As the final whistle blew at Talen Energy Stadium, Fafa Picault punched the ball out of midair.
It was the culmination of a frustrating afternoon for the Philadelphia Union, which lost their season opener, 3-1, to Toronto FC on Saturday in Chester, Pennsylvania. The Union conceded goals in stoppage time of each half, had a potential headed goal hit the post in the first half and were inches away from a potential game-tying goal on a net-mouth scramble in the second half.
Instead, Laurent Ciman cleared the ball off the line to preserve Toronto’s lead.
Playing with a different formation than last season with Mexican national-teamer Marco Fabián — who scored his first goal — at the No. 10, Philadelphia generated quality chances. But they struggled with defending in the box, an area coach Jim Curtin calls the red zone.
“Defensively, in the red zone, we talk about laying everything on the line, to get a block, to make a guy dribble around you, and we weren’t good at it today,” Curtin said.
Michael Bradley’s two goals both came on plays when he made an uncovered run to the ball. On his second goal in the 62nd minute, Union goalkeeper Andre Blake stopped a left-footed shot from Ciman, but Bradley reached the rebound first and knocked it home.
Bradley scored Toronto’s first goal three minutes into stoppage time to give his team a 1-0 lead right before halftime. Nick DeLeon played the ball from the middle of the field out wide to Auro, who sent a low cross into the box for an open Bradley. Before Saturday, Bradley hadn’t scored a regular-season MLS goal since 2016.
Bradley became public enemy No. 1 at Talen Energy Stadium in the second half after he fouled Fabián in the 54th minute and received a yellow card. The Union’s fans booed him every time he touched the ball thereafter.
Both teams played physically, combining for 30 fouls and four yellow cards.
“I know the MLS is like this and Toronto plays like this,” Fabián said. “I actually said to the referee in the second half...‘Sometimes you can decide also we need to play more soccer. It’s not the NBA here.’”
Fabián’s first goal came on a penalty kick in the 73rd minute after Osorio deflected a ball in the box with his arm. The Union had switched to a 3-5-2 formation by this point after Bradley’s second goal.
Fabián ended the game with seven shots, three of which were on target. He also took three corner kicks, splitting responsibilities with Haris Medunjanin depending on which side of the field the ball was placed.
“Today, I feel good with my first goal in the MLS, but anyway I want to win and today is a bad game, bad day, but we need to work in the next weeks,” he said.
Philadelphia controlled most of the play in the first half with nearly 55 percent of the possession, but it trailed at the break after the late first-half goal.
Toronto generated most of its first-half chances in the final 20 minutes, most notably a penalty kick by Jonathan Osorio. Blake made a diving stop to his left to keep the game scoreless.
Calm, cool and collected. Same Dre, amazing saves. pic.twitter.com/mQ2gQpAiyp— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) March 2, 2019
Had Osorio scored, it would have been a momentum-shifting goal less than 10 minutes after a header by Alejandro Bedoya hit the post.
Blake’s penalty-kick save was in a nearly identical place to his stop on a shot by DeLeon in the sequence that triggered the penalty. After the stop, Kai Wagner was called for a handball, and AR upheld the call.
The Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald, the pool reporter for the match, asked referee Nima Saghafi about the call, but was not permitted to ask a follow-up question.
I asked a follow-up clarifying quesiton, as pool reporters are allowed to do, asking what the conversation was between the booth and Saghafi.— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) March 2, 2019
I was told by a PRO stafter that is off limits.
From every conversation I have had with PRO and the PSRA, it is not off limits.
DeLeon scored Toronto’s final goal in second-half stoppage time after a turnover just outside the 18 by Wagner.
Improving box defending is one of the Union’s top priorities moving forward, Curtin said. Three of Philadelphia’s next four games are on the road, starting with its matchup on March 10 against Sporting Kansas City.
“I don’t think it’s the system,” Blake said. “You get into the box, you look around, you try to find somebody to mark, you try to get pressure to the ball, you try to get stuck in it and not be so easy to be beaten.”