Hot Union Must Keep Climbing

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The Philadelphia Union are back at PPL Park on Saturday (3 p.m., NBC Sports) for a home match against the New York Red Bulls, after a pair of enormous victories over Toronto FC in a home-and-home set last week. Toronto never got a goal in those games. The Union netted three. A few defensive laps aside, the Union (9-9-9) looked generally dominant against the faltering Canadians, leap-frogging Toronto and temporarily placing themselves in a playoff position in the MLS Eastern Conference for the first time since the season’s early days.

It’s little surprise that this latest surge in what’s been a second half of surges for Philadelphia arrives as a number of the club’s primary pieces are all getting healthy and back on the field together. Last weekend’s match featured a midfield with both Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana for one of the few times in the last couple of months. The play-making tandem did a nice job of feeding the ball forward, or hogging it with the lead. Career midfielder Maurice Edu slid to the back line again and appears to be getting more comfortable handling the ball closer to his own goal, while still managing to push forward at times and getting involved in the offense. Meanwhile, the club’s veteran pair of strikers—Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey—who the Union is counting on to carry the scoring burden down the stretch, are both becoming more consistent and active.

The Union’s biggest problem is their past. After spending the first couple of months of Season 5 bumbling scoring chances and sacrificing points, the second half renaissance is only good enough for 6th place heading into this weekend, because other clubs also vying the final playoff spots have also toughened-up.

NEW YORK STATE OF GRIND

A prime example is New York. The Red Bulls, who beat talented Sporting KC two weeks ago, came-up with a real gut-check performance against DC United at home on Wednesday. New York, usually content to wait around for star Bradley Wright-Phillips to save the day, found themselves waving bye-bye to their big striker around half-time when he came-up with a tight hamstring. Rather than pack it in, the club spread the ball around, creating multiple chances and ended-up beating one of this season’s better clubs with a 90th minute goal from midfielder Lloyd Sam. Final score: 1-0. The goal meant the difference between Fourth Place and a continued spot among play-off positions, versus a drop back to Toronto territory.

So, what to expect on Saturday? The Union handled New York well back in mid-July at PPL, allowing Wright-Phillips his usual goal, but nothing else in a 3-1 victory that wasn’t even as close as that score suggests. Philadelphia also lost to New York back in April, but frankly, the Union was losing or tying a lot of teams back then and I’m not sure how much significance you can place on anything that happened in the season’s opening 6 weeks. With the league’s scoring leader possibly less than 100% (Wright-Phillips is not listed on this week’s MLS Injury Report and will apparently play on Saturday, but will last week’s hamstring tweak matter?) and New York playing in its third game in 7 days, Philadelphia ought to be in the driver’s seat. It also can’t hurt that Saturday’s Red Bulls rubber match is in Chester with New York attempting to defend the second half a few yards away from the raucous River End.

The Union will take any edge they can get on Saturday. Both of these clubs are on a roll lately. Both have beating some decent teams.  In fact, a draw doesn’t seem out of the question, say, 2-2. But thanks to Philadelphia’s slow start this year, a win probably looms larger for the Union than the Red Bulls. Philadelphia has spent the last three months playing catch-up. With only 7 league matches left, there’s precious little room for missed opportunities.

THE WRIGHT STUFF… PLUS ONE

It’s easy to think of New York as a sort of one-trick pony this season, given the dominance of Wright-Phillips (his 21 goals leads the MLS). But don’t. Old pro Thierry Henry may not be scoring as often as in years past, but he leads the Red Bulls with a dozen assists. And while Sam got the glory with his late game-winner last week, thirteen minutes before that strike, Henry was absolutely robbed by DC net minder Bill Hamid and led all players in the match in shots by a wide margin. The guy can still bring it.

RAY OF SUNSHINE

Those of you who’ve happily charted the improving play of energetic Union defender, Ray Gaddis, over the last couple of years are likely pleased with the club’s decision to extend the 24-year-old Indianapolis native for another couple of years (even if he ends-up rooting for the Colts against the Eagles on Monday night). The youngster’s exceptional one-on-one defending and high-octane style is probably more valuable than ever, now that former defensive partner Amobi Okugo is spending most of his time in the Union midfield. Gaddis is probably the most mobile guy left on the back line. But with veteran Carlos Valdez back in the fold, converted defender Maurice Edu looking more comfortable and players like Sheannon Williams and Ethan White healthy and contributing, this is a good-looking group for Philadelphia—and will probably stay that way for a while.

IS RAIS AS NICE?

Has anybody else been wondering who the Union is really better-off playing in goal over the season’s final seven league games? Granted, Rais Mbolhi has an impressive International pedigree and sure looked great keeping his Algerian national club in that World Cup match against Germany over the summer. But every time he plays, he gives-up goals. Meanwhile, Zac MacMath is coming-off two shut-outs and, in general, has done a lot of maturing over the last year. I know the sample size on Rais is pretty small. But, you know. Just sayin’.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

The Union takes a break from league play on Tuesday night when it hosts mighty Seattle in the U.S. Open Cup championship, the club’s first visit to this historic final. Some may bemoan the annual tournament for cluttering the schedule and sapping the energy of clubs like Philadelphia who are in a death battle for a playoff perch in the regular MLS over the next two months. I used to feel that way until a conversation with Union reserve Aaron Wheeler a couple of years ago, who pointed out that the winning team gets to carve-up a six-figure cash prize—enough to make a big difference to many on the Union squad who aren’t exactly making millions. Since then, I’ve warmed to this series—even more so now that the Union have actually made it to the pinnacle match. I’ll be there on Tuesday night, hoping to see the Union’s first trophy lifted into the display case.

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