The Philadelphia Union have not backed down from the challenges posed by the top teams in Major League Soccer over the last two years.
While they have conquered Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United, before Thursday morning they struggled to get over New York City FC, baseball field or no baseball field.
Thursday's 1-0 win at the start of MLS is Back Group A was massive to give the Union not only confidence after four months away from the field, but against a team they historically struggled against.
The triumph at ESPN's Wide World of Sports broke a five-game losing streak to NYCFC and hit some important defensive milestones.
Philadelphia recorded its first clean sheet since July 20, 2019 and earned its first 1-0 victory since September 19, 2018.
Starting with the defensive performance, here are our three takeaways from Thursday.
Defense Rises to the Challenge
The Union were able to limit the production of NYCFC's spine through a few different avenues.
Andre Blake stood strong with his seven saves in goal, but there were plenty of other moves that never reached the Jamaican due to the interventions of Mark McKenzie, Jack Elliott and Jose Martinez.
McKenzie totaled six clearances, two tackles and a blocked shot and made some important interventions by just stepping up from his position inside the box to deny Heber and Maxi Moralez time on the ball.
The astute positional awareness from the Homegrown center back forced Heber out of the contest. The Brazilian forward produced a single shot on goal in 90 minutes.
Although Martinez needs to work on containing his aggressiveness, his ball-winning ability was key to disrupting what Moralez and Heber could create alongside Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Valentin Castellanos.
Notice the gap in the center of the field when you look at the distribution of the four NYCFC attackers. That's a credit to Martinez, McKenzie and Elliott not allowing the Pigeons to roam around the penalty area and fire off shot after shot at Blake.
Most of the quartet's attacking actions came through the left wing, which makes sense since they were targeting Ray Gaddis, but even though they produced some dangerous crosses, none of them created the final product.
The Union have to clean up the allowance of those crosses for the next two games, but for a tournament opener after four months off, they performed as well as they could.
Ilsinho Struggles As Starter
Ilsinho just isn't set for a starting role at this point in his career. That is stating the obvious.
He thrives so much as a substitute because he comes in with fresh legs against tired defenders, and he typically enters when Union manager Jim Curtin is ready to make tactical adjustments.
Philadelphia morphs into more of a 4-2-3-1 when Ilsinho enters the pitch to suit his skill set that excels on the wing.
Starting him as a second striker next to, or behind, Kacper Przybylko does not make sense. The move was forced out of necessity with Sergio Santos and Andrew Wooten out injured, but Brenden Aaronson or Jamiro Monteiro may have been better suited for that role with more depth residing in midfield.
"He filled in in an emergency role for sure," Curtin said of Ilsinho. "Everybody knows he does his damage out wide on the right-hand side. If you do look back at the tape, a lot of our success happened on that side. Whether it was Alejandro Bedoya with the deep run or whether it was Brenden Aaronson with the deep run in behind. Part of that comes with having Ilsinho on the field."
"Just the fact that he was out there, even though it wasn’t perfect, he was in good spots that make a defense change," Curtin said. "Ronald Matarrita had to change, backpedal and always know where Ilsinho was. It cleared space for others. I told Ilsinho before the game to play it like Roberto Firmino, who is his Brazilian counterpart, who does it pretty well at Liverpool, where he has the freedom to drift around the box. Pop up on the right, pop up in the middle behind Przybylko. I think he had fun with it. We didn’t play a perfect game overall but, the three points were big."
Ilsinho made 27 touches in 57 minutes, which is too low for a supporting striker to have, even if he drew attention away from other players.
Most of his on-ball actions occurred deeper in the final third than the Union would like, and it's not like his presence led to a slew of chances from Przybylko, Aaronson and others.
There is a way to take advantage of Ilsinho's skill set in the heat, and as we all know, that is during a 25-30 minute stretch as a sub, but that only happens if Wooten and Santos are healthy enough to start, or Curtin is willing to start Warren Creavalle or Anthony Fontana to move up Aaronson or Monteiro to the spot next to Przybylko.
Rest Won't Be An Issue
Nashville SC's withdrawal from MLS is Back forced a schedule change in Group A that will benefit the Union.
The next game against Inter Miami is Tuesday at 10:30 p.m., and while you may hate the late weeknight start, it hands the Union more recovery time.
The late start may be the most ideal time slot for teams because they do not have to deal with the sun and the temperature, albeit still hot, is more bearable under the late night sky.
Philadelphia was already preparing for one game in each of the three time slots, so this should not be an issue, and in fact it could be welcomed, with an extra bit of recovery time allowed.
There is also an extra day between the second and third game with the Union slated to play Orlando City at 8 p.m. July 20.
Not only did the Union get their toughest Group A opponent out of the way Thursday, they also got the most physically demanding start time over with.