The Union may have a better record than the New York Red Bulls, but it was clear which was the better team on Saturday in Harrison, NJ. While the Union held ball control reasonably well in the first half, it was New York that generated the best scoring opportunities and after a scoreless first half, Philadelphia succumbed to New York’s superior offense, falling 2-1.
The second-half downfall can be linked to the team’s penchant for repeatedly turning the ball over in midfield, often after only one touch. Especially concerning was the Jekyll and Hyde performance by normally solid midfielder Brian Carroll, who played a wonderful first half, often moving the ball forward through the middle of the field and pushing it to his forwards. In the second half, though, Carroll was responsible for several sloppy giveaways that reversed control of the midfield and led to what amounted to sustained pressure in the Union end. Not that Carroll was the only one guilty of giving it up; he was just the most obvious because he’s usually so much better at that part of his game.
New York’s first goal was actually not generated from one of their better attacks. The ball was served randomly into a gaggle of players in front by Jonny Steele and flicked blindly toward the near post by Dax McCarty. The ball happened to be spinning in the right direction, caught the post behind diving goalkeeper Zac MacMath and dribbled back across the goal line.
The second tally came off of a second brilliant attempt by late-add Thierry Henry, who didn’t start because of a recent knee injury. I’d say he’s recovered. Henry was his usual all-in self, nearly scoring on a brilliant bicycle kick that came after settling a pass in mid-air, a goal that would’ve been on everyone’s year-end highlight reel had it gone in. Henry made good on his next chance as he dribbled in and flattened a ball into the back of the net in the closing minutes of regulation.
In between, the Union created some of the young season’s best excitement, thanks to some excellent coaching. Down a goal, Union Manager John Hackworth inserted Antoine Hoppenot and Conor Casey, obviously looking for more consistency up front. Only moments later, it paid off on a long throw-in from Sheanon WIlliams (one of the best in the business at this specialty), who hit Casey directly in front of the net. Casey’s sharp header zoomed into the back of the goal.
It was only Casey’s second appearance of the year, due partly to nagging injuries. He’s apparently fine now and may have bought himself more playing time with this effort. Casey also got a yellow card late in the match, a sign that his usual gritty play was also back full-force.
A couple of other Hackworth moves are open to Monday-morning quarterbacking, however. While injecting Casey, the manager also removed a largely ineffective Sebastian LeToux. Unfortunately, a series of Union corner kick opportunities followed and Le Toux—who has been devastating lately with corners—was not there to take them. Michael Farfan’s serves were adequate but not as sharp as Le Toux’s recent efforts.
Also, after Casey’s equalizer, Jack McInerney was pulled for defense and without him, the Union made little offensive noise after they had had fallen behind again, even though four minutes of stoppage time were added.
But it may not have made a difference. The Red Bulls played like a team that knew it was better than its 0-2-2 start. And the Union looked like a young team gripped by the ghosts of having never won in New York. Sheanon Williams and Conor Casey provided a great moment, but there were not nearly enough of them, as most of the Union pushes came in the first half and fizzled one good pass or move before they could could end with a goal.
Still, it was another close match for Philadelphia. Perhaps there’s enough to draw from to carry over into next week’s tough road match with Columbus. But the reality is that the Union, who had a winning record early this season thanks to some smart, opportune soccer, are now back at .500 and have a very real chance of sliding back into the Eastern Conference’s lower echelon if they can’t come-up with a better effort next week.