When Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake made a 15th-minute leaping save against the Seattle Sounders last Wednesday, he was just doing what he could to benefit the team’s success.
Not only did that early denial at CenturyLink Field keep the Union tied with the Sounders in a game they eventually won, it broke the franchise’s single-season saves record.
Blake, who enters Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final with 105 regular-season saves, is slowly taking ownership of most of the club’s goalkeeper records.
The Jamaican international already holds the single-season wins and saves mark, and he’s on pace to claim the winning percentage and minutes played marks. He broke the single-season save percentage record in 2017.
Although Blake is the uncontested No. 1 for the Union nowadays, that wasn’t always the case. He got stuck in a muddled goalkeeper situation and played just seven league games in his first two seasons as a professional.
After being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, Blake was forced to compete with incumbent starter Zac MacMath and then Rais MBolhi, whose tenure with the Union can only be categorized as catastrophic.
“If I say it wasn’t tough, I’d be lying,” Blake said. “It was a very tough time in my career coming in hot from college. Getting drafted No. 1, I was excited and thought I was going to play right away, but it didn’t go the way I expected.
“But I definitely learned a lot at that time and it helped mold me into the person I am today. In tough times, you just got to stick with it. You just have to work hard and that’s when you build character. That’s going to elevate you into a better player.”
Blake didn’t become the permanent starter until 2016, and since the start of his third MLS season, he’s featured in 87 contests.
Blake’s initial struggle before rising to success is emblematic of the club as a whole, as it went through so many unnecessary pitfalls that created an eight-year sinkhole that the Union are just now starting to pull themselves out of.
“Those times can either make or break you,” Blake said. “I just find ways to stay motivated. I don’t know why, but in the situation, I told myself I’m not going to quit. I’m just going to work hard and whenever I get my opportunity, I take it.”
The 27-year-old is one of a few holdovers from the heartbreaking Open Cup final defeats in 2014 and 2015, and even though he’s putting together the best statistical season of his career, there’s just one thing on the goalkeeper’s mind.
“I want to win something for the team,” Blake said. “I don’t do track or any of those individual sports. I’m really happy for the all the personal success, but for me I value team success a lot more. I want to win something for this club and lift a trophy. I’m still hungry for more.”
Blake wasn’t in the matchday squad for the 2014 Open Cup loss to Seattle, and defender Raymon Gaddis is the only current Union player to have featured in that game who is still on the roster. Midfielder Andrew Wenger, who was a Union player at the time, is in contention for minutes for the Houston Dynamo in Wednesday’s final.
Blake, Gaddis, Fabinho, Richie Marquez, C.J. Sapong, Warren Creavalle and John McCarthy were in the matchday 18 for the 2015 final loss to Sporting Kansas City, and mostly all of them are expected to be in the squad on Wednesday.
In the 2015 final, Blake conceded a second-half equalizer to Krisztian Nemeth before being taken off ahead of penalties in favor of McCarthy.
“Especially for a guy like me that came close,” Blake said. “Went up 1-0 and end up watching it go. It’s definitely a tough feeling. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m very excited, very motivated and all the guys are the same right now.”
Not only is the entire squad motivated to bring home the club’s first-ever trophy, it is confident as well following wins over Seattle and Sporting KC in the last week, both of which were unexpected results.
“We’re coming into this game confident, not over confident, but humble as well,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “That is how we’ve taken every game this season and I think the fresh legs will come in hand. We’ve shown throughout this cup that we are the fairer team and better team in most of these games. So hopefully we can translate it over to the game tomorrow and lift the first trophy for this club.”
If everything goes to plan on Wednesday, the long wait for success will be over and a new chapter will be opened, one Blake has been waiting for for quite some time.