Soccer can be agonizingly big picture. The number of chances created each game just aren't enough to ensure the expected outcome is what actually happens. The Philadelphia Union outscored their opponents 4-2 this week but came away with one impressive win and a poor loss. The loss at home to New York City FC, the worst team in the league standings, leaves an unwelcome pit in the stomachs of the Union family as the team heads into a bye week. Over the last five games, however, the Union have taken nine points and in the big picture it appears they are on the right track.
Luck appeared to work against the Union against NYCFC. The loss was marked by a 1 in 50 shot from 30 yards out by NYCFC's Tony McNamara and a shot by Patrick Mullins deflecting off the leg of Richie Marquez and squarely into the corner of the goal. On the other side, in the 85th minute David Villa missed a sitter in the center of the box that he hits more than half the time.
On the offensive side of things the Union will take four goals. The Union looked like world beaters out wide this week, lofting 63 crosses into the box. But the strategy wasn't as effective as it might seem. All of their goals came from plays not involving a cross. There was the long drive down the middle of the pitch by Edu who sent it to Maidana who dropped it to Le Toux who popped it back to Sapong for their first goal. There was the Noguiera empty net goal, and the Sapong goal against NYCFC was off of a corner kick. The Le Toux goal against Columbus was not from a cross but it was created from wide play between CJ Sapong and Sheanon Williams. Technically none of the 63 crosses led to goals, and I'd suggest they start pushing the ball toward the middle of the field earlier in their attack. Opposing defenses are clearly okay giving the Union this space wide for a reason.
Now let's look at the game changers from both matches this week. First the 3-0 win against the Columbus Crew.
Some lineups change. Some lineups stay the same. The Union were able to start the same lineup for the second game in a row and the team looked cohesive and confident. Meanwhile Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter sat the league's leading scorer Kei Kamara in favor of Aaron Schoenfeld. He also gave center back Sergio Campbell his first start. Schoenfeld was able to cause trouble early and put a nice header on target to force a save from Brian Sylvestre, but he was not the dangerous playmaker that Kamara can be. Campbell looked hesitant on the first and third goals. He may have been able to clear Le Toux's pass on the first goal and played off Sheanon Williams in the box on the third.
Sapong in for the injured Aristeguieta. Up until Aristeguieta's injury the Union had been outshot by Columbus 5 to 1. Whether tied to Sapong's entrance or not, the Union finished the game outshooting Columbus 9 to 6. Sapong was very strong in his shift. CJ got ball side and scored the first goal, but he also made a nice pass along the sideline to lead Sheanon William's breakaway for the 3rd goal. That's what you want from your striker in Curtin's system, a player in the midfield that can set up teammates on the counter.
Thank you Steve. Crew keeper Steve Clark made a huge blunder in the 52nd minute. He was attempting to roll the ball to a teammate and then thought better of the action, but it was too late. The ball came loose. An alert Maidana made a play on the ball and Clark was able to kick it away from him. Unfortunately for Clark he kicked it right to Vincent Nogueira who popped it over the goalies head and one of the most embarrassing goals scored since Rais M'Bolhi was in uniform. Clark may have been thinking twice on the pass because of the position of Nogueira in the first place. Whatever it was, the Union took that bit of fortune that essentially put the game away early in the 2nd half.
Shifting gears to the 2-1 loss to NYCFC
Whereas the Columbus game was a fun rout, the NYCFC game was not nearly as pretty for the Union. The Union looked the stronger side for the first half despite missing their chances, but should have had a good chance to go into the locker room with the advantage.
A non-call in the 44th minute on Sapong. CJ Sapong who started for the still injured Aristeguieta made a run on a Le Toux ball into the box. He was clearly held on the arm by NYCFC defender Jason Hernandez. It was not an easy grab to see for the referee but Sapong went down easily in an effort to get the call. The bottom line it was a hold in the box and a clear penalty. Those types of holds happen frequently but Sapong was the targeted runner for that pass and should have gotten the call.
Sapong does it again. For some reason Le Toux is back taking corner kicks again even when Maidana is on the field and even when a left footed kick would be an "in-swinger" towards the goal, which gives the greatest chance of a goal on corner kicks, but I digress. Le Toux did put a good ball in the box in the 46th minute and it luckily bounced right to the feet of Sapong who quickly and deftly deposited the ball into the corner of the goal. At this moment it appeared the Union would complete the expected win against the league's worst team. But there were more game changers to come unfortunately.
McNamara and Mullins defy the odds. As mentioned earlier the two NYCFC goals were hard to swallow for Union fans. McNamara's was a brilliant shot with an extreme level of difficultly. These types of goals just happen, just like Giovinco's free kick against Toronto. Mullins effort was notable but the ball should not have gone in the net. It was an unlucky deflection for the Union that came too late for them to recover.
The late subs too late. It's clear that Curtin does not have much confidence in his bench, outside of Zach Pfeffer. Even with Andrew Wenger being largely ineffective, Curtin waited until the 72nd minute to insert Pfeffer, who had a strong impact on the game, working his way for two close range shots. Inserting Eric Ayuk in the 82nd minute and Jimmy McLaughlin in the 92nd seem like wasted moves so late in the game. The Union do not have game changers off the bench, like Patrick Mullins who was able to come in and create the winner.
Post-game rhetoric. There was a lot of positive rhetoric post-game from Curtin, the players and even the fans. Curtin said, "Even at 1-1 we pushed the game a ton." Zach Pfeffer said, "I thought we put in a real good effort, good performance, a bit unlucky to not finish a couple chances that we had." Maurice Edu said, "I thought we played a good game."
I do not want to take away from what has been a positive stretch for the team, but I think these positives were overstated. Yes, the Union were a bit unlucky and could have even been up 2-0, but the play was not great (or really even good). Consider Curtin's "push" and realize that the Union only had possession 51% of the game after the McNamara goal. They didn't even get a shot off for the next 25 minutes. Whatever pushing was going on was not felt by NYCFC, who struck back in the 87th minute. The Union mustered a mediocre 12 shots at home against a team that allows 14.4 per game. The Union attempted just 65 passes in the final third the whole match. There's nothing great or even good about the performance that jumps out to me.
The week was a very mixed bag. A great performance against Columbus was offset by a mediocre if unlucky performance against NYCFC. In the big picture the Union are a team improving before our eyes. The individual performances are at a level expected in the pre-season and they are growing in confidence. Tests in the US Open Cup and then against LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders are up next.
Did we miss any game changers? Let us know in the comments section below!