Union

MLS Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Montréal Impact

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  • Montréal’s regained first place in the Eastern Conference
  • Philadelphia coming off a 5-1 loss; Impact coming off 5-0 win
  • Amobi Okugo suspended; Sheanon Williams to play in the middle

Sporting Kansas City. New York Red Bulls. Philadelphia Union. They’ve all had their chance to take control of the East, and to this point, they’ve all fail. After Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Houston, Montréal’s regained the conference’s top spot.

Throughout the summer, as the Impact struggled to keep up their torrid spring pace, the East was there for the taking, yet over the last two weeks — with the conference’s other contenders failing to impress — Marco Schällibaum’s team has regained control. Back-to-back league not only have Montréal two points clear in the East but back on pace for the Supporters’ Shield, the team holding the highest points-per-game mark in MLS.

It’s no coincidence this minor surge has coincided with Argentine midfielder Hernán Bernardello settling into Montréal’s starting XI. As Schällibaum tried a two-striker system through much of the summer, it was unclear why his team had moved away from their effective three-man midfield. Davy Arnaud’s fitness was an excuse, but even after the captain came back, the Impact seemed intent on getting Daniele Paponi to work up top with Marco Di Vaio. In the meantime, the rest of the East caught up and passed Montréal.

Bernardello’s acquisition has moved Montréal back to three in the middle, and although the Impact lost their first match with their new Designated Player in the starting XI (2-1 at Chicago on Aug. 10), they’ve won their last two, with last weekend’s thrashing of the Dynamo portending a possible return to form. Replicating their spring formula, Montréal has lost the possession battle in each of their last two games, relying on a strong defensive shape and opportunistic attacking to reclaim their spot atop the East.

This Jekyll and Hyde, good versus bad Montréal makes the teams’ early meeting that much more instructive. In late May, the Impact scored five times at Stade Saputo, never trailing during their 5-3 win over the Union. That game, however, saw Montréal use their less-effective two-front, starting Andrew Wenger up top with Di Vaio. The Impact handled the Union while using their less effective setup, one they’re unlikely to employ Saturday at PPL Park.

It won’t help the Union that they’re set to be without starting central defender Amobi Okugo, suspended for Saturday’s match. An injured Ray Gaddis may also miss the game, while John Hackworth’s midfield could be without Keon Daniel. Coming off a 5-1 thrashing last week in New England, the Union are destined to have momentum, fitness, and suspensions working against them against Montréal.

With Conor Casey up top and the sometime susceptibility of the Impact’s central defense, Philadelphia have a route to victory. But they are underdogs. Given the state of the conference, the Union should be happy to get a stalemate in lieu of the three points they need to bridge the gap between themselves and Montréal.

What they are saying

Montréal forward Marco Di Vaio: “The next two games won’t be easy, but we have to do more if we want to make the playoffs. We have to pick up points away like we did early this season. It’s very important: it might be the difference between fifth place leading to the wild card game and the top of the table sending us directly into the playoffs.” [source]

Philadelphia head coach John Hackworth, on last week’s result: “It’s tough to move on from that, but we do our video and then our process is that we do move on. So I think from a coaching standpoint and from our staff and from our players, what we’ve all said is that we have to move on, we have to move on.” [source]

Philadelphia right back Sheanon Williams, on playing center back: “I’m comfortable doing it. I’ve done it before and it’s not something that doesn’t come natural. Regardless of where you are on the back four, you should be ready to play all of the positions.”

Prediction

Based on the teams’ first meeting, form, the injury and suspension status of both teams, everything points in Montréal’s favor. Hackworth may have to significantly change things up to protect an already suspect defense from the East’s most prolific attack, potentially slowing the game down to make set pieces decisive. But the pick: Montréal, 3-2.

 

Video: Lloyd Sam’s two-footed challenge leaves New York shorthanded in Philadelphia

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There was some debate about this one online, but any discussion of this Lloyd Sam red card has to begin with some context. There’s a class of foul that transcends the normal timing of a tackle and becomes pure dangerous play. Present sufficient danger to anybody on the field, and you’re going to get dismissed. And when a player leaves his feet and goes into a tackle studs first, that usually becomes sufficiently dangerous.

In that light it’s worth asking: If this isn’t a studs up, two-footed tackle, what is? A play that makes greater contact? That doesn’t change the reality of the offense, only the damage. When a player launches himself into a tackle feet first, they’ve already committed the foul.

You don’t want to read too much into a player’s reaction, but when you see Sam’s body language, it sure seems he knows what he’s done. The Red Bulls’ attacker keeps his head down as Baldomero Toledo brandishes the card, his eyes never leaving the ground as he leaves the field.

When Sam was dismissed, Philadelphia was already up 1-0, Conor Casey having put the Union up in the seventh minute. Second half goals by Casey and Antoine Hoppenot sealed the victory for John Hackworth’s side, who suddenly find themselves in second place in a tight Eastern Conference.

New York, meanwhile, are even on points with Philadelphia but slide to third thanks to tiebreakers. If Sam hadn’t excused himself, however, the Red Bulls may still be holding on to their second place perch.

Highlights and context: First half explosion fuels Philadelphia win

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You never want to fall behind, let alone the way Columbus did in Philadelphia (a deflection of a long shot wrong-footing Andy Gruenebaum early), but the Crew did themselves no favors over an early, seven minute span that defined Wednesday’ match at PPL Park. Poor defending on crosses by Sebastien Le Toux helped put three goals between teams that could end up battling for fifth in the East, the Union using their 3-0 lead to cruise past Columbus and pull even with Houston and Kansas City.

All three teams have 22 points, though the Dynamo have played the fewert number of games. Potentially more important for Philadelphia, they’re now three points clear of sixth place, a spot occupied by the improving New England Revolution.

Columbus, conversely, miss their chance to jump into fifth, a place they would hold had they won in Philadelphia. Instead, Robert Warzycha’s team sits seventh, two points behind the Revolution.

The slide started in the 25th minute when a speculative shot from Brian Carroll deflected off Eric Gehrig and into the right of goal, Andy Gruenebaum moving the opposite direction before the deflection. Four minutes later, Sheanon Williams slipped his man at the far post on a corner kick, his athletic finish of an open volley doubling Philadelphia’s lead. Two minutes later, Conor Casey beat his man near post on a Le Toux cross, heading home the game’s final goal in the 31st minute.

Perhaps as remarkable as Philadelphia’s first half explosion, Jack McInerney was not involved. The Union striker came into the night with a league-leading 10 goals yet wasn’t apart of his team’s onslaught. Now with 22 goals through 15 games, the Union finally have more non-McInerney goals than Jack Mac specials.

Time running out for Freddy Adu in Philadelphia

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Sometimes the writing on the wall is nothing more than an eight-year-old’s drawings on a dusty car window. Other times, it carries the weight of Mayan prophecy. With Jonathan Tannenwald’s report this morning, we see it’s year 2012 on Philadelphia’s Freddy Adu calendar. The talented attacker may be with the Union beyond this season, but if John Hackworth’s plans play out, it won’t be in a major role:

The Union’s biggest name and most expensive player was not on the gameday roster for Saturday’s season-ending matchup with the New York Red Bulls at PPL Park. But the matter extends deeper than that. According to multiple sources, the Union’s coaching staff intends for Adu to remain off the field for as long as he is on the team’s roster.

None of this should be surprising. Though Adu has received more playing time of late, it was telling how Hackworth used him during the first months of his tenure. After Peter Nowak was fired, Adu slowly starting losing his place in the starting XI. Before long, he was super sub. Then he wasn’t so super. When Hackworth needed to win games, he choosing Freddy Adu. Along the way, it became clear Michael Farfan would be the man at the center of Philly’s attack, not Adu.

It was only after Philadelphia’s 2012 fate was decided that Adu started to creep back into the picture. Was that giving Adu another chance? (Kind of.) Had he earned his place back in the team? (Not really.) Or was Hackworth trying to make a decision regarding the talented 23-year-old’s future? (Probably.) When he was taken off early last Saturday in Houston, Hackworth seems to tip his hand.

That would have been too much to read from one match’s substitution, but as with anything Adu, we’re always left reaching. Each flash of brilliance recalls his once unfairly apportioned promise. Every benching provokes a reflex to rescind. The hype has faded but our embarrassment never will. Everybody will always want more from Freddy Adu.

Where will that more come, if it’s not Philadelphia? Look over Major League Soccer and you see a number of teams that can still use him. Though you’ll hear people caution against being burned by Adu, we’ve reached a point where there’s very little risk to taking him on. Bring Adu in, and he might approach his promise. If he doesn’t, he no longer represents an opportunity loss. You can move on without questions, just as Philadelphia will try to do this winter.

Nine years into his professional career, Adu has become an opportunity to swing for the fences without risking a strike, provided you have room to take him on. As Eddie Johnson’s story shows, talent can be cultivated, and we often give up on it too soon. Adu just needs to find the man who can bring the best out of him.

Who is Adu’s Sigi Schmid? It wasn’t Peter Nowak. It wasn’t John Hackworth.