The Union have clinched at least second place in the Eastern Conference, and their magic number to win the Supporters' Shield is just three points. They will play to win the team’s first ever trophy Sunday at Columbus, with ABC televising the game nationally. It’s as big a stage as there is in the league, and it’s just the second time in the Union’s 11-year history that they’ve had a national TV game on an over-the-air network.
But there isn’t much joy going around after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Chicago. José Andrés Martínez’s COVID-19 case and Andre Blake and Ray Gaddis' injuries in the game could reverse all of this team’s well-earned momentum. And the quicker Martínez recovers, the higher the odds Venezuela pulls him away again next month.
We have seen by now that the Union don’t just win playing gritty, hard-working soccer. They win playing attractive, skilled soccer. This game, though, was ugly. Here’s a look at some of the key performances in it.
For the second time in three games, the veteran centerback was called upon to be an emergency defensive midfielder. But this time, he didn’t have four days to get ready. He had barely 12 hours.
Union manager Jim Curtin found out about Martínez’s confirmed case at around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, just before going to bed. That followed a period of time when there was a belief that one of the tests along the way might have been a false positive. Curtin informed the players in the morning, after hopefully getting a decent night’s sleep.
Just as Elliott did against New England on Oct. 29, he stepped back into the position he played in college without a hint of complaint. And he played a fine game. His 63 touches were a team high; his 39-of-46 passing tied for best with Jakob Glesnes; and he registered three tackles, one block, one shot on target, and one chance created.
“If you call last time short notice, then this one would be very short,” Elliott said afterward. "But I’m always ready to do a job, and enjoy playing in midfield. I was just ready to play and do a job in there.”
That selfless mentality has been there ever since he famously was the 77th pick of the 2017 draft. And as we saw again Wednesday night, the skill set has been there for a long time, too.
This isn’t about his stats, because he didn’t produce many of them in his 12 minutes on the field. Wooten registered just five touches, completed just one of three passes, took no shots, won one aerial duel and made two clearances.
You know what one of those clearances was, though, because it saved the game – and much of the Union’s breathing room in the Supporters' Shield race. Yes, they’d have been one point ahead of Toronto with a tie, but the difference between one and three points in the standings could barely be greater than it is right now.
All that for a striker who has just one goal and two assists in 28 games for the Union.
Called upon at halftime after Ray Gaddis suffered an injury, Mbaizo wasn’t as good as he’s been in past games. He had two tackles, but zero interceptions, clearances or blocks. He completed 12-of-19 passes, which equates to 63.2% – a completion rate that would look pretty bad over 90 minutes. Both of his long passes were off the mark.
But he created two chances, and the second was the cross that Cory Burke headed in for the winning goal. That made up for a lot.
No Union player had a great night, but Aaronson had a better one than it felt at times. He had 40 touches, created three chances, completed 18-of-19 passes, took one shot, and registered two tackles and an interception.
One of his best plays was a sneakily important move in the buildup to Burke’s goal. Ilsinho fed Aaronson at the top of the 18-yard box, and Aaronson was surrounded by five Chicago players. There was enough room for Aaronson to make a pass out, but there wasn’t much room to dribble out. He did just that, though, shaking off some tight defending from Gastón Giménez along the way.
The Union had to play a lot more defense than they should have against a team that played for an hour down a man. Bedoya put in a yeoman’s shift: 56 touches, four tackles, two interceptions, two aerial duels won, and 30-of-39 passing. He also created one chance.