The Philadelphia Union looked to be on the verge of being overwhelmed by a dominant Atlanta United in the first 45 minutes of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal opener at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Jim Curtin’s team bent on several occasions, but never broke, setting the stage for an impressive second-half turnaround.
Kacper Przybylko and Andre Blake stole the show for the defending Supporters’ Shield winners in a 3-0 first-leg victory over the Five Stripes.
On a night when Atlanta United came out fast and put the Union under serious pressure in the first half, it was Blake’s strong first-half form that kept the match goal-less, and Pryzybylko’s second-half goals that gave the Union control of the series heading back to Pennsylvania for the second leg.
“When the team sheet came out, we saw their lineup and we knew they were coming to attack us and end this tie tonight,” Curtin said. “They put us under the gun early, but Andre made some saves early that you need in a big-time match. Defensively, we stood up to them and frustrated them and it was good to see on the road in a hostile environment.”
Atlanta United controlled the early action, controlling possession and generating a flurry of dangerous chances on goal, but Blake made five first-half saves to keep them level at halftime.
Atlanta continued to dominate possession early in the second half, but the tide turned when the Union struck first, with Przybylko tapping home from close range after a corner kicked bounced to him all alone on the back post.
“They didn’t surprise me with how well they played, it [the 4-4-2 diamond] is a tough thing to go against, and its something we’ve practiced against this preseason,” Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze said. “We just need to focus on how we can get after them and make the most of our offensive chances in the second leg.”
Przybylko doubled the Union lead with a confident strike past Brad Guzan in the 73rd minute, after Leon Flach’s dangerous run on the left wing allowed Przybylko to be left wide open in front of goal.
Anthony Fontana added a third Union goal, courtesy of a Pryzybylko assist, to end any chances of a Five Stripes comeback on the night, leaving Atlanta United to have to try and turn around a three-goal deficit at Subaru Park.
“Atlanta was doing a great job in the first half,” Przybylko said. “We were struggling to stay with them, but we knew if we kept the score at 0-0 at halftime, then we would have a chance. We were able to stay within our formation and trouble them and swing things in our favor.”
“I am so proud of the team for their work defensively,” Przybylko said. “We scouted them and knew we could take advantage of them on the counter attack at moments. Credit to the coaches for getting that ready for us and now we have another big game this weekend before the second leg next week.”
Przybylko and Blake were the standout stars for the Union in the first leg victory, but there were plenty of strong individual performances all over the field for Jim Curtin’s side. The midfield diamond of Jamiro Monteiro, Jose Martinez, Alejandro Bedoya, and Leon Flach worked hard against the playmaking weapons of Atlanta United and didn’t give many good looks after halftime.
Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott helped limit Atlanta United striker Josef Martinez to one shot on goal in the first half before silencing him for the final 45 minutes.
“We’ve given up one goal against the run of play, which was the Higuain goal on Saturday,” Curtin said. “We’re built to bend, but not break, and I think you saw that again tonight, against a team that can beat you in so many ways. Every player deserves recognition for helping us earn this victory tonight and now we have to prepare for a tough MLS match against NYCFC.”
“We knew there would be some space in the second half. On a different night they probably would’ve taken their chances and made them, but credit to Andre for standing up tall. The match had a real intensity to it and in this tournament it’s all about surviving and advancing.”
The Union didn’t just survive the match, they secured a three-goal lead with three away goals, sending a strong message to the CCL field that their early-season struggles in MLS play shouldn’t be taken as a sign that they still aren’t a strong team.
“It’s a great example of this game,” Curtin said. “You can be the better team against Miami and still suffer a loss. We weren’t at our best in the opening half, but we turned things around after halftime and we stayed with how we wanted to play. I am really proud of the guys for being committed. It’s one of the biggest wins in club history for sure.”