Maybe all it needed was to have a team from New York come to town to lift the Philadelphia Union players and fans, but it was a different feel around PPL park on Saturday afternoon as the Union finally got their first win of the season. They even did it without the guy that has been the teams best player as Fernando Aristeguieta was ruled out. If you had asked us before the game how confident the fans were in a win with young John McCarthy starting in net and no Fernando, it would take a fan with the most rose tinted glasses ever to say they were confident in a win. So how did the team manage to get the points?
1) No M'Bolhi = Party time
It seems that the murmurs of M'Bolhi's dreadful performances were heard in Union HQ and on Tuesday, it was announced that Rais M'Bolhi would be dropped from starting goalkeeper. With Andre Blake not being ready to return from injury yet, it was young John McCarthy who got his first MLS minutes. And If it wasn't the fact that it was New York City FC making their first trip to PPL park, then it may have been because of this change that the fans were buoyant.
However, it wasn't all rosy in terms of the goalkeeping change. While the result was a good one, it wasn't really because of the play of McCarthy. There were some nice punches, and his handling seemed okay from what he faced. However, there wasn't really much for him to do. Going further in to the negatives, McCarthy's kicking and distribution seemed to be very poor, especially in the first half where he completed only four of his 13 passes (31%). The second half was an improvement in this regard as he upped his pass completion to 42% but given that decent goalies tend to complete upwards of 60% of their passes, it still can't be considered a good look for the young keeper.
Perhaps his biggest mistake was in the second half when a Ned Grabavoy miss-hit cross was palmed in to the centre of the goal-area by McCarthy. I am not sure what he was trying to do, but if he can't catch that (and I don't think any keeper could have) he has to just put it out for a corner. Unlike M'Bolhi however, McCarthy got lucky and Javier Calle blazed the rebound over the bar.
While it gave the Union a boost, McCarthy still has a lot more to learn to be a contributor at the highest level. As he said in the interview, his aim is to play for the national team sometime. With that kind of lofty goal, there's lots to learn going forward for the young 22 year old. The good news for him is that he has plenty of time, though it is unknown how many more games he'll get to play this season. Andre Blake should be the number one going forward, and maybe one day he'll hand the reins over to McCarthy.
2) The wing play of Eric Ayuk (and also Wenger?)
The most exciting part of the Union in the early season has been the emergence of Eric Ayuk. The eighteen year old from Cameroon has been a little sparkplug. He seems to be able to get away from defenders, and although he can be a little lightweight at times his play can lift the team. He came close early in the game when his shot hit the side netting. Then he thought he had the first goal of his MLS career before Zach Pfeffer butted in. What came next may have been the slickest thing in PPL history. Move over Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins, there's a new gymnast in town that has you beaten hands down. Ayuk's multi-time cartwheels and backflips were even better than Sebastien Le Toux's attempt.
As well as Ayuk, Andrew Wenger finally showed up in the stats book with what really should have been two assists. In the first goal he did well to feed the ball to Le Toux, and for the second goal it was his cross that was spilled for Vincent Nogueira to fire home. While it wasn't a great performance from Wenger, it was certainly a step in the right direction.
3) NYCFC's half time substitution.
New York City didn't really threaten in the first half, apart from one time that David Villa broke the offside trap, had a shot saved then was unable to hook the ball back before the ball went over the line for a corner. They made a change at half time bringing on Khiry Shelton for Sebastien Velasquez, meaning suddenly New York City had all the play (up to 75% possession at one point). The Union were giving the ball away as soon as they got it, and it was Shelton's entrance in addition to half time tactical changes that made a big difference in the match. It wouldn't be long until NYCFC got the equalizer that their play until then deserved.
4) Sebastien Le Toux being forced off by the advertising boards.
You can say whatever you want about the quality of Sebastien Le Toux, he was back in his best position (in my opinion) on Saturday. He was the striker that could run all he wants along the opponent's defensive line. The hustle and non-stop running he is famed for ended up costing him however, as he chased a lost cause into the corner and went crashing into the electronic advertising boards. It was a painful sight for those watching on TV, including former teammate Amobi Okugo.
Another reason after last week why those boards don't need to be near the field... Protect the players— Amobi Okugo (@amobisays) April 11, 2015
The team wants the advertising boards to make money, and they will never be removed unless there is a league-wide mandate to protect the players from this. Luckily for the future, it was only an injury that needed some stitches and should not keep Seba out for long (particularly with Aristeguieta possibly being out for a few games).
The interesting thing about what happened then is that Le Toux used gamesmanship to slow down the game. Obviously, since the injury was caused by the advertising boards, Le Toux was off the field. NYCFC rightly started the game, and were attacking again. However, Le Toux got up, walked to the middle of the pitch and sat down, which meant as soon as the ball went out of play the referee had to stop and allow the medical team to tend the injury. After two to three minutes, the substitution was made, and the run of play changed back towards the Union's favor. Le Toux could easily have walked down the tunnel to get seen without the game being stopped at all. For once, thank Seba for poor sportsmanship and time wasting as it helped the Union get the win.
As well as the break in play, when CJ Sapong came on for Le Toux (and later Conor Casey for Ayuk) suddenly the Union were able to hold on to the ball again. Relieving the pressure on the defenders was something the Union didn't do well against Kansas City, and the changes here allowed the Union to turn things around.
5) The substitution that wasn't.
With ten minutes left in the game, those that looked to the sideline saw that Cristian Maidana was ready to come on. The fourth official had the board ready, and the number 10 was in green and 5 in red, meaning Maidana for Nogueira. I would assume it was because of the injury, there was a worry Nogueira couldn't quite make 90 minutes. Then Zach Pfeffer got the ball, and gave it away. Pfeffer did a great job of getting back and stopping the breakaway, but the damage was done in terms of the impression it gave Jim Curtin. Curtin changed his mind on the substitution, and off came Pfeffer for Maidana.
Obviously, you have to wonder whether Pfeffer would have been in position, and kept his head enough to score the winner as Nogueira later was. If Pfeffer's bad giveaway was a sign of tiredness, there was an even greater chance of another Lahoud moment. Was this a moment of inspiration from Jim Curtin that led to three points coming home?
Another change that may have turned the Union fortunes around was the move of Maurice Edu back to the backline, and Michael Lahoud in to midfield. Both players have stepped up their play, and right now there should be a settled lineup of Blake; Williams, Edu, Vitoria, Gaddis; Lahoud, Nogueira in terms of the defensive side of the ball with Ayuk, Maidana and Le Toux/Pfeffer in attacking midfield, and Aristeguieta as striker.
On now to another battle against Villa and co. this time at Yankee stadium, before a home game against MLS Cup finalist New England Revolution. The injured starters are starting to come back healthy, and there is a new air of confidence around the team now they are M'Bolhi-less. Let's see how it goes from now on.