What has been a very exciting few weeks in Union land has come to a close. There was a protest from the Sons of Ben, which ran into a win from the Philadelphia Union. Then a week after Zach Pfeffer was snubbed, Fernando Aristeguieta got snubbed from the Venezuelan Copa America team.That meant that there was a rumor Fernando would be available for Sunday's trip to Red Bull Arena, but it was instead CJ Sapong, fresh from his suspension while undergoing substance abuse therapy who returned to the 18 . With Maurice Edu suspended, it was a very small squad that made the trip to Harrison, and they came back with three points. How did they do so?
1. Goalkeeping confidence.
The Philadelphia Union season could be summed up as one goalkeeping disaster after another. From injuries, to poor performances, to being banished and returning and being banished again. When both John McCarthy and Andre Blake got injured within minutes, it felt like another joke moment in the season so far. However it has allowed the Union to give 6'5" Brian Sylvestre a chance. To say he has grabbed that chance with both hands would be a bit premature really, but even in the bad loss in Vancouver Sylvestre showed well. Since then he has posted back to back clean sheets. While the defense certainly get a lot of credit for those, this is the first time all season that at least I have been comfortable with the goalkeeper.
The defense also seem much more comfortable with Sylvestre behind them. In both the D.C. United game and the game at Red Bull Arena, they were better organised than they have been. After a slow start when there was a lot of space for the Red Bulls to attack, the goalkeeper (with help from Brian Carroll?) got the team organized and shut down those holes in the defense. If Sylvestre can continue to be the commanding presence he has shown so far in the three games he has played, it could be the base the Union can build on. Lets hope that happens.
2. Jim Curtin going back to the future.
Last year, when he first took charge, Curtin had a plan. He had the defense be a compact, solid unit with defensive midfielders helping that out. Vincent Nogueira linked the defense to attack well, and Andrew Wenger, Sebastien Le Toux, Conor Casey and Cristian Maidana were a danger on the counter attack. Philadelphia were winning games and playing well, despite not being attractive to the eye. After the US Open Cup things started to go badly, and the Union lost that "defend first and hit on the counter" plan. This season, there really has not seemed to be any kind of plan when the Union have played, It has almost been "Go out, have fun, and the result doesn't matter" that you would hear from a six year old's game.
However, for the past two games against DC and the New York Red Bulls, it has been back to that staying-solid defense that got the job done for Curtin in the first place. It didn't matter whether it was Raymon Gaddis, Sheanon Williams, Ethan White and Maurice Edu in defense or if Richie Marquez and Fabinho were back there. Brian Carroll has rolled back the years and Vincent Nogueira is fit again. Whether it was the injury issues or if Curtin struggled to get the players playing how they should have been playing, that seems to be in the past, and it is the Union of a year ago we will hopefully see from now on.
3. The woodwork helping out the Union.
There were two clear chances that the Red Bulls had in the first half, both of which ended up with the ball clattering off the woodwork and being cleared. Earlier in the season when that happened, the ball always seemed to end up in the back of the net. In the first attempt the Union right side got caught out, and it gave Mike Grella tonnes of time to pick out Felipe at the edge of the box. The Red Bull midfielder took a shot and it clattered off the post, with Sylvestre well beaten.
The second attempt was after some magic footwork by Grella left Sheanon Williams and Ethan White floundering on the ground. Grella curled the ball towards the corner, but it seemed that Brian Sylvestre got a fingertip to the ball diverting it on to the post where it was cleared. This was two moments where the luck that eluded the Union early in the season finally helped Philadelphia out. If those had gone in then the three goal win all Red Bull fans would have been waiting for may have happened.
4. A new improved Fabinho.
Who saw those performances from Fabinho coming? Last week against DC United he got the winning assist and against the Red Bulls he played like a man possessed. Before the game, everyone would have been worrying about him playing against Red Bull danger man Lloyd Sam. We were all thinking along the same lines as Jonathan Tannenwald:
Lloyd Sam vs. Fabinho. Lloyd Sam vs. Fabinho. Lloyd Sam vs. Fabinho. Lloyd Sam vs. Fabinho. Lloyd Sam vs. Fabinho. Just saying. #NYvPHI— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) May 24, 2015
However, it was a performance that was easily Fabinho's best ever in a Union shirt. He was back in defense blocking shots and making important tackles as well as helping out in attack. While he played no part in the first goal, the second goal was almost all his doing. After anticipating well and making an interception around the half way line, he played a fantastic one-two with Cristian Maidana, getting in behind the Red Bull defense. At that point, instead of panicking as others have done all year he played the perfect cross for CJ Sapong to get the important second goal.
While I don't expect performances like that every time, he has shown in the last two games that maybe he can be a viable option on the left, even if it is just to give regular starters a game off.
5. CJ Sapong getting redemption.
I think nobody was happier than CJ Sapong to get on the field after what must have been a difficult few weeks. Nothing gets you over off-field troubles like being on the field, and contributing to the win at a place the team had never won at before certainly helps. After coming on for an injured Conor Casey, CJ put in a shift that had him running all over the place. He hassled and harried, and his introduction made the Union look very dangerous. He capped that off by getting in the right spot at the right time and tapping in Fabinho's cross. If CJ and Aristeguieta can start to form a great partnership, then Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira will give them the chances to score goals. It may start to look positive for the Union after being in the dumps for so much of the season.
To win at Red Bull Arena, you need all eleven players and subs to show up. They did that, and the hundred or so Sons of Ben who showed up (and didn't get their Tifo into the stadium but cheered the team on throughout) appreciated that fact. If they continue to play as hard for each other, wins will come. Lets hope the luck stays with the team, and injuries are all done for the rest of the season.
Dick move, Red Bulls.