of very good goal scorers over the course of this season, it was a surprise when Leon Flach delivered the winning goal in the 59th minute.

Both teams came into this game with expected starting XI’s although it was a tough task for the Union to miss Alejandro Bedoya for a game of this magnitude. The captain has been injured with a hip injury and is working to get back quickly, but this game came too soon.

The first half was ugly. It was a chippy game with lots of fouling. The game lacked rhythm and both teams struggled to make plays. It almost seemed by design from Cincinnati, the underdog, to slow Philadelphia’s attack down. In the second half of the season, Philadelphia had shown real ability to blow out opponents on a regular basis – especially at home.

The second half was a bit better. The chances started to come and then it was Flach in the 59th.


The Union were able to see out the remaining 31 minutes plus six minutes of stoppage time. Andre Blake made a series of big stops as Cincinnati began to breakdown the Union defense.

With the win, the Union advanced to the Eastern Conference final for the second straight season. Last season they lost to NYCFC at home, 2-1, in the Conference final but had to play with a makeshift roster due to COVID.

“It was a good playoff game,” Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin said. “It was a high intensity game. One that our group needs. A lot of the results in recent weeks in our building were 4-0, 4-1, 5-0, 6-0. This was a really tough grind. Maybe it wasn't the most beautiful game for you guys to watch. In terms of the duels for both teams, the tackles that were flying in, the intensity of the game was as high as ever. That was good.”

The Union will now get another opportunity on Sunday, October 30 when they will host either NYCFC or Montreal.

Here are some thoughts on the game.


Blake’s masterclass


The MOTM of this game was Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, who made a series of big saves, most coming  in the second half. Cincinnati’s offense was as good as advertised and they forced Blake to come up huge. In the 20th minute, he stopped Brandon Vazquez on a difficult save. In the 49th minute, Alvaro Barreal’s shot to the right side forced Blake make a diving stop.

Then in the 71st, Blake denied Luciano Acosta’s left-footed blast. Soon after, he stopped Brenner.

For Philadelphia, it is a perfect storm of team defense. Leon Flach is top-notch defending in the midfield. Then you have the best centerback pairing in the league with Jakob Glesnes (the Defender of the Year) and Jack Elliot. When all that fails, you then have Andre Blake – who is the best goalkeeper in the league.

“So many of the saves that Andre makes are the ones that they don't even seem dangerous,” Curtin explained. “For a team that gets as many balls wide as Cincinnati and puts crosses in, you just see those arms go up in a pack of guys and get it. Normal MLS goalkeepers stay on their line, then there is a fight or a deflection and anything can happen. So many of the plays he eliminates before they are shots, it's something that I've seen now for eight years. It helps to have him back there.”

“Then you have the big saves,” he continued. “The one on Vazquez, I don't think many get to that. It's almost behind him.”

The Union needed every bit of this to hang on. That is a testament to how well Cincinnati has improved. But no one made a bigger difference than Blake.


Flach’s big moment


Leon Flach, 21, came to Philadelphia in March 2021 from St. Pauli because he felt that it was good step for his development. He wanted minutes and, well, he got them. After tonight, Flach has played an astonishing 5727 first team minutes in MLS games in the two seasons since signing for Philly.

In all that time for the Union, Flach has never had a bigger moment than his goal in the 59th minute.

The scouting report on Flach is that he is a very good No. 6 midfielder on the defensive side of the game but struggles on the ball and in the attacking side of the game. He admits this in interviews and insists he is working hard to improve to become a well-rounded player.

Curtin went into detail about this after the game.

"Leon does so much that doesn't show up on the stat sheet for this club, this team,” Curtin said. “He's a young player. I am not sure if it is because he's so intelligent that people think he's a 28-year-old. He's as young as some of the homegrown kids. He's young. He's playing every minute of every game and he does so much work defensively for our group.”

“I've said all the nice things, that now I am going to say the other things," he added with a laugh. "When we do shooting exercises, I'll just say that Leon doesn't like to do the shooting part of things. But for him to score the goal he did was incredible... the rewards from hard work are deserved. He didn't come close to scoring a goal in the 5-0, 6-0, or 7-0 games but in the biggest moments, I believe your best players step up. Leon stayed up and scored a great goal.”

“It's something he can add to his game because he's well-rounded in everything else. His goal was special.”

Flach, through his finishing, was the hero of the game.

For American fans, Flach is an interesting player to watch. He’s still young and he is eligible for the U.S. U-23 team which should start play in 2023. It is very easy to see him being in the mix for that team. 

It's also easy to see him perhaps heading back to Germany where he is essentially from and trying to climb the ranks there now with a lot more experience. He has said that he wanted to eventually move back and use Philadelphia as a player that can help prepare him for that. It's actually a very different path but one that could work out very well. For Flach, he is not going to fit well into the system of every team, but for a team that plays like Philadelphia - he's a perfect fit. 


Cincinnati is on the right track


As mentioned earlier, FC Cincinnati wasn’t poor in this one. They just ran into a very strong defensive team that stood in front of an excellent keeper who had a great night. That happens.

But after three-straight wooden spoon seasons since their inception, this was very encouraging for the organization. On most nights, they would be advancing to the conference final.

“It's only going to get better and better for them - Pat Noonan coaching,” Curtin said of Cincinnati after the game. “They're a team that is very difficult to play against. They gave us all we can handle it's the toughest game we've had here, by far. They put us under pressure.”

It’s well known that FC Cincinnati is built off the Philadelphia Union. They’re almost a spinoff show. Head coach Pat Noonan was Jim Curtin’s assistant. Technical Director Chris Albright came over from the front office in Philadelphia. Those two brought Sergio Santos, Alvas Powell, and Ray Gaddis over with them.

Building off Philadelphia has been the best decision Cincinnati has made compared with random European hires who have no real familiarity with the league.

But the team is progressing well. The front three of Luciano Acosta, Brandon Vazquez, and Brenner has been among the best in the league.

Their weaknesses in the earlier part of the season were on the defensive side. But the addition of Matt Miazga has helped - and in this game, the New Jersey native had six clearances and won nearly all his aerials. His typical intensity, antics, and tendencies to make the game chippy were on full display in the first half of this game.

But Noonan had a great first season as a head coach and it’s hard for fans to not be excited about the team’s future and direction. A lot of the decisions they are making are paying big dividends.

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