Despite the return of Jack McInerney from his USMT stint, Saturday night won’t be easy at PPL Park for the Union. Once again, the team will have to take on the weather, as it will probably be muggy and in the 80s. A thunderstorm or shower can’t be ruled-out, too (used to that yet, Union fans?). And the club at the other end of the pitch will be a good one.
The Portland Timbers roll into Chester (Sat., 7:30 p.m., CSN) with the second position in the talented MLS Western Conference, three-points behind Real Salt Lake. The Timbers are coming-off an important 2-1 victory over L.A., who was tied with Portland going in. Points have become habit for the Oregon club. They have an odd record, crooked in mainly good ways at 8-2-9, with all those draws helping them to a tidy 33 points, 3 more than the Union even though Portland has a game at hand.
Some unnerving statistics jump-out from the Timbers record sheets. While the club has netted roughly the same number of goals as Philadelphia, they’ve given-up far fewer (30/18 vs. Philly’s 32/30 mark). And the source of their goals is noteworthy. Portland fields 5 players who very evenly divide the scoring duties. Ryan and Will Johnson each have 6 from the forward and midfield positions, respectively (Will is an All-Star this season). Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri have 5 and Rodney Wallace, who’s listed as both a midfielder and defender, logs-in with 4. What’s more, the Portland roster is largely healthy and active. Their icing on the cake may be two-time All-Star Donovan Ricketts in net who came-over in a trade late last season from Montreal. Although passed over for this year’s All-Star Game, Rickets has continued to please his new bosses this season with 57 saves and less than a goal a game allowed.
At 8-6-6, The Union’s strength lies in the overall performance turned-in by the club in the last six weeks. In MLS games since June 1, they are a heady 12 goals for and only 7 against. And since the departure of Jack McInerny to the U.S. Gold Cup squad, an array of players have stepped-up in the offensive third, turning the Union into a much more balanced offensive machine. Conor Casey is the obvious leader in this category, but the list includes the re-invented Sebastien Le Toux right on down to subsitutes like Antoinne Hoppenot and Aaron Wheeler, who have made the most of either an extended or brand new opportunity. Le Toux, meanwhile, has become one of the more feared MLS set-up men, with assists pouring off his cleats like goals once did. Le Toux still leads the league with 9 helpers. The Union have proved they can score from anywhere nowadays, on both set pieces and active drives. Sheanon Williams is still contributing those long toss-ins and Philadelphia is generating it’s fair share of corners. McInerney’s return should enhance the attack. Other clubs seem to be getting frustrated, too. While the Union keeps its cool, their opponents have been drawing cards lately like they were playing poker, including 3 recent reds.
It should be an interesting, relatively even match. Perhaps, the home field advantage will help decide this one.
WHERE THEY STAND: The Union enters this weekend in 4th Place in the MLS Eastern Conference, but only 3 behind the leader, Sporting KC. Montreal and New York are just a point ahead of Philadelphia, with Houston only a point behind. The good news is that New England and Columbus have returned to their struggling ways and have started to slip beyond striking distance, at least for now.
OTHER GAMES to watch this weekend will be New York on the road against Toronto, Montreal at home against Dallas and Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake. The Kansas City match appears the toughest, on par perhaps with the Union’s task. New York and Montreal have easier draws, but anything can and has happened so far in this crazy MLS season and we won’t know what unexpected events have occured until the dust clears on Sunday night.
SUNDAY SOCCER EXTRA: The U.S. Men’s National Team gets its biggest test yet on Sunday afternoon (4 p.m., FOX/Univision) in Baltimore when it faces El Salvador in the Gold Cup semifinals. The club is looking good enough to warrant watching even if you are bothered by McInerney’s lack of deployment while he was there. In fact, some of you may even be going to this one, as it’s only a quick 90 minutes south.
WHAT’S NEXT: The Union head to play Vancouver on the west coast next week (3rd Place right behind Portland in the West) before coming home for their European friendly against Stoke City at PPL on July 30th. After that, there’s a weak spot in the schedule with home matches against Chicago and DC United. There’s definitely an opportunity for points there.
PERSONAL PRIDE: I’m quite honored to have been invited to the Sons of Ben tailgate Saturday afternoon. I’ll let you all know what that’s like next week!