Crunch Time For Union

Me in Budapest

PPL Park should be rocking on Saturday night when the Philadelphia Union take on Toronto FC (7:30 p.m., TCN). The match follows Philadelphia’s unlikely victory in Kansas City last weekend which returned the Union to a play-off position in the MLS Eastern Conference, although just barely. The club is in 5th place with two other teams, New England and Columbus, only a point behind. With four games to go in a shrinking schedule, points are at a premium now more than ever.

The Kansas City game has given supporters new hope following a dismal month that saw the club’s offense evaporate and a roughly three-month hold of fourth place slip away. Manager John Hackworth fielded a starting eleven last week that had some fans scratching their heads. Conor Casey was up front as usual, but both Sebastien Le Toux and Jack McInerney were on the bench for only the second time since the two began playing together. Without those potential play-makers on the pitch, the Union seemed determined to take a defensive posture against talented KC. It almost back-fired as the home side peppered goaltender Zac MacMath with three tough shots early on. But as the match unfolded, the method in Hackworth’s madness became apparent. The Union traded ball control for an all-hands-on-deck defense, crowding their own third with virtually the entire squad and frustrating KC’s passing attempts. For offense, Hackworth was hoping for a break or two. He got one: Danny Cruz’s sweet centering pass off an energetic rush that led to Conor Casey’s rebound strike. In the last twenty minutes, the wear and tear of all that ball control and useless rushes took a toll on Kansas City. They lost their legs and the Union spent the last 15 minutes hogging and clearing the ball at will.

It will be interesting to see how Hackworth approaches this week’s match. Toronto is in 9th place in the East and going nowhere. Their role is limited to spoiler, but frankly, with a goal deficit of -16, this is the sort of club that should be easy to demoralize; a quick strike or two and one can imagine Toronto’s players day dreaming about that Cancun vacation they just booked rather than actually winning a soccer game. I’d be surprised if the Union doesn’t go with a more offensive-minded set-up this weekend. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to take the opportunity against a weaker side to regain some of that lost offensive mojo which would sure help should the Union survive into the playoffs.

TWO VITAL MATCHES: The Union has a grand opportunity the next two weeks to take back the firm hold of a playoff position that was so steadily relinquished over the last month. After Toronto, the club gets a match down the road in the nation’s capital against the division’s cellar dwellers, DC United. RFK Stadium was kind to the Union earlier in the season. It was the first place Philadelphia managed three goals in a game this season, including a beautiful one-on-two break by Jack McInerney. There’s nothing to indicate that DC is any less beatable now.

SCARY SCENERIO: Should the Union falter over the next two weeks, though, they may as well kiss the post-season goodbye. Their last two matches are on the road in Montreal where they were dismantled 6-3 in the rain by the Impact and Marco Di Vaio. After that comes a pre-Halloween home match against Kansas City who will probably have more luck on offense this time around.

THIS WEEKEND’S OPPORTUNITY: Not only is this week’s opponent weak, most of the other clubs near Philadelphia in the standings have much tougher assignments. Houston hosts Montreal, New England visits the mighty Red Bulls in Harrison, NJ, and Columbus hosts the better-than-they-looked-last-week Sporting KC. Room for the Union to improve their position? Absolutely.

STANDINGS: I’ve mentioned the two teams on the Union’s heels, but it’s also worth noting that there are a couple of clubs within passing distance just ahead. Philadelphia enters this weekend only 2 points behind Houston and 4 behind Montreal. Win these next two thoroughly winnable contests and either of these teams could be looking up at Philadlephia when the dust settles.

PHOTO: In case you missed it earlier in the season, that’s me in Budapest this summer, representing to all those post-Communist Hungarians in their fascinating city.

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