On a hot evening in Lancaster, the Philadelphia Union took on their current USL affiliate, Harrisburg City Islanders in their annual friendly. With the creation of a Bethlehem TBA FC in USL next year it is obvious that there will be no need for the partnership as it currently exists, so this is most likely the last meeting of these teams outside of the US Open Cup.
The site of the friendly was Clipper Magazine Stadium, home to the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Despite being awkwardly situated in a baseball stadium the infield was covered with turf that, from the stands, appeared to hold up during the game. It is rumored that "The Clip" could be the home of HCI for at least next season as their stadium on Harrisburg's City Island is renovated or if the money can not be secured for the renovation Lancaster may become the new home of Central Pennsylvania's USL franchise.
The game itself was attended by over 6,500 fans of all ages and it had a very family friendly vibe to the atmosphere. Full youth teams could be seen all over the stadium and as expected, hometown hero Andrew Wenger received the loudest cheers when the starting lineup was announced. The Union brought out a makeshift 4-2-3-1 (Come on, you didn't expect any other formation did you?) with John McCarthy in goal, Ethan White and Steven Vitoria in central defense with Warren Creavalle to the right and Andrew Wenger on the left. Fred and Michael Lahoud sat deep in midfield with Eric Ayuk in front of them. Antoine Hoppenot and Jimmy McLaughlin were split left and right respectively and Fernando Aristeguieta led the forward line.
The first half was pretty tame. Hoppenot and McLaughlin failed to impress against the team they've both featured for more often than the team they were playing for. With very little wing service provided to Aristeguieta, he had to be content with the few balls that Ayuk could play through to him. The one real chance that fell to the Venezuelan was held a second too long before it was played to him and the forward had strayed offsides, nullifying his tidy finish.
Harrisburg's goal came just before halftime as a long-range shot from their right wing found the far side netting. How a shot from such a distance and a terrible angle could find the back of the net is beyond me, but without the novelty of a replay on the scoreboard we'll never know what exactly McCarthy was doing. The 'keeper did make one decent save, diving at the feet of a striker after the initial shot had eluded him and clanged off the post.
Halftime saw Eric Bird, aka Morgan Brian's boyfriend, and Conor Casey replace Vitoria and Aristiguieta. Bird took up a midfield position and pushed Lahoud back to center back. It was obvious the Union were taking this game very seriously. White was able to find the back of the net from a corner that fell in the middle of the box and his poke at the ball found its way through the bodies that were screening the HCI keeper. Casey also missed a wide open net from the top of the six yard box as he completely whiffed on a rolled cross at his feet.
The Union made three other changes at the 59th minute as Sebastien Le Toux, Cristian Maidana, and Fabinho entered the match for Fred, Hoppenot, and McLaughlin. With many more first teamers on the field the Union started to control the game a bit more. Maidana took control of the midfield and slotted home the winner in the 66th minute finding the far side netting from the right side of the box with a curved, left-footed shot. Casey also finished a very Casey-like goal that padded the lead.
In the end, it was a game that very obviously was a friendly the Union cared nothing about. They struggled with a second team to look any better than the lower level opposition they faced, and it was only with the inclusion of the three extra first teamers late in the game that they looked able to win. With so many youth soccer players looking on and trying to see what professional soccer players play like, it was a shame that the Union played so awful. The level of fan support that came out deserved better than that.
In the end it can only be said that Hoppenot, McLaughlin, and Bird all looked well over their heads playing against HCI. Conor Casey looked much too slow and stiff to be a real option for the Union at this point in the season. Ayuk cannot be played inside as it nullifies his one real strength: his speed. Andrew Wenger should be seen as an option at the left back spot. He's stronger in defense than Fabinho and offers the same abilities getting forward.
Four more friendlies until the Union's only game that matters for the rest of the season. Welcome to being a cup team!