Two clean sheets in two games for the Philadelphia Union speaks much to the highly lauded play of the team's defenders, but the frustration shown by Eric Hassli, the Vancouver Whitecaps designated player, attested most to it all.
In the first true test of the Union back four this season, the group passed with flying colors. Hassli had opened his MLS account with a two goal game in Vancouver's season (and home) opener versus Toronto FC. The 31-year-old Frenchman arrived in Canada coming off of 27 goals in 84 appearances for Swiss side FC Zurich (not to be confused with FC Grasshopper Zurich) over three seasons with the club.
When previewing the game against the Whitecaps, the Brotherly Game noted about Hassli:
[his] size is something that will pose a problem for the Union. Danny Califf is the tallest Union defender, measuring in at 6'1". Carlos Valdes, the 25-year-old Colombian brought in during the offseason to shore up the back four, is only 6 feet tall. Both full backs, right back Sheanon Williams and left back Jordan Harvey, are but 5'11".
After the jump, a look at what the defense did to hassle and hurry the striker, along with the Whitecaps offense, during the game.
Plaudits levied towards the defense are much deserved, but the center of the defense earned the majority of them - for good reasons. Califf and Valdes empowered the Union to forgo sweating the offensive threat of Hassli. A physical approach to Hassli drew naught but frustration from the visibly upset Frenchman.
While Califf has a long history of utilizing his physicality, Valdes was an unknown player coming into the Union. Though he has played at the top level in Colombia, along with playing for the Colombian national team, the 25-year-old center back has little-to-no game film to see outside of his short time with the blue and gold.
Once pressure was asserted onto the striker, there was no turning back for him.
Repeated instances of hard tackles on 50/50 balls riled up Hassli and caused him to resort to deploying tactics of a similar, but reckless, nature. As ball after ball, and tackle after tackle, was lost to the center of the Union defense, Hassli finally had enough and tripped Califf on a play in which goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon had already picked up the ball and prepared to move it up the field.
A yellow card from referee Yader Reyes gave a tangible visual to those aforementioned frustrations. Despite picking up a caution, Hassli continued to go into 50/50 tackles with seemingly reckless abandon.
Valdes proved that his showing in the Union's season opener against the Houston Dynamo was no fluke. The Colombian international hurried and harassed Hassli and fellow forward Atiba Harris, with the help of Califf, to the point where the two were either taking ineffective shots from outside the 18 or committing silly, needless infractions.
Aiding Califf and Valdes was the play of fullbacks Sheanon Williams and Jordan Harvey. With the Whitecaps resorting to using width to make up for a lack of attack through the middle, Williams and Harvey faced constantly assaults down their flanks. Something seldom seen last season is already prevalent this season - solid play from not only the fullbacks but also the central defenders.
The end result was an early visit to the showers for Hassli and another solid outing for the defense. Other than a couple of ball mistakes that ended up harmlessly in Mondragon's awaiting hands, the defense continued its great form so far into the 2011 MLS season.