Having been ably deputized by the fantastic RohnJossi last week, I'm returning for this week's discussion of the game-changing moments from the Philadelphia Union's 3-3 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Back in the Game-Changer article on May 5th, I discussed the run of games the Union were about to embark on leading up to the World Cup break. Looking back: D.C. United (1-0 loss at home), Sporting Kansas City (2-1 win away), New England Revolution (5-3 loss at home), LA Galaxy (4-1 loss away), Chivas USA (3-0 win away), Vancouver (3-3 draw home). That's seven points out of a possible 18. Is that enough to keep John Hackworth in a job? Only time will tell.
In the past few weeks the Union have been scoring for fun it seems (2 goals per game). However, at the other end - they have given up 14 goals. That obviously points to lots of defensive issues to talk about this morning. Is that the case for Saturday's game? Lets find out.
1) Vancouver are a very good, young, quick team.
Unlike Chivas who last week were lethargic, slow, and poor - Vancouver are very quick going forward and have the ability to slice open any defense, never mind one as shaky as the Union's.
In the first goal, Conor Casey was applying pressure to the right back when seven touches and five passes later and Erik Hurtado was rising in the middle of the 6 yard box to easily head home past a helpless Zac MacMath. Vancouver's one-touch passing was beautiful to see, and the Union defense was all out of position, especially Fabinho, and it was not the last time Vancouver would take advantage of him Saturday evening.
In the second goal, Fabinho was left looking foolish on his rear-end as Hurtado, on the counter attack, crossed for Nicolas Mezquida to slot it home. Again, Vancouver's pace, power and skill were on show, and without Brian Carroll to mop up at the back, goal became the only possible outcome. The warning signs had been there all first half, as the Union seemed to allow Hurtado the freedom of PPL park to play in and Vancouver made them pay, giving the Whitecaps a deserved 2-0 half time lead.
The Whitecaps' third goal once again came against the run of play. Cristian Maidana's cross got cleared out, and one touch from Hurtado allowed Pedro Morales to play a sublime pass through to Darren Mattocks, who was off to the races. Despite Amobi Okugo's great ability, he didn't have the pace to cover the speedy forward causing MacMath to come out to cut down the angle and make the save, but Mattocks had enough about him to take a touch around the keeper, and win the penalty when MacMath missed the ball and caught him instead. Despite other issues with the referee, he got this decision spot on.
Vancouver had just put a combined six goals past Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers and Saturday night they put on a clinic of incisive, quick attacking play that Union faithful wish their team could show every game.
2) Refereeing Issues.
While, as mentioned, the Vancouver penalty decision was correct, and the decision to not award the Union a penalty in the 77th minute when Casey's shot hit a defender in the arm/chest area also correct,* referee Jose Carlos Rivero had himself a bit of a nightmare.
*The defender's arm was in a natural position, inside the width of his body, therefore no penalty was the correct call. If the ball had struck the defender's other hand which was outside his body thus making him bigger, then a penalty and red card would have been the correct call.
First, you can look at an incident real early on. Following a dreadful two-footed, sliding tackle by Jordan Harvey on Ray Gaddis tensions seemed to be running especially high as Harvey had been involved in a tussle with Cruz a couple minutes prior. For some reason the referee thought it was okay to just give Harvey a verbal warning, when there should have definitely been a yellow card awarded.*
*And it was a tackle where you may see some referees believe it worthy of a red card!
With the score 1-0 in the 30th minute, Vancouver found themselves on a breakaway. A cross came in looking to find a Vancouver striker who could make it 2-0, and the shot was stopped. But it was not MacMath who made the save, but rather Gaddis with the aid of his hand. It was a clear handball and penalty (and even possible red card) that neither Rivero nor his assistant saw.
Into the 2nd half for the last glaring error from the referee. Have a look at the video below. Sorry for the poor quality recording from my laptop.
It seems that when Maidana's corner came in, Casey "pushed" the Vancouver player enough that it caused him to elbow the ball out of play. Instead of a corner or penalty, Rivero gave apparently whistled foul on Casey's push, though there wasn't anywhere near enough of a shove to warrant a free kick. That play could have been whistled a bunch of things, but free kick to Vancouver is among the last of them.
3) Half-time substitution
I don't know who or what it was, but something changed at half time within the team. A poor, sluggish first half turned into possibly the greatest half of entertainment a Hackworth team has ever provided. Three goals, many more chances, and a fired up team battling for every free ball.
A lot of that may have came from the addition of Michael Lahoud. Lahoud recently arrived back from a successful African Nations qualifier game, where he won a penalty that allowed Sierra Leone get past Swaziland and advance in AFCON.
Lahoud sat back in the DM role, allowing Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira to push further forward. Coming off for Lahoud was young Zach Pfeffer, who had a quiet first half playing left wing in the 4-2-3-1, a position not natural for Pfeffer. Pfeffer coming off allowed for Maidana to go into the "left sided striker" role, where he excelled in the second half.
4) Conor Casey's Confidence is Climbing.
With two goals against Chivas USA, Casey's confidence was obviously increasing and he displayed that on Saturday, where he had nine shots, equaling the number he had taken for the rest of the season combined. He was the only real threat in the first half, and it was his header that opened the floodgates for the Union in the second half. Casey managed to get his head onto Maidana's cross putting the ball into the back of the net via the post. Then seven minutes later he scored from the edge of the box to give the Union a 3-2 lead. It's great to see Casey back scoring goals, and if he continues this play it will go a long way to shoring up the Union's striker problem. Now if only the Union could fix all those other problems.
5) Chaco Maidana turning on Beast mode.
In his last few games Maidana has been outstanding. He has tallied two goals, four assists and could have even had a few more assists. Like all creative players he has his issues. For example, early in the game on Saturday he tried a back-heel pass a Vancouver player intercepted on the edge of the Union's 18-yard box. However, a lot of the creativity from the Union comes with the ball at Maidana's feet. His cross to Casey last week in StubHub Center was simply sublime and the one on Saturday wasn't far behind it. If Casey hadn't put it into the net there was a good chance a Vancouver defender would have. His pass to Nogueira for Sebastien Le Toux's goal was perfect, and if only Okugo were only two inches taller, Maidana would have had a four assist game as his extremely dangerous free kick in the first half caused David Ousted in the Vancouver goal to panic.
If Maidana continues to create and Casey continues to finish well, the Union single season assists record will probably be exceeded. For the Union to have a chance at a successful season, they need to keep feeding Maidana (and Nogueira) the ball in dangerous positions.
6) The fans in PPL Park finally woke up.
This is the loudest I've ever heard PPL Park, and it's not even full.— Kevin Kinkead (@KevinKCBS3) June 7, 2014
After reading lots of tweets about the noise Costa Rica fans made in Friday night's friendly at PPL Park, it was a sadly eerie and quiet atmosphere for the first half on Saturday. Fans were not inspired to sing to and a nervous hush had engulfed the whole stadium.
That all changed in the second half. Seeing the Union play an entertaining half of soccer featuring loads of offensive firepower got the crowd excited. Some close chances (post shot and good saves from Ousted) got the crowd going and once the first goal went in they were firmly into it. From then on, the noise level kept increasing as Le Toux came on as a sub and equalized a few minutes later and Casey soon thereafter gave the Union the lead. It was the noisiest Union fans have been all year by a long way.
The fans and players really do have a symbiotic relationship. The fans need the players to show ability, effort, and skill to get them excited. The players live off that buzz the fans give, further energizing the match. Let's hope that the atmosphere that existed in the second half continues for the rest of the season and the Union can make PPL Park the fortress fans desperately want it to be.