The view from the press box of Kacper Przybylko’s game-winning goal against Atlanta United was just about perfect.
From the top of the stands, one could take in the full scope of Kai Wagner’s long ball down the left wing, Sergio Santos’ run to meet it, and the cross that Przybylko finished with an unstoppable swerving shot.
There could hardly be a better way for Przybylko to celebrate the contract extension the Union gave him a few days earlier. His performance on Saturday was in some ways even better than what he did against D.C. United a week earlier. In this game, Przybylko recorded 53 touches, 3 shots (2 on target), 3 chances created, 4 aerial duals won, 2 tackles, 1 interception and 1 clearance, and completed 25 of 32 passes.
His only misstep was trash-talking Los Angeles FC, the best team in MLS by far this year and next on the docket for the Union on Sept. 14.
“LAFC, I wish you a lot of luck," Przybylko said. "This is our house. This is our stadium. We’re waiting for you guys.”
Led by Carlos Vela, LAFC is 19-4-5 on the season (62 points), including 8-3-3 on the road. They were upset at home by Minnesota United on Sunday, in part because Vela missed the game injured. (Minnesota is also due some credit: Mason Toye scored two terrific goals.)
That gave LAFC a two-game winless streak, after the crosstown rival Los Angeles Galaxy took a 3-3 tie out of Banc of California Stadium a week earlier.
The Union should hope Vela and company win at Orlando on Saturday before coming back east to Chester. And they should consider themselves lucky that game is happening during a FIFA international window when MLS is supposed to be dark.
A few other observations:
Alejandro Bedoya also had a view from above of Przybylko’s heroics, though the Union’s captain would rather have not. Bedoya watched the game from a suite while suspended for yellow card accumulation.
“I’ve never really sat up there to watch a game before," he told The Inquirer outside the locker room afterward. "Soccer looks a lot more simple up there.”
Bedoya said he threw a water bottle when Atlanta scored to go up 1-0 in first half stoppage time. By the end of the game, though, he was celebrating as much as everyone else.
“The team showed great resilience,” he said. “We’ve known that when we play to our abilities, we can play with anyone in this league. ... The character that was shown after going down, not giving up, and coming back, I think it bodes well for the future.”
You might be surprised to learn that Jamiro Monteiro was credited with just 1 interception, 1 block and zero tackles or clearances against Atlanta. It certainly felt like he did a lot more defensively than that, playing in a deeper role than he usually does. His more impressive stats were attacking ones: 70 touches, 1 shot, 1 chance created, 5 successful dribbles past opponents and 40 of 47 passes completed.
More and more often these days, hardcore Union fans and casual local soccer fans alike pick Monteiro as the most impressive player on the field. They have a point.
The Union know they have a big decision to make in a few months about whether to buy Monteiro outright from Metz, the French club that loaned him here. It’s possible that Metz will ask for more money than makes sense to pay. Every player in the world has a fair price and an unfair price. But the time is coming for Union owner Jay Sugarman to make what might be the biggest on-field decision of his decade-long ownership of the team.
It’s the first time ever that the Union have reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. It’s also by far the earliest the team has ever clinched a postseason berth, whether by calendar date (Sept. 1) or games remaining (5). The previous best was last year, when the Union clinched on Oct. 6 with two games remaining. In 2016, they did it on the last day of the season (Oct. 23), and in 2011 they did it with one game left.
As impresisve as the Union’s win was, it likely won’t be enough to earn a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta still has a game in hand, and though the reigning champions have two midweek games left, their schedule overall is soft: home contests vs. Columbus, San Jose and New England and trips to Cincinnati, New York City FC and Montreal.
The New York game is the only one that’s likely to be a threat, bringing top talent and the awkward confines of Yankee Stadium. Atlanta has clearly better talent than all the other teams. San Jose and Montreal might put up a fight, but the Earthquakes must travel cross-country and the Impact haven’t shown they’re any better under new coach Wilmer Cabrera than they were under fired predecessor Rémi Garde.