It’s the tale of two teams on very different paths. When DC United takes the pitch at PPL Park against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday (4 p.m., TCN), the home side will be facing a club that’s spent the last couple of months doing exactly what the Union has not: turning themselves around.
Three weeks into the season, the re-vamped DC squad looked terrible. They were shut-out twice and when they finally scored 2 goals in Week 3, all it got them was a draw against pitiful Chicago. It was as if the ghost of 2013 had been let out of the basement, gripping the nerves of United Nation. Was the club, supporters wondered, no better than last year’s horrendous 3-win version?
Since then, DC’s new parts have started to mesh with the left-overs and the club has begun to act like a contender. United went a month without a loss, compiling a quick 10-points before last week’s tough 3-2 setback in Portland and are now sitting in 6th place in the MLS Eastern Conference, a thin point behind the Columbus Crew. Their finest hour came just two weeks ago at RFK Stadium when they systematically dismantled talented FC Dallas 4-1 (the same Dallas club that currently owns the third best point total in the league). DC United is 3-3-2 with all chins up and spirits high.
Chief among DC’s new contributors is 29-year-old Argentinian forward Fabian Espindola, a cast-off a couple of years back from mighty Real Salt Lake, who anybody could have signed in the off-season. DC is exceedingly glad they grabbed him. The rugged, bull-headed striker who has averaged more than 9 goals in his last three MLS campaigns is on a pace to net about 16 this year. He leads DC with 4 goals and 3 assists, plays with swagger and grit, and is probably benefitting from not being part of last year’s Nightmare on the Beltway. He’s been a nice piece on a lot of good teams across his career and believes any team he’s on is going to win, in no small part because he’s in the mix.
Note to Union fans: This combination of talent and freight-train pushiness usually makes Espindola opposing fan’s favorite guy to boo. That’s Espindola. Number 9 on your score card.
PAIN, BUT STILL GAIN
The Union probably won’t have to worry about a couple of DC’s traditional scoring threats on Saturday, thanks to hamstring injuries. Chris Pontius (19 goals last season) has been on the shelf all year and USA National Teamer Eddie Johnson is listed as questionable for Saturday. But Johnson hasn’t been contributing this season anyway and with so much else going right for DC, Philadelphia can hardly feel there’s an advantage with these guys off the field. They’ll have enough on their hands trying to contain midfielders Davy Arnaud (2 goals) and Nick DeLeon (3 assists), not to mention veteran defender Jeff Parke, acquired from Philadelphia in the off-season for defender Ethan White who, incidentally, hasn’t played a minute for the Union this year.
NO SUCH LUCK IN PHILLY
Philadelphia’s 2014 story began similarly with a series of disappointing early season results. The difference, of course, is that the Union has failed to figure-out the DC Turn-Around formula, despite an arguably better series of off-season acquisitions. In fact, if anything, the Union has gotten worse lately. Nearly a third of the way into the club’s fifth and most anticipated season, only the re-worked midfield of Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera and Christian Maidana has dazzled. The defense has been prone to big-moment breakdowns and the offense has yet to establish anyone as a true goal threat. Were it not for the occasionally brilliant work of goaltender Zac MacMath, who is currently one away from the record of 4 straight penalty kick saves, the Union (1-4-5, 8th in the East) would be in an even deeper hole. The fact that MacMath has been called on so often to play the hero tells you something about the disarray and frustration that has infected this roster.
On the coaching side of things, Manager John Hackworth looks like a guy on the deck of a stricken ship with a dead radio, tossing whatever floats into the water and firing blind flares into the night, hoping somebody—anybody—will step forward to save the day. Consequently, there are few on the roster who can legitimately claim that they haven’t gotten a chance to help-out. On the other hand, there are many who probably wish they were playing more. Every week, it seems, the line-up changes, with everyone from veterans Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux to youngster Leo Fernandez and the plucky Fabinho seeing intermittent spurts of high-use followed by stretches on the bench. Injuries have played a part in the shuffling, but a lot of the change-ups seem more the result of the staff’s waning patience.
We’ve even spent a good portion of this season watching a towering career forward, Aaron Wheeler, spending week after week trying his hand at defense. Strange doings, indeed.
It’s hard to tell whether this rolling-roster approach is helping or hurting. But you can bet management is watching with itchy fingers. They’ve already pulled the trigger on one huge personnel move, shipping the popular and formerly dangerous striker Jack McInerney to Quebec. One has to wonder whether the next move the team makes will be on the sidelines. That’s assuming the players don’t grab onto some of Hackworth’s lifesavers soon and start responding to those emergency flares.
SILENCE ABOVE THE BORDER
By the way, McInerney is doing no better than Andrew Wenger, the guy the Union received in the trade with Montreal. Both players have only 1 goal and no assists since the deal, although Wenger has gotten more chances to play.
THE AMAZIN’ SONS OF BEN
I’m giving a big shout-out to the Sons of Ben, one of the region’s most dedicated and active fund-raising organizations. Not only do they continue to produce revenue for various charitable organizations ($10,000 to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, most recently), the Union’s supporter’s group has just been nominated for the prestigious John Wanamaker Athletic Award, which honors players or organizations that reflect favorably on the community. They’ll be up against the likes of Cliff Lee and Claude Giroux, among others.
You can cast your vote at the following link: http://www.discoverphl.com/phlsports/events/congress-events/john-wanamaker-award/?ViewFullSite=true
Other than that, it’s the usual for SoB. On Saturday, they’ll be raising funds at their tailgate for the family of recently deceased super supporter Eric Shertz. On Sunday, they’re marching and supporting additional marching groups in Chester’s Mother’s Day Parade. Oh yeah, and sales of the newly minted Sons of Ben Rowdy Style Ale (limited addition from Yards) is supporting the William Trippley Foundation in Chester. You can sample the brew at Yards, Fado, Iron Abbey, Stoney’s Pub and Kildares in Manyunk, among other spots. The good deeds just never stop with these people.