The Union are back at it in a league match Saturday afternoon on the road against the New York Red Bulls (3:30pm NBC Sports Channel), a team that hasn’t yet found it’s footing, the net (much), nor the win column this season. The Red Bulls, a natural rival for Philadelphia over three seasons given the team’s home base just 90 minutes up the Turnpike in Newark, NJ, have only collected 2 points in four matches so far. The latest set-back: a 1-0 shut-out against surprising, second-year club Montreal. In fact, the Bulls have only scored once in their last three contests after netting three in an opening day tie against weak Portland.
On paper, this match looks good for the Union. New York has not been scoring and the Union have been playing generally better defense since some slip-ups in their opener. There may also be something to prove here for a couple of players on the pitch. Sebastian LeToux was not well utilized by the Red Bulls in his half season in New York last year and was traded back to Philadelphia in the off-season. The forward is off to an effective start in league play with a goal and a couple of assists off beautiful corner kicks (not to mention another nice set-up in last weekend’s exhibition against Mexico City’s Pumas), and may be anxious to make his old bosses regret letting him go. On the other side of the pitch, Josue Martinez, dealt to the Red Bulls for Le Toux after an uneven single season in Philadelphia may also have revenge on his mind, although it’s unclear how much time he’ll have to exact it. Martinez was a late sub in the 79th minute last week.
The Union is also on a roll, having won three straight following Saturday’s 1-0 exhibition victory (thankyou very much, Michael Farfan!). Meanwhile, the Red Bulls look like a frustrated bunch of footballers. Midfielder Brandon Barklage was tossed last week after receiving two yellow cards for rough tackles. It’s easier to get in that sort of trouble when you’re constantly playing from behind.
But Union Manager John Hackworth will be the first to admit that it’s a mistake to take the New Yorkers lightly. They still have a veteran pressence and will probably turn things around before long. They have not been blown-out in any of their games and a closer look at the notes from last week’s loss to Montreal shows that they pressed the net several times after falling behind early and simply couldn’t finish. Keep showing up in the box and sooner or later, those balls are going to go in.
Meanwhile, the Union, despite their plus record, also have some bugs to work-out. They’ve needed great saves by Zac MacMath (and Jack McInerney in Colorado) to keep them in the win column lately thanks to a few defensive break-downs. Their set pieces are coming together, adding to the offensive threat, but the team still hasn’t run away from anyone. Hackworth will be looking for a more sustained attack on Saturday with a little tighter defense when New York tries to advance on net.
Obviously, the Union players and management will be looking to pounce before the New Yorkers settle their problems. If they can, it bodes extremely well. A win would keep the team near the top of the Eastern Conference (the Union is currently tied for 3rd with 6 points). It would also set-up a giant road match the following weekend against the second-place Columbus Crew, with whom the Union has a game at hand. Overall, 3 of the next 5 Union matches are against teams that have gotten off to medicore starts.
I wrote recently that I would love to see the offense break-out soon, say, for three goals. Last year’s squad did it, especially after the change in manager and introduction of new blood on the field. This year’s version certainly seems capable. Perhaps Saturday. It’s simply a matter of putting a team already on its heels all the way over on its back.
NEW FAN TIP: Having trouble figuring out offsides in soccer? It’s easy! An offensive player can’t move behind the other squad’s defenders until the ball is physcally served to him. In other words, he can’t move closer to the opponent’s goal than a defender until his teammate has launched the ball in his direction.
The offensive strategy on a rush in soccer has to do with the ball handler anticipating when his teammate downfield is about to “break” for the net. A perfectly timed play involves the forward breaking at the exact moment the ball is kicked to him, catching the defender on his heels and breaking past him to receive the ball and take an open shot on the goalie. That’s unless the play is errantly whistled offsides by the officials. Like a baseball umpire calling a guy out when he’s safe, soccer officials sometimes miss the offsides call… which gives fans a great oppotunity to blow off some steam!