Do You Know The Way To (Beat) San Jose?

Me Versailles

Apologies to younger readers; you probably have to be an older guy to get the joke in that title. The Philadelphia Union are at home on Sunday night (August 24, 8 p.m., CSN) for a match with the San Jose Earthquakes, the MLS Western Conference version of Houston, the club from the East the Union couldn’t crack last weekend. The Quakes’ record mirrors the Dynamo, slogging along in 8th place on the left side of the league with 25 points and towing a 6-9-7 record.

Naysayers will point out that the Union haven’t done much better, overall; Philadelphia’s 6-9-9 mark is only good enough for 27 points and 7th place in the East. But a large chunk of the Union’s points have come in the second half of the season and in the East, 27 points gives you a lot more to celebrate than 25 gets you in the West. The Union are currently tied with New England in points (they cede 6th Place only because they trail the Revs in wins) and they’re only a single thin point out of a play-off spot. The 2-0 loss at home last week stung, but it hardly took Philadelphia out of the post-season conversation. In fact, a couple of consecutive wins could get the club as high as third if everything falls just right.

TREMOR TIME

The Earthquakes are coming off a nice 1-1 draw on the road against one of the better teams in the league, Seattle. But a few days before that, they were throttled 5-0 at home by FC Dallas and overall, they have not been a club that puts opponents away this season. Contain the dangerous tandem of star forward Cris Wondolowski (9 goals) and midfielder Shea Salinas (6 assists) and the Quakes don’t have a lot else to throw at you. What’s more, it’s the Quakes who will be entering their third game in a week this time, which should give Philadelphia a stamina edge.

The Union, on the other hand, had been spreading-out the offense well for the last couple of months before taking the collar last weekend. The effects of playing 3 games in 7 nights probably took its toll, although Philadelphia still looked creative on offense at times and streaking forward Sebastien Le Toux came close on several chances. This week, the club will be better rested and the weather more cooperative: less humid and not as warm.

TRES BIEN

Le Toux has become the clear, top goal-scoring threat for Philadelphia in recent weeks and is now sitting on 10 goals (7th best in the league) along with a couple of assists. That’s a complete reversal from last season when the Frenchman was near the top of the league leaders in assists for much of the year. Conor Casey has scored 6. But the beauty of the Union offense over the last two months is how multiple players are getting in on the scoring thanks largely to the improved, creative play of the midfield (most notably Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira) and frankly, the goaltenders. Both Zac MacMath and last week, Andre Blake, have found ways to launch long balls that find their strikers (Le Toux almost turned one of those bombs from Blake into gold last week). While Maidana is the clear club assist leader with 8, Philadelphia now has 15 players with at least one. This sort of wide production makes the Union a difficult club to defend.

There are only 10 league matches left in this long season. It’s crunch time. With a home and home set coming-up against 3rd Place Toronto, the Earthquakes are a club Philadelphia really wants to beat.

BAKED WITH LOVE

For those of you worn thin by four years of comments from the uninformed masses who like making fun of the Bimbo logo on the front of your jersey (remember what the bear says: it’s “Beem-bo”), tough luck. The club just extended it’s logo agreement with Bimbo USA for some additional years. To be fair, Bimbo has been a great sponsor, getting involved in the Union’s community efforts and charity work, as well as heavily promoting the sport. They actually sponsor 8 teams around the globe. So toughen up.

STORIES FROM THE LAND OF NORMANDY, ALSACE-LORRAINE, LE TOUX AND NOGUEIRA…

For those of you who missed it on Twitter and Facebook, I was recently on vacation in the land of Hoppenot, Nogueira and Le Toux (thanks for favoriting the Tweet of me outside the Palace of Versailles, Sebastien!), spending a great eight days touring France. You’ll see the overseas-doop-shots I did in the next few blogs.

Two fun soccer stories. 1) I was in Riems (the city where the French kings used to be crowned) and you could see the top of the local soccer team’s stadium from the hotel. They’re in Ligue 1 this coming season which made me wonder whether Vincent Nogueira ever played on that pitch. Anyone know? 2) At the end of the trip, I suddenly found myself driving through Montbeliard which is the actual home of FC Sochaux, Nogueira’s old team. I passed right by the “Peugeot City” car plant (FC Sochaux was started by the guy who ran Peugeot way back when). I could not see the stadium from the highway; it was get-away day and I was trying to make Zurich before dark. Anyway, I have to say that, even though it was just a quick drive-by, I kind of got the idea why Vincent may have been so willing to skip the homeland. France is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen and loaded with history and amazing architecture. But Montbeliard did not exactly look like its garden spot. No matter the reason, to Union fans. Most are pretty happy to have Nogueira on the Philly roster.

Union Must Take Advantage of Weak Opponent

After picking-up key points against Colorado, New York, Chicago and Kansas City, the Philadelphia Union finds themselves back at friendly PPL Park on Saturday night (August 9, 7 p.m., CSN) in the sort of match-up that teams serious about post-season play need to find a way to win. The opponent is the Montreal Impact, last year’s regular season darling that roared out of the gate, made the play-offs in only their second year of existence—and has promptly crashed-landed in season three.

Montreal hasn’t won or tied a regular MLS match since the last week of June. They’re on an almost unheard of six-game skid and while most of those losses have come against quality sides, clubs like underachieving Portland and perennial cellar-dweller Chivas USA have also brought the pain; in fact, Montreal didn’t even manage a goal against Chivas back in early July. The Impact was also shut-out in their last match against Toronto.

It’s interesting to note that the Union have fared much better over the same time span, while facing some of the same clubs.

FAMILIAR FACES

Montreal is still an interesting team for Union fans to consider. Its leading scorer is former Philadelphia striker Jack McInerney who put together one of the best half-seasons the Union franchise may ever see, before crumbling beneath the triple weights of missed chances, bad luck and damaged confidence. The youngster was shipped-out early in the season for local guy Andrew Wenger, ostensibly because the Union didn’t feel they could keep him under contract beyond this season. But it was obvious that the kid also simply needed a change of scenery.

So how has it gone? McInerney leads the Impact with 6 goals, some of them reminiscent of those creative moments that often left fans in Philadelphia drooling. But he’s had zero assists and in an offense struggling to find itself from day one, Montreal has not been the sort of environment in which an opportunistic guy like McInerney can thrive. In fact, even last year’s Montreal heavyweight, Marco Di Vaio, has wilted this season, partly because he hasn’t been as healthy this time around, but also because his team just isn’t clicking. Also suffering: former Union fan favorite Justin Mapp who has started 16 matches during Montreal’s Season Three and has assisted on more than a third of the club’s goals—but he’s netted nil.

“U” ARE SO BEAUTIFUL…

The Union, meanwhile, have much to celebrate. After taking their foot off the gas two MLS matches ago and escaping Chicago with a 1-1 draw, Philadelphia was all-in last week in Kansas City, playing an excellent tactical game of defense-first and very nearly besting the defending champs for the third straight time at Sporting Park. A new late-inning fire plug is emerging: recently-signed Jamaican striker Brian Brown, who set-up and then notched the equalizer in the 1-1 draw. Defender Carlos Valdez is back, signing a multi-year deal with the club after a year-and-a-half of international play, and Saturday could mark the debut of Philadelphia’s new world-class, World Cup goaltender, Algerian Rais Mbolhi, assuming all the transfer paperwork is signed and sealed.

The club is 4-1-4 in its last 9 league matches (along with a tidy 3-0 record in U.S. Open Cup play). Philadelphia’s offense has been looking far better over the past two months. The team is just three points out of the final post-season position held by Columbus in the MLS Eastern Conference; Philadelphia’s 5-8-9 record currently seeds them 7th.

LOOK NOT AT THE PAST

About the only discouraging aspect to Saturday for Union fans is history. Montreal’s record is an abysmal 3-13-5, but the Union has gifted them 3 of their 14 points with a 1-1 draw at PPL in March and a 1-0 loss in Montreal the following month. An argument can be made that the Union was a different team then with a roster that was still trying to figure things out. The cylinders are clicking much better now and a number of new parts have been added, from the coaching staff on down, all of which have made the club better. One hopes so, at least. If the Union is to make a true play-off push over the season’s final two-and-a-half months, it probably needs to start now, against one of the weakest opponents on the schedule.

AS IF THINGS COULDN’T GET LES WORSE…

Montreal will be without defender Hassoun Camara, who is on the disciplinary list this week. They also have two other defenders and two midfielders listed as “out”. Of course, anyone who pays attention to the weekly MLS Injury Report is aware that “out” can actually mean anything from “extremely healthy” to “dead”. Conversely, the Union’s valuable play-maker, Cristian Maidana, is once again listed as questionable, which for the last several weeks has actually meant “out”. Hey, listen, I’m just passing along what I’ve read.

TECHNICAL ALL-STAR

The Union will not be without representation at this season’s MLS All-Star Game after all. Midfielder-turned-defender Maurice Edu is one of several late-adds thanks to a series of injuries and scheduling difficulties. It doesn’t mean he plays. But he gets introduced. I think. Hopefully, by the end of the season, the general snub of Philadelphia players will look as foolish to the rest of the league as it does to Philadelphia fans (translation: The U has a nice run to the play-offs and, as they used to sing on TV, “…everybody knows their name.”).

K.C. Has Been Sweet Spot For Union

Me withbanner at Union

We’re wrapping-up Major League Baseball’s Trade Deadline week in Philadelphia and the Phillies have been a major focus with everyone from Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd, Chase Utley, A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo, the bat boy and the clubhouse water cooler rumored to be headed to other stadiums. As of this writing, we’re still waiting to hear how all that plays-out. But as of Thursday morning, it’s been the Philadelphia Union unexpectely turning the blockbuster. On Wednesday, the club announced the aquisition of 28-year-old Nigerian star goaltender Rais Mbolhi, who almost singled-handedly led his national team into overtime against Germany in the recent World Cup. Nigeria lost to the eventual tournament champions 2-1, but Mbolhi’s 11 saves earned him Man of the Match honors. I watched that game. The guy was good. Like, Tim Howard good.

Never mind that the Union already has Zach MacMath in net who hasn’t exactly had a bad year (remember the three straight penalty kick saves a couple of months ago) and Andre Blake, the first pick in the last MLS Super Draft who nearly every pundit felt was deserving of that high accolade. A fourth netminder, Brian Holt, who was never going to see a minute in regular MLS play in Philadelphia, was waived. No one’s saying anything yet, but you’d have to think the Union is stockpiling at a key position with an eye toward some wheeling and dealing either this season or next. They certainly have a nice group of trade chips that can be flipped for other needs. The smart money has to be on Mbolhi staying. He’s a 6′ 3″ guy with an international resume. That is, unles there’s some other mysterious FIFA-related reason why it makes more sense to deal him. MLS doesn’t reveal contract terms and there are too many weird rules governing international signings in soccer for a lowly weather guy like me to entirely grasp.

This sure looks like a plus move, though, no matter what happens next.

ON THE PITCH

Meanwhile, the Union takes on defending MLS champion Sporting KC on the road this week (Friday, August 1, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Network), a match-up that pits 7th place against first and on paper appears like a one-sided tilt. Union fans know better. Philadelphia beat KC last year on their pitch 1-0 with suffocating defense and an opportune goal by Conor Casey, one of the only home-field hick-ups in Sporting’s relentless march to the Cup. Philadelphia did it again this year on May 14th, this time with ball control and agressive runs. The score? K.C. 1, Union 2. Or should I say, Maidana 2? This was the match in which newly signed midfielder Cristian Maidana finally realized he could be a dominant player in the MLS. He fed Danny Cruz for one goal and scored the other himself, both on beautiful foot work; Maidana never looked back after that, evolving into perhaps the Union’s biggest play-making asset. That is, until he injured his hamstring against New York on July 16th. He’s listed as questionable for Friday night. If he’s healthy, look-out KC.

Or does it matter? In the last month or so, it seems like virtually everyone the Union throws into the striking mix is making things happen. Veteran names like Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey—and even youngster Andrew Wenger, a relatively slow starter after coming over from Montreal for former fan favorite Jack McInerney early in the season—are now rolling-out regularly from the broadcast booth. We’ve seen more aggressive runs, more frequent forward passes and quality shots—not to mention goals. Leading-up to the Union’s indifferent 1-1 draw a couple of weeks ago (their last league match), the Union had put together more than a month of games where they were basically scoring three goals every time out. Yes, they clearly missed Maidana last time, but with no other injury concerns (Vincent Noguiera is apparently all the way back from his earlier groin problem) and their disciplinary list final cleared, manager Jim Curtin has plenty of firepower to throw at the defending champs.

CHAMPS… AND ONE CHUMP

KC, meanwhile, has four players on the injured list. In fact, according to mlssoccer.com, they hold the odd distinction of having one guy on both the injured list and the discipline list this week; that’s Midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who would apparently be sulking in a supper box somewhere on Friday night if it wasn’t for the ankle injury he may instead be nursing in the trainer’s room. Among the others noted as injured, forward Jacob Peterson stands out. He’s one of the better stats guys on the roster with a couple of goals and assists along with eight shots. The Union won’t be so lucky with the likes of 14-goal scorer Dom Dwyer and U.S. National Team forward Graham Zusi, fresh off his busy World Cup duties. Both of those guys are expected to play—and both will be anxious to slam the door on the Union’s recent spate of midwest success.

ALL EVEN (ALMOST)

It’s worth noting that at long last, the slew of Eastern Conference clubs who formerly held games-played advantages over Philadelphia shriveled while the Union was taking time off for its recent friendly with EPL’s Crystal Palace. In fact, of the four teams currently battling for the final two or three play-off positions, only Toronto has played fewer matches. Philadelphia, New England, Columbus and New York have now all logged 21 games, which means the Union no longer has to play significantly better than those teams to catch them. In actuality, the Union has been outpacing most of them lately, anyway. Philadelphia is in 7th place, but is only 3 points out of third. How could this happen, you ask? Wasn’t this club buried two months into the season, heavy on defense but devoid of anything even vaguely approaching a killer instinct? This is what happens when you reside on the weaker side of the league and you start taking advantage of soccer’s willingness to reward victories with three points. The Union has been winning and it’s paying off.

Philadelphia (5-8-8) may still have a sizable road to walk before they’re considered a bonafide play-off contender, but when you consider where they started and how they’ve managed to evolve during the season, they’ve certainly earned the right to be called a quality club at this point. Another win in Kansas (yes, geography fans, Sporting Park is located in Kansas City, Kansas—not the larger town across the river in Missouri) and the Union suddenly dives head-first into everyone’s playoff pool. It may be asking a lot, especially if resident Union dynamo, Maidana, is still not healed. But imagine how much more fun that next home match on August 9th against Jack McInerney’s Montreal Impact will be if the Union is within reach of, say, third place by then. We’ll see how the ball bounces on Friday.

CALAMITY IN CANADA

Speaking of Montreal, the season hasn’t been kind to the Impact since pulling-off what was, at the time, the biggest transaction of the season in aquiring McInerney. Neither the Union’s former striker nor his replacement, Andrew Wenger, have started every match for their new clubs and neither has put-up league-leading stats. But it’s obvious that Wenger is surrounded by a far superior number of experienced, professional-grade players and he’s been able to contribute well enough during the Union’s recent surge. His line: 2 goals, 3 assists and 27 shots which is second on the club. McInerney, meanwhile, has six goals, no assists and his team is in last place in the east with only three wins.

GAME PLAN FOR THE FUTURE?

I mentioned this a few weeks ago as the Union’s goal-scoring was on the rise along with their spot in the standings, but it’s worth repeating. Thanks to the greater importance placed on wins, along with the generous length of the soccer season, moving-up can be occur rather dramatically in MLS, as with other international FIFA-controlled leagues—which means that in soccer, more than any other sport, an abysimal beginning doesn’t automatically kill a season. The Union may well be turning into this year’s New England Revolution, who last year overcame a month and a half of foggy play and roared into the playoffs as a genuinely feared team. It’s interesting to note that this season, New England has lost none of that momentum and currently holds third place in the East. Union fans wouldn’t mind both halves of that equation playing-out in Chester over the twelve months.

Union Hoping For Rapid Climb

Me Punta Islita
It’s the World Cup’s final weekend with teetering Brazil trying to reclaim at least a smidgen of dignity on Saturday in the runner-up match with the Netherlands (3 p.m., ESPN) after being blown apart by Germany on Tuesday in historic fashion. On Sunday, Germany takes on Argentina (3 p.m., 6abc) in what will hopefully be a full-pitch-press of a World Cup final (we deserve as much after enduring those hours of drudging, tactical monotony displayed by both the Argentinians and Holland on Wednesday as each tip-toed toward penalty kicks). Sandwiched in between these two mega matches is your Philadelphia Union who are home against the Colorado Rapids for 6abc Night at PPL Park (7 p.m., 6abc); what better way to warm-up for Sunday’s Southern Hemisphere showdown, right?

In the wake of yet another drubbing of the New England Revolution earlier this week, the Union will be working to keep that nice home field vibe going against Colorado. Tuesday’s 2-0 victory against the Revs was the latest in a string of 3 straight U.S. Open Cup wins (the club only needs 2 more W’s to take the tournament and earn its first trophy), and couples nicely with a general improvement in MLS matches in the last month, including an earlier 3-1 thrashing of the Revs up in Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago.

DISSAPPOINTMENT IN DALLAS

Philadelphia is coming-off a tough-to-swallow 2-1 loss in hot, sweaty Dallas last weekend, coughing-up what should’ve been a draw on an own goal that the score card says went in off Union defender Sheanon Williams, but had more to do with a bad clearing attempt by midfielder Fabinho that happened to catch William’s knee. It wasn’t the best-played game on either side, but the Union did well enough to get a point. The club will be gunning for a more positive result at home in what will likely be less humid, more friendly weather.

Since getting thumped by the L.A. Galaxy 4-1 in Southern California on May 25th, the Union has gone on a 5-1-1 tear, including its three Open Cup wins. Philadelphia sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference (4-8-6), but is only 3 points out of 4th as five teams are now jammed-up on either side of the post season cut-off line. Unfortunately, the Union has played more matches than three of the teams it’s chasing which makes set-backs particularly hard to endure. Philadelphia has been getting big offense lately from multiple players. And the recent move from defense to midfield for Amobi Okugo has started to play dividends as Okugo scored a sweet goal in Dallas and appears energized by the new opportunity. Maurice Edu, now on the back line, appears less thrilled, even mentioning some discomfort with being the last line of defense ahead of goaltender Zac MacMath. Edu won’t have to worry about it this week as he sits with a red card violation. It deserves saying, however, that the veteran midfielder has been professional about the situation so far and will probably stay that way as long as the team keeps climbing.

Another question mark for the Union is star midfielder Vincent Nogueira who has been nursing a groin strain for several weeks. He’s still listed as questionable. That was the case last week and he did not play.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH SCORERS

Colorado is in the middle of a promising season. Their 7-5-5 mark is good for third place in the tough MLS Western Conference and the club is has a +5 goal differential with 24 scores in 17 contests. Vincente Sanchez is the big gun. The international star from Uruguay has 6 goals in 6 starts this year. Jamaican forward Deshorn Brown has also been effective with five goals. Other top contributors include midfielders Dillon Powers and Jose Mari (although the way Mari is talking, he may not be fully recovered from a recently sprained ankle by Saturday night). Colorado has no disciplinary issues reported this week by MLS.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Union will have to take care of business against Colorado, but it’s hard not to note next Wednesday’s home tilt against the New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Bulls are one of the clubs Philadelphia is chasing and only two points ahead in fifth place going into this weekend. That will be a very big match.

6ABC NIGHT

It’s 6abc Night at PPL Park on Saturday, which means the game is on 6abc. Other than that, I guess it means I get to walk out onto the pitch and wave for a couple of seconds before the game. Be nice. My wife and kid will be there! Seriously, it’s always a lot of fun. I’m pretty happy that 6abc’s relationship with the Union is still going strong after five years! I’m off next week, so you may see me at Wednesday’s game, too. That will “Guy From 6abc Is In The Stands Night”.

Union On A Roll

Me in CR Bimbo
The U.S. is done in the World Cup after an unexpected run to the Round of 16 and an extraordinary performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard in the fateful match against Belgium. But never fear. There is still plenty of drama left in Brazil, based on the way things have gone down there so far.

Meanwhile, your Philadelphia Union has been quietly piling-up wins and playing its most inspired soccer of Season 5. Two W’s came in the first stages of this year’s U.S. Cup run. Two more came in league play, along with a draw that could’ve been a win. Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey and Andrew Wenger have all found the net during this run—multiple times. And the Union have succeeded with the occasional back-up player filling-in for the front line injured.

OH, SAY CAN YOU WIN?

Now comes an Independence Day show down (really, Independence Night) with FC Dallas (9 p.m. Friday, TCN), yet another club that 6 weeks ago would’ve seemed a near insurmountable opponent for Philadelphia. Not so now, however, after the Union have roared back against Vancouver with 3 second-half goals at home and slammed the once mighty New England Revolution on the road 3-1. Suddenly, all things seem possible.

Dallas, a perennial play-off contender in the MLS Western Conference, occupies fourth place going into this match. The club has scored a relatively healthy 28 goals in its first 18 league contests and is enjoying nice seasons from forwards Blas Perez and Fabian Castillo, along with offensive-minded defender Michel (questionable for Friday with a gimpy hamstring), all 3 of whom have 5 goals. The Dallas offense is well rounded, strikes from everywhere and has the Texas club in a competitive position in the tougher Western half of the league.

On the other hand, Dallas has also allowed as much as they’ve scored and are sitting only a few points out of miss-the-playoffs-land. The middle of the season was especially brutal. Dallas endured an 8-game stretch that featured no wins and six losses. They’ve had better results lately (1-0-2 in their last three league matches, plus a U.S. Cup win against a non-league opponent from San Antonio), but it’s not like they’re putting people away. Their last tilt was a 0-0 draw in Columbus.

THE BEST PART OF WAKING-UP…

The Union, meanwhile, have found their missing offense in recent weeks. Including their 2 U.S. Cup matches, the club is averaging just a hair under 3 goals a game (remember the first couple of months of the season when you wondered whether they’d ever manage more than 1?) and have awoken several of their dormant strikers. Philadelphia has cut its league-play goal differential from -6 to -3 in the last month and has been playing a defense that is dead-even with Dallas (28 goals allowed in 18 matches).

In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately department, the Union has scored 9 goals in its last 3 league clashes. Dallas has 5.

There is potential for more good news coming out of this match for the Union, whose recent success has raised its overall record to 4-7-6, placing the club on the perimeter of the play-off conversation for the first time since all those pre-season prognosticators had their say. New York, Columbus, Houston and Philadelphia are all within two points of each other in a log-jam of teams looking to claim 5th place in the East.

NO-GUEIRA?

To keep the ball rolling, however, the Union may need to rely on something less than the A-Team again. Vincent Nogueira is still on the questionable list with the same groin strain that kept him off the pitch in Massachusetts last week. Conor Casey and Aaron Wheeler are also iffy. Sebastien Le Toux, who looked like he was having a good time here at 6abc on Tuesday tweeting with fans during the U.S. World Cup match, is apparently healthy after limping from the field on Saturday.

A loss would not be fatal. A road draw would do nicely against a historically strong opponent. But you get the feeling watching these guys going about their business the last few weeks as most eyes were on the World Cup, that another win might just be what they’ve really got planned.

PETS OF BEN

The Sons of Ben are at it again, with that whole charity thing. This time, it’s the inaugural “Pints Fur Pets” fundraiser benefiting the Delaware County SPCA and Philly ACCT. It will be a simultaneous event happening Sunday, August 3 at the Field House in center city and CR Shenanigans in Aston. Some of your favorite Union players will be playing guest bartender. Click here for information and tickets.

CENTRAL AMERICA DREAMIN’

And while I know it stinks that the U.S. is out, Costa Rica is still in. Why not get behind this spirited underdog? I’m partial, having been there recently rooting for the team beside the locals. You wouldn’t believe the level of excitement rolling around down there right now. And when you watch, keep your eyes on Number 10. He’s having a great tournament.

Union Back At It, Still Reason For Hope

Me in CR Bimbo

It’s been a dynamite World Cup so far with brilliant matches, thrilling upsets, plenty of controversy to chew on, and an unexpected, strong showing by the U.S. National Team. I was in Costa Rica last week as that nation’s team was stunning everyone by pushing it’s way to the knock-out round, which was a very special way to experience this grand tournament, indeed (I’m still pulling for C.R., by the way, along with the United States).

But while shopping at the local Maxi Pali (a Costa Rica Wal-Mart-type chain owned by, come to think of it, Wal-Mart), I was reminded of just how much I’ve missed watching the Philadelphia Union. The shelves were loaded with about a dozen versions of Bimbo Bread (man, they love that stuff is Central America) and tonight, the wait is over as the Union return to MLS action against New England (7:30 p.m., CSN).

In case you’ve been focused in another direction lately, let’s review. As the World Cup Group Stage was unfolding, Philadelphia fired the coach, fired the assistant coach, named some interim replacements, won its first two Lamar Hunt U.S. Cup matches (putting the club just three wins away from its first trophy) and are coming off a combined 4 matches without a loss. The Cup matches were close, but each featured braces, one from Andrew Wenger, another from Sebastien Le Toux (two players the Union would love to get on track in league play). Prior to that, the Union dispensed with Chivas USA in California 3-0, before staging the season’s best half, a 3-goal explosion against talented Vancouver, erasing a first half, 2 goal deficit. Never mind that the club conceded a draw on a late penalty kick. In all, the Union is averaging nearly 3 goals a game in it’s last four overall matches and in case you’ve forgotten, a couple of those International, off-season  imports, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Noguiera, have come into their own and are both producing at a high level. Conor Casey also has a quick four goals in recent league play, a very good sign for the Philadelphia offense which is finally beginning to perculate after spending much of the season’s first half in neutral.

There are eighteen games left in the MLS season, plenty of time for Philadelphia to start earning points and salvaging their season. The Union is 3-7-6, settled in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, 5 points out of the fifth and final play-off position. To climb, they’ll need more strong games against good competition (similar to the performance against Vancouver).

They get a chance to shine against quality tonight with a road match against New England, one of the better teams in the east so far this year. The Revolution currently holds third place in the East with a 7-5-2 record. The Union, despite their recent U.S. Cup matches, should be fairly well rested and energized from their recent spate of good play. Thanks to Maurice Edu’s failure to make the U.S. National squad, are essentially at full-strength, although Casey, Nogueira and Aaron Wheeler are all listed as questionable for tonight due to a series of strains and pulls.

New England has minimal issues on the health front and should be usually tough. But the Union have been on a roll lately. It should be an interesting match-up and a nice supplement to today’s World Cup viewing.

 

Momentum Before The Break

blog profile

In case you didn’t stay up late last weekend, I can tell you that the Philadelphia Union played an entertaining game against one of the league’s more lackluster squads, Chivas USA, in Carson, California. For the umpteenth time this season, midfielder Cristian Maidana showed his worth, feeding Conor Casey on a beautiful centering pass for one goal and then right-footing a score of his own on a break late in the second half. Never mind that the referee probably should’ve called Andrew Wenger for being off-sides on the play, or for interfering with the goalie, or both. The soccer gods haven’t exactly been pouring favor on the Union over the first half of this MLS season and the club will gladly down sugar whenever an official leaves it on the countertop.

It would be nice to think that playing with a lead appealed to Philadelphia last week and will now serve as an extra incentive to repeat the trick at home on Saturday night (7:00 p.m., TCN), but the Vancouver Whitecaps are in town and in all likelihood will not so easily bend. The Caps are a lusty 5-2-5 and are in fourth place in the MLS Western Conference mainly because they have two games at hand on the other three clubs they’re chasing. Winning those two make-up games would seat them second behind Seattle which is playing out-of-body soccer this year.

Vancouver’s winning formula? They’ve buried 22 goals this season—that’s almost 2 per game and good for fourth best in the league. The three clubs ahead of them in scoring have—you guessed it—-played two more games than Vancouver. Factor in those two missing games and, again, the Whitecaps would probably be second behind Seattle. 28-year-old Midfielder Pedro Morales, who came over from Spain’s La Liga side Málaga CF in the off-season, leads the club in nearly every offensive category including goals (5), shots (38), shots on goal (16) and assists (5). Morales fits the exact mold of the sort of talent the Union lack and may go trolling for this winter. But the pressure doesn’t stop there. Mark the names of Erik Hurtado, Kenny Miller and Kekuta Manneh on your score cards Saturday night, because each of these guys have three goals. That’s four offensive weapons who’ve scored more times this season than anyone on the Union whose name doesn’t rhyme with Le Toux and Edu. Well, okay, Cruz kind of rhymes with Le Toux, but Danny’s early season injuries have limited him to parts of 9 games with only a goal and assist.

Some feel Vancouver has been playing above their skill level and that it’s only a matter of time before they fall back to earth. The odds would appear to be against that happening against the Union whose 3-7-5 record isn’t scaring anyone, especially considering the way they’ve been getting buried lately by any team without the world Chivas on the jersey.

But there is hope. Vancouver is only in the middle of the pack defensively, having given up 17 goals. And the Union have plenty of depth which may help overcome the questionable availability of the four players currently residing on the weekly league injury report: Le Toux (lower back strain), Cruz (groin), midfielder Brian Carroll (hamstring) and defender Austin Berry (left ankle sprain). And some of the Union’s healthy parts are working well these days. Aside from Maidana, midfielder Vincent Noguiera continues to be effective. And Conor Casey finally got on the board a couple of times last week, offering at least some hope than somebody up front is finally ready to start charging the net. Perhaps John Hackworth’s strategic move to grant Casey the driver’s position on last week’s penalty kick flicked the on switch. Casey easily scored the gift goal, but was operating on all cylinders later when he pushed forward to head-in the Maidana feed, something very few Union players other than perhaps Cruz has demonstrated much lately.

Vancouver, by the way, has three players out with knee issues, two of them defenders, which could explain why the club has been only so-so in the back third. A forward, Darren Mattocks, is questionable with a left hamstring. Mattocks has been effective this year with 2 goals and 3 assists in 10 games. If he can’t make in onto the pitch on Saturday, perhaps this helps Philadelphia’s cause.

This is your last chance to get a regular-season fix for a while as Philadelphia’s MLS schedule shuts-down for three weeks to give fans a chance to take-in the first rounds of the World Cup in Brazil. Costa Rica and Ireland have a tune-up at PPL Park on Friday night (June 6). The Union is also gunning for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup again this season with a tilt against the Harrisburg City Islanders at home on June 17. This is actually a fourth round affair, but typically, MLS clubs aren’t invited to the dance until the early rounds sort out smaller, lesser-known franchises and private clubs. Regardless of how the regular season works-out, the Hunt Cup is worth rooting for. It would be Philadelphia’s first prize in the trophy case and a fair source of pride. What’s more, the Union players would split a nice bonus of a couple-hundred grand if they won it all which, in soccer, means a lot. In case you aren’t aware, not everybody in the MLS makes Mo Edu money. For whatever reason, several recent Open Cup victors have been clubs who were not having a great season otherwise. By that measure, the Union ought to be marked down as a favorite this year, assuming things don’t turn around in the regular season’s second half.

 

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