Back To Regular Business For Union

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The Philadelphia Union left it all on the field on Tuesday night in a thrilling, gutsy U.S. Open Cup Championship match that ultimately went to Seattle in overtime. Somehow, they need to put the disappointment of that wrenching loss behind them and gather themselves for what should be a winnable game against Houston (Saturday, 7 p.m., TCN). All sites are turned toward the MLS play-off run now and time is running out.

The short story on the Dynamo (9-13-5) is that they’re in 8th place in the league’s Eastern Conference, have scored a dozen fewer goals than Philadelphia this season and have given up five more than the Sons of Ben’s favorite sons. After winning their first two matches back in March in convincing fashion, the Dynamo have spent the majority of the year stuck somewhere between neutral and reverse. And despite a recent surge, Houston is still 6 points out of play-off spot with an awful lot of obstacles between themselves and the post-season. Career Houston forward Will Bruin leads the Dynamo with 10 scores, but missed last week with a bum right foot. English forward Giles Barnes is second with an only mildly impressive 8. The face of the franchise, midfielder Brad Davis, is in his 9th season in Houston and his 12th in the MLS—and the miles are beginning to show. Davis’ minutes are down by about 30-percent this season. He has 4 goals and still serves corners for the Dynamo which has helped him to a club-best 9 assists. But he was taken out last week in the 58th minute of Houston’s 2-2 draw against Columbus after 8 corner tries without a helper.

In short, Houston looks a bit banged-up and is nobody’s favorite to make a surprise play-off push.

STILL ROLLING…

It’s the opposite story in Philadelphia where the Union are on a 3-0-1 run since losing 2-0 to the Dynamo back in August (on an afternoon when the oppressive heat and humidity of downtown Houston made it difficult for either club to play to its true potential). The Union’s U.S. Cup loss on Tuesday night to Seattle was gut-wrenching, but also character-building, as the club was within inches of winning that one in regulation about a half-dozen times. Philadelphia can hold their heads high in the wake of that remarkable effort against the smart choice for this year’s MLS Cup honors.

The only question is how well the Union starters’ legs will hold-up on short rest. The club will need those gams in good form. There are only 6 matches left in this waning season and the Union (9-9-10) are still just beyond the brim of play-off contention, tied in points with fifth-place Columbus (the final play-off position in the Eastern Conference), but technically holding 6th because of one, big tie-breaker. Philadelphia has an identical record and has actually out-scored Columbus by 5 this season, but currently fall short of the play-off spot because the Crew won the only meeting between the two clubs. That was months ago, of course, long before the Union became one of the league’s hottest teams. It’s also a situation the Union can render moot in the season’s closing weeks; two of Philadelphia’s final matches are against Columbus, including October 11th at PPL and the season’s final weekend in Ohio. Hmm. ‘Think there’ll be a few Union fans heading west on the Turnpike for that one?

As for this weekend, it probably helps that the Union is playing in Chester. There’s nothing like the home crowd to get you over the hump when you’re tired. And many of the same fans who were rocking PPL Park on Tuesday night will be back again to aid the atmosphere.

“I REALLY LOVE THIS TEAM”

As for the Tuesday night Cup match, if you weren’t there or didn’t tune-in to the broadcast, you missed a classic. The Union spoiled any hope Seattle may have had for a sustained offensive presence in the contest’s first half. Clint Dempsey hit the bar above Philadelphia goaltender Zac MacMath on a deflected cross, but that was about it. The Union, meanwhile, overcame a few mental lapses early and began getting the better of the chances, finally capitalizing on a beautiful header from midfielder Maurice Edu off a precise free-kick from fellow midfielder Cristian Maidiana (who, honestly, did not play his best game on Tuesday, but still came through when it counted).

The second-half opened with the only extended pressure Seattle brought all night and it resulted in a goal off a second consecutive corner kick and a scramble in front. But ten minutes in, the Union took over again and really never stopped pressing straight through to the end of regulation. There were hit posts, point blank shots right at the goalie and a series of quality serves into the box that just never quite found their way over the goal line. All the while, the players kept moving well, kept pushing.

In overtime, the Dempsey factor—which had been not much of a factor at all in regulation—finally made the difference. In one of only times the U.S. National Team star was left unmarked, he made Philadelphia pay with a quick, expert shot low to the near-post past a sprawling, defenseless MacMath. You can forget the third goal. Yes, Ray Gaddis was having trouble catching-up to a streaking Obafemi Martins and yes, perhaps MacMath committed too soon. But that was basically a typical extra score that comes when a team is running out of time and is pushing nearly everyone forward. My son and I left the stadium exhausted. I think he spoke for everyone as we were walking through the gates, eyes straight ahead, re-playing every moment in his mind, saying, “I really love that team.” True enough.

There’s no telling how long it will be before the Union manages to get to another Cup Final, but here’s hoping it’s soon. This current unit is certainly Cup-worthy.

CUP NUMBER TWO

As for the season’s other trophy (The MLS Cup), the Union will certainly be expected to be a pesky opponent capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone, should they make it into the post-season field—especially after playing with such skill in Tuesday’s championship match. Six games will determine whether they get another chance to shine.

Union Going For First Championship

Me Disney

In soccer, trophies are everything and the Philadelphia Union, in only their 5th year in the MLS, take a crack at winning their first on Tuesday night at PPL Park (7:30 p.m., TCN). For the first time, the Union has battled their way to the championship match of the annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a century-old tournament that spans the continent, includes competitors from all ranks of stateside soccer, but almost always ends-up with somebody from the MLS hoisting a really nifty, silver goblet.

Since June, the Union has been slipping Cup games in between its regular league matches and friendlies, out-dueling all comers in the win-or-go-home series, from smaller clubs in Harrisburg and New York to home league rivals New England and Dallas. Their reward: a championship tilt against a star-studded Seattle Sounders squad who’s looked like the cream of the crop in the MLS this year and currently resides atop the Western Conference with a league-best 54 points.

But the Open Cup has a funny way of evening the pitch. Few thought DC United had a chance last year when it managed to ignore its historically-horrendous MLS regular season performance (DC finished with a woeful 16 points in league play) and turn themselves into a defensive dynamo in cup matches. They beat Real Salt Lake 1-0 for the title and actually had a tougher road than the Union had this season as all four of DC’s tournament draws were MLS opponents (including Philadelphia in Round 1).

TRADITION!

This is the Open Cup’s 101st year. Originally known as the National Challenge Cup, its first champion was Brooklyn Field Club in 1914. A local team attached to Bethlehem Steel made some noise up until 1919, winning a record 5 titles in what’s regarded as the “pre-modern” era. In fact, the Union’s third kit with the black jersey and white shorts pays homage to those teams. But in the modern era, beginning in the late 1990s—when the tournament was renamed for sports entrepreneur and major U.S. soccer patron Lamar Hunt—the creation of the MLS and its penchant for attracting bigger stars turned the Cup run into an affair dominated by the big league. MLS members are not required to enter the tournament until the fourth round, more than a month after lesser-known competitors start slugging it out, and the MLS reps have won the tournament 17 times since 1998.

However, poor odds have not dampened enthusiasm among United States soccer’s lower-tiers. This year’s championship game will be the tourney’s 79th contest.  Everyone from The Vermont Voltage and the L.A. Missioneros to the Dayton Dutch Lions and Baltimore Bohemians have taken part, representing multiple regional leagues.

AN OPPORTUNITY UNIQUE TO SOCCER

Of course, the larger prestige of winning the MLS Cup begs the question, “Why would a major league squad care about this tournament?” After all, the Cup matches do not always come-up at the most opportune times. For the Union, for example, Tuesday’s end game is sandwiched between two important stretch-run league matches with the club teetering on the edge of a play-off spot. There are several answers. Prestige is part of it. The more trophies you can cram into the trophy case, the better you look to your fans, the league and the world. Secondly, the Open Cup winner gets a shot at competing on an even bigger stage next year in the CONCACAF tournament, involving clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Again, there’s another shot there at a trophy (not to mention some seasoning against international competition).

But the more basic incentive is one as old as civilization: money. The Union have already earned a prize by virtue of playing in the final game (last year, that meant about $60,000). If they win it all, though, the reward jumps to something in the neighborhood of $250,000. A share of that might not mean much to Maurice Edu, but if you’re, say, Aaron Wheeler or Zach Pfeffer? It’s a big bonus.

HARDWARE FEVER

An indication of just how highly Philadelphia values this championship chance was evident when the opening line-ups were posted for last Saturday’s important MLS match against New York. Manager Jim Curtin held a number of stars out, obviously worried about injuries and fatigue heading into Tuesday’s tilt. In the end, he wound-up having to insert most of them in the second half to help salvage a 2-2 draw. But as important as every point is in the MLS season’s waning weeks, the truth is, the U.S. Open Cup Match represents a far better chance at a trophy for Philadelphia than the MLS Cup run, even if the club finishes strong and enters the league play-offs as a team on a roll. They would still have to plow through an extremely-tough post-season field to win it all. To win the Open Cup, they need only plow through one extremely tough opponent.

PACIFIC POWER

Enter Seattle, no stranger to Open Cup play. Prior to last year, the Sounders had appeared in four straight Cup finals and won three of them—and this was before superstar forward Clint Dempsey was on board and fully healthy. Dempsey may be the best player in the MLS. If he isn’t, he certainly has the best pedigree. The striker-turned-Gamestop-spokesman, who starred as Captain of the U.S. National Team at this year’s World Cup in Brazil, also has 7 years of successfully English Premier League play under his cleats. If the Union are going to hoist silver on Tuesday night, they must obviously control this guy. But they better watch-out for “the other guy”, forward Kenny Cooper, who ranks near the top of multiple MLS offensive categories over the past several years and currently sits in the top ten in goals scored among active players. He may only have 9 goals in league play over the last couple of seasons after netting 18 for New York in 2012, but Cooper has been dynamite in the Open Cup. He has 13 goals in the tournament; that puts him second on the modern-era U.S. Cup scoring list. After Cooper, the Union will also have to keep an eye on the “other” other guy, Obafemi Martins, who leads Seattle with 13 scores. Then, there’s 6-goal scorer Lamar Neagle. I could go on, but the basic idea is that Seattle can beat you in about a dozen different ways and enters the Cup final as a clear favorite over Philadelphia.

NOT SO FAST, MSSR.

But this is not exactly the David-versus-Goliath match we had last year with upstart DC United slinging stones. It’s worth noting that Sebastien Le Toux is also a guy who loves Cup play; in fact, he’s just ahead of Cooper on that modern era scoring list with 14 (the top spot). A change of rules within U.S. Soccer may also make a difference for Philadelphia. The venue for the final is now determined by a coin toss, which the Union obviously won. Gone are the days when clubs made sealed bids to win home field advantage (which Seattle did repeatedly in prior years). The Sounders may be the favorites, but they’ll have to win on foreign soil this time and Philadelphia has been defending their home turf well over the last month or so. Add to that Philadelphia’s semi-rested stars (Seattle started all their top guns but Cooper, by the way, in its 3-2 win over Portland on Friday night—most played the full 90) and the way the Union has been gelling for months and it would hardly be a shock if the underdog took this match for the second the second year in-a-row.

In case you’re interested, as of this writing, there are still decent seats available for the Championship match on the Union’s website—and not too expensive. The weather looks nice: clear skies, not too windy, temperature during the match between 72-67.

Hot Union Must Keep Climbing

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The Philadelphia Union are back at PPL Park on Saturday (3 p.m., NBC Sports) for a home match against the New York Red Bulls, after a pair of enormous victories over Toronto FC in a home-and-home set last week. Toronto never got a goal in those games. The Union netted three. A few defensive laps aside, the Union (9-9-9) looked generally dominant against the faltering Canadians, leap-frogging Toronto and temporarily placing themselves in a playoff position in the MLS Eastern Conference for the first time since the season’s early days.

It’s little surprise that this latest surge in what’s been a second half of surges for Philadelphia arrives as a number of the club’s primary pieces are all getting healthy and back on the field together. Last weekend’s match featured a midfield with both Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana for one of the few times in the last couple of months. The play-making tandem did a nice job of feeding the ball forward, or hogging it with the lead. Career midfielder Maurice Edu slid to the back line again and appears to be getting more comfortable handling the ball closer to his own goal, while still managing to push forward at times and getting involved in the offense. Meanwhile, the club’s veteran pair of strikers—Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey—who the Union is counting on to carry the scoring burden down the stretch, are both becoming more consistent and active.

The Union’s biggest problem is their past. After spending the first couple of months of Season 5 bumbling scoring chances and sacrificing points, the second half renaissance is only good enough for 6th place heading into this weekend, because other clubs also vying the final playoff spots have also toughened-up.

NEW YORK STATE OF GRIND

A prime example is New York. The Red Bulls, who beat talented Sporting KC two weeks ago, came-up with a real gut-check performance against DC United at home on Wednesday. New York, usually content to wait around for star Bradley Wright-Phillips to save the day, found themselves waving bye-bye to their big striker around half-time when he came-up with a tight hamstring. Rather than pack it in, the club spread the ball around, creating multiple chances and ended-up beating one of this season’s better clubs with a 90th minute goal from midfielder Lloyd Sam. Final score: 1-0. The goal meant the difference between Fourth Place and a continued spot among play-off positions, versus a drop back to Toronto territory.

So, what to expect on Saturday? The Union handled New York well back in mid-July at PPL, allowing Wright-Phillips his usual goal, but nothing else in a 3-1 victory that wasn’t even as close as that score suggests. Philadelphia also lost to New York back in April, but frankly, the Union was losing or tying a lot of teams back then and I’m not sure how much significance you can place on anything that happened in the season’s opening 6 weeks. With the league’s scoring leader possibly less than 100% (Wright-Phillips is not listed on this week’s MLS Injury Report and will apparently play on Saturday, but will last week’s hamstring tweak matter?) and New York playing in its third game in 7 days, Philadelphia ought to be in the driver’s seat. It also can’t hurt that Saturday’s Red Bulls rubber match is in Chester with New York attempting to defend the second half a few yards away from the raucous River End.

The Union will take any edge they can get on Saturday. Both of these clubs are on a roll lately. Both have beating some decent teams.  In fact, a draw doesn’t seem out of the question, say, 2-2. But thanks to Philadelphia’s slow start this year, a win probably looms larger for the Union than the Red Bulls. Philadelphia has spent the last three months playing catch-up. With only 7 league matches left, there’s precious little room for missed opportunities.

THE WRIGHT STUFF… PLUS ONE

It’s easy to think of New York as a sort of one-trick pony this season, given the dominance of Wright-Phillips (his 21 goals leads the MLS). But don’t. Old pro Thierry Henry may not be scoring as often as in years past, but he leads the Red Bulls with a dozen assists. And while Sam got the glory with his late game-winner last week, thirteen minutes before that strike, Henry was absolutely robbed by DC net minder Bill Hamid and led all players in the match in shots by a wide margin. The guy can still bring it.

RAY OF SUNSHINE

Those of you who’ve happily charted the improving play of energetic Union defender, Ray Gaddis, over the last couple of years are likely pleased with the club’s decision to extend the 24-year-old Indianapolis native for another couple of years (even if he ends-up rooting for the Colts against the Eagles on Monday night). The youngster’s exceptional one-on-one defending and high-octane style is probably more valuable than ever, now that former defensive partner Amobi Okugo is spending most of his time in the Union midfield. Gaddis is probably the most mobile guy left on the back line. But with veteran Carlos Valdez back in the fold, converted defender Maurice Edu looking more comfortable and players like Sheannon Williams and Ethan White healthy and contributing, this is a good-looking group for Philadelphia—and will probably stay that way for a while.

IS RAIS AS NICE?

Has anybody else been wondering who the Union is really better-off playing in goal over the season’s final seven league games? Granted, Rais Mbolhi has an impressive International pedigree and sure looked great keeping his Algerian national club in that World Cup match against Germany over the summer. But every time he plays, he gives-up goals. Meanwhile, Zac MacMath is coming-off two shut-outs and, in general, has done a lot of maturing over the last year. I know the sample size on Rais is pretty small. But, you know. Just sayin’.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

The Union takes a break from league play on Tuesday night when it hosts mighty Seattle in the U.S. Open Cup championship, the club’s first visit to this historic final. Some may bemoan the annual tournament for cluttering the schedule and sapping the energy of clubs like Philadelphia who are in a death battle for a playoff perch in the regular MLS over the next two months. I used to feel that way until a conversation with Union reserve Aaron Wheeler a couple of years ago, who pointed out that the winning team gets to carve-up a six-figure cash prize—enough to make a big difference to many on the Union squad who aren’t exactly making millions. Since then, I’ve warmed to this series—even more so now that the Union have actually made it to the pinnacle match. I’ll be there on Tuesday night, hoping to see the Union’s first trophy lifted into the display case.

Union Play Two Against Turbulent Toronto

Me Space Mountain

The long slog that is the MLS regular season is in the home stretch now and for the Philadelphia Union (7-9-9), crunch time has officially arrived. The club is in 7th place in the Eastern Conference, but only 3 points out of third and has only 9 league matches left to make up that ground. Several of these are against key conference opponents. The next two are especially intriguing: a quick home-and-home set versus Toronto FC, which has been making headlines over the last few days for a boat load of backstage melodrama.

TURMOIL IN TORONTO

On Sunday, Toronto sacked its entire coaching staff—everyone from Manager Ryan Nelsen to the Strength and Conditioning guy. Apparently, fourth place wasn’t good enough for management after an off-season marked by big international acquisitions and sky-high expectations (sound familiar, Union fans?).

Then, yesterday, the club announced that it had received a near record offer for one of those new players, star striker Jermain Defoe, to return to Europe (probably to the English Premiere League from whence he came last year). Management mulled-over the mega-bucks deal from an unnamed club before opting to keep Defoe. One can only imagine how hard the league office was holding their breath over this one; only months removed from the MLS’s greatest off-season in terms of luring overseas talent, how bad would it have looked to see one of the biggest names in that star-studded group swimming back across the pond?

NORTH OF THE BORDER BUMBLING

There’s no telling how much these distractions will affect Toronto’s play on the field Wednesday night (and Saturday when the two sides meet again north of the border). What we do know is that hours before Sunday’s blood-letting, the club delivered a lifeless 3-0 loss to New England at home. Other recent tilts were no more encouraging: a 2-2 draw against bumbling Chicago and a 4-1 drubbing by Sporting KC. In fact, Toronto (9-9-6) has failed to beat any of the league’s top teams since match number one when they grabbed a 2-1 decision from Seattle back in mid-March.

Defoe’s been good (11 goals, 23 shots on net in 16 starts), but it doesn’t matter. He was on the shelf last week with a right adductor strain (I’ll let you hit the medical books to figure that one out) and he’s officially listed as OUT on this week’s MLS Injury Report. The other big off-season haul, Michael Bradley (of U.S. National Team fame) has been a bust, scoring only only one goal and one assist in 16 matches. Former threat Dominic Oduro (13 goals with Columbus two seasons ago) has 2 in 2014. First-year Brazilian forward Gilberto has fared better with six scores and two helpers; he may be the player to watch on Wednesday.

CARRY ON, MEN!

The Union has had a few hick-ups recently, but has generally been a club on the rise over the last couple of months. In it’s last 10 league matches, Philadelphia is 4-2-4 (not to mention a string of wins that has the Union in the U.S. Open Cup Championship game in a couple of weeks). The offense has been well distributed, although Sebastien Le Toux has assumed the role of primary offensive threat; he’s been playing like a Frenchman possessed. His 11 league goals (and 5 assists) don’t tell the whole story; Le Toux has also been scoring in the U.S. Open Cup matches and a few friendlies. The club is coming off a spirited 4-2 victory over San Jose at home a week and a half ago and should be well-rested for Toronto.

FOR CLUB… OR COUNTRY?

The Union is losing a few players to national team call-ups over the next week or so, but only a couple of them were locks to play Wednesday, anyway: defender Carlos Valdes (Columbia) and goalie Rais Mbolhi (Algeria). In Mbolhi’s case, Zac MacMath is an able replacement. Midfielder Michael Lahoud (Sierra Leone) and Zach Pfeffer (U-20 U.S. National Team) are also away this week. Forward Brian Brown and goalie Andre Blake will play for Jamaica later on (September 9), but are available on Wednesday. Toronto has five players all going to the Canadian National Team, but that club’s match isn’t until September 9th, so the expectation is that all will be available on Wednesday.

OUCHIES

On the injury front, Union midfielder Fabinho is out with a bum knee and midfielder Cristian Maidana is listed as questionable for about the 6th straight week with a sore left hamstring. In the past, this has alternately meant everything from “he’s sore and out”, or “in and looking great”. Flip a coin. Five players are listed as out for Toronto, but the most significant is Defoe.

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.

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