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Game changers: Gut-wrenching gut check

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If the Union are playing golf in the end of October instead of soccer, these are the moments that they will look back on and rue.

The Philadelphia Union’s CJ Sapong reacts after missing a shot against D.C. United. The Union and United drew 2-2.
The Philadelphia Union’s CJ Sapong reacts after missing a shot against D.C. United. The Union and United drew 2-2.
Trey Madara / Brotherly Game

1a.) The Philadelphia Union’s lineup - There were a couple of surprises in the Union’s setup. The biggest surprise was Fabian Herbers getting the nod over Roland Alberg, as this seemed to indicate a bit of a switch in tactics. Where Alberg plays more of a traditional 10, Herbers’s time at forward meant he’d be more of a False Nine. Not a bad look when going up against a patchwork D.C. defense and midfield.

Another surprise was Ken Tribbett starting over Josh Yaro. Since this re-appears later in this column I won’t give too much away, but suffice it to say Tribbett’s second half was much better than his first.

1b.) D.C. United’s lineup - In the match preview, I detailed how many United regulars were missing due to injury or suspension, so we knew going into it that the lineup would be something Ben Olsen cobbled together. Rob Vincent got the start at central defensive midfielder for the suspended Marcelo Sarvas, Lloyd Sam got the start at right wing, and Nick DeLeon slid over to central midfield in favor of Jared Jeffrey. The lineup looked disjointed at times, but overall held together well.

2.) Ken Tribbett and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad play - Tribbett made two very costly mistakes on the same play, and the Union paid dearly for it.

This play starts when Tribbett’s first touch forces him to hold on to the ball for a split-second too long, and when he tries to get rid of it, he passed it right to Taylor Kemp. Kemp made a good run down the flank, and ran into Tribbett. Tribbett should have taken the foul at this point, however he doesn’t fully commit to stopping Kemp and Kemp goes by him. Union goalkeeper Andre Blake read pass, however Kemp shot and caught Blake flat-footed.

3.) Fabian Herbers could have had a spectacular game - Herbers had a couple of chances to make himself the hero. Not long after Kemp’s goal Herbers had a great ball played to him by Keegan Rosenberry. Herbers had a great angle to shoot on Bill Hamid, however he did this:

Perhaps it was the terrible turf conditions that made the ball bounce, but Herbers has to do better with this shot. This could have been a quick equalizer against United, instead it was sent into orbit.

4.) Bend it like Barnetta - There isn’t anything better than drawing level before the half thanks to a stupid foul. Prior to this video starting, CJ Sapong went for a loose ball and was kicked in the stomach by Rob Vincent. Barnetta stepped up to take the free kick, and magic happened:

That’s a world class strike from Barnetta, and it really took the wind out of D.C.’s sails going into the half.

5.) Hamid falls tall - Shortly after the break, the momentum was still squarely with the Union. This starts off when two of the Union’s most maligned players - the aforementioned Ken Tribbett and Warren Creavalle (who came on for the injured Brian Carroll just before the Barnetta goal) - along with Ilsinho all converged on Luciano Acosta to force a turnover. The ball squirts free to Fabian Herbers, who lead a fast break down the Union’s left side. CJ Sapong had a great run that saw him drift from the center of the pitch out wide to the Union’s right. Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell do a great job of clogging any passing lane between Herbers and Sapong, while CJ does well to remain disciplined and stay onside. Herbers slows up a touch to allow Tranquillo Barnetta to catch up to the play, however this allows Taylor Kemp and Rob Vincent to track back and get into the play. Still, not all is lost for the Union, as Herbers plays Barnetta forward, drawing everyone out to the Union’s left and away from Sapong, who is still a few yards ahead of Kemp - the only defender trying to mark him. Barnetta’s first touch was excellent, allowing him to blow past the defenders while Sapong manages to get on the inside track of Kemp. Barnetta’s pass to Sapong is perfect, and Sapong struck it against the grain hoping Hamid’s momentum would have prevented him from making a play on it.

Unfortunately for the Union, the crappy condition of the turf in the goal box caused Sapong to muff the shot and Hamid to slip, so the ball went right into his midsection. Not to worry, Fabian Herbers did what every coach he’s ever had has probably told him and followed up on the play, and was able to get a foot on the ball, but unfortunately it went wide and out of play. This was the definition of unlucky for the Union. If Hamid doesn’t slip, that’s a goal. If Sapong strikes it cleanly, that’s a goal. If Herbers can get a better touch on it, that’s a goal.

6.) Pontius haunts his old haunt - This one is the result of Ilsinho. While the Brazilian has at times failed to do little more than make opposing defenders look silly (while not resulting in anything), this time he created a goal not with a spectacular touch but with his physicality. The Union had possession deep in D.C.’s box, and Keegan Rosenberry tried a little give-and-go with Ilsinho, however Taylor Kemp intercepted Ilsinho’s pass and turned it upfield to Luciano Acosta. Acosta is listed at 5’3”, 130 while Ilsinho is 5’10” and 189. Ilsinho leaned into Acosta and was able to muscle him off of the ball.

Ilsinho then turned it around, dribbled the ball toward goal, feinted right, and then laid off a perfect pass to his left for an unmarked Chris Pontius. Pontius in turn buried it past Hamid to give the Union the lead. In typical classy form, Pontius didn’t celebrate the goal much in front of the fans who for so long cheered his name.

7.) Blake saves the Union - Sure, this happens every week. Andre Blake is spectacular, and we’re fortunate enough to have him for as long as we have him.

D.C. had been pressuring the Union more and more as the match went on, and Blake’s two saves are spectacular, but notice that this starts when the Union can’t clear the ball out of their own end. When they try, they either send it to midfield where United had parked Rob Vincent and Taylor Kemp to corral these clearances, or the clearing attempts aren’t good. In this case, Warren Creavalle (who aside from this had an excellent game coming in for the injured Brian Carroll) scuffed his clearing attempt and instead of it going long it went right to Kennedy Igboananike, who fired it on frame. Blake made a spectacular save to push the ball out, but it went right to the foot of Lamar Neagle. Neagle shot it directly at Blake, who was able to parry it to Richie Marquez, who cleared the ball out - but only as far as Taylor Kemp. This recurring theme is important because...

8.) The Union Union’d - Another last-minute meltdown by the Union cost points. If the guys are playing golf in the end of October instead of soccer, these are the moments that they will look back on and rue. The Union could not maintain possession after Blake’s saves, and this is dangerous when you’re facing an opponent who is down at home and has five minutes of stoppage time to work with. A Sapong clearance up toward Charlie Davies went out of bounds. A Barnetta run where his first touch lets him down and allows D.C. to dump it back down field. Walter Restrepo trying to go for glory and dribbling into Bobby Boswell instead of taking it to the corner flag and trying to milk the clock. Restrepo winning an Andre Blake kick and again trying to run it down the center of the pitch. A Barnetta clearance that didn’t make it to midfield. These all happened before this play where the Union could have tried to clear it as far from their own goal as possible but didn’t. Then there’s this.

Richie Marquez had a decent game, but he scuffed the clearance and gave the ball away far too cheaply to United. There was a little more than a minute left in the match, and if he boots it down field it will eat that much more time off of the clock. Instead, it rolls slowly to Patrick Nyarko, who takes it up field and blasts a cross toward the far corner of the six yard box. Both Steve Birnbaum and Lamar Neagle are waiting for it - totally unmarked. Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, and Walter Restrepo are all absent on this play, and Birnbaum made the most of his opportunity. His header went back post as Andre Blake rushed over to cut down the angle, and just like that two points evaporated for the Union.


The Union should do a lot of soul-searching after this. A road point is always a good thing, however to allow D.C. to tie the match in that manner that late in the game has to spark something within the players. The momentum they built up earlier in the season is gone. It must be replaced with new momentum. Perhaps the addition of Davies and Alejandro Bedoya will help the Union build new momentum, however this needs to happen fast. One win is all it takes to light that fire and create that belief again.