The Union’s 3-0 win over Columbus on Sunday didn’t feel like a big game, in a lot of ways.
After all, Columbus isn’t a traditional rival of the Union’s, and this contest didn’t come with the top-of-the-table stakes that last autumn’s meetings had. The crowd at Subaru Park was well short of a full house, and lacked the big caucus of away fans that D.C. and the New York teams bring to Chester.
But by the final whistle, it was clear this game was a very big one. Not only had the Union moved up to third place in the Eastern Conference, they had also knocked the defending champion Crew down to six points back of the last playoff spot.
And the Union had done so in the last game before the start of a FIFA national team game window in which six Union players will be away with their countries: Andre Blake (Jamaica), Dániel Gazdag (Hungary), José Andrés Martínez (Venezuela), Olivier Mbaizo (Cameroon), Jamiro Monteiro (Cape Verde), and Alvas Powell (Jamaica). They’ll all miss Saturday’s game at FC Cincinnati (8 p.m., PHL17), as will the suspended Kai Wagner and the injured Cory Burke.
(The game was originally scheduled for Aug. 14, but was moved due to the Union starting the Champions League semifinals on Aug. 12.)
“I think you could see it from the emotions from everybody in the game, during the game, after the game, you know, how vital this game was,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s crucial that we get wins at home and then try to take care of some business away. … It means a lot to put the teams that are kind of pushing to be above the playoff line, a little bit, keep them down below the line, and for us to climb the standings a bit.”
The player of the game was Jack Elliott, and not just because of his highlight-reel free-kick goal. He delivered six recoveries, six duels won, five clearances, two interceptions, and 27-of-37 passing.
“His ability to advance the ball out of the back, to play through the lines, to create chances offensively, but then also, when it’s time to roll the sleeves up and be a centerback and do it the old-school way and just defend, he was excellent as well,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Him and Jakob [Glesnes] have something really special together, and they’re really tough to break down.”
Elliott wasn’t in the team’s postgame news conference, which was too bad for him more than the media. He missed Curtin and Bedoya holding a roast in Elliott’s honor.
“I don’t want to steal any thunder from the kid because Jack played an incredible game, but let’s not call that a great free kick,” Curtin said. “He hit the target, we’ll just say that.”
Bedoya joked he wasn’t sure Elliott meant to do what he did, but he wasn’t entirely surprised.
“He does work on it in training,” Bedoya said. “He’s got this little dipper he can hit hard, [and] you get them on target, anything’s possible.”
All of this was done in good humor for one of the Union’s most affable players — but also one of the team’s hardest workers for years. The list of Union players who can score from direct free kicks is now impressively long, including Elliott, Glesnes, Kai Wagner, and Jamiro Monteiro. (It probably includes Dániel Gazdag too, though he hasn’t done it yet here.)
“Jack is always, I’ll just say, the last one to leave training, and he’s usually out there, and I usually joke and say to him, ‘None of the guys are going to let you take it anyway, so I don’t even know why you practice them,’ ” Curtin said. “When he lined up for almost, like, a one-step free kick from that distance, I thought there’s no way he’s shooting at goal — I thought he was just going to clip a ball over. He hit it hard enough, I guess, and it went in.”