Missing 6 Starters Through COVID, Philly Suffers Crushing Last-Minute Heartbreak To NYCFC

That’s the Eastern Conference final decided then, and it’ll live long in the memory as one of the most batshit crazy games in MLS playoff history from build-up to finish.  

Leading up to the match, the Philadelphia Union had gone from a two-to-one favorite to a two-to-one underdog after COVID-19 health and safety protocols quickly ruled out 11 players, including six starters. The entire backline of goalkeeper Andre Blake, center backs Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott and full backs Alvas Powell and Kai Wagner were out, as was captain Alejandro Bedoya, second-leading scorer Sérgio Santos, backup striker Cory Burke and hugely promising 17-year-old midfielder Quinn Sullivan.   

With the club’s starting and third-choice goalkeepers out, backup 23-year-old Matt Freese got the start while MLS Pool keeper Greg Ranjitsingh was added to the roster Saturday and assumed the No. 2 role Sunday. 

18-year-old Jack McGlynn and 20-year-old Nathan Harriel were handed first-ever playoff starts, while 35-year-old defender Aurélien Collin, who hadn’t started a match since September 2019 and whose only appearance this season was a one-minute cameo in the CCL, entered the XI.

But Philadelphia’s trip to the conference final had already been an almighty grind. Against NYRB in the first round, it took a golazo at the 120+3’ mark to advance. Against Nashville in the conference semis, it took a penalty shootout with Nashville missing all four of its attempts. 

“Sometimes the most dangerous thing is a group of men or women with nothing to lose,” Union manager Jim Curtin said before kick-off. 

NYCFC was missing one huge contributor in MLS Golden Boot winner Tatty Castellanos after he picked up a red card in the conference semis. Philly fans were quick to remind him of that.  

The sellout crowd of 19,000 at Subaru Park knew the assignment. Every Union foray forward was roared on by the home crowd, and it was the Union that surprisingly created the better chances in the opening 55 minutes by landing three shots on target to zero for NYCFC.

Then, with NYCFC finally starting to create in the final third, Philadelphia got a deserved opener in the 63rd minute after a dangerous cross caused City defender Alexander Callens to steer one into the back of his own net.  

The ecstasy inside Subaru Park quickly turned to agony. 90 seconds later, Maxi Moralez had New York City level after Freese parried Maxime Chanot’s long-range blast.   

With its depleted bench and having spent the majority of the game chasing NYCFC (the visitors had 65% possession), it began to look like Philadelphia wanted nothing more than to make it to extra time, but the Union generated one last big opportunity with Harriel heading narrowly over with just minutes remaining. 

Extra time beckoned, but in the 88th, Philadelphia defender Olivier Mbaizo checked out at the worst possible moment, allowing NYCFC’s Gudmundur Thórarinsson to pick out 19-year-old Brazilian Talles Magno for the winner.  

New York City had already made club history by making it this far, but now, for the first time in its seven-year history, NYCFC is contesting MLS Cup. That’s now 12 seasons without reaching MLS Cup for Philadelphia.

The final between Portland and NYCFC at Providence Park is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 11, at 3:00 p.m. ET on ABC. 

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