Riding a four-match unbeaten streak, the Union headed back to Chester hoping to keep grabbing points in their late season push to sneak into the playoffs. Their opponents, the New England Revolution, were also riding a four-match unbeaten streak. The Revs were in prime position to make the postseason at fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Union, however, were in dire need of three points to keep their chances alive.
Jim Curtin, not wanting to tinker with a successful combination, kept the lineup largely the same from last week’s victory over Montreal. The Union lined up in their classic 4-2-3-1 formation, with C.J. Sapong as the lone striker. The one shift was Michael Lahoud being replaced by Vincent Nogueira who, now fully fit after his right quad injury, returned to the starting lineup in a defensive midfield role next to Brian Carroll. Andre Blake started in goal, making just his third appearance in MLS. Captain Maurice Edu missed another match and said he is hoping to make it back before the U.S. Open Cup Final on September 30.
The first half saw the Union and the Revs play some attractive football, with the ball spending a fair amount of time in each half of the field. An end-to-end match is not one that favors the Union, considering their general lack of speed. The attacking midfield trio of Cristian Maidana, Tranquilo Barnetta, and Sébastien Le Toux, while technically sound and capable of putting pressure on opposing defenses, is not a particularly pacey group. Sapong looked like a dynamic player in the early going, winning the ball with his head and drawing a couple of fouls, but his teammates struggled to find him with any bit of space. Sapong also got called for several fouls himself when he engaged in some ill-advised challenges.
The best chance the Union got in the first half came in the 22nd minute off of a set piece, an area where the team has typically struggled this season. Barnetta took a short corner that Maidana quickly passed out to Ray Gaddis, who was wide open a few feet behind the 18. Gaddis threaded a pass through a couple of New England defenders onto the left foot of Chaco Maidana, who unfortunately hit the side netting with his strike.
Just six minutes into the second half, the Union gave up a goal. A quick throw-in from New England led to Diego Fagundez dribbling past several Philly players and finishing to the far post. Following the initial goal, Sapong almost converted on a header off of a corner that just barely floated over the bar. The goal and the lack of immediate response seemed to take the life out of the home side, who looked totally outclassed for the remainder of the match. The attacks from then on mostly fizzled out, with another Sapong header in the 76th minute one of the lone exceptions.
As the match was winding down, the Union were frustrated to be taking no points away from what was essentially a must-win. Maidana let the frustration get the best of him in a foolish on-field action. After shoving Nguyen to the ground, the Union number 10 earned himself a red card by spitting on the fallen opponent. Although the tape seemed to show pretty clearly that there was no mistake made, Chaco himself denied any malicious intent.
“I’m always chewing gum when I play,” Maidana told reporters through a translator. “I didn’t have any intention of spitting on a player. That wasn’t what I was trying to do. It could have happened that my gum fell out of my mouth at that moment, but it wasn’t an intentional thing.”
Maidana will be suspended for at least the next match (next Saturday at San José), a significant blow to the Union’s already low playoff hopes.
On a night when most Union players turned in subpar performances, Andre Blake put on a spectacular show between the uprights, looking like a bona fide starting goalkeeper. He was bold when he needed to be, on a couple of occasions leaving his line to swipe the ball away, thwarting the oncoming attack. The Jamaican goalie’s finest moment came in the 79th minute, when he kept the Union in the game by making a fingertip save of Revolution star Lee Nguyen’s bullet shot. Blake has a strong case for remaining the everyday keeper when Brian Sylvestre makes his return from injury. I hope that moving forward, Blake can provide some stability to a position that has had its fair share of instability for the Union this past season.