I was saying to someone in the office the other day that if there’s one offensive player the Philadelphia Union should be cementing into the starting line-up every week, it’s midfielder Cristian Maidana. At 27, Maidana is not exactly the club’s most seasoned veteran, but nearly every time the young Argentinian is given a chance, he manages tantalizing flashes of the sort of soccer acumen and creativity his teammates have often lacked this season. On Wednesday night in Kansas City, one of MLS’s most cruel venues for underdogs, Maidana took-over. He set-up one goal on a beautiful cross off the run, scored another only seconds after Philadelphia had given-up the equalizer and in the process, pulled his mates back from the abyss that has threatened to swallow them whole for the last month-and-a-half.
The Union may only have 11 points and their 2-5-5 record isn’t going to send anyone scampering for the cellar and the dead bolts. But it was a huge win and if the club can find a way to repeat the feat on Saturday night against New England at PPL Park (7pm, TCN), there will be more than a few MLS opponents and pundits saying, “Uh oh.”
This was the kind of performance nearly every off-season pundit expected to see from Philadelphia all year long, in the wake of the club’s international signing gluttony in the off-season, not to mention the Austin Berry trade and what amounted to a killing spree at this year’s MLS Super Draft. Multiple clubs made splashy moves since Sporting KC hoisted the MLS Cup last winter, but it was the Union who made the best combination of additions, most opined, because they injected so much talent into the team’s main glaring wound. The new midfield, it was thought, would happily marry a veteran core of strikers and all would be happiness and excitement in Doopdom.
Until this week, the Union were looking like another one of those this-is-why-they-play-the-games stories that litter the vast annals of sport. But the effort the club displayed on Wednesday opens the door wide for dreamers and also has the makings of something else sports writers love to cover: the comeback story.
At the center of this drama is maligned head coach John Hackworth, a very nice guy who nearly everyone covering Major League Soccer had on their Most Likely To Be Fired List before the team had finished its first full-squad practice, assuming that the club didn’t rocket out of the gate in March. This past weekend, I read two additional Nostradamus-esque doom and gloom pieces speculating that the axe was already raised over Hack’s neck and that all we were basically waiting for was a loss in KC and a gentle breeze to get the thing falling. The players are well aware of the situation. They like their coach and those who were here during former Union manager Peter Nowak’s slash-and burn reign are especially aware of how good they’ve got it playing under a manager who respects and supports them. Brother, did they show it on Wednesday, as the entire team raced over to the sideline to embrace their embattled leader immediately after Danny Cruz knifed Maidana’s pass into the back of the KC net.
Was this show of solidarity the beginning of that great rags-to-riches story everybody wants to write? Or was it only a chapter with some bitter title like “The Last Hurrah” or “Hackworth’s Last Stand”? The road to answer picks-up quickly on Saturday night.
Union: This Year’s New England?
It’s fitting that New England sits as the next victim/executioner in the Union’s path. New England had a first half last season a lot like Philadelphia is having this year. They were terrible. As late as the All-Star break, there were a lot of MLS fans who had written them off, only to be shocked when the Revs rode past their clubs in the final stretch like Sea Biscuit versus War Admiral. This season, New England—which interestingly, was not an especially big player in the off-season signing frenzy—has remained steady, logging a nice 5-3-2 record which has them tied with Sporting KC for first in the MLS Eastern Conference. They’ve outscored their opponents 14-10 along the way. The guy leading the way in the goals department is a familiar face, midfielder Lee Nguyen, the Texan who’s now in his third year with the Revs. Other faces to watch include forward Teal Bunbury, a former Kansas City contributor who leads the club with 11 shots on goal, fourth year midfielder Diego Fagundez, who holds the distinction as being the Rev’s first-ever homegrown player after originally signing out of Uruguay as a fifteen-year-old, and rookie Patrick Mullins who came out of college ball this season and has a couple of goals. Big Bobby Shuttleworth starts in net.
New England is coming-off one of the more impressive performances seen anywhere in the league this season, a 5-0 drubbing of Seattle on the road. Three weeks ago, they pulled-off that Union thing by beating Kansas City on the road. New England is riding a 3-game winning streak. They haven’t lost since April 5th. This will be no easy pickings for Philadelphia. But the Union will be at home, their supporters should be pumped after the win in the Midwest and the Union players should still be thinking hard about what they owe their trusting manager. They struck a big blow in his favor on Wednesday. They have to strike a few more before they can be sure of moving forward with the same make-up and chemistry they have now.
The Union travels to sunny California next week to play a pair of quick games against the best and worst the Golden State has to offer: the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA. They’re home again on June 7th against Vancouver at 7:00pm.