CHESTER — Jim Curtin understood it was a gamble Saturday night. After the 4-3-2-1 formation he put out in Minnesota made a raft of mistakes and ended up losing, to turn around with the same 11 players three days later was a risk.
But Curtin trusted his players to do what they’d done more often than not this season, which was, in part, to not do what they did in the loss to Minnesota United. With second place on the line, they executed near flawlessly.
Kacper Przybylko buried a penalty kick in the 18th minute, and the Union’s defense limited Nashville to precious little in the attacking third to close out a 1-0 win at Subaru Park, taking down the second-place team in the Eastern Conference.
The Union (13-8-10, 49 points) thus leapfrog Nashville (11-4-16, 49 points) into second. They hold the first tiebreaker over them, which is wins. They did so with Curtin, on the precipice of a fifth playoff appearance in six seasons, following the recipe of trusting his guys.
“I told the group yesterday, ‘I’m starting you all again because I believe in you,’” Curtin said. “I think that empowers players. I trusted them again to go out and do the job.”
Defeating Nashville, which can still finish tied for the fewest losses in an MLS season, is no minor feat. Even with coach Gary Smith taking the opposite tack and electing to rotate a few key pieces – CJ Sapong and Walker Zimmerman started on the bench; Luke Haakenson and Hany Mukhtar were suspended – the Union did the job defensively.
They used long spells of possession in the first half, though the final margin was just 50.1 to 49.9, to take the sting out of the game. They limited Nashville to a solitary shot on target and 0.3 on the expected goals tally. That effort, when Sapong got inside of Olivier Mbaizo to softly nudge a header toward goal that didn’t trouble Andre Blake, wasn’t until second-half stoppage time.
Even without the penalty kick, the total of 1.9 xG was comprehensively better than the visitors. It paid off a back-to-basics approach after three uncharacteristic errors gifted goals to Minnesota in a 3-2 midweek loss.
“I thought the first half, (it was) the way we moved the ball, our sharpness and just doing the simple things,” Curtin said. “That’s what we said in the pre-game talk, I said to everybody to put in a Philadelphia Union performance. And I added to that, do the simple things perfect. That’s when we’re at our best, when we do the simple things perfectly and we don’t make mistakes. I think we limited a lot of our mistakes tonight.”
The Union also buried the one big chance they got. The penalty kick came from an innocuous looking moment, a speculative free kick from 35 yards out that Jamiro Monteiro took. Alejandro Bedoya flicked it with his back to goal, and it popped up to hit the outstretched arm of Taylor Washington, the former Union SuperDraft pick who never played a league minute with Philly but has flourished with Nashville.
Przybylko stepped to the spot and thumped home his 11th goal of the season, an authoritative finish down the middle that left Joe Willis no chance. The fact that Przybylko took on that responsibility in such a big moment is part of why Curtin designated him as one of the preferred penalty-kick takers on the day.
“I felt confident and I think you have to feel confident all the time when you step on the field,” said Przybylko, who is up to 16 goals in all competitions this year. “I was also on the list, and I took the responsibility for the team, and I smashed it into the net. I’m happy for the team that we got the three points.”
That was about it for the meaningful first-half chances, which suited the Union just fine. Daniel Gazdag, starting again as the Union work out the kinks in the 4-3-2-1, had a shot blocked in the 33rd after a slip in the Nashville defense. Willis rushed off his line three minutes later when a 1-2 between Gazdag and Przybylko took Gazdag a little too wide, Willis bouncing on the ball.
The Union had a couple of chances to make it 2-0 late, with Nashville committing numbers forward, including Zimmerman as a third forward. The best was spurned by Przybylko when Willis got his body to an effort in the 87th. But with Monteiro, who Curtin said “gave his heart and soul,” and second-half sub Paxten Aaronson countering, the Union did enough to keep Nashville on the back foot.
That desire wasn’t lacking in Minnesota, though the execution was.
“I think tiredness and pain is a not an excuse,” Przybylko said. “If you’re on the field, you have to commit for the entire 90 minutes plus additional time. That’s what we’re doing. I’m always running my ass off for the team, and the other guys are doing that for me and for everyone on the field. If you step on the field, you have to commit to it, and that’s what we did. This is our job, and tiredness is never an excuse.”
Source: Berkshire mont