I originally planned to write this Coleumn about which of the 14 teams that qualified for the Major League Soccer Cup playoffs would take home the hardware. As I wrote it, however, I realized that there is one major star in the league who is not only due for a postseason championship, but is playing a key part as to why the club will win the MLS Cup.
That major star is Andre Blake, a goalkeeper for the Philadelphia Union. He is to the MLS like Igor Shesterkin is to the NHL — the best goalie in the game. The name may sound familiar to anyone who attends the University of Connecticut or follows their men’s soccer team because that is where he played his collegiate career.
Under the guidance of former head coach Ray Reid, Blake played in 58 games with 46 wins, 37 shutouts and three conference Goalkeeper of the Year honors: two in the Big East and one in the American Athletic Conference. His 15 clean sheets in 2011 are tied for the most by a Husky in the single season while he never posted a goals against average (GAA) score above .75 in any of his three seasons.
Blake got selected first overall by the Union in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, the second ever UConn player to go first overall after current head coach Chris Gbandi in 2002, and worked his way up the ranks. In his first eight seasons with the club, Blake became a finalist for the Goalkeeper of the Year award four times, winning it twice in 2016 and 2020. He came up short in 2017 to Sporting Kansas City’s Tim Melia and in 2021 to the New England Revolution’s Matt Turner. But none of those campaigns come close to what Blake did this year in his age-31 season.
There are 34 games in a club’s regular season and Blake started every one of them and played every second. In those games, he recorded 100 saves and allowed just 26 goals while going 19-5-10 (coincidentally the team’s record) with a 79.4 save percentage. The 26 goals conceded were the least allowed by any team in the MLS by a wide margin (the second least goals allowed was 37 by FC Dallas) and the 100 saves ranked tied for eighth amongst all goalkeepers.
What separates Blake from the majority of goalkeepers is how many clean sheets he posted and how little goals he allowed as a result. Blake finished with 15 shutouts and a GAA of .76, both of which led the entire league. Although it is much easier to post a shutout in soccer than it is in hockey or lacrosse, Blake is playing at the top of his game and is bound to win his third Goalkeeper of the Year award.
His only weakness is visible when he has to face a penalty kick. He faced five PK situations this season and allowed four of those shots into the net. He may have to face penalty kicks in the postseason with the season on the line, but if he can improve his game, then the rest of the league may be doomed.
Not only is Blake a brick wall in net, but he gets offensive support through a series of weapons. As a team, the Union scored 72 goals with 72 assists, both of which led the league. Even with former member Brenden Aaronson and local star Christian Pulisic dominating in the United Kingdom, this offense continues to make a lot of noise.
They have a three-headed attack of goal scorers in Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre. Gazdag is an MVP candidate as he finished tied for second in goals with 22 after a hat trick against Toronto FC. Carranza put up 14 goals in 28 starts while Uhre found the net 13 times in 27 games. Those three scored 49 goals by themselves, which made up for almost 70% of the team’s goals.
Put those three together with guys such as Paxten Aaronson and Alejandro Bedoyah and you get a team that can facilitate the ball and control the game day in and day out. With an offense this potent that scored most of their goals from inside the 18-yard box, opposing coaches have a hard time deciding which approach they want to take in order to oust the Union.
If the offense cannot help him out, then Blake has the frenzied Philadelphia crowd on his side. After a 4-0 win on Decision Day the other day, the eastern officially runs through Chester, Pennsylvania. The only time the Union would not play as the home favorite would be if they played Los Angeles FC in the finals. Despite the fact that the two teams tied each other when they played this season, LAFC has the tiebreaker because they won more games.
The visiting club gets a double whammy when they enter Subaru Park. The first is that they have to go up against Blake, who is in the prime of his career. The second is that they have to go up against the Doop, who have contributed to the squad’s undefeated record at home this season. The Doop is a reference to a song called Maria (I like it Loud) by the German band Scooter. Whenever the Union score a goal, the Doop is the first thing you hear as the fans jump around in jubilation and beat drums until the drumhead falls off. This energetic anthem is the main reason why I became a fan of the team in the first place.
Aside from the offense and the crowd, Blake has the experience necessary to dominate in the playoffs. During his career, Blake has led the club to the playoffs six times. Only once has his team made it to the conference finals. That occurred last season, but he did not play against New York City FC because he had to quarantine for COVID-19 with half of the team. Although the Boys in Blue won the match in the keystone state 2-1, the script would have been flipped if Blake did not have to isolate. Perhaps the Union would have won the Cup instead of NYCFC, but that is a “what if” scenario for another day.
Part of this belief is because star forward Valentín Castellanos had to serve a one-game suspension after receiving a red card against the Revolution, but the other part of that comes from his lights out performance in the previous two rounds.
During the 2021 playoffs, Blake kept the New York Red Bulls off the board for 120 minutes, leaving enough time toward the end of extra time for Glesnes to obey the crowd’s request to shoot the ball and find the net. Eight days later, he limited a hot Nashville SC offense led by Hany Mukhtar to one goal in regulation, keeping them off the board during the penalty kicks as well as the extra time period.
Blake has come up short before, whether it was in the second round of the 2020 playoffs against the Revolution as the Supporter’s Shield winners or during both the 2018 and 2019 playoffs when Atlanta United FC and NYCFC bested him in their multi-purpose stadiums. After all those years of heartbreak, which included three eliminations in the College Cup playoffs during his UConn career, this has to be the year that Blake overcomes the pressure of losing games when they matter the most and brings home some championship hardware to the city of brotherly love.
Although there are 14 teams vying for the MLS Cup (11 of whom are trying to win it for the first time), Blake is the primary reason that the Union will emerge victorious amongst the competition. His ability to silence many offenses during the regular season — some even twice — is going to lead to promising results in the playoffs.