It’s too bad there’s no such thing as a slam dunk in soccer, because the Philadelphia Union have about as close to that as possible lined-up this weekend in Washington (Sat., October 12, 7:00p.m., TCN). The club is coming-off two consecutive nail-biting, gut-check victories. The first was against league power Sporting KC on the road in a game that featured strong defense, stellar goal-tending and an opportune strike in one of Philadelphia’s only chances. They won last weekend at home, playing down to their competition for a half before gradually taking the flow away from lowly Toronto FC in the second. In that session, the Union hit a post and feathered a couple of other chances on net, before Kleberson, an aging, seldom-used star, lined-up for a free kick in front of the box with thirty seconds to go in an almost unheard of sixth minute of injury time. The even-tempered veteran, who had apparently been spending all his time practicing this very play, hooked a hard ball just inside the near post for a dramatic 1-0 win.
This weekend in DC, that sort of drama should not be necessary. The Washington club is out of the playoffs, and is lashed to an offense that’s been a no-show all season. It’s so bad that if DC United won this weekend 9-0, they would still be tied for last in the league in goals-scored. Their top two strikers have only three a piece.
The Union have been in an offensive slump for six weeks, but a match like this is easily capable of reminding Philadelphia how to score. There are two potential pitfalls. First, they can’t take DC for granted, which is pretty much the mantra Manager John Hackworth has been preaching all week. It would be easy for the players to look ahead to the final two tougher matches against Montreal and Kansas City. It would also be a mistake, because a loss to DC could render the rest of the season pointless, depending on how pursuing clubs like New England and Chicago perform. Second, the Union can’t become paralyzed by their recent struggles. The United defense plays like they enjoy giving-up multiple chances. The worst case scenario would be a tentative, scoreless first half, which would leave Philadelphia having to play a careful game in the second. That’s a recipe for disaster. The club, which has been generating some additional chances in recent games, needs to come out with fire in their bellies and a striking mentality. It would do well for the Union to recall that it was in RFK Stadium in this long season’s first half where they first managed a three-goal performance. It could happen again with the right approach.
VITAL TIMING: With three matches to go, three-points earned in DC would be enormous. Philadelphia, currently holding the last playoff position in the MLS East, would pull themselves even with Houston who just settled for a draw against Sporting KC on Thursday. A win would also make it impossible for one of the teams chasing Philadelphia, the New England Revolution, to do anything more than tying Philadelphia before season’s end; they would be unable to pass the Union. New England may also play themselves out of even that scenario this weekend in a road game against strong Montreal.
TOUGH DECISION: An unwelcome roster twist faces Philadelphia as the club will be without both Sheanon Williams (fifth yellow card last week) and Fabinho (red card). The Union is short on backs. Philadelphiaunion.com’s Keith Kinkead has an excellent break-down of how Hackworth could handle the problem. Could Sebastien Le Toux be called into unusual service?
GREAT MEMORY: I was there last Saturday night at PPL Park until the end. While some have focused on the poor start against a so-so opponent, I felt the second half showed steady improvement by the Union. But despite what was happening on the pitch, the atmosphere was electric. It was a sell-out, just shy of 19,000. My son and I, along with one of his friends, were among that throng. The ending was amazing. Seen live, the goal by Kleberson was the kind of moment that makes soccer fans out of novices and solidifies a love of the sport for everyone else. ‘Hope you were there. If not, see you at the last game on October 26th. It’s liable to be another match with meaning.