One week ago, the Philadelphia Union managed to get a draw against the New York Red Bulls. The result was impressive because of the circumstances of playing mostly reserves and falling behind 2-0. Optimism was high, the Union were in a cup final, and they were in good shape to make the playoffs.
One week later, a loss despite positives in the US Open Cup final, a dull 0-0 draw at home against playoff chasing Houston, and other results not going the way the Union wanted and there is a danger of the season withering away to nothing.
Since Saturday's game was dull, I'm going to combine the US Open Cup against the Seattle Sounders into this week's game changers, and we'll go in chronological order.
1) The crowd was simply amazing.
If anyone tries to say that the Sons of Ben and rest of the Union support was disappointing, they need to be shown this game on a loop. There has never been the reaction to a game at PPL park than there was by the fans on Tuesday. They made a noise, and that noise transmitted through to the players, who were likely playing at a higher level than expected. When making claims the Union have one of the best fanbases in MLS, this is the game you use as evidence. The whole crowd was into the game, and it was a great experience to be a part of.
2) The substitutions won the day for Seattle.
Philadelphia brought on Pedro Ribeiro, Danny Cruz and Fred. Seattle brought on Obafemi Martins, Marco Pappa and Gonzalo Pineda. Seattle were able to bring on international quality players, whereas the Union subs were bench quality at best. That fact is maybe the most startling thing to take away from the game as the starting XI for the Union had enough quality to compete with their all-star opponents.
While the Union did well in the first half, and took a 1-0 lead, the second half started off with Seattle dominating. When it came time to change the flow of the game out of Seattle's dominance, instead of bringing on the best player on the bench (Amobi Okugo) Jim Curtin went with rookie Ribeiro, who ended up playing out of position, just because he would be similar to Casey in style. He made another like for like sub bringing on Cruz for Wenger, who had been playing well. The last sub by Curtin was to bring on Fred for Sheanon Williams, with the team already down by a goal.
Unlike the Red Bull game, Curtin was out-coached and out-thought, and the harsh reality is that it may have cost the Union their first trophy. I wonder if a better first sub may have been to bring on Okugo for Casey, moving Le Toux up front and giving Chad Marshall a different type of opponent, as Marshall had dominated Casey and would dominate Ribeiro.
3) When given an open goal, or with only the keeper to beat, in the last minute, you have to score.
The saddest part of Tuesday night's game is that the Union had two golden opportunities to win the game in normal time. The second of which came from an exquisite through ball by Cristian Maidana that sent Vincent Nogueira through on goal. Nogueira put the ball past Stefan Frei in goal, but it clattered off the post and to safety. If the ball was inches to the right, then it's a 2-1 Union win. That's how close the game can be.
The other chance fell to Pedro Ribeiro, and really was the worst miss of the 2.
Initial good work by Ribeiro allowed Raymon Gaddis to break towards goal. He took a shot that deflected to a wide open Ribeiro, with Frei wrongfooted in goal. It had to be the winner right? Wrong. Instead of scoring the goal, Ribeiro shot weekly at the center of goal, and it was easily stopped by Frei.
Those two chances would have ended the game before the extra-time heartbreak. Would a more clinical striker, of the ilk of an Obafemi Martins have scored one of the chances? I'd say there's a good chance he would have scored one of them. While Ribeiro may be a decent prospect, he isn't the player who will come in to an important game and inspire confidence that he will get a goal. That's especially true with him playing out of position.
On to Saturday's game against the Houston Dynamo, and it was difficult to find game changing moments from what was a dull game. When you come off of a highly charged emotional loss, then it is probably normal to have a drop in intensity and performance. The team has to be able to fight through that, and the game changing moments didn't really go the Union's way.
1) Sticking to the same lineup and tactics.
Jim Curtin changed the team around last Saturday against the Red Bulls. He didn't do that against Houston, as basically the same team that went through the emotionally draining loss on Tuesday started, with the sole exception being Rais M'Bolhi in goal instead of MacMath in goal. The substitutions were again, pretty much like for like with Okugo having to come in for the injured Ethan White (moving Edu back to defense), Ribeiro again coming in for Casey and Sebastien Le Toux coming out for Fred with 5 minutes left. Instead of using the same players, maybe resting Edu, White or Gaddis for this game would have helped get three points.
Houston has also been able to watch months of Curtin tactics in video, and would have known that the Union would have liked to play counter-attacking soccer. Houston didn't play into their hands by attacking in numbers, and sat back soaking up the pressure. The Union didn't have any new ideas, and nothing really happened all game. Questions may again be raised about bringing in a young player in Ribeiro, and playing him out of position when looking for answers. Other questions may be raised why a better replacement for Casey hasn't been brought in either. This may be where the Union fall short in their playoff push.
2) The referee missing a penalty.
It was a nice run into the box, Vincent Nogueira cut back towards the penalty spot, and seemed to be brought down by A.J. Cochran. The referee waved play on. We do not know whether that is because he doesn't think any contact was made on Nogueira, or if the ref thinks that Cochran got enough of the ball to mean there wasn't a penalty. However, it would have been nice to get a late penalty, especially since Le Toux hadn't been subbed yet.
Later in the game, Ribeiro was running through again and seemed to get clipped by Cochran. Instead of going down, Ribeiro plowed on, and crashed a shot against the post from a tight angle. If Ribeiro had gone down, maybe a second shout in the matter of minutes would have persuaded the ref to give a penalty. If he had lifted his head, he could have picked out Maurice Edu for a tap in. Instead, Ribeiro took the hardest option and tried to score. Again, we will never know if an actual striker would have scored, but I don't think that Ribeiro has shown he can be a producer at this level at this time, at least not as a striker.
3) Block block block block.
There were only three shots on target registered all 90+ minutes on Saturday. All three were from Union players meaning that M'Bolhi didn't have any saves to make to register his first shutout in MLS. That meant that the defenses did a good job overall. How did they do this? They did their job by making blocks on shots. Out of 28 attempts at goal, 12 were blocked by defenders, many on Conor Casey attempts. When you look at stats for defenders, there aren't that many important stats. Blocked shots are one of those that can show a defender did a good job. It certainly makes a goalkeepers job much easier.
Those were the game changing moments from a hectic week. The last two games were not results that the Philadelphia Union wanted. Other results this weekend also went against the Union with Columbus, Toronto and New York all winning. There is a difficult game away to D.C. United coming up next before very important games against Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City. Keep an eye out for our playoff chase article, and you'll find out that Philadelphia has the 2nd hardest run in, despite the home games. There's a chance that the season will wither away and nothing will have been gained, which will be disappointing for fans who have enjoyed Jim Curtin's reign so far. Let's hope that does not happen.