Philadelphia Union supporters haven’t had more reason to anticipate a home opener since the club’s first in 2010. Back then, they were happy to have a team. This year, they’re rooting for the best club the front office has ever assembled (a pretty easy argument to make, anyway) and when the new roster hits the pitch at PPL Park on Saturday (March 15, 4p.m., CSN), the simmering anticipation and high expectations should combine for an electric welcome.
What’s clear in the wake of Week One’s draw in Portland? The re-tooled midfield is exactly as advertised: drastically improved. In fact, the Union appears to have gone from near worst to perhaps first in that key area this season with the additions of Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Noguiera. None of them had much trouble moving the ball through a talented Timbers defense last week. They can all pass, are all energetic, can forced pick-offs and create nice tight passing lanes. They made the players around them better, including Brian Carroll. And whenever the Union had the ball deep and were setting-up for a drive on net, at least one of these three were involved. Noguiera was creative and steady, Maidana nearly scored on a nifty turn around shot from high in the box, and Edu and Maidana assisted on the only goal. Two things to like about the scoring play: 1) it came on a Maidana corner who brings a nice talent for serving along with his foot work and 2) Edu fed our old pal Jack McInerney for the goal. Jack had a rough second half last year. Questions of confidence followed him around for two solid months. It’s hard to imagine that being a problem this season if he continues to get the same caliber of feeds from his new mates as he did last weekend.
Lost in the midfield accolades was the other new guy, young Austin Berry, a tall and agile presence on defense who played a very nice first match for Philadelphia. You had to like his reaction after deflecting a shot wide of the net late in the game. Goaltender Zac MacMath was pumping him up afterwards and slapping a hand on Berry’s back, but all the former rookie of the year could do was grimace and curse the fact that he had put the ball over the end line and conceded a corner. The kid appears intense and smart. He looks like an asset.
As I mentioned last week, the Union are so deep they have unprecedented quality when it comes to substitutions and it showed in Game One. Danny Cruz and Aaron Wheeler joined Antoine Hoppenot as late adds. Those are some pretty mean fresh legs.
Another nice thought: the Union did well without two injured regulars, defender Sheanon Williams and forward Conor Casey. It will be fun watching the club’s new offensive weapons feasting on those long Williams’ throw-ins once Mr. Long-Toss gets healthy.
However, not all is perfection in the Union’s world. Rather than playing forward with a lead, the Union seemed content to spend the last 25 minutes in Oregon turning the ball over and staying back. There were multiple opportunities to pass from the defensive third and maintain possession down field, but the Union repeatedly booted the ball away, many times out of bounds, which put the Timbers right back on the attack. The strategy cost them when Portland got the equalizer with time running out. It’s early in the season, I admit, and there wasn’t much training time to get everyone in shape. No doubt the players were tired in the match’s waning minutes. But one can only hope those tantalizing, lost two points sent Manager John Hackworth and his club to the video room this week to review the missed opportunities for clean clears. Only Hoppenot and Cruz seemed to have wasting the clock in mind (both did so admirably in stoppage time, hogging the ball and drawing a series of late, time-consuming penalties). 15-seconds more of that by anyone and the Union would have a win under belts.
The final goal was the result of some sorry defense. When awarded the corner, Portland’s captain, Will Johnson, quick-kicked the ball while most of the Philadelphia side was still trotting back into position. That lack of attention to what was going on in the corner was a disastrous, collective mental lapse. Worse was that two Timber attackers were left unmarked in the box at a time when the Union had three of their tallest men on the pitch, Aaron Wheeler (6’ 4”), Austin Berry (6’ 2”) and Maurice Edu (6’ 1”). The goal scorer, Gaston Fernandez stands at 5’ 7”. If any one of those triple towers sticks to Fernandez as that ball is flying into the box, it’s game over.
THIS WEEK’S DRAW EQUALS VICTORY?
Of course, a quality win on Saturday afternoon would go a long way toward erasing any sour feelings for both players and the fan base. As if on cue, the New England Revolution stumbles into town. The Revs were one of the clubs who used a strong second half to squeeze past Philadelphia into one of the final Eastern Conference playoff positions last season. But they were terrible during the first half and they’ve started-out the same way this season. The Dynamo thwacked them 4-0 in Houston last week. According to the club’s recounting of the loss, the score was actually not indicative of the effort as New England was only slightly out-shot by the Dynamo and a series of New England chances were of the close-but-no-cigar variety. That may be true, but they also played terrible defense, surrendering three goals in the match’s first 23 minutes. Hey, there’s another great video for Hackworth the show the guys. It ought to get the Union’s forwards hungry, especially watching the way the Revolution gave up possession multiple times in their own end. Oops. Or should I say, DOOPS!
The Union and Revolution play each other three times this season. The Revs went 2-1 against Philadelphia last year, including one of the Union’s poorer showings in Foxborough, a 5-1 drubbing in late August. Rev’s goaltender Bobby Shuttleworth is big and often dominant. He also gave up 4 last weekend. We’ll see which guy shows-up on Saturday. New England has never won at PPL Park (0-3-2).
One of my favorite New England players, Lee Nguyen, was out of the line-up last week with an injury, but he’s listed as active. I can’t determine at this writing whether he’ll start at PPL. Other New England players to watch: newcomers Teal Bunbury, a forward who had 3 shots on goal last week, and midfielder Daigo Kobayashi, who revolutionsoccer.net reports completed 84% of his passes in last week’s match. New England will also almost certainly start Jose Goncalves at defense, who has now appeared in 35 MLS matches in his career—and has played the full 90 minutes in every one of them.
MLS MAGIC IN WEEK ONE
The Revolution 4-0 clambake aside, there were some great games in the MLS on opening weekend. You saw one of them if you caught the national game earlier on Saturday between defending champion KC and Seattle. The two played their hearts out before Seattle won it 1-0 with literally 10 seconds left in stoppage time. There must have been something in the rain water that night, as virtually the same thing happened to the Union several hours later down the coast in Portland: a goal by the home team with time running out.