Andre Blake has had a lot of outstanding nights in his career, but on Sunday at Subaru Park he had his greatest triumph yet.
After the Union and Nashville SC played to a 1-1 tie at a jammed-to-the-ceiling Subaru Park, the Union’s star goalkeeper saved the first two penalty kicks he faced in the shootout and watched two more sail into the River End to send the Union to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in their history.
Here are some observations on the dramatic win.
Mukhtar stars again
The Union kept the clamps on Nashville star Hany Mukhtar for most of the first half, but he finally broke free in the 38th minute to leap on an outstanding cross from Eric Miller. It only took Alvas Powell being one step late for Mukhtar to get the space he needed to head the ball past a stranded Andre Blake, and score his 19th goal of the year for Nashville.
The three goals Mukhtar has scored in the playoffs don’t count toward his MVP candidacy, since the ballots were cast at the end of the regular season. But he is the leading candidate, and his postseason run was a reminder of why — even with Andre Blake saving his penalty kick in the shootout.
It took two bites of the apple for the ball to go in, but all that mattered in the end is that it got there. And with Mukhtar and Daniel Gazdag’s name on the scoreboard, there was a theme: each team’s goal came from a big-money signing. Gazdag cost a $1.8 million transfer fee, the second-largest in Union history; Mukhtar cost Nashville a $3 million transfer fee last year and just short of that in salary over his two seasons in MLS so far.
These were big-time players stepping up in the biggest game they’ve played for their current clubs.
» READ MORE: Dániel Gazdag has hit his stride with the Union
Gazdag also had a goal controversially disallowed in the 77th minute when he headed in a corner kick but Sergio Santos obstructed Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis. There wasn’t much contact, but there was just enough for the video replay booth to uphold the initial call that it was a foul.
Leon Flach exited the game in the 57th minute after suffering a right knee injury. The contact didn’t look major, and Flach walked off under his own power. But he walked gingerly, and kept walking until he was into the locker room.
Santos replaced Flach, as the Union switched from the 4-3-2-1 formation they’ve used for the last two weeks to the diamond 4-4-2 that’s their traditional setup.
Four minutes later, Santos had a shockingly bad miss. Gazdag sprung him free with the best pass of his Union tenure, but Santos put his attempted chip shot so far wide of the far post that it curled backward and stayed inbounds.
Santos missed badly again in the 93rd, failing to finish a cross from Jamiro Monteiro that he received just beyond the six-yard line. At the start of the second extra time, he shot straight at Willis; in the 117th he missed a first-touch attempt from even closer (though he might have been offside); and he capped off the ignominy with a poor kick in the shootout that Willis saved.
Monteiro had a bad miss of his own, too, hitting a free kick into the stands on the last play of regulation.
Santos for Flach was the only substitution made in regulation for either team. Union manager Jim Curtin made two at the start of the second extra time period, Jack McGlynn for Monteiro and Cory Burke for Kacper Przybylko; and soon thereafter sent in Nathan Harriel for Alvas Powell.
Przybylko was ineffective for most of the night. But by the time those three subs were made, it was fair to wonder about Curtin taking off two players in Monteiro and Przybylko, who are good penalty-kick takers.
The time duly came for the Union to go to their first shootout since June 28, 2017, when they lost in the U.S. Open Cup’s round of 16 at the New York Red Bulls; and the first in Chester since Sept. 30, 2015, when they lost the Open Cup final to Sporting Kansas City.
McGlynn proved to be one of the scorers, with one of the calmest penalties ever seen from an 18-year-old. Jack Elliott also scored with the Union’s first attempt of the shootout. Blake saved shots by Mukhtar and Aníbal Godoy, and Alex Muyl and Walker Zimmerman shot over.
“When a young kid says ‘I want one,’ you reward him with it,” Curtin said. “For him to step up in that moment, there’s a word for it that won’t use on the press conference, but he has brass ones.”
It was a gamble by Curtin, too — and it paid off huge for both of them.
The Union will play the winner of Tuesday’s New England Revolution-New York City FC game (7:30 p.m., FS1 and Fox Deportes) in the Eastern Conference final on Sunday (3 p.m., 6abc and ESPN Deportes).
If New England wins, the Union will go to Gillette Stadium. If NYCFC, the East’s No. 4 seed, upsets this year’s record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners, the Union will host.