The Union continued their month-long stretch of poor performances with a scoreless draw to the Houston Dynamo at PPL Park. Despite a winning the possession battle and keeping the ball in their opponent's half for a majority of the second half, John Hackworth's side failed to score a goal for the first time this season and left the field today with a symphony of boos from the faithful fans filling PPL Park. The Union have not won a match since March 15, where they defeated the New England Revolution at home 1-0.
(Before I start recapping the match, a special shoutout goes out to Union PA announcer Kevin Casey, who missed his first ever Union home game to witness the birth of his daughter, Anna Grace. Congrats to him and his significant other, and more thanks to Flyers PA announcer Lou Nolan for being an excellent substitute.)
After the midweek loss in Harrison, NJ to their rivals New York, John Hackworth gave Sebastien Le Toux a rest from the starting lineup. Conor Casey replaced him and started up top while Andrew Wenger slid to the right of Hackworth's 4-2-3-1. Aaron Wheeler retained his starting spot at centerback alongside Amobi Okugo for the second time in a week, which must be a worrying sign to former MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry. Brian Carroll returned to his midfield spot behind Maurice Edu in central midfield after not playing on Wednesday. The Dynamo were without American international midfielder Brad Davis, who had created problems for the Union in the past.
The first half contained was a dull affair with very few highlights from either side. The Dynamo managed to get off 12 shots, but the only one that on frame was a 12th minute 20 yard shot from Oscar Boniek Garcia that goalkeeper Zac MacMath had no issue catching. In the 39th minute the Union defense failed to clear a corner, and Houston striker Will Bruin ripped a shot that bounced off the near post.
Amobi Okugo and Raymon Gaddis were excellent in the first half, executing crucial tackles in the team's own half and making the Dynamo attackers shoot at difficult angles that often forced their shots off-target. Vincent Nogueira was his usually excellent self connecting passes despite immense defensive pressure from Dynamo midfielders. Other than that, the Union couldn't manage to do much right. Players were clearly fatigued as they drifted out of position, tried lazy passes that got intercepted rather easily, and made poor first touches when they received the ball in the middle of the field.
Hackworth made no changes at halftime, but the tide of the match shifted towards the Union as the second half began. 3 minutes in Maurice Edu drew a foul 23 yards out that created a chance for Cristian Maidana to loop an inswinging free kick just over the cross bar.
Hackworth's substitutions left many observers, fans and media alike, very puzzled. Putting in Leo Fernandes and Sebastien Le Toux, but taking out Maidana and Casey didn't seem to make much sense. Removing Maidana from the match in the 56th minute left the Union with a lot less creativity in the final third and forced them to deliver crosses from the flanks over and over a la Manchester United a couple months ago during their worst stretch of the season. That feeble strategy made even less sense once bulldog Conor Casey was taken out of the match in the 63rd minute. Casey was ineffective for much of the match (this has been the case for each of his appearances this season) but without him the Union didn't have much size in the 18 to receive crosses from Sheanon Williams and Raymon Gaddis. Hackworth chose not to make a third sub. Partly understandable since there were no options on the bench that could get to the end of a cross, but perhaps moving 6'4" Aaron Wheeler to the front and replacing him with Austin Berry or Ethan White could have helped the Union.
Despite dominating possession for much of the second half the Union could not manage to threaten Houston's net. Nogueira and Wenger had a nice 2v1 in the 52nd minute, but after Wenger delivered a perfect setup pass that Conor Casey mishit the ball, missing a wide-open net. A couple minutes later Amobi Okugo managed a nice snap header after a Maidana corner that bounced over the crossbar. The home team's best chance came in stoppage time when Andrew Wenger volleyed a ball over the crossbar even though he was just a few yards away from an open net.
The Union's year-long struggle to capitalize up a man reared its ugly head when Houston defender Kofi Sarkodie was sent off after he received a second yellow card for time-wasting. It was surely the silliest ejection in MLS I've seen since a Whitecaps-Revolution match 3 years ago when Eric Hassli received a second yellow card for improper celebration. Regardless, as has been the case in the past 12 months the Union's chances didn't improve much after their opponent incurred a red card.
With their 4th draw in 5 matches, the Union are officially in troubled waters. They sit just below the playoff zone in 6th place, but every team below them in the standings have a game or two in hand. The once-powerful midfield have become less effective with every match and their struggle to generate good chances in the final third is looking awfully similar to last season. This is supposed to be Hackworth's first year where he has his roster; a roster he's built without the constraints of bad contracts dragging down his spending abilities. He needs to find his adjustments quickly in order to quiet the restless masses eager to see this team make a turnaround with or (preferably) without him. That chorus of boos that rained down from the Sons of Ben and Bearfight Brigade during his introduction and after the match ended should be a loud sign to him and the front office that patience is running very, very thin.