This has been a trying MLS season for Philadelphia Union fans. The team has periodically teased us with stretches of pretty play, but it has failed to consistently earn points. As a result, we are faced with the prospect of yet another season with no playoff run to cap it off. While a few weeks ago the playoffs seemed well within reach, they now appear quite distant after collecting only one point from the last four matches.
This one point was obtained in this past weekend’s away draw against Orlando City, in which the Union (once again) created some solid chances, especially at the tail end of the match, but were ultimately unable to make their mark on the scoreboard. Part of the problem for Philly’s sputtering offense was an utter lack of possession for most of the match. In the first half, it appeared the Union were content to sit back and watch their opponents pass the ball around and develop a rhythm. When they occasionally were able to get the ball, the fullbacks (Fabinho and Ray Gaddis) did not make strong supporting runs, so the attacks fizzled out for the most part. One exception to this was in the 21st minute when Tranquilo Barnetta, who was playing as a number 10, threaded a lovely through ball to Sébastien Le Toux, who hit the far post on his attempt at goal.
Another issue that did not allow the Philadelphia offense to flourish was the physicality of the match. The referee was very reluctant to call fouls, particularly in the first half, even though there was ample contact on several occasions. Le Toux and Cristian Maidana in particular struggled to deal with this chippiness. One would imagine this to be a situation in which C.J. Sapong would thrive as a target man, and he did give the Orlando defense fits. Unfortunately Sapong did not end up with a goal to reward him for his brilliant runs.
While a draw may not seem like such a bad result on the surface, this was a very winnable match, and at this point in the season it is not enough to simply pick up the odd point here and there. Philly is essentially at the bottom of the entire league, and there are only ten MLS matches left. There is no sugarcoating it: the Union need to start winning.
The prospect of mounting a playoff run has been made even more difficult by the loss of Vincent Nogueira to a quadriceps strain. Nogueira is expected to be out a few more weeks, and he has been so critical to the Union when healthy. The short Frenchman acted as a metronome in midfield, and his steadiness meshed well with the creative play of Cristian Maidana. Now, at a key point in the season, head coach Jim Curtin and his club are forced to pivot to other options in the midfield. Against Orlando City, new signing Tranquilo Barnetta played in Maidana’s typical role, while Maidana and Le Toux played out wide. Barnetta adds experience, flexibility, and a bundle of talent to the squad, but he was not particularly impressive in his first start for Philly. The U’s offense looked much more dangerous once Maidana shifted back inside to his natural spot. Beginning with this Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal, I anticipate some more tweaks of the midfield situation from Curtin until the team really starts to click – something that needs to happen sooner rather than later.