We’re wrapping-up Major League Baseball’s Trade Deadline week in Philadelphia and the Phillies have been a major focus with everyone from Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd, Chase Utley, A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo, the bat boy and the clubhouse water cooler rumored to be headed to other stadiums. As of this writing, we’re still waiting to hear how all that plays-out. But as of Thursday morning, it’s been the Philadelphia Union unexpectely turning the blockbuster. On Wednesday, the club announced the aquisition of 28-year-old Nigerian star goaltender Rais Mbolhi, who almost singled-handedly led his national team into overtime against Germany in the recent World Cup. Nigeria lost to the eventual tournament champions 2-1, but Mbolhi’s 11 saves earned him Man of the Match honors. I watched that game. The guy was good. Like, Tim Howard good.
Never mind that the Union already has Zach MacMath in net who hasn’t exactly had a bad year (remember the three straight penalty kick saves a couple of months ago) and Andre Blake, the first pick in the last MLS Super Draft who nearly every pundit felt was deserving of that high accolade. A fourth netminder, Brian Holt, who was never going to see a minute in regular MLS play in Philadelphia, was waived. No one’s saying anything yet, but you’d have to think the Union is stockpiling at a key position with an eye toward some wheeling and dealing either this season or next. They certainly have a nice group of trade chips that can be flipped for other needs. The smart money has to be on Mbolhi staying. He’s a 6′ 3″ guy with an international resume. That is, unles there’s some other mysterious FIFA-related reason why it makes more sense to deal him. MLS doesn’t reveal contract terms and there are too many weird rules governing international signings in soccer for a lowly weather guy like me to entirely grasp.
This sure looks like a plus move, though, no matter what happens next.
ON THE PITCH
Meanwhile, the Union takes on defending MLS champion Sporting KC on the road this week (Friday, August 1, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Network), a match-up that pits 7th place against first and on paper appears like a one-sided tilt. Union fans know better. Philadelphia beat KC last year on their pitch 1-0 with suffocating defense and an opportune goal by Conor Casey, one of the only home-field hick-ups in Sporting’s relentless march to the Cup. Philadelphia did it again this year on May 14th, this time with ball control and agressive runs. The score? K.C. 1, Union 2. Or should I say, Maidana 2? This was the match in which newly signed midfielder Cristian Maidana finally realized he could be a dominant player in the MLS. He fed Danny Cruz for one goal and scored the other himself, both on beautiful foot work; Maidana never looked back after that, evolving into perhaps the Union’s biggest play-making asset. That is, until he injured his hamstring against New York on July 16th. He’s listed as questionable for Friday night. If he’s healthy, look-out KC.
Or does it matter? In the last month or so, it seems like virtually everyone the Union throws into the striking mix is making things happen. Veteran names like Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey—and even youngster Andrew Wenger, a relatively slow starter after coming over from Montreal for former fan favorite Jack McInerney early in the season—are now rolling-out regularly from the broadcast booth. We’ve seen more aggressive runs, more frequent forward passes and quality shots—not to mention goals. Leading-up to the Union’s indifferent 1-1 draw a couple of weeks ago (their last league match), the Union had put together more than a month of games where they were basically scoring three goals every time out. Yes, they clearly missed Maidana last time, but with no other injury concerns (Vincent Noguiera is apparently all the way back from his earlier groin problem) and their disciplinary list final cleared, manager Jim Curtin has plenty of firepower to throw at the defending champs.
CHAMPS… AND ONE CHUMP
KC, meanwhile, has four players on the injured list. In fact, according to mlssoccer.com, they hold the odd distinction of having one guy on both the injured list and the discipline list this week; that’s Midfielder Paulo Nagamura, who would apparently be sulking in a supper box somewhere on Friday night if it wasn’t for the ankle injury he may instead be nursing in the trainer’s room. Among the others noted as injured, forward Jacob Peterson stands out. He’s one of the better stats guys on the roster with a couple of goals and assists along with eight shots. The Union won’t be so lucky with the likes of 14-goal scorer Dom Dwyer and U.S. National Team forward Graham Zusi, fresh off his busy World Cup duties. Both of those guys are expected to play—and both will be anxious to slam the door on the Union’s recent spate of midwest success.
ALL EVEN (ALMOST)
It’s worth noting that at long last, the slew of Eastern Conference clubs who formerly held games-played advantages over Philadelphia shriveled while the Union was taking time off for its recent friendly with EPL’s Crystal Palace. In fact, of the four teams currently battling for the final two or three play-off positions, only Toronto has played fewer matches. Philadelphia, New England, Columbus and New York have now all logged 21 games, which means the Union no longer has to play significantly better than those teams to catch them. In actuality, the Union has been outpacing most of them lately, anyway. Philadelphia is in 7th place, but is only 3 points out of third. How could this happen, you ask? Wasn’t this club buried two months into the season, heavy on defense but devoid of anything even vaguely approaching a killer instinct? This is what happens when you reside on the weaker side of the league and you start taking advantage of soccer’s willingness to reward victories with three points. The Union has been winning and it’s paying off.
Philadelphia (5-8-8) may still have a sizable road to walk before they’re considered a bonafide play-off contender, but when you consider where they started and how they’ve managed to evolve during the season, they’ve certainly earned the right to be called a quality club at this point. Another win in Kansas (yes, geography fans, Sporting Park is located in Kansas City, Kansas—not the larger town across the river in Missouri) and the Union suddenly dives head-first into everyone’s playoff pool. It may be asking a lot, especially if resident Union dynamo, Maidana, is still not healed. But imagine how much more fun that next home match on August 9th against Jack McInerney’s Montreal Impact will be if the Union is within reach of, say, third place by then. We’ll see how the ball bounces on Friday.
CALAMITY IN CANADA
Speaking of Montreal, the season hasn’t been kind to the Impact since pulling-off what was, at the time, the biggest transaction of the season in aquiring McInerney. Neither the Union’s former striker nor his replacement, Andrew Wenger, have started every match for their new clubs and neither has put-up league-leading stats. But it’s obvious that Wenger is surrounded by a far superior number of experienced, professional-grade players and he’s been able to contribute well enough during the Union’s recent surge. His line: 2 goals, 3 assists and 27 shots which is second on the club. McInerney, meanwhile, has six goals, no assists and his team is in last place in the east with only three wins.
GAME PLAN FOR THE FUTURE?
I mentioned this a few weeks ago as the Union’s goal-scoring was on the rise along with their spot in the standings, but it’s worth repeating. Thanks to the greater importance placed on wins, along with the generous length of the soccer season, moving-up can be occur rather dramatically in MLS, as with other international FIFA-controlled leagues—which means that in soccer, more than any other sport, an abysimal beginning doesn’t automatically kill a season. The Union may well be turning into this year’s New England Revolution, who last year overcame a month and a half of foggy play and roared into the playoffs as a genuinely feared team. It’s interesting to note that this season, New England has lost none of that momentum and currently holds third place in the East. Union fans wouldn’t mind both halves of that equation playing-out in Chester over the twelve months.