The Philadelphia Union surely constitutes one of Major League Soccer’s bigger mysteries this 2014. Though capable of bringing the bubbly (that’s playing “sparkling stuff”), they’re not getting enough by way of results. Just another team failing to launch, only one generally agreed to be packed with promise.
Then they have a game like Saturday’s draw against Real Salt Lake. Charges of theft can be plausibly made in this case, given one clearly blown penalty call (Luke Mulholland absolutely* clipped Leo Ferandez while the ball rolled forward, but referee Alan Kelley waved it off; *eh, maybe not; a compelling case against is made about the 5th minute on this round-up). That wouldn’t have stung nearly so badly if it weren’t for the basically fair/mildly dubious PK that Kelley awarded RSL in the first half. Sideline reporter Heather Mitts was shocked – shocked! – at that one. Replays proved it to be reasonable, but, still. One feels for Philly all in all. This was one they coulda should won.
RSL played strong at least. Nothing unusual about it, really, they just did RSL’s thing: quick combinations to play out of trouble, transitioning quickly and effectively, etc. While they didn’t dominate, RSL held a clear advantage in cutting edge: they had three shots on goal to Philly’s zero part way through the first half and they held that advantage till the 80th minute (5-1), maybe through the end of the game. RSL did things better, basically, more instinctively. Questions of PKs aside, they deserved the tie.
There’s more: Chris Schuler played like a fucking boss. It goes beyond how well he partners Nat Borchers – though that is awesome; their communication, decisions on when one player steps up and the other drops back, looks telepathy-smooth. Attacks, even those featuring even numbers, slowed or died well outside the 18. Schuler commands the space around him VERY well, but the man even held up in isolation near the touch-line. The man has serious upside, no question: that size and that speed approaches Jamison Olave’s lofty plane – and in a younger body. That central pairing will kick ass for as long as it stays on the field.
After that, it was the usual suspects for RSL: the midfield magic, guys who look deceptively like role players (Ned “Grababoy” Grabavoy) just playing super effective stuff. It really is admirable, all that consistency. And RSL hit 2014 flying, no question. Even their back-up ‘keeper looks ready for prime-time. My notes included something in the form of a question, whether Jeff Attinella is that big a drop-off from Nick Rimando…well, turns out he is. Not much, but he is.
Speaking of ‘keepers, I finally caught Zack MacMath on a night where he looked 100% the part. He played a great game, saving Philly from some serious, full, bonafide chances…though he did seem partial to saving with his feet. I haven’t seen anything on this yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if MacMath made goalkeeper of the week. Way to put on a good show, son.
There’s more to Philly, of course, much of it in the small French person of Vincent Nogueira. The commentators (JP Dellacamera and….another guy) talked about him ending 2014 as a top-10 new signing, a figure they later amended to a Top 5. I’d expect that at least. Along with players like Mauro Diaz for Dallas, Pedro Morales for Vancouver and, last year, Diego Valeri for Portland, there are more and more players on MLS pitches who hold their sides together, manage possession, spring attacks, etc. And that’s just all kinds of cool. Nogueira ranks with any of them. Philly did great to get him.
They’ve got good personnel all over, Philly does. I liked Raymon Gaddis quite a bit, Austin Berry looked like a good strong addition and, looky there, the new boy, Andrew Wenger got himself a goal. Sure his positioning impressed more than the finish, but they all count, right? (And why the hell was Tony Beltran not only that far upfield, but so far to the left?). As much as I’ve heard people rag on him, Cristian Maidana turned in a good shift as super-sub. Throw in Maurice Edu (because Philly did) and it’s no wonder people generally agree that Philly reloaded with better ammo in the off-season…so, what gives? Why the 1-1-4 record?
Call it an apparent need for fine-tuning. The comment that came to me as I watched the game was “cutting meat with a butter knife.” With Philly, it always seems that there must be some way they can do it better – here, “it” means score goals, manage the game and defend. I credited Philly with their first solid spell from about the 55th to the 75th and I think that’s what I was getting at. You can wait to get into the game against some teams. You cannot do that against RSL, not this year.
Still, promising team with some really interesting parts. And they clearly have some hungry players on the bench. Looks like good times in Philly….looks like.