In the second half of the Philadelphia Union’s 1-1 draw with Toronto on Saturday, the home side displayed exactly the sort of sustained offensive attack fans have been waiting for. And were it not for a bad call by an official, the Union may well have won.
But in a sport where netting goals is so challenging, all the effort in the world is sometimes lost on the final score card and when this one was over, you could almost hear the soccer gods chuckling. Luck, often an elusive lady on the pitch, was simply not on the Union’s side.
Still, there was a lot of good that came out of this contest. Despite a largely ineffective first half (made more difficult by the official blowing the whistle every time a player slipped or dove to the turf—and handing-out yellow cards like they were coupons for free loaves of Bimbo), the Union almost completely owned Toronto FC in the second. In particular, the final 15 minutes plus almost 7 minutes of stoppage time showed us just how much pressure Philadelphia is capable of throwing at an opponent.
Manager John Hackworth surprised a few people by finding a way to start the entire of trio of forwards Conor Casey, Jack McInerney and Sebastian Le Toux, obviously making the statement that it was time to see some more goals out of his defensive-minded squad. The strategy back-fired in the first half with only Casey getting some nice chances on net—and even that was somewhat of a shock given how often the flow of the game was disrupted by the constant whistle-blowing. Another problem was Toronto’s fall-back approach on Saturday; the Reds chose to load-up the back end of the pitch while making only furtive attempts at the Union goal. This strategy muddled the midfield, making for sloppy play. Keon Daniel, in particular, seemed a bit confused by the set-up, repeatedly holding the ball for long periods of time as if he was unsure of where to go with it.
But whatever was said by the coaching staff during the break must have hit home. In the second period, the offense pressed the ball consistently the way Hackworth has been preaching all season and it very nearly resulted in several goals. In fact, the Union actually got two, but the first was dissallowed by the official who was out of position and could not see what the replay clearly showed: the ball was never controlled by netminder Joe Bendik as McInerney forced it across the line. But instead of 1-1, McInerney was called for interference and the Union were left to start anew toward earning the draw.
The soccer gods had a good laugh at that one, but not nearly as good as when the Union fell behind. In the middle of all this improved play, Le Toux conceeded a ball and the defense suddenly went numb, failing to pursue striker-extroidinaire Robert Earnshaw as he accepted a lov from Ashtone Morgan and drilled his league-leading fifth goal of the season past a flopping Zac MacMath. In fact, the defense went so still all at once that I thought another whistle must have been sounded.
Two things were clear as the match ended. First: Toronto FC, once a doormat in the MLS, is a much improved club. Second: The Union should have won this match and played well enough to do so. But as the soccer gods will happily tell you, that’s not always enough in the MLS and it wasn’t on Saturday.
NEXT UP: The Union should be able to grab some points over the next two or three games. They are on the road against DC United and the New England Revolution before coming home to face Seattle. None of these teams is having a good year. DC and NE have a combined record of 2-6-3 and are nestled 3 and 2 points, respectively, behind Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference. Seattle is holding down last place in the West. But the football gods better not be in a funny mood again, as the Union can not afford any more bad luck. With their draw, Philadelphia is still well-positioned to make a move in the East. They remain 1-point ahead of Toronto and only 3 points out of 3rd place in the division. And while the New York Red Bulls are now technically in 5th place, one position ahead of the Union, Philadelphia has the same amount of points (8) with a game at hand.
However, a slip-up in one or two of the next three games will make it very tough on Philadelphia, potentially pulling them back into the lower echelon of their Conference, which frankly, is not where they belong. Two or three wins over the next three weeks will likely shove a pair of division rivals far back in the rear-view mirror and catapult Philadelphia into a position of strength heading into the second quarter of the schedule.
The next test may be the easiest. Sunday afternoon’s match is in DC against the East’s last-place squad. I’ll preview the contest later in the week.