On a Sunday night in late August, not baseball, but soccer ruled the city of Philadelphia as the Union sealed three points with a 4-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes out of the Western Conference. The star of the match was the Union's Andrew Wenger who tallied two goals, which were both pinpoint accurate shots past San Jose GK Jon Busch.
Philadelphia came into the match off a nine-day break following three-game: seven-day stretch which left the team battered and tired. However, the team came out firing in the first half as they put a two goal lead up on the scoreboard by the 15th minute.
San Jose entered the match following a Wednesday match on the west coast in the same week and then had to fly across the nation to Philadelphia for the road match. Many analysts saw this as a huge advantage to the Union as they forecasted the hometown team to dominate possession in the game. However, the match went the exact opposite way as the Earthquakes seemed to own the majority of possession, while the Union held strong on defense. Union Interim Manager Jim Curtin preached a team that used tough defense to transform play into quick and powerful transition offense, which Philadelphia has found success through lately.
Running quickly up the line downfield, Sebastien Le Toux looked across to find left-winger Andrew Wenger entering the box. The experienced Frenchman would then put a move on the San Jose defender to make a cross to Wenger who would connect the ball and move towards the left. The former Montreal striker then made a quick spin shot to his right and sent the ball right over Busch at a sharp angle for a goal. This goal was the first of four for the Union who have slowly become a reliable offense in contrast to the beginning of the season.
The key for the Union is swift passing that creates the opportunities for crosses into the box to find great headers of the ball. These crosses can also force the opposing defense into mistakes as fans saw with the second Philadelphia goal. A mishap on a clearance by San Jose fell to Le Toux on the volley which he launched into the net in front of him with no chance left for Busch to stop it.
Backing the offense in the first half was a stout defensive front led by the two holding midfielders, Amobi Okugo and Maurice Edu, who slowed down the Earthquakes' attack and broke up passes to Thompson and Wondolowski. A highlight of the match was the premiere of new Union GK Rais M'bolhi. The Algerian national starter was finally able to start following issues with paperwork as he moved into the United States along with a car crash he was involved in while staying in Paris recently. M'bolhi's outing was reasonable and strong in the first half, despite a few mistakes stemming from so much time off since the World Cup.
Holding the lead into halftime, the Union looked to be well on their way to three points. But as the second half began, the Earthquakes' offense began to click and connect for valuable opportunities. Philadelphia's defense was left on its heels as an unexpected energy surged through San Jose.
While both goals coming in the 59th and 70th minutes respectively eliminated the Union lead, little blame should be placed on Philadelphia's defense as both goals were born from remarkable passing and instincts from San Jose. The first was a beautiful curling shot from beyond the penalty box by Sam Cronin around a diving M'bolhi. There was little the Union center backs (Carlos Valdes, Ethan White) could do; it is very rare that a shot from that far out will be close at all to the frame at goal so they let Cronin take it. I say congrats to Cronin as it was an amazing shot, not boo to the defense.
Wondolowski found the back of the net later on off a cross by Salinas to the back of the box. A well-timed run aided the striker as he peeled around Union defender Raymon Gaddis to receive the cross. M'bolhi was a little late to cover but sometimes one can simply not stop or outsmart the brilliance of veterans like Wondolowski.
After scaring their home fans at PPL Park, Philadelphia would get the lead back at 3-2 in a mere two minutes later on a corner kick by Sebastian Le Toux. Union defender Sheanon Williams along with some San Jose players would rush to the near post and slide in to make contact with the ball; Williams would get just enough on it to get the ball past Busch for the goal. Philadelphia now had momentum back on their side.
With a fantastic defensive showing in the final 20 minutes, the Union would lock down a win with a Wenger goal in the 79th minute spurned on by a Le Toux pass. Wenger was able to hold away the San Jose defender on his left to lift a powerful shot into the goal with his left foot. Then 11 minutes later, the whistle would blow for a Union victory: Philadelphia 4, San Jose 2.
On a day where the Union needed a win, they got it along with a +2 added on to their goal differential. With the win, the team stays in the hunt for one of five Eastern Conference playoff spots on a weekend when many rivals grabbed results.
It wasn't just the win on Sunday night, but this Union team looks well in form and coming into their best play at the perfect time. The philosophies of Jim Curtin that he has implemented have worked extremely well with the identity of the team. It is always a good sign when it's hard to decide who to start and who to sub in as no injuries hang over the team at this time and Maidana has returned from his hamstring injury.
Williams and Gaddis have solidified the defensive line while Jim Curtin decides how to work the center backs and holding midfielders. With the return of Carlos Valdes, Philadelphia has finally found a center back that they can rely on each and every match. Now the only question is who to pair with Valdes: Edu, Okugo, or White? Okugo has played excellently lately moving up the fields with the attackers at his natural position of center defensive midfielder. Edu can play well at CDM or CB in any case, while Ethan White, who the Union received in return for Jeff Parke in a trade with DC United last offseason, is finally displaying some sparks of excellence at his position. It is a hard decision for Curtin, but it's a good "hard decision" to have.
Along with these defenders, there are capable players on the bench in Brian Carroll, a seasoned veteran with loads of experience to offer, and Michael Lahoud, a player who can seem to play any defensive position well as displayed by his replacement of Williams in the match against San Jose.
The strong defense lately has spurned the brilliant transition offense which has essentially corrected the previous offensive woes. The start of the Jim Curtin era fixed the goal-scoring issues as players stuck their positions and played their part in the grand scheme. Up top, Connor Casey has played excellently by keeping the ball up for the quick and lethal players that surround while also offering powerful shots and precise headers into the back of the net. After his loan over to the Union, Brian Brown has offered some youth and speed that we don't see so much anymore from Casey. The Jamaican is a great player to sub on late in games to rush at tired opposing defenses that can't handle brand new legs.
The #10 spot has been a main issue for the Union on offense following the hamstring injury of Maidana; Nogueira has not really been able to fulfill the role until the match against San Jose. In the match, Vincent Nogueira was able to make many well-timed passes and great decisions to spur the offense to victory. He put on an amazing dribbling display around defense; at one point you think he lost it, but then he's suddenly launching a counter attack up field.
And then there's Sebastien Le Toux…not much to say here, so let's just look at his stats from the San Jose match…1 goal, 3 assists with 8 goals in his last 10 matches. Yeah, that really speaks for itself. The Frenchman has really hit his stride of late while hitting pin point crosses along with fabulous corners; he leads the charge on offense and brings the team great energy with the effort he puts into each and every minute. Curtin recently acknowledged at a press conference the hustle of Sebastien as he believes the player covers about a good two kilometers more on the field during each match than other players. The comment wasn't meant to hurt the reputation of other Union starters; it's simply a fact that Le Toux gives it his all. Just watch him chase down a GK while an opposing defense has control of the ball; you'll see what I'm talking about. He recently stated that under Jim Curtin he has found an identity on the team that he really fits well, instead of trying to cover many responsibilities at the same time.
Now I would like to highlight some interesting decisions and points that could come Jim Curtin's way over the coming days…
1. Wenger vs. Cruz – It's essentially fact at this point: Curtin loves Wenger in the midfield rather than as the striker. Lately, all we have seen Wenger play is wing midfielder, and he has also found great success at the position as exemplified by the San Jose match. I could see the left wing position battle for starting time coming down to Danny Cruz and Wenger; both players have played their hearts out lately, but Wenger seems to have the edge at the moment because he's shining some confidence that he has never had before. Cruz was subbed on for Wenger late in the game and played in the fashion of "don't forget about me Philadelphia." No, I would never forget you Danny; you're a faster version of Connor Casey: you play you're heart out for the team while also giving some bumps and bruises along the way. Just a matchup to watch out for…
2. Maidana at CAM? – With Maidana supposedly back at full health, it should be interesting where Maidana goes back in the starting 11. And yeah he belongs there…in case you forgot his game winning goal at Kansas City, you should watch it again and again. he ran this offense until he pulled a hamstring, not his fault. I see him playing at center attacking midfield. This would mean pushing Nogueira back into a good position for him at CDM, but a ripple effect would occur then with starting jobs at the other holding midfield spot and center back. But remember…all of these issues are good problems; it's good to have too much depth or too much talent.
3. Sheanon Williams injured? – Williams was subbed out in the San Jose match shortly after his goal. It didn't seem like a haunting injury, but just something to keep an eye on…
Bonus: Finally, I would like to say congratulations to Rais M'bolhi on his first complete match as a Philadelphia Union member. He played well, despite knocking off a little bit of rust throughout the game. Yes, I was one of the people that flipped out over the original signing for many reasons. I love MacMath in goal for the Union; he is a great asset to the team and its future. He is a team player and lays himself on the line for the team and community.The three straight blocked penalty kicks and sticking in there during the penalty shootout against FC Dallas in the US Open Cup…that's what Zac stands for. I give him praise and support especially for the way he has conducted himself through this difficult time; he is truly a professional. Luckily, we will all see Zac MacMath many more times by the end of the season because M'bolhi must go represent Algeria in African Cup play. So hold in there MacMath, we are all here for you. Keep that standing ovation in your mind that you got on Sunday night as you walked out to sit on the bench. Players on the bench don't get that kind of applause….stars do.
Philadelphia has a long road ahead: 9 MLS matches all against Eastern Conference foes and a US Open Cup Final against Seattle. I will be here supporting the team as I am sure everyone else will. This team is hitting its stride at a perfect time, and we'll see how good they really are in back-to-back games against Toronto FC on 9/3 and 9/6. This has been the OTNP Daily Set Piece.
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