Wenger 1, McInerney 1

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It’s only one game, but it certainly looks like the Philadelphia Union have found a talented striker in new acquisition Andrew Wenger. The former Montreal Impact forward scored in his first match for Philadelphia, breaking-up a scoreless tie in the 55th minute against Real Salt Lake. The goal followed a near-miss in the first-half that ticked off the top of the cross bar.

Wenger, who grew-up in Lancaster County and was once a member of the Union’s affiliate in Reading, seemed very much at home with his new teammates, slapping hands and talking-up his side excitedly moments before the first touch. That quick familiarity extended into the game where Wenger seemed anxious to break forward, anticipating multiple long balls from his new midfield. The 23-year-old might have gotten more chances had the Union been closer to target on their feeds, especially in the first half.

Meanwhile, 450 miles to the north, the guy going the other way in the Wenger deal was having a nice day of his own. About 13 minutes before Wenger triggered his first PPL Park Doop Dance, former Union scoring leader Jack McInerney raced full-tilt to net on a clever feed from Felipe Martins and Impact offensive ogre Marco Di Vaio and banged one in on the run against Chicago. In case you missed it, here are the game highlights. The goal occurs 2 minutes into the clip.

http://www.impactmontreal.com/en/news/2014/04/report-mcinerney-scores-debut-impact-battles-1-1-draw-fire

Having not seen the entire match, I’m not certain how many other chances McInerney generated or helped to create, although I can tell you that Montreal was outshot 17-6 by the Fire and the match ended in a one-one draw. The Chicago Tribune reports that Di Vaio fed McInerney a second time but the former Philadelphia forward guided the ball wide. Montreal may well be on its way to a lot of those sorts of plays with Di Vaio targeting Jack downfield, which better suits the style the Impact has adapted since Di Vaio exploded onto the MLS scoring leader board last season.

Wenger, on the other hand, appears happy with his new situation as well. Suddenly, there are balls winging his way from any number of helpers. He was constantly pushing forward and drawing the attention of multiple sources (even defender Sheanon Williams, who was in a giving mood on that near-miss crossbar dinger). In turn, you got the impression that the Union midfielders were happy to have an open target springing ahead of them for a change. With any luck, they’ll get a little better with their feeds, which were largely off-target in that first half.

ANOTHER NICE THING ABOUT THAT GOAL

The movement up the field was sensational on the Union’s part and the goal itself came off a perfect feed by Vincent Nogieura who continues to show why the Union worked so hard in the waining moments of the off-season to pry him away from Ligue 1 in France. Nogieura said at the time that he was excited to try life in the states. Hopefully, his success here is making the transition an even easier one.

ANOTHER THING ABOUT THAT OTHER GOAL

For the second straight week, Maurice Edu put one in the back of the net, this time on a beautiful header off a big-league corner kick from Christian Maidiana. That means that both goals last week were scored and assisted by the four newest members of the Union offense.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK, IT’S A WINLESS TOWN!

Philadelphia plays a rare Wednesday night match on the road against the Red Bulls (7:30 p.m., TCN) who have joined the legions of teams in the MLS Eastern Conference who would apparently rather play to a draw than a win. New York is 0-2-4 and firmly entrenched in 9th place. New York still has star striker Thierry Henry who leads the club in shots with 19 but who’s only notched one goal so far. The Union has been unable to keep hungry, big-name players off the board in recent matches, as both Marco Di Vaio (Montreal) and Mike McGee (Chicago) have netted their first goals of the year against Philadelphia. Denying Thierry his second has to be a priority for the Union defense.

New York’s scoring leader is Peguy Luyindula with 2, but the usual suspects are still contributing; Dax McCarty and Jonny Steele each have one. The problem has for the Red Bulls is that they haven’t been getting much else. New York is scoring at a one-goal-per-game clip while giving-up almost twice that. What’s more, they’re coming-off a 1-0 shut-out loss to DC United. Perhaps, Philadelphia is catching them at a good time.

IN THE EAST, WHERE’S THE BEAST?

Every time you turn around, the cards get shuffled in the MLS Eastern Conference, with clubs that only recently seemed on the outs suddenly springing forward and others high in the standings taking dives. The active movement is made simpler by all the draws, which are allowing anyone who feels like winning one or two matches to make quick progress. The Columbus Crew are suddenly in first place with DC United and New England hitting the board in play-off positions. Last year’s power houses, Montreal and New York, are in the basement. Houston, next Saturday’s Union opponent, has now slipped beneath Philadelphia after notching its 3rd loss last week. Only Houston and Toronto have failed to play to a draw this season. Overall, the Eastern Conference clubs have 15 wins, 19 losses and a whopping 21 ties. The Union’s 4 draws have cost them. They’ve now slipped into 6th place. But the division is so packed that a win in New York miraculously catapults Philadelphia into first, something that could lend an extra sense of urgency to Philadelphia’s game on Wednesday.

 

Union Opponent: Damaged Goods

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Real Salt Lake is really hurting. The perennial MLS Western Conference powerhouse limps into PPL Park on Saturday (4 p.m., 6abc) with no fewer than three regular contributors out of action and two others only just making their way back from the injured list.

RSL, last year’s runner-up for the MLS Cup, can thank soccer’s system of player-sharing for this week’s troubles. Starting goaltender Nick Rimando and midfielder Tony Beltran were both summoned by the U.S. Men’s National Team for a friendly against Mexico last week. Both came back damaged goods and neither will play at PPL Park on Saturday. Interestingly, the Philadelphia Union avoided similar troubles when their single call-up, midfielder Maurice Edu, only made it into the Mexico match as a late sub and stayed healthy.

Will this twist of USMNT fate aide the Union this weekend? Maybe. The pieces missing from Salt Lake’s line-up are significant. Rimando had started four of five RSL matches this season and had two shut-outs, putting him just two shy of the MLS record (110 by the retired Kevin Hartman). Beltran was also a regular, although his contribution on the stat sheet so far this year has amounted to 6 fouls and an offsides call in four games. But another MIA for RSL will be midfielder Luis Gill, who had played in all 5 games with a goal and an assist. The injuries are an assortment of strains and pulls. Meanwhile, two other players, defender Chris Wingert and midfielder Sebastian Velasquez, are available but just making their way back from the disabled list and may not be ready for the full 90 minutes.

NOTHING COMES EASY

Of course, the way this season has gone for the Union, the rest of Real Salt Lake’s roster is liable to hit the pitch playing the best soccer of their lives on Saturday. And injured or not, you always have to worry about a squad that has been so good for so long over in the tougher left side of the MLS. The Utah club is doing it again this season with an undefeated record (2-0-3). Its 9 points would be good enough for a first-place tie in the East, but still gets them second in the Western Conference, four points behind the simmering Dallas FC.

The Union, on the other hand, have been uneven and thoroughly frustrating this season, often outplaying an opponent only to settle for a low-scoring draw. The club finally scored two goals in a game last week, a first for this season. Ironically, it happened during what was otherwise Philadelphia’s worst effort. The Chicago Fire was in clear control of the ball most of the day and would’ve won were it not for a pair of last-second, miracle saves by goal tender Zac MacMath off a penalty kick sequence.

TEMPORARY TROUBLE OR PERMANENT PROBLEM?

It’s hard to know whether the Union simply couldn’t do as much without injured midfielder Christian Maidana, who at times this season has been the Union’s most dynamic offensive player. Maurice Edu was also playing his third game in eight days and had done a lot of traveling related to his USMNT call-up. He forced his first chance over the net off a brilliant feed by Conor Casey, before banging home the Union’s first goal. But was he in his best shape? And after the trade of Jack McInerney, the club may have had some growing pains adjusting to Casey up front as the main target for essentially the first time this season. What’s more, the Union was playing without the traded McInerney and his replacement, Andrew Wenger, wasn’t yet available thanks to a prior red card suspension.

One hopes the Union’s troubles were related to these issues, suggesting a temporary problem rather than something endemic. The Union clearly needs to prove to themselves the former by taking advantage of Real Salt Lake’s depleted roster this weekend. The Utah club appeared to be affected by its lack of depth last week when it played to a scoreless draw in Kansas City. Previously, RSL had blasted eight goals in four games including 3 against revamped Toronto just before the USMNT call-ups/injuries. Another Philadelphia misfire will likely get some supporters grumbling and will make additional moves like the McInerney swap more tempting. It would be better for everybody if the current roster figured it out and started on the path to better consistency. Salt Lake City appears a ripe conduit.

WENGER TIME

Cast into the middle of the Union’s evolving offensive scheme is another new part in need of some quick assimilation. Andrew Wenger, the other guy in the McInerney flip, will likely get a chance to show his stuff in front of the home crowd. The Union brass feels Wenger was unable to reach his potential playing in the shadow of Montreal’s one-man-show, Marco Di Vaio (although, to be fair, forward Justin Mapp was probably also higher on the depth chart). They also feel Wenger’s superior size (6’ to Jack’s 5’ 10”) will play better in the Union’s forward-pushing offense.

McINERNEY TIME, TOO

Saturday also marks the debut of Jack McInerney in Montreal as the Impact plays host to Chicago. Jack told the Quebec press that the trade surprised him and that he was a little “tired” after his first training session. But he says the new group seems like a good bunch and he’s excited to get started. There will probably some scoreboard watching going on in Philadelphia as Union supporters check-in on Jack’s contributions. The Montreal match also starts at 4 p.m..

OUT OF TIME

Keon Daniel has been one of the forgotten men on the Union this season. In fact, he was essentially forgotten as soon as the Union completed their triple-set of midfield signings during the off-season. For some supporters, Daniel epitomized everything that was wrong with the old midfield: uncertainty around the ball, a lack of quality passes and little pressure forward. Daniels could clearly see the writing on the wall, especially after the Union also picked-up midfield depth in this year’s MLS Super Draft. This week, the club announced that Daniel has agreed to cut ties. There’s no word on his next landing spot, although his native Trinidad and Tobago will almost certainly call on him for tournament help as they have in the past.

BUSY WEEK

The Union have plenty of chances to either soar or sink in the next eight days. The club has a rare Wednesday road match against New York before coming home the following Saturday (April 19) for a match against Houston. A win against RSL this week would be a nice springboard to success. New York is struggling at 0-1-4 and could serve-up another three points. Points are important over the next two, however, because Houston is looking fit for another play-off run. The Dynamo is currently in fourth place with a game at hand on Philadelphia.

6ABC AND DOLLAR DOGS: PERFECT TOGETHER

Either way, you win. Head to PPL Park on Saturday and you get to enjoy dollar dogs along with the perfect weather. But if you get shut-out of tickets, you can stay at home and catch the game in sensational HD on 6abc.

McInerney Trade: The Right Move?

Murphy at PPL

Who saw this coming? Young star forward Jack McInerney was traded away to the Montreal Impact Friday morning where he will team up with veteran striker Marco Di Vaio to form what could become one of the best one-two punches in the MLS. In return, Philadelphia gets 23-year-old forward Andrew Wenger, a player whose main claims to fame are in his past: he’s a former top pick in the MLS Super Draft and a former member of the Union’s affiliate, Reading United, who grew-up in nearby Lancaster County. The deal occurs in the early days of a 1-1-2 Union season which has featured fewer wins and far less scoring than anyone expected, given the club’s stunning series of off-season upgrades. Apparently, Union management had seen enough and wanted to shake things up quickly, before it’s too late.

FYI: Wenger, like McInerney, has one goal this season, even though he’s only started 3 games to Jack’s 5. It was a quality header in the rain in Dallas. The goal occurs shortly after 5:00 on this clip.

http://www.impactmontreal.com/fr/news/2014/03/highlights-fc-dallas-3-2-impact

Wenger is a nice player who brings a well-known work ethic and positive attitude to Philadelphia. He’s scored six MLS goals in a couple of seasons up north and probably learned a few things playing beside DiVaio last year when the Italian forward was among the MLS scoring leaders. But you have to think this deal was more about McInerney and the Union’s struggles up front this season than Philadelphia’s burning desire for a kid who’s scored roughly half as often as the player they’re sending away.

The Downside

The Union is taking a chance with this deal on two fronts. First, the trade risks alienating the legions of McInerney fans who plunked down big money on “Number Nine” jerseys over the last couple of seasons and have been figuring that it’s only a matter of time before the young striker finds the form he enjoyed early last year. Ironically, McInerney was battling Di Vaio for the MLS scoring lead last summer before fading in the season’s second half. The risk increases exponentially every time Jack’s name shows up on the scoring sheet for Montreal in the coming weeks, and common sense says it probably will. Secondly, if the offense doesn’t improve at PPL Park in the wake of the trade, fans will rightly wonder what could have been had McInerney stayed.

The Upside

While it may be hard for fans to see it initially, there is, in fact, a good measure of method to what may seem like madness here. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine the Union—who’ve invested mightily this season, in both dollars and emotion—pulling the trigger on a deal like this simply for the sake of change. There’s very likely a bigger picture in view and while the Union front office probably won’t speak to the details, it’s easy to guess what’s on their minds. For one thing, Leo Fernandez. The young forward is filled with energy and has had a positive impact in at least two of his three appearances this year. McInerney’s departure makes more room for Fernendez, assuming Wenger doesn’t explode into an offensive superstar here. The club may also feel that Conor Casey is now healthy enough to reassume his role as reliable finisher. Recall that Casey really didn’t find his stride last season until McInerney left the club during the summer for a stint with the US Men’s National Team. Players like imports Christian Maidana and Vincent Noguiero, who scored his first goal last week, may also find more space.

One also has to wonder a little about McInerney. The new guy, Wenger, is by every account a stand-up personality with an exceedingly good attitude. Translation: he’s coachable. McInerney? For what it’s worth, his USMNT stint ended after three weeks of practice and not so much as a minute’s playing time. When he came back to the Union, he seemed disoriented and ended-up on Manager John Hackworth’s bench for a few games as well. At the time, I wrote that young players often have growing pains and that McInerney was likely the type who could work himself back into shape. Almost a year later, we were still waiting for him to find his mojo. McInerney was playing off the ball more than on and was whiffing on most of his chances. His single goal this season doesn’t happen if big Maurice Edu isn’t a few feet behind him in the box directing a cross in his direction.

Not-So-Fast Forward

The other issue is that the Union is not scoring nearly often enough this season and the problem area is obvious. It certainly isn’t the midfield where the three newcomers (Maidana, Noguiera and Edu), along with Union survivor Brian Carroll, have controlled the majority of play in every match and completely dominated more than once. You can’t fault the defense, either. Again this season, the back line has been solid and has tended to prevent long forays by the opposition in front of its goal while sending good feeds the other way.

The issue has been almost entirely up front where opportunities are created but rarely buried. If there was going to be a change, it had to be on that end of the field, whether or not this was the specific change you wanted to see. But if not Jack, then who? Conor Casey, just back from an injury? Sebastien Le Toux? Again? Maybe McInerney was the player the Union wanted to deal. Or maybe he was the only one they could deal, while still getting some quality in return. Either way, it was the right sort of trade.

Union supporter Alex Hamell also suggest to me that salary cap issues may have played a role in the deal, as McInerney’s full pay would have counted against the cap next year (due to his growing service time in the league), making him hard to retain.

And For Their Next Trick…

The front office moved fast on this, which is either a sign of a club that’s serious about winning and isn’t afraid to act boldly to make it happen, or a management group with a nervous sweat beading on the neck that’s beginning to feel the early pangs of desperation. I’m willing to give the Union the benefit of the doubt for a few weeks on this point. A bevy of additional moves in the coming weeks will make me uneasy, the way Bobby Clarke used to worry me with his trade-a-third-of-the-club approach every year he was the Flyers’ G.M.. On the other hand, if the Union stands pat and gives players like Wenger, or Casey or Fernandez a chance to get hot, by mid-May, we all could be as happy as the Sons of Ben at a Doop Party.

Honestly, the moment I heard about this trade, I had the completely opposite reaction that the newsroom folks who alerted me anticipated. I liked it. Change was made in the area where it was needed. The Union got decent value in return and may have shaken things up just enough to get the offense moving. It’s a dice roll, no doubt. Every move in professional sports is nothing more, nothing less. Ruben Amaro can tell you plenty about that. But the Union is probably better off with a management team that isn’t afraid of change than one stuck with a concrete plan.

As for Jack McInerney, he will likely be remembered with exceeding fondness by many among the Union faithful—and that’s probably as it should be. We witnessed plenty of growing pains in his short time as a Philadelphia starter, but for three magical months last year, Jack almost single-handedly put the Union on the map and into the play-off picture. His run of success is reminiscent of Raul Ibanez’s first year with the ’09 Phillies when the outfielder carried the team on his back until the rest of the Fightins got it together. Jack was that guy for the Union last year. And he may be again someday. Just not here. At 21, he’s got plenty of time to find that lost magic. So merci, Jack, and au revoir!

Well, until August 9th, that is. Then, it’s bonjour. That’s when Montreal returns to PPL Park.

Here’s my preview of Saturday night’s match in Chicago: http://yomurph6abc.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/union-and-fire-2-frustrated-clubs/

Union and Fire: 2 Frustrated Clubs

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Jack McInerney Traded: my special blog reviewing the trade: http://yomurph6abc.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/mcinerney-trade-the-right-move/

The Philadelphia Union faces the Chicago Fire in Illinois on Saturday (5 p.m., CSN), a team struggling to earn points against mediocre opponents. Somebody in Chicago right now is probably writing the same thing about Union. Philadelphia has had the better of it this year with their 1-1-2 record, but that’s only good enough for 5th place in the Eastern Conference. Chicago has been only slightly more befuddled, struggling to a 0-1-3 record which has them mired in 7th.

Oh, how much better it was supposed to be for both of these clubs.

In Philadelphia, we know all about the sparkling new midfield and the way the Union has dominated in one way or another every time out this season—only to go “clunk” when it’s time to score. But let’s concentrate on Chicago, a club that’s been a little more prolific on offense, but somewhat worse defensively and even more frustrating to watch than Philadelphia. Consider that Chicago fans have seen their team fail to defeat the following this year: Chivas USA, Portland, New York and DC United. Consider also that only one of those clubs has gone on to muster more points than the Fire—and that’s Chivas, not exactly everyone’s choice to coast into the play-offs. And somehow, Chicago is managing to accomplish this mediocrity with a roster that includes last season’s MLS MVP, 21-goal-scorer Mike Magee, who came over around mid-season from the L.A. Galaxy in the most stunning and head-scratching trade of 2013.

Magee, by the way, had a short training camp and then came-up with a sore hamstring. He’s played in two games this season and has yet to notch a point. He was in there last week in Washington, though, long enough to get a chest bump from the referee for arguing a call. Here’s the kinda’ funny video, courtesy of USA Today Sports:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/03/mls-referee-chest-bump-mike-magee/

Hold the Berry

On defense, the Fire is giving-up almost 2 goals a game and this from a squad that was supposedly so deep on the back line, it was okay to let 2012 Rookie of the Year Austin Berry walk to Philadelphia a couple of months ago for allocation money. Berry pulled a hamstring in the Union’s second game and hasn’t played much, but when he was in there, he looked good and will probably still look good to Chicago fans if he can make it back into the line-up this week (he and Sheanon Williams are questionable, as of this writing).

 All this would be wonderful news for the Union if it wasn’t for the litany of problems Philadelphia has also suffered this season. One would think that by about 7 o’clock Saturday night, one of these teams will have started to answer some questions. Recent history, however, points to a 1-1 draw and a lot of unhappy faces in both locker rooms.

Who’s On Fire?

Chicago has scored 6 goals this season and four of them have come from the tandem of Quincy Amarikwa and veteran Jeff Larentowicz (home town: West Chester, PA) who came over from the Colorado Rapids a couple of years back. The guy who scares me the most is Amarikwa. He’s 26 and is getting his first chance to start this season after serving as Chicago’s version of Antoine Hoppenot last year, a late-game super-sub with quick legs and an acrobatic style. The young Brazilian came-up big last week with the equalizer in DC with about ten minutes to go. The guy who should probably scare me the most is Magee, a bona fide MLS star who, like Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio last week, is probably ready to pop-in a goal.

Mystery Men

Who should Chicago fear the most? That’s the ten dollar question, at this point. There are a half-dozen regulars on the Union who are all scoring time bombs ready to blow-up somebody’s defense. Vincent Nogueira played the best of all of them last week (and not just because he got the goal; he was the most consistent and creative player out there). The Union’s chief problem so far in this young season has been getting more than one of these studs on a roll at the same time. Newcomer Christian Maidana looked like the new star of the team during the first couple of weeks before fading behind increased coverage. Both Sebastien Le Toux and Jack McInerney (traded Friday morning) got early goals before slipping into the “we didn’t hear that named called too much” category last week. Leo Fernandez made the most of his brief time in the spotlight, but it’s unclear yet whether he’s the kind of player who can consistently be one of those big-play guys. And Conor Casey only got his first minutes last weekend—and only as a sub which did not give us much of a chance to see what’s in the tank this season. It’s unclear how Manager John Hackworth will use newcomer Andrew Wenger, who had one goal in three starts before Montreal swapped him for McInerney. Maybe Maurice Edu will work his way up the pitch again and get another crack at net. Other than Nogeiura’s goal, Edu’s second-half blast was about the best chance the Union had against Montreal before it was knocked away by a great save.

It’s easy to forget a couple of things about Philadelphia going into match number 5, season 5. For one, the core of these players have not had much time to play together. Like DC United, another re-worked club that’s struggling early, the Union may still need time to get used to each other’s tendencies and styles. Also, the team hasn’t been one-hundred percent healthy at any time this season. Casey and Berry have been out more than they’ve been in and Sheanon Williams has yet to play a minute. But this team has been constructed with depth in mind and, frankly, should be able to overcome injuries more easily than most. And 5 weeks in, we should be getting close to seeing these guys jell. It took about 8 games back in season 1 for it to happen, as I recall. The difference this time is that the Union’s pedigree is better, there are more stars aboard and plenty more quality miles beneath the cleats. It’s time to start getting three points. It’s time for a move toward the top of the league. The hum-drum middle is getting old.

Scoring In The Rain

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Just when it looked the Philadelphia Union might shake itself free from the doldrums and start scoring goals, along comes a rain storm. Saturday’s match (March 29, coverage starts at 3:30 p.m. on 6abc) will probably be played at the same time a wave of low pressure is creeping through the region and that could mean a pretty soggy afternoon. Bad news for the offense, right? I mean, when it pours rain, goals in soccer almost have to dry up; it’s simple logic. The pitch is wet, it’s harder for players to plant their feet and the slippery ball can be harder to control. In fact, there’s recent evidence supporting this theory. Only two goals were managed in a driving rain in Portland on opening weekend (that excruciating 1-1 draw conceded by Philadelphia in the closing seconds).

But it may be hard to sell the idea to the Union and Montreal Impact this weekend. These same clubs combined for a whopping 8 goals in a cold, somewhat damp match last year up at Stade Saputo in Montreal, a game the Union dropped 5-3. That was the day veteran Montreal forward Marco Di Vaio caught young Philadelphia upstart Jack McInerney in the MLS goal-scoring race with a hat trick. The less than ideal conditions may have played a role in one of the goals, a long centering pass by Union sub Antoine Hoppenot that seemed to get away from him, but ended-up knuckling into the net.

In case you’d like to re-live to goal barrage: http://www.mlssoccer.com/matchcenter/2013-05-25-MTL-v-PHI/highlights

Adding to the adventure for goaltenders in the rain is that wet soccer balls are harder to trap. In fact, in Portland, both goal keepers repeatedly went for the punch-away option rather than the catch, as if it was part of a wet-weather game plan. The downside is that this safer approach increases the chance of rebounds. And should a situation arise where a goalie is forced to try for the catch, the odds of the slippery ball squeaking free increases.

The Union Impact

It would be nice if the Union’s offense got ample chances in the rain. In their first three matches, the 1-1-1 club has managed only one goal per game, although each week the quality chances have multiplied. Last week’s 2-1 loss in Columbus took the cake. Philadelphia managed nearly 20 chances at net and two of them missed the far post by only inches. Several others wound-up in the gut of Crew net minder Steve Clark.

The Union players believe the goals are coming soon and they may well be right. The team controls the ball exceptionally well compared to last year (or any other year in the Union’s brief five-season lifespan, for that matter) and there are enough marquis players with scoring pedigree, a prolonged drought would appear to defy logic. The players also seem loose and confident on the subject, based on published comments this week. But a few more 1-goal games with another loss or two mixed in and it’s not hard to imagine a sizable monkey climbing onto the Union’s back, especially as the media focus on continued struggles intensifies. Again, maybe rain and Montreal is just what the doctor ordered.

Low Impact

As for Montreal, the young club is entering its third season and was the early surprise of last year, charging to the top of the Eastern Conference standings and holding that slot for much of the first half. They fell back to earth a bit in the second half, a slide that coincided with a drop in scoring from veteran Di Vaio. This season, Di Vaio hasn’t played a minute (thanks to a disciplinary suspension dating back to a post-season brawl), the Impact have been shut-out twice, are 0-3 and have been outscored 6-2. The best offensive players so far have been youngsters Andrew Wenger and Sanna Nyassi (the club’s only goal-scorers) and old Union fan favorite Justin Mapp who, at 29, still plays with the energy of a teenager and has been cited by impactmontreal.com as one of the bright spots in a very dim start. Ripe for the picking? Maybe. Maybe not. Di Vaio is back on Saturday, claims he’s been training hard and is anxious to get on the board (he scored 20 last season). But the Union has been fairly good at playing keep away so far this year and ought to have the upper hand at home against a team that has put themselves squarely behind the eight ball.

Who Wants To Play?

Manager John Hackworth has some hard choices as he fills-out his line-up card on Saturday. Does he start Leo Fernandez, the energetic, unexpected youngster who’s had perhaps the hottest boot and the biggest heart over the last two games? Or does veteran Conor Casey finally get the nod? He’s apparently healthy now and he carried the Union offense for portions of last season. The addition of either Casey or Fernandez, one could argue, might jolt the club out of its one-goal-per-game haze. But if they play, who sits? And what about the defense? Forward Aaron Wheeler ended-up carrying his 6’ 4” frame onto the back line last week with Austin Berry still nursing a gimpy leg. We’ll see whether Berry makes it back this week. We’re also still waiting for injured Sheanon Williams’ first appearance of the new season. Williams, a defender, would actually be a boost to the offense with his patented long throw-ins. It will interesting to see which cards Hackworth decides to play.

Adios, Senor Edu!

The downside of signing big stars onto an MLS roster is that you may have to share them occasionally with their national teams, especially when the World Cup is around the corner. Case in point: former USMNT and English Premier League denizen Maurice Edu. One of the primary reasons the big midfielder wanted to return to the states, in fact, was to get more playing time—and get noticed by the national side. So far, so good. The U.S. team has called-up Edu for a friendly against Mexico next week. This won’t be the last call if he trains and plays well. The good news for the Union is that Edu won’t leave until after he’s finished tangling with Montreal at PPL on Saturday and should be back—still sound, hopefully—for the Union’s next match in Chicago the following Saturday.

My Friends Call Me Fred

For those looking for a little Union nostalgia, show-up early for the Impact game and see if you can spot our old pal, Fred, the single-name Brazilian midfielder who was a much-used member of the Union back in season one. He was signed a week ago and is hoped to add a nice veteran presence in the locker room. Fred may also come in handy on the pitch at some point, particularly if the Union start losing midfielders to national team call-ups. And by the way, his parents call him Frederico Chaves Guedes. But yeah, Fred works.

Next up for Union: The Crew Kids

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The Philadelphia Union did almost everything right against New England in the club’s home opener last week. Saturday in Columbus (6 p.m., March 22, TCN) about the only thing supporters can ask for is more finishes. Their opponents are riding high early, but are young and possibly vulnerable. 

Last Week’s Effort

The Union managed six legitimate scoring chances in roughly the first 35 minutes against New England and added several more in the second half. But only one chance went in, a dangerous ratio in the MLS where failing to put the nail in the coffin can come back to haunt a club (a very recent example being the road opener in Portland, which turned into a 1-1 draw in the closing seconds). The Union very nearly had to settle for less last week as well, as The Revs single best chance on net was a good one, a boot off a cross that Philadelphia goaltender Zac MacMath deflected while sliding in front of the goal.

Also unnerving was the one that did go in for the Union: a Sebastien Le Toux strike off a nice pass from Leo Fernandez—who would not have been playing had Brian Carroll not gotten the flu.

Same Cast Against Crew?

This week in Ohio, the Union hopes to generate the same sort of ball-control and feeds into the box, only with a little extra scoring touch, something this team seems built to accomplish even if they haven’t shown it yet on the pitch. From the looks of things, they’ll have to do it without Conor Casey and Sheanon Williams, who both continue to nurse injuries. Carroll only came down with his flu bug on Saturday and may or may not have had enough time to get better and regain strength. But the rest of the pieces that have been clicking so far this season are all healthy and ready to go. 

Columbus has played just once so far in the young season, easily handling DC United in Washington 3-0 back on March 8. But it’s hard to know whether that score is an extension of the Crew’s 4-0-1 pre-season during which goals came easy, or more an indication that once again this season, DC is simply not a very good soccer club.  One of the goals came on a penalty kick. The other two came off crosses that were not particularly well defended. 

Crew/DC United highlights: http://www.thecrew.com/news/2014/03/highlights-crew-3-dc-united-0 

As for Columbus, the team subtracted more than it added during the off-season, at least on the pitch. Gone are veteran defender Chad Marshall and the offensive-minded Eddie Gaven and Danny O’Rourke. The average age of the Columbus roster is now just 24, according to http://www.thecrew.com. The biggest addition is new Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, only 40, who not too long ago was playing center back for the USMNT. 

Berhalter is preaching a “believe in yourselves” mind set to his young squad, which is all very fine and good until your youngsters face a team like the Union who’ve re-stocked with marquis players and have one of the league’s deepest rosters. There are plenty of players on the Crew side who were there last year when Columbus finished five points behind the Union in eighth place in the MLS Eastern Conference.  A good start by Philadelphia on Saturday night and memories of last season’s 41 point, 17 loss reality may start overwhelming the new coach’s cheerleading philosophy.  On the the other hand, Philadelphia—as dazzling as they’ve been in terms of ball movement and control for much of the early going—still has to get better at taking advantage of chances. Failing to do so early could lead to an upset, especially in front of what will likely be an up-tempo, home-opener crowd in Ohio.

Crew Members To Watch

The hot hands last week were Costa Rican forward Jairo Arrieta, one of the more veteran Crew players at 30, who got the first tally on a nice feed from Josh Williams, one of the younger Crew stars at 25. Third year Crew forward Federico Higuain picked-up where he left off last season, scoring the penalty kick and later converted a nice cross. The Argentinian was the club’s MVP last season with 11 goals, second behind Dominic Oduro’s 13. Oduro did not play last week, although he’s listed as active.

Saturday Homecoming for new Union players

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Philadelphia Union supporters haven’t had more reason to anticipate a home opener since the club’s first in 2010.  Back then, they were happy to have a team. This year, they’re rooting for the best club the front office has ever assembled (a pretty easy argument to make, anyway) and when the new roster hits the pitch at PPL Park on Saturday (March 15, 4p.m., CSN), the simmering anticipation and high expectations should combine for an electric welcome.

What’s clear in the wake of Week One’s draw in Portland? The re-tooled midfield is exactly as advertised: drastically improved. In fact, the Union appears to have gone from near worst to perhaps first in that key area this season with the additions of Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Noguiera. None of them had much trouble moving the ball through a talented Timbers defense last week. They can all pass, are all energetic, can forced pick-offs and create nice tight passing lanes. They made the players around them better, including Brian Carroll.  And whenever the Union had the ball deep and were setting-up for a drive on net, at least one of these three were involved. Noguiera was creative and steady, Maidana nearly scored on a nifty turn around shot from high in the box, and Edu and Maidana assisted on the only goal. Two things to like about the scoring play: 1) it came on a Maidana corner who brings a nice talent for serving along with his foot work and 2) Edu fed our old pal Jack McInerney for the goal. Jack had a rough second half last year. Questions of confidence followed him around for two solid months. It’s hard to imagine that being a problem this season if he continues to get the same caliber of feeds from his new mates as he did last weekend.

Lost in the midfield accolades was the other new guy, young Austin Berry, a tall and agile presence on defense who played a very nice first match for Philadelphia. You had to like his reaction after deflecting a shot wide of the net late in the game. Goaltender Zac MacMath was pumping him up afterwards and slapping a hand on Berry’s back, but all the former rookie of the year could do was grimace and curse the fact that he had put the ball over the end line and conceded a corner. The kid appears intense and smart. He looks like an asset.

As I mentioned last week, the Union are so deep they have unprecedented quality when it comes to substitutions and it showed in Game One. Danny Cruz and Aaron Wheeler joined Antoine Hoppenot as late adds.  Those are some pretty mean fresh legs.

Another nice thought: the Union did well without two injured regulars, defender Sheanon Williams and forward Conor Casey. It will be fun watching the club’s new offensive weapons feasting on those long Williams’ throw-ins once Mr. Long-Toss gets healthy.

PORTLAND PROBLEMS

However, not all is perfection in the Union’s world. Rather than playing forward with a lead, the Union seemed content to spend the last 25 minutes in Oregon turning the ball over and staying back. There were multiple opportunities to pass from the defensive third and maintain possession down field, but the Union repeatedly booted the ball away, many times out of bounds, which put the Timbers right back on the attack. The strategy cost them when Portland got the equalizer with time running out. It’s early in the season, I admit, and there wasn’t much training time to get everyone in shape. No doubt the players were tired in the match’s waning minutes. But one can only hope those tantalizing, lost two points sent Manager John Hackworth and his club to the video room this week to review the missed opportunities for clean clears. Only Hoppenot and Cruz seemed to have wasting the clock in mind (both did so admirably in stoppage time, hogging the ball and drawing a series of late, time-consuming penalties). 15-seconds more of that by anyone and the Union would have a win under belts.

The final goal was the result of some sorry defense. When awarded the corner, Portland’s captain, Will Johnson, quick-kicked the ball while most of the Philadelphia side was still trotting back into position. That lack of attention to what was going on in the corner was a disastrous, collective mental lapse. Worse was that two Timber attackers were left unmarked in the box at a time when the Union had three of their tallest men on the pitch, Aaron Wheeler (6’ 4”), Austin Berry (6’ 2”) and Maurice Edu (6’ 1”). The goal scorer, Gaston Fernandez stands at 5’ 7”. If any one of those triple towers sticks to Fernandez as that ball is flying into the box, it’s game over.

THIS WEEK’S DRAW EQUALS VICTORY?

Of course, a quality win on Saturday afternoon would go a long way toward erasing any sour feelings for both players and the fan base. As if on cue, the New England Revolution stumbles into town. The Revs were one of the clubs who used a strong second half to squeeze past Philadelphia into one of the final Eastern Conference playoff positions last season. But they were terrible during the first half and they’ve started-out the same way this season. The Dynamo thwacked them 4-0 in Houston last week. According to the club’s recounting of the loss, the score was actually not indicative of the effort as New England was only slightly out-shot by the Dynamo and a series of New England chances were of the close-but-no-cigar variety. That may be true, but they also played terrible defense, surrendering three goals in the match’s first 23 minutes. Hey, there’s another great video for Hackworth the show the guys. It ought to get the Union’s forwards hungry, especially watching the way the Revolution gave up possession multiple times in their own end. Oops. Or should I say, DOOPS!

The Union and Revolution play each other three times this season. The Revs went 2-1 against Philadelphia last year, including one of the Union’s poorer showings in Foxborough, a 5-1 drubbing in late August. Rev’s goaltender Bobby Shuttleworth is big and often dominant. He also gave up 4 last weekend. We’ll see which guy shows-up on Saturday.  New England has never won at PPL Park (0-3-2).

One of my favorite New England players, Lee Nguyen, was out of the line-up last week with an injury, but he’s listed as active. I can’t determine at this writing whether he’ll start at PPL. Other New England players to watch: newcomers Teal Bunbury, a forward who had 3 shots on goal last week, and midfielder Daigo Kobayashi, who revolutionsoccer.net reports completed 84% of his passes in last week’s match. New England will also almost certainly start Jose Goncalves at defense, who has now appeared in 35 MLS matches in his career—and has played the full 90 minutes in every one of them.

MLS MAGIC IN WEEK ONE

The Revolution 4-0 clambake aside, there were some great games in the MLS on opening weekend. You saw one of them if you caught the national game earlier on Saturday between defending champion KC and Seattle. The two played their hearts out before Seattle won it 1-0 with literally 10 seconds left in stoppage time. There must have been something in the rain water that night, as virtually the same thing happened to the Union several hours later down the coast in Portland: a goal by the home team with time running out.

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