Relatively early in this MLS season, anyone looking ahead at the Philadelphia Union’s schedule could see an early-summer red-flag staring them in the face, as obvious as Conor Casey’s dome standing-out in the crowd in front of an opponent’s goal. A four-game stretch awaited them against four very good-looking clubs: New York, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Houston. It was in the back of my mind for weeks and grew even more daunting on June 1st, after the Union trudged out of Toronto with a 1-1 draw, a match that had three points written all over it going in.
The Cup loss to DC United was another bad sign, even though it didn’t count in the standings. Next, the rumor and then the reality that top scorer Jack McInerney was headed to the national stage, at least temporarily, to join the U.S. Gold Cup group and would miss the second half of that “Big Four” swing.
This morning, it’s over and Union fans are looking back, probably disenchanted with the way it ended, the Union dropping a 1-0 decision in ridiculously sweaty-hot Houston on Saturday night against what turned-out to be a beatable Dynamo side (although Philadelphia spent 90 minutes making them look like Montreal). The 2-2 draw against mighty Real Salt Lake the previous Wednesday also stings, since Philadelphia had that game won four minutes into stoppage time. The problem was that a rare fifth minute had been allotted and a hand-ball with time running-out followed by a barely-made penalty kick rescued the Utah squad and sunk the spirits of Union supporters.
It’s times like this when it’s probably instructive to remind one’s self about how this portion of the schedule looked going in. Be honest. With McInerney off to occupy his glorious spot on the U.S. National Team’s bench and so many winning clubs staring us down on those June and July calendar pages, you had to at least wonder whether this wasn’t the point in the Union’s season where hopes would be sliced and optimism melted into a quiet, humid brand of desperation.
But that’s not at all the way things turned-out. Despite the lack of a perfect 4-0 (and when does that ever happen in the MLS?) Philadelphia survived this gloomy stretch with far more to celebrate than to cry about. Including the 3-0 home win against Columbus back on June 5th, the Union is now 2-1-2 in its last 5 league matches and has picked-up 8 precious points at a time when many other Eastern Division rivals have had far greater struggles. Even mighty Montreal managed only a draw against lowly Chivas USA last weekend and the Red Bulls dropped their last match against Colorado. In a sense, one of the more surprising decisions of the weekend was the Union loss in Texas where Dynamo goals have been about as scarce as rain drops lately. The Philadelphia side was obviously gassed from the week’s travel and that hard-fought, thin-air draw in Utah just four days earlier—which isn’t a bad excuse, really, assuming they can forget about it now and get back on track.
With the dust now settled, Philadelphia finds itself in fourth place in the East, a point behind New York and only 4 behind Montreal. What’s more, Chivas is the next opponent on Friday night at PPL (7:30 p.m., TCN), which on paper would appear to be simpler business than any of the club’s more recent challenges.
KEEPIN’ IT REAL: That said, there are several reasons why Philadelphia had better bring their “A” game this weekend. First, Chivas has been playing better lately; they’re undefeated in their last three contests and could benefit from two recent additions: midfielder Eric Avila (who scored their only goal last weekend), who has just returned from a 2-week trial with Mexico and newly acquired International defender Carlos Bocanegra, who is expected to join Chivas in time for the Union match. Second, the Union’s next contest is against Portland, losers in Columbus last weekend but rolling into PPL with a sweet 30 points and just 2 losses overall. Finally, Philadelphia has allowed Houston back into the race and as close as the Union is to the clubs ahead of them, they now have both the Dynamo and New England nipping at their heels, and both with games at hand. A slip-up on Saturday and things could start to look far more grim—and in a hurry, too.
JACK WHO? How many of you, upon hearing that the U.S. National Gold Cup Team had squashed Guatemala in a tourney tune-up 6-0 last week, rushed to the web to see how many of those goals were scored by favorite son Jack McInerney? You were dissappointed. Not only was Jack kept off the board, he was kept off the pitch too, one of several available subs who did not see action. Given McInerney’s youth, it’s not surprising. But one has to wonder whether this lack of play for the Union’s scoring star is a sign of things to come as the national team starts Gold Cup play for real on Tuesday night. You can say as much as you want about a young player’s learning curve improving while practicing with the nation’s best. But playing against the world’s best is an even better teacher, even if it’s only for a few minutes a match as a late sub. Failing that, Union fans have a legitimate grudge, I think, in seeing their primary offensive weapon removed for mere bench duty, over what will likely be several weeks (if the national team does as well as it’s players and managers believe it will).
OTHERS STEPPING UP: Having lodged my concern or complaint, or whatever you want to call it about McInerney, it’s great to see players like Aaron Wheeler, Leo Fernandez, Roger Torrez and Don Anding getting a chance to get onto the pitch with their better-known teammates. Wheeler, in particular, has made the most of his chance, scoring a late goal as a substitute in his first appearance and nearly getting another one in the Houston heat, totally out-running a defender and driving what was probably the best shot on net the Union had all night.