For Pete's Sake

At long last, a smile or two from the Union

Photo: 215pix

I forgot what it looks like when Philadelphia Union players smile.

It’s something you don’t even realize you’ve forgotten, really. When your team is a normal soccer team, with its ups and downs, there are wins and losses. The disappointment mixes with joy, sometimes alternating on a weekly basis. Each game doesn’t carry the weight of the world.

But the Union have been nothing like that this year. The winless streak built up, a snowball crushing all in its path, as month after month passed with nothing to show for it but a measly point or two here and there.

You could see that weight on the players, week after week. Like Atlas, they labored with the world on their shoulders. There were no smiles on the pitch last week against the Los Angeles Galaxy or the week before as Montreal crushed their spirits, or — honestly — since the first goal of the season by Jay Simpson against Toronto. The game became just toil and suffering.

There wasn’t much joy in the first half against New York either. The best you could say about it was that it was a “cagey, tactical affair,” which is the sort of thing soccer writers say when they mean, “This game was so boring that I wanted to remove both of my eyeballs with a small metal spoon.” Given the physicality with which the two teams battled each other, it seemed more likely that the game would finish with fewer than 22 players than that one side would find the breakthrough.

Then, all of a sudden, things started shifting.

It began with the introduction of Keegan Rosenberry and Derrick Jones. Rosenberry, who should have started the match, immediately offered something new down the right side, combining well with Bedoya and Pontius without conceding any defensive mettle. Jones, meanwhile, was everywhere in the midfield — freeing up Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin to expand their range and push forward.

Only a spectacular save on C.J. Sapong by Luis Robles kept things level in the 70th minute — and, at that moment, the doubt returned. That’s the sort of thing that has happened to Philadelphia all year, the sort of incredible save that would be immediately followed by catastrophe.

Instead, it was New York who pressed the self-destruct button. Aaron Long made the sort of incomprehensible turnover that we call the “Ken Tribbett Special” around these parts, freeing up Sapong to score and add insult to injury by bouncing the ball off Long’s back and over Robles.

Still, you could forgive Union fans who thought the Red Bull equalizer was inevitable.

The tables finally turned

It was coming. You could feel it, the weight of unbroken misery about to descend once again on Talen Energy Stadium. There’s a free header in the box, missing the goal by just inches. There’s Bradley Wright-Phillips…

And then there was Andre Blake, saving the ball off the line with just his hand.

How he possesses those reflexes, that instinct to get low as fast as possible, the strength to smother the ball short of the white line, we’ll never know.

But it was an incredible save, probably the most important of the dozens of flashy saves in his Union career.

The Union were away, playing on the front foot. They turned up the aggression and remembered their confidence just as it slipped away from the visitors. Two final goals from Sapong, and everyone went home happy, for the first time in over eight months.

There were quality performances around the team. Of course Sapong and Blake were the unquestioned stars. Alejandro Bedoya covered every blade of grass, making killer tackle after killer tackle. Chris Pontius woke up to provide an assist and earn a penalty kick. The makeshift center back combination looked strong all night, more confident on the ball than they had any right to be. All three substitutes made a positive difference, a credit to Jim Curtin’s game management.

Afterward, every player and the manager talked about the weight of the world leaving their shoulders. As well they should.

It was too heavy a load, and so they finally shrugged it off, and maybe they’ll be better now that they’re free of it.

Still, a long way to go

Of course, the manager also took a moment to trash one of the best journalists on the Union beat, an unfortunate moment that reminded folks of the toxicity that has surrounded the squad this year.

Because we know one win doesn’t change the underlying realities. Based on what we’ve seen this year, the team doesn’t have enough talent, isn’t coached by a staff that can maximize what talent they have, and doesn’t have a front office that can properly identify and acquire talent.

It’s a long way to go from one win to three wins, from three wins to sniffing the playoffs, from sniffing the playoffs to actually having an honest-to-God home playoff game at Talen Energy Stadium.

One win is just one step.

But one win sure as hell feels good.

The evidence? Smiles, finally, in Chester.

14 Comments

  1. MikeRSoccer says:

    I think it is clear to everyone that Jones needs to start at the tip of the midfield triangle and Rosenberry at RB. Yet, Curtin will roll out Gaddis and Alberg if they can at least walk.
    .
    We do not have a true 10 on this roster but Jones brings a different take on the advanced midfield role. Rather than being purely creative, he wreaks havoc in the opponents midfield. He destroys their ability to operate in the center and forces turnovers in the opponents half. Moreover, he can pass the ball and has more offensive instincts than your typical 6 or 8. The havoc he causes and the freedom that he provides to Medjunanin and Bedoya was a joy to watch. I hope Curtin recognizes this but I know that he will not.

    • CPfeif13 says:

      Don’t even need to square-peg-round-hole Jones at the 10, just play him next to Bedoya in front of Medjunanin. I’d call it a 4-3-3 but can also be a 4-1-4-1.
      .
      Not far removed from the 4-2-3-1 and they have done it at least 2-3 times in game after a sub now so it should not be too difficult a transition.

      • Yup, call it whatever you want, just get Jones back out there. I want that last 20 minutes for the whole game. With CJ dropping back to help possession too and Rosenberry starting.

      • Alicat215 says:

        One of the reasons coaches like 4-2-3-1…….is its versatility in transitioning to a 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, or a 4-4-2 rather easily with slight adjustments.

      • Yup and another reason why strict formation talk is kinda silly.

      • Alicat215 says:

        That’s exactly why it was stated, trivial.

      • But Medunjanin does not shield the back line. That does not strike me as the right way to set those guys up.

      • Well it will play more like a 4-3-3 with Bedoya and Jones protecting Medunjanin.

  2. Unionjacq says:

    Rewind back to 2015. The Sons of Ben marched against Sak and the organization demanding better. That night: a convincing win against the LA Galaxy on national TV. Fast forward to Saturday. That week PSP calls out Sugarman. Next game: a Union win. Coincidence?

    Regardless it was nice leaving a Union match happy and the optimist in me hopes the actions of the fans did something to light a fire under this team and organization.

  3. scottymac says:

    Definite cause and effect. 100%. We’re obviously not the fans Curtin referenced as bailing either, those are the ones who don’t comment on Union related sites. We’re all interconnected on the soccerball circle of life.

  4. Hope we can keep on smiling!!!

    • This game has me smiling again. Replay is on right now. Watching it as I wait for Better Call Saul to come on.

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