Chester, Pa. – It was a game that had to be seen to be believed, and even then…
It was a game of three halves with the visiting New York Red Bulls winning the first before a Philadelphia Union team chasing its first ever playoff win dominated the second half and the extra time to win 4-3. Union advance to the MLS Eastern Conference Finals and a match with Atlanta United, thrilling the sellout crowd of 18,530.
An up and down game…
It took a moment of pure class from Philadelphia Union substitute Marco Fabian beating Luis Robles with an elegant chip in the first period of extra time to bring Philadelphia all the way back from a 3-1 deficit after 45 minutes.
Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake had put his team in what appeared to be insurmountable hole with a series of first half errors that staked visiting New York to a 3-1 halftime lead.
An aggressive start by the New York Red Bulls was rewarded when Josh Sims sent a rocket past a helpless Blake in the Philadelphia goal after receiving a fine set up pass from New York playmaker Kaku for a sixth minute New York lead.
But with Philadelphia doing their part in a back and forth contest New York was gifted a second goal in the 24th minute when Blake wandered off of his line and whiffed on a Red Bulls corner kick, a mistake that was punished as New York center back Tim Parker fired New York to a 2-0 lead.
Red Bulls attacker Josh Sims went down in a collision with Blake during that scoring play and after being treated on the pitch for an extended period Sims was helped off, replaced by Alex Muyl.
Philadelphia looked set for a thumping by their neighbors but mere moments after play resumed Philly captain Alejandro Bedoya, who played a captain’s part before his late injury substitution, stunned Red Bulls with a beautifully struck goal to halve the home team’s deficit.
Bedoya nearly had a hand in leveling this playoff thriller moments later when his perfect cross set up Sergio Santos for a header that was ticketed for the New York net only for Luis Robles to get a hand to it, keeping the score at 2-1 New York.
Both squads overcoming injuries
Both teams were compromised by the injury bug for this single elimination first round playoff match with the striker position an area of concern for both teams. Philadelphia was perhaps at the bigger disadvantage with goals leader Kacper Przybylko unavailable.
Bradley Wright-Phillips and Brian White both started on the bench, with Tom Barlow getting the start, although both would be called on before the day was out.
In one of the biggest talking points of the match, New York caught a huge break in the 45th minute when the ball looked to have to banged off of Tim Parker’s arm when the defender slid to block a Philadelphia shot.
Matters only got worse for Philadelphia and its fans when Barlow finished into an empty net after Blake, unbelievably, failed to catch or clear a Marc Rzatkowski free kick in the final action of the half.
Union make their comeback
Seeking to avoid becoming the first home team to be eliminated in these 2019 MLS playoffs Philadelphia came roaring out of the blocks on the resumption and quickly cut New York’s lead to the minimum with center back Jack Elliot providing the goal when he headed home after Santos’ header came back off the crossbar from a Union corner kick.
Seeking to explain the shift in fortunes New York coach Chris Armas said afterward that “it becomes a game of randomness and field position,” Armas said. “The wind is blowing hard, it’s raining hard, they’re just dumping it in our end and if they can pin us in there they have guys that come in and bring energy, and bring quality.”
New York sought to hold on under the Union’s unrelenting pressure but the dam inevitably broke when substitute Fa Fa Picault slipped inside Parker and headed past Robles, evening the score at 3-3 in the 79th minute.
Picault would have another chance moments later when a corner kick fell to him about seven or eight yards from goal but Red Bulls Luis Robles keeper came up massive save on Picault’s point blank blast.
Philadelphia kept the heat on and New York was delighted to survive to see extra time.
Any thought that Red Bulls would change the narrative on the restart of extras was quickly debunked when Philadelphia nearly scored off of a corner kick one minute into the first period of extra time only to Robles to deny Kai Wagner.
The Union kept coming and had a penalty shout minutes later when Picault out jumped Robles in the Red Bulls goalmouth and Robles grabbed the speedy winger around his midsection but the referee kept his whistle holstered.
Then came Fabian’s moment of magic and Philadelphia was moving on.
Philadelphia will play Atlanta United on Thursday.