For Pete's Sake

Lots to like in a low-difficulty opener

Photo: 215pix

Let’s start with the caveats.

The New England Revolution are likely to be one of the worst teams in MLS this year. Their best player held out throughout training camp, while their manager coached zero professional matches before Saturday.

Weather kept them grounded in Providence, R.I., until a game-day-morning flight down to the frigid banks of the Delaware River. By the time they got there, they didn’t seem up for a fight.

Their central defenders appear allergic to not getting red cards. Nothing, in fact, makes them sadder than having to play a full match without being ejected.

So the Union didn’t face their stiffest challenge of the season in the opening match on Saturday night.

But, with all that said, there were real positives to take away from the match.

The Union won with two teenagers in the starting XI — one scoring the game-winning goal, and the other putting in a Man of the Match performance.

And the Union won with a minimum of fuss, getting real contributions off the bench and not letting an inferior opponent back into a match they had no business winning.

That’s a recipe for long-term success.

Like I’m living a teenage dream 

The last two seasons, a strong emphasis on the Academy in the Union’s plans didn’t match the actual number of minutes young players received on the field.

That’s why it felt like a watershed moment when Anthony Fontana, an eighteen-year-old from Newark, Del., received the kickoff from C.J. Sapong. Just a few touches later, possession fell to Auston Trusty, a nineteen-year-old from Media, Pa., who fizzed a long ball to newcomer David Accam.

Fontana and Trusty’s fingerprints were all over the 2-0 Union victory. Trusty made the most impressive play of the match in the 21st minute, when veteran striker Juan Agudelo latched onto a ball that sent him behind the Union’s lines. Trusty, at full speed, recovered and executed an inch-perfect tackle with Agudelo in one-on-one with Andre Blake.

If Trusty got it wrong, it’s a red and a penalty. But instead the tackle was pure class, a showcase of Trusty’s athleticism, technical ability, and bravery.

With New England down to ten men not long after, it would be Fontana’s turn to shine. The midfielder looked dangerous all throughout the first half, not afraid to try a shot or take a touch inside the box. With Sapong looking like he’d forgotten where the net was, though, there were worries inside Talen Energy Stadium that the Union would fail to punish the wretched Revs before halftime.

Instead, there was Fontana, cooly receiving a deflection from Sapong right at the six and finishing with his first touch.

Fontana’s celebration, exuberant and unbridled, felt joyous in a way the Union so often don’t. It was a moment all young soccer players dream about, scoring a debut goal for your hometown club. And the first player to meet him at the corner flag, fittingly, was Trusty.

Let the past die

Getting the first goal, of course, is only half the battle. And the Union have found ways, over the years, to cough up matches from winning positions. A somewhat sloppy start to the second half did little to assuage concerns that it would happen again.

This time, though, it didn’t.

The Union got a spark off the bench from Cory Burke, a Jamaican national teamer previously of the club’s developmental side. Burke jumped Erik Ayuk and Marcus Epps to be the first bench wing option, and he delivered with a beastly performance. He took on uncertain defenders with both pace and power, carving up the Revs and creating good positions.

Burke’s work led directly to the dagger. He created space with his speed, getting to the end line to receive a ball over the top. From there, he combined his size with a skill move to get past the defender and into the and delivered the kind of ball that Sapong loves — low and at the near post.

With a two-goal cushion, the Union didn’t let the Revs anywhere near the match. Andre Blake had little to do as his side controlled possession and probed for a third goal. Burke drawing New England’s second red card of the evening was the cherry on top.

The 2017 Union, like so many teams before them, were boring above all else. Rarely did they find moments of inspiration nor feel like a team you wanted to root for.

That felt different on Saturday night when a squad infused with young talent gave Philadelphia its first season opening win in seven years.

Yeah, caveats and all that.

But, until the tougher tests come, it’s something to celebrate and enjoy.

Odds and ends
  • It wouldn’t be a Union win without as least one inexplicable thing happening. This time, that would be Curtin using expensive reserve striker Jay Simpson as a late-game No. 10 option. When there were rumblings out of preseason camp that the staff were trying Simpson behind Sapong, most assumed it was in a two-striker set. That is, of course, outlawed. Instead, Simpson slotted in for Fontana, where he looked about as lost as a character from Lost. With Borek Dockal soon topping the CAM depth chart, this isn’t likely to be a situation for much longer. But one would think Adam Najem would be a better substitute in that spot. Simpson getting the minutes shows that the staff doesn’t understand how to use the Englishman, that Simpson doesn’t have a place on this team, or that Najem doesn’t have Curtin’s trust. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three.
  • As an out-of-town viewer, every week is spinning the roulette wheel on the soon-defunct MLS Live service. Will I be treated to J.P. Dellacamera and Tommy Smyth, two of the best in the business? Or will it be two random jamokes? Unfortunately, it was the latter for the season opener, who weren’t so much homers as simply difficult to listen to. (Paul Mariner has a pretty bad case of marbles in the mouth.) If there’s one thing I hope the new ESPN Plus service includes, it’s the ability to choose your feed for each game. If not, I hope the Union switching to a new broadcast partner doesn’t mean J.P. and Tommy are less likely to be the chosen ones for out-of-towners this year.

9 Comments

  1. Good column. I think Saturday may have been the day the Academy trumps the Draft as the route to first team play. That’s pretty significant, even if it was in a win against a terrible side reduced to 10 for most of the match.
    .
    One quibble: I really don’t mind Mariner and Co. at all for New England. I think they’re a remarkably fair team. I recall listening to them when NE eliminated the Union inthe Open Cup and thought they called a good match. They might be the best away broadcast team I’ve heard out there.

    • I agree with your Mariner and Co. comment. Maybe it’s because I watch ESPN FC every weekday, or my affinity for British television, but I have no troubles at all with understanding Paul.

  2. I think Simpson got in because we were up a man more than anything else. I think it’s plainly obvious that Burke should now be ahead of him on the depth chart.
    .
    One thing I remember last year when we played NE is that Farrell completely shut down Fafa. I’ve always been impressed with him when we have played them, but Accam completely carved him up. This offense is going to be pretty fun this year I think.

  3. On Simpson at the #10: This is something they said they were trying in preseason. The strategy for the preseason seemed to be preparation for the regular season rather than experimentation. If there is any time to experiment during the MLS regular season, playing one of the worst teams in the league, at home, while up a man, with a lead has to be it.

  4. I know that “throws his weight around” is cliched and a euphemism.
    .
    With Cory Burke it is not a euphemism but literal, and it is an important part of his game, in addition to the speed, the intensity, and the growing technical skill.

    • His turn to take the ball to the touchline was a thing of beauty. Someone said previously they could watch that replay over and over, and I second that notion. It’s little things like that from Saturday’s match that has me giddy like a school girl and craving more.

      • Fast technical wingers? Sign me up!

      • A. right?

      • The blow/dribble by your man, get to the endline and swing in a short, slightly backwards cross is one of the most effective goal scoring plays and something we have been sorely lacking and happened a few times last game. Need to see against a legit d, but I don’t think anyone is locking down Accam 1 on 1 all game.

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