In case you didn’t stay up late last weekend, I can tell you that the Philadelphia Union played an entertaining game against one of the league’s more lackluster squads, Chivas USA, in Carson, California. For the umpteenth time this season, midfielder Cristian Maidana showed his worth, feeding Conor Casey on a beautiful centering pass for one goal and then right-footing a score of his own on a break late in the second half. Never mind that the referee probably should’ve called Andrew Wenger for being off-sides on the play, or for interfering with the goalie, or both. The soccer gods haven’t exactly been pouring favor on the Union over the first half of this MLS season and the club will gladly down sugar whenever an official leaves it on the countertop.
It would be nice to think that playing with a lead appealed to Philadelphia last week and will now serve as an extra incentive to repeat the trick at home on Saturday night (7:00 p.m., TCN), but the Vancouver Whitecaps are in town and in all likelihood will not so easily bend. The Caps are a lusty 5-2-5 and are in fourth place in the MLS Western Conference mainly because they have two games at hand on the other three clubs they’re chasing. Winning those two make-up games would seat them second behind Seattle which is playing out-of-body soccer this year.
Vancouver’s winning formula? They’ve buried 22 goals this season—that’s almost 2 per game and good for fourth best in the league. The three clubs ahead of them in scoring have—you guessed it—-played two more games than Vancouver. Factor in those two missing games and, again, the Whitecaps would probably be second behind Seattle. 28-year-old Midfielder Pedro Morales, who came over from Spain’s La Liga side Málaga CF in the off-season, leads the club in nearly every offensive category including goals (5), shots (38), shots on goal (16) and assists (5). Morales fits the exact mold of the sort of talent the Union lack and may go trolling for this winter. But the pressure doesn’t stop there. Mark the names of Erik Hurtado, Kenny Miller and Kekuta Manneh on your score cards Saturday night, because each of these guys have three goals. That’s four offensive weapons who’ve scored more times this season than anyone on the Union whose name doesn’t rhyme with Le Toux and Edu. Well, okay, Cruz kind of rhymes with Le Toux, but Danny’s early season injuries have limited him to parts of 9 games with only a goal and assist.
Some feel Vancouver has been playing above their skill level and that it’s only a matter of time before they fall back to earth. The odds would appear to be against that happening against the Union whose 3-7-5 record isn’t scaring anyone, especially considering the way they’ve been getting buried lately by any team without the world Chivas on the jersey.
But there is hope. Vancouver is only in the middle of the pack defensively, having given up 17 goals. And the Union have plenty of depth which may help overcome the questionable availability of the four players currently residing on the weekly league injury report: Le Toux (lower back strain), Cruz (groin), midfielder Brian Carroll (hamstring) and defender Austin Berry (left ankle sprain). And some of the Union’s healthy parts are working well these days. Aside from Maidana, midfielder Vincent Noguiera continues to be effective. And Conor Casey finally got on the board a couple of times last week, offering at least some hope than somebody up front is finally ready to start charging the net. Perhaps John Hackworth’s strategic move to grant Casey the driver’s position on last week’s penalty kick flicked the on switch. Casey easily scored the gift goal, but was operating on all cylinders later when he pushed forward to head-in the Maidana feed, something very few Union players other than perhaps Cruz has demonstrated much lately.
Vancouver, by the way, has three players out with knee issues, two of them defenders, which could explain why the club has been only so-so in the back third. A forward, Darren Mattocks, is questionable with a left hamstring. Mattocks has been effective this year with 2 goals and 3 assists in 10 games. If he can’t make in onto the pitch on Saturday, perhaps this helps Philadelphia’s cause.
This is your last chance to get a regular-season fix for a while as Philadelphia’s MLS schedule shuts-down for three weeks to give fans a chance to take-in the first rounds of the World Cup in Brazil. Costa Rica and Ireland have a tune-up at PPL Park on Friday night (June 6). The Union is also gunning for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup again this season with a tilt against the Harrisburg City Islanders at home on June 17. This is actually a fourth round affair, but typically, MLS clubs aren’t invited to the dance until the early rounds sort out smaller, lesser-known franchises and private clubs. Regardless of how the regular season works-out, the Hunt Cup is worth rooting for. It would be Philadelphia’s first prize in the trophy case and a fair source of pride. What’s more, the Union players would split a nice bonus of a couple-hundred grand if they won it all which, in soccer, means a lot. In case you aren’t aware, not everybody in the MLS makes Mo Edu money. For whatever reason, several recent Open Cup victors have been clubs who were not having a great season otherwise. By that measure, the Union ought to be marked down as a favorite this year, assuming things don’t turn around in the regular season’s second half.