What players to watch in the MLS Eastern Conference Final: Philadelphia Union - NYCFC
Who are the leading candidates to lead their team to glory in the Eastern Conference Final?
In the other piece I wrote about the Eastern Conference Final, it wasn’t too difficult to write an opening paragraph to give the writing a nice cushion for the reader to sit on before delving down through the page. With this one, it’s much harder: talking about players to watch for any game involving Philadelphia Union and not immediately mention the man between the sticks, Andre Blake, is like trying to put a USB plug in the correct way around the first time. You just can’t, so stop trying to pretend otherwise.
Is he just bigger than everyone else?
Andre Blake (31) is the obvious candidate to have a standout match against NYCFC. The Jamaican has played in 35 matches this season, keeping 15 clean sheets: the most in the league. The MLS Goalkeeper of the Year 2022 has also commanded his team to being the only team in MLS to have conceded under one goal a game (0.76) - an astonishing statistic.
But wait, there’s more. Queue the drum roll. According to FBREF, Blake has saved an incredible 82.5% of all shots he has faced this season. I almost thought it was a skewed statistic, perhaps brought up by a lack of playing time, but I was mistaken. And so glad to be wrong. Despite not having the same grand shot save percentage as his peer, Sean Johnson in the other goal will be keen to make his claim as the man of the match when the time comes around. Blake might sit at the top of the tree with 15 clean sheets, but Johnson’s 14 puts him up at canopy level too.
Attacking talent from both sides
In terms of attacking talent for the sides, we cannot underestimate the goal scoring capabilities of midfielder Dániel Gazdag, Philadelphia Union’s finishing machine. He has scored 22 goals this season and all of them have come from inside the box; whether it is peeling away at the back post or putting away a penalty, the number 6 must surely be on the mind of NYCFC coach Nick Cushing. Kai Wagner is a player for Philadephia Union who has been causing a lot of danger down the left side. The full-back, despite having not scored a goal yet, has amassed 8 assists this season and always looks to cause trouble for the opposing right-back.
As for NYCFC, the midfield duo of Max Moralez and Santiago Rodríguez might win them the game just for their outstanding names alone. Apart from that, they are very good footballers, with both of them causing attacking havoc for defences all across the league. After the exit of Dani Castellanos to Girona in July, it has fallen to the South American duo to step up. Moralez has 4 goals and 6 assists this season with one of them coming in the sixth minute against Montréal in the semi-final. Rodríguez managed another assist that game and his tally rose to a mind-blowing 13 for the season - the most in the team. He also has the most yellow cards in the league (12), so perhaps he should think twice about a hot-headed decision.
Check out Part One of ‘who to watch’ here.
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