In a week where there were two games at PPL Park against the Chicago Fire, both were really must wins for the Union. However, if only one victory was gained then I would pick the US Open Cup Semifinal. That's how it turned out, with the PPL Park hosting the second US Open Cup Final in as many years. So how did the Union fail to win in the league game?
1. Starting lineups and a slow start
It was a very different looking Philadelphia team that started the game on Sunday night. Maurice Edu was out injured, Sebastien Le Toux, CJ Sapong and Michael Lahoud were rested, and Tranquillo Barnetta once again got a start. Maybe it was the changes to the lineup, or maybe it was the letdown after the high of knowing they are hosting another US Open Cup final. However, the Union started very slowly and were made to pay when Chicago took the lead.
The opening goal was a case of Fabinho being unable to get the ball clear, and then giving up on chasing back. Richie Marquez had came out to confront Patrick Nyarko, whereas Tranquillo Barnetta was unable to help out. However, Nyarko was still able to get the ball in easily, and for fear of scoring an own goal, Steven Vitoria didn't try to cut out the cross. Ray Gaddis didn't get across to cover his man, and Kennedy Igboananike got the first of his two goals. It wasn't a good enough start for a Philadelphia defense that wanted to build on two straight clean sheets.
2. Where is the penalty box?
The first real controversial moment of the game happened in the 23rd minute. The Union had a free kick, and Cristian Maidana sent the ball towards the box. There wasn't a Union player in the area, but Chicago's Joevin Jones didn't clear properly, sending the ball onto his hand for a free kick. The Union players were flabbergasted that it wasn't a penalty. Referee Mark Geiger thought it was outside the box, and was backed up by his assistant.
As the video clearly shows, the ball-to-hand contact was made inside the box. The Union players were rightly upset, and it is a decision that should have been a penalty. Instead, Cristian Maidana's well taken free kick was equally well saved by Sean Johnson in the Chicago goal.
3. Missed chances
While he made up for it later in the game, Sebastien Le Toux missed the easiest chance of the game a few minutes before he scored what should have been the winner. After a Brian Carroll piledriver was saved by Sean Johnson, the ball fell to Sebastien, completely unmarked inside the penalty area with the whole goal to aim for. Instead of putting the ball in the back of the net, Le Toux ended up muffing the ball into the ground, straight at Johnson and it was an easy save to make. It really should have been 3-2 at that point, and you have to wonder if it would have changed the outcome, as maybe the Union wouldn't have gone to sleep after it.
In addition to Le Toux, there were a few others who didn't have their shooting boots on. I'll put it down to lack of sharpness, but Fernando Aristeguieta often didn't realise where he was - and sent a few shots way off target because of it. While the shots may have been saved, you have to wonder if one or two others had been on target, would the Union have run out comfortable winners?
4. Sean Johnson
I don't think there has ever been as accomplished a goalkeeping performance at PPL Park as we saw from Sean Johnson on Sunday night. If he doesn't have three or four of the candidates for save of the week, then there must have been a lot of incredible saves. Apart from the Maidana free kick and Carroll shot already mentioned, there was a (slightly offside) strike from Cristian Maidana that was well saved as well as a pair of headers from CJ Sapong and Richie Marquez. It was clearly a man of the match performance, and if not for Johnson the Union may have scored the most goals in a game in their history.
To watch the highlights from some of his incredible saves again, check out the video:
Sean Johnson's second-half saves against the Philadelphia Union
ICYMI, Sean Johnson is a BEAST.Posted by Major League Soccer (MLS) on Monday, August 17, 2015
5. Defensive breakdowns and a late game breakdown
All three of the Chicago goals were easily preventable. For the second, yet again a cross was allowed to go past the entire defense, and at the back post Fabinho was caught ball-watching as Patrick Nyarko nipped in to get a tap-in. However, it was the third goal that would have had Jim Curtin raging the most.
After the Union took the lead for a second time, the players must have thought it was all over. They certainly celebrated like it was a cup final win, with Sebastien Le Toux picking up another needless booking for over-celebrating. Even Jim Curtin commented in the post-game press conference, questioning his defenders for racing the length of the field to join in the celebrations.
After kick-off, with the smoke still hanging around from the celebratory smoke bombs, disaster struck. First - have a look at the goal:
There are two separate shouts for hand ball. The first by Jason Johnson, and the second by Mike Magee who I am reliably informed almost cradled the ball before hooking the ball back. The ball also seemed to go over the line on two separate occasions. While it is difficult to catch any of them individually, the fact the referee team missed all four (if indeed they did cross the line and were handled) is unfortunate for the Union.
However, the most egregious issue on the goal was the complete shutdown by the Union players. Instead of doing what school kids are taught and playing to the whistle, the entire defense stopped and held their hands in the air waiting for the referee to bail them out. There's no excuse for the lack of focus at that point of the game. That lack of focus has now cost the Union a run at the playoffs in addition to a berth in the US Open Cup Final.
The second part of a double header ended in exhilarating fashion. It had the whole stadium on the edge of their seats, and the fans got their money's worth. While it may not have been the greatest performance ever (especially by the defenders), it will do for the rest of the chase for the playoffs, as I don't think there's any chance of the Union participating. For me, the only thing to play for is the US Open Cup, where there's a hankering for the trophy to stay in Chester past September 30th.
Therefore, these should be the objectives for the rest of the season:
1) Keeping fit the first-team players who are currently in good health. That means not playing them every minute of every game.
2) Having a look at some of the fringe players to see what they can do. This should help Jim Curtin know who he can trust to contribute in 2016 and beyond.
3) We need to make sure Maurice Edu is healthy, and that Vincent Noguiera can get back for the final. I would avoid playing them until a few weeks before, then ease them in 30 minutes at a time.
4) Play Tranquillo Barnetta and Cristian Maidana together for 60-70 minutes of each game. That way they can learn how to play with each other, and be able to torment the Sporting Kansas City defense.
If they can do that, and win the US Open Cup, then it will have been a season that brought some success to build on next year. The team isn't that far away from competing in the East, and if they spend wisely, the future in Chester may be an enjoyable one.