The Union, fresh-off a teeth-clenching 1-0 road victory over Chicago are home Wednesday night for arguably the club’s biggest test of the young season. Two-time defending champion Los Angeles comes to rowdy PPL Park (7:30 p.m. Wed., CSN), a season removed from David Beckham, but still packing the offensive punch of USA national team legend Landon Donovan and Mike Magee who’s been doing his best to knock Jack McInerney out of the top spot in the MLS goal-scoring race for the last several weeks.
A quick look at the standings out west and some fans might be surprised to find the Galaxy in 5th place (4-3-2), tied in points with 6th place San Jose. But don’t be fooled. The Galaxy were in the middle of the pack last year before darting to the finish and running away with their fourth overall title. The club’s pedigree includes appearances in three of the last four MLS Cup Finals, four overall titles and four runner-up spots; that’s the most success enjoyed by any MLS club in league history and unlike the formerly storied DC United, a good chunk of that success has occured recently with players on the current roster.
The Galaxy have lost two straight matches, including the first of their current three-game road swing, a 3-1 set back last weekend against Vancouver. But they’ve been playing a younger than usual line-up lately, with players like 22-year-old forward Charlie Rugg (2 games, 1 goal) filling-in for injured veterans. That could change in a significant way on Wednesday night as Robbie Keane (16 goals in 2012) sounds like he wants to return.
Another issue raised by some Los Angeles analysts recently is the Galaxy’s 99 fouls; that’s last in the league. Does this indicate a lack of grit? Maybe not. Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza told Galaxy.com this week that it may also be the result of the fact that the Galaxy usually have possession of the ball and it’s hard to foul when you’re always on offense. And by the way, offense is definitely part of the Galaxy’s game. Twice this year, they’ve scored 4 goals (early on, before the injury bug bit). By comparison, the Union have only scored as much as 3 once.
So, do the Union (4-3-3) have a fighting chance? Absolutely. But it won’t be easy. The Union has had a habit of controlling the ball in many of its recent matches, so beating L.A. at its own game on that score will probably be a key. If they can manage that, there’s enough fire power up front to give the Galaxy fits. And even if Keane comes back, the Union are probably healthier in key positions than L.A.. The Union will return Sheanon Williams from the discipline list. There’s no word on Jeff Parke’s hamstring yet that I’ve seen, but Bakary Soumare played well enough in Chicago to earn another fill-in try. Amobi Okugo had many key plays near his own net and will probably need another bunch of those to keep things going against L.A..
No matter what the circumstances, the play of goaltender Zac MacMath would always be a key. In this case, the work-out he got in Chicago probably helps his cause. MacMath made several very tough saves (and one accidental one off his hip!) to preserve the shut-out win.
MORE ON MACMATH: Be honest. The Union probably should’ve lost or at least tied in Chicago. The defense gave up far too many crosses and were it not for several sensational saves by MacMath, most of them on low shots that the young goalie was able to smother with his hands, the Union faithful might have a much different attitude going into the Wednesday night show-down. But he should be primed for a good showing against the Galaxy.
SOUMARE: All eyes were on him in Chicago as Bakary Soumare finally got a start (playing for the injured Parke) but it was Okugo who had most of the sweet defensive plays in traffic and who looked better, on average, in one-on-one defenses. Soumare, however, did manage some nice long clears with blocks of served balls. We’ll probably get another look on Wednesday if Parke isn’t right.
THE McINERNEY WATCH (with a salute to Le Toux): Jack McInerney reclaimed the MLS goal lead (7) with his tally against Chicago. However, it’s hard to talk about that clever goal without adding a big shout-out to Sebastien Le Toux. The guy hasn’t been playing much lately, but he was Johnny-on-the-spot on Saturday, pursuing the ball well after being subbed-in in the second half. And if Le Toux doesn’t make that beautiful pin-point lov in the Chicago wind to McInerney in front, the Union comes home from the windy city with a measily point and a much poorer position in the crowded Eastern Conference standings. Hats off to a veteran and his veteran play. By the way, 3 players now sit behind MacMath with 6 goals and Union fans get to root against one of them, L.A. midfielder Mike Magee, on Wednesday night.
WHERE THE UNION STAND: The win in Illinois bumps the Union back into posession of a play-off position (5th place), 3 big points ahead of Columbus who dropped a 2-0 decision at home against Colorado on Saturday. Unfortuantely for Philadelphia, many of the other clubs ahead of them won, so it’s a 5-point spread separating them from the 3 other teams sharing second place. But the Union continues to have a games-at-hand advantage against some of these franchises. Only Montreal is in action on Wednesday, so another win or even a draw gets Philadelphia closer to the top with most of the other clubs unable to do anything about it.
Once again, a big opportunity awaits. And this time, it’s a message match against one of the class franchises in the MLS.