The Philadelphia Union is a club officially firing on all cylinders after a 3-0 thumping of the division rival New York Red Bulls on Sunday. The team not only vaulted into a second-place tie with New York in the MLS Eastern Conference, they’ve also returned PPL Park to the list of dreaded destinations for league opponents. Just ask the Columbus Crew who also got bounced out of Chester with another 3-0 thrashing in the Union’s previous home match on June 5th. 19,000+ packed PPL this weekend; another reason New York found the stadium so oppressive.
Both New York and Philadelphia came into the Saturday clash following long breaks from their regular season schedules (filled with friendlies and U.S. Cup matches). But New York was the club that looked rusty, missing passes repeatedly in the first 20 minutes and failing to put much pressure on Union goal tender Zac MacMath. They paid for their mistakes. For the second straight outing, the Union offense looked spirited, creating multiple chances off turn-overs and solid rushes. Conor Casey had a goal called back for offsides only 3 minutes in and quickly brushed that disappointment aside with a legal tally a few short minutes later. It was another beautiful header snapped to the back of the net off a gorgeous feed from Sheanon Williams.
Red Bulls goalie Luis Robles, who many believe has the inside track on an all-star appearance this year, spent much of his time fending-off fierce challenges, most notably by striker Jack McInerney who did not add to his MLS goal-scoring lead, but peppered Robles with several excellent chances. The most notable save kept the match at 1-0 as a sliding Robles left just enough of his trailing foot behind him to tick away a wide open McInerney tap.
It could be argued that New York, playing without a couple of starters, and down a man for two thirds of the contest after midfielder Lloyd Sam was booted off with a red card, was not fielding its complete package. But the Red Bulls were still armed with superstar Thierry Henry and the able tandem of Dax McCarty and Jonathan Steele, not to mention the top-flight Robles in net. And by the time Sam was tossed, the Union had already established a clear momentum.
New York managed to escape the first half only down a goal, but gave away the play again quickly in the second half and folded under a barage of Union opportunities. Conor Casey scored off a rebound in the 64th minute and Sebastien Le Toux moved into first-place in league assists with his 7th on a heads-up feed to a wide open Antoine Hoppenot in the closing minutes. Le Toux has at least a couple of assists off corners this season, but most have come on plays like this, where the veteran takes that precious extra second to survey the field and then selects the best option. Often, it’s been super-striker McInerney who was around the net near the far post on this play, but Hoppenot was unmarked and easily the superior option, slyly trailing the play.
The Union played their best game of the season last time out against Columbus, owning that match from start to finish. This one may have been second best. New York’s heavy hitter, Thierry, threatened a few times as usual and the Union were fortunate on a couple of scrambles in front that were knocked clear. But their offense was relentless again; they could’ve easily had 5 or 6 goals with McInerney off the mark from close in at least twice, Casey’s call-back and another chance in front by a twirling Le Toux who thumped the ball off the outside post on a quick turn-around attempt.
With this victory, the Union have made a statement against an elite, probable play-off force. Another good effort against Western Conference powerhouse FC Dallas on Saturday (5:30 p.m., PPL Park, NBC Sports Channel) and the rest of the league may have to start considering Philadelphia in the sort of favorable light that has eluded the club since its 2011 play-off run. They are not a perfect soccer club and many of their key players are young and less-experienced. But they are jelling. And veterans like Casey and Le Toux are beginning to lead. That’s got to be a troubling sign for the rest of the MLS.
YO MURPH ON THE RADIO: The Union is doing me the great honor of inviting me to sit-in on the 90th Minute radio show on WIP Tuesday night (June 25) for a few minutes. The show’s from 6-7 p.m. on WIP AM. I’ll be on there at some point yacking it up with Carl Cherkin and company. Drop by Chickie’s and Pete’s in Drexel Hill if you want to catch the broadcast live. The club usually does give-aways and I believe people in team gear get some deals on certain menu items. And as we all know, DOOP is good food!
CRUZ INJURED: Back to the match: that Sam red card came on a foul against the Union’s Danny Cruz, as Sam left his feet and plowed into Cruz’s leg, spikes first. Cruz made it back briefly but eventually limped to the bench. He was playing a very lively wing; here’s hoping he’s recovered in time for Dallas.
LE TOUX’S NEW STRENGTH: When Sebastien Le Toux left the Union after his first stint in Philadelphia, two teams (including New York) tried to turn him into an outside specialist who could feed the strikers in front. The experiment was a disaster. But no matter what he’s asked to do in Philadelphia, the veteran Frenchman just seems to produce. After sitting out a few games early on, Le Toux has apparently embraced the role of set-up man and has used this new way of contributing to re-claim a solid starting spot. It wasn’t long ago that pundits (including me) were bemoaning the fact that players like Le Toux were failing the club by leaving too much of the scoring to McInerney. But in Le Toux’s case, he’s setting-up so many goals that I’ve now officially given up that view. An assist is as good as a goal; in fact, it’s often the more difficult part of a scoring play. Le Toux has started to make it look easy and for that, he is to be commended. What’s more, he’s still getting a scoring chance or two every match and I’m betting he ends-up with a half-dozen in the net before season’s end. You read it here first.
CASEY TAKES HEAT OFF MAC: Conor Casey, meanwhile, has been making the most of his starts recently, after a bit of a lull. Casey is back to making those excellent passes and flicks, has 5 goals (second on the club) and has added two assists. I’m getting to love those snappy headers.
MAC’S LACK OF ATTACK: After getting absolutely stoned by Luis Robles on a toe save in the early going and making poor tries on a couple of other opportunities, Jack McInerney appeared to show his frustration and perhaps his youth, whacking the ball at net from distance in the game’s later stages. One wonders if the increased attention he’s getting (under consideration by the U.S. National Team, a nice profile in the Inquirer last weekend, lots and lots of interviews) is throwing a heavy burden onto his young shoulders. As a twenty-year-old, he’s to be forgiven, I think. But a little more poise would be nice to see, especially over the next month or two as the Union take square aim at a play-off berth. Despite his day of many chances and no results, though, McInerney is still tied for the MLS goal lead at 10 and is showing no sign of bowing out of that race. He was still around the net constantly yesterday and still seemed to own that open space, no matter where it developed.
WHEELER: ‘Had a chance to talk U.S. OPEN CUP with Aaron Wheeler, a Union forward out of Maryland. We were sharing space at the 6abc autograph tent at the Manayunk Arts Festival on Saturday. Of course, the Union lost to DC United in the last round and is out, not a bad thing I suggested, since the team can now concentrate on the regular MLS season. Wheeler admitted that the roster gets hard to manage and the pace of things is pretty tough on everyone when those Cup matches are mixed-in with all the other friendlies and MLS matches on the mid-season schedule. But he did remind me that the players love the Cup. After all, winning the trophy is a point of supreme pride for all involved. Equally important: the tourney winner gets $250,000 and the players split a lot of that cash. I promised Aaron I’d be more enthusiastic about the Cup Challenge next season!
STANDINGS: The Union (7-5-4) is tied for second with New York, but has a game at hand on the Red Bulls which effectively hands them the second spot. They are 2-points ahead of Kansas City and Houston and a full 5 points ahead of the next non-play-off contender, Columbus. Is first place in Philadelphia’s future? Probably not, at least not for a while. Montreal still sits atop the East with a dominant 9-3-2 record and a 4-point gap over the Union. The Canadians also have a whopping two games at hand. Factor into that equation the Union’s schedule which includes tough matches against Dallas, Salt Lake City and Houston over the next several weeks and it’s obvious that Philadelphia needs to keep taking things minute-by-minute, half-by-half, and match-by-match for a while, rather than worrying too much about who’s on top. But there’s no doubt that the last two 3-0 shut-outs have put the club in a better position than they’ve enjoyed at any time during the last year and a half. These next few matches may end-up writing the story of their season. Good efforts and results will have Montreal looking over their shoulder soon enough.