Philadelphia goalkeeper Zac MacMath toiled through another busy day on Saturday as the Union stumbled to a 5-3 defeat against New England on Saturday.
Philadelphia harbored designs of a full-fledged revival heading into the weekend. The cathartic and exacting midweek victory at Sporting Kansas City ended a nine-match winless streak and showed the commitment and resolve required to push onwards from it. The prospect of returning home to a face a surging New England side without a win to its credit at PPL Park offered some hope for continued progress.
Those aspirations dissipated quickly as the Union instead incurred another humbling defeat. New England collected five goals for the second consecutive week with Lee Nguyen delivering the fatal blow with the third goal shortly after halftime. The match ended 5-3 courtesy of a pair of late goals, but the final score line flattered a home side without the coherence to truly cope with the mobile Revolution.
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“I thought we had a lot of good energy,” Philadelphia defender Austin Berry said. “It was nice to finally have the feeling of a victory under our belt. To come out and give up another early goal, it’s disheartening. Credit to the guys, we fought back. It was just a crappy night.”
Pluck isn’t the problem right now. This group claws and scraps willingly for coach John Hackworth, but most of the selected options aren’t placed in spots where they can use that diligence effectively. The demands placed upon them given the absence of key pieces – this is a team still without proven linchpins in central defense or at center forward, after all – are simply too arduous.
Take, for instance, the persistent deployment of converted forward Aaron Wheeler at center back this season. Wheeler appeared sparingly as a bustling target man last season (10 matches, one start, 129 minutes) before switching roles at the start of the campaign. In his new position, he has started eight times due to the close season departure of Jeff Parke and an early season injury to Berry.
Wheeler started alongside Union captain Amobi Okugo – a natural midfielder with ample experience at the back now – in most of those games, but he partnered Berry for this encounter. The date with the Revolution marked the first time Berry and Wheeler played a first-team match together. The league’s current form team – and only the third side to score five times in consecutive matches, per the Elias Sports Bureau – exploited the nascent duo before Wheeler departed early in the second half.
The problem isn’t Wheeler, per se. It isn’t really his fault that he isn’t the finished article given his lack of experience and the absence of an extended loan spell in Harrisburg or elsewhere to help polish his developing skills. His predicament is a symptom of a wider issue of asking players to fill roles outside their comfort level to plug gaps. There are right backs playing in central defense or on the left (Sheanon Williams), midfielders featuring as the top choice at center back (Okugo for much of this season, though he can certainly play there) and earnest and willing complimentary forwards asked to deliver goals instead of work rate (Andrew Wenger, now with seven goals in 59 MLS appearances).
And those are just a few of the examples for a team filled with game players hustled into the lineup for one reason or another or shunted into difficult situations. There isn’t anything wrong with asking one or two players to stretch from time to time as demands require, but the Union requires it week after week from several members of the starting XI.
There are no easy fixes available right now to ease those concerns and ensure better days beckon. Philadelphia CEO Nick Sakiewicz backed Hackworth in a statement issued on Thursday and outlined his desire to pursue a high-profile striker. Until Brian Carroll recovers from a left groin strain, Edu returns from his US national team duties and those promised reinforcements shift players into more comfortable roles, the Union must muddle through and try to make the best of things as they currently stand.
For now, the first step involves pushing aside that Revolution defeat and trying to summon the sort of defiance mustered at Sporting in midweek. It is the only way to move forward as the Union attempts to slide its season back on course.
“We played well against KC,” Okugo said. “We’ll have to look back on that film and see what we did right, whether it’s fighting, putting a good defensive effort, whether it’s communicating or following runners, things we didn’t do today, things we can lack today. Hopefully, we can build on it for next week.”
Five Points – Week 11
1. World Cup snubs issue their responses: Jermain Defoe, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins all hit the score sheet this weekend to dismiss any concerns about a possible hangover and underscore their enduring importance at club level.
Martins’ stunning goal somehow managed to overshadow Defoe’s thunderous drive as the pick among the three. It’s worth the click to watch it over at MLSsoccer.com.
2. EJ relieves the pressure with a prototypical finish: Johnson’s back-post header ended a nine-match drought dating back to last October and lifted D.C. United to a 1-1 draw with Montréal on Saturday night.
“It’s good for him to score a goal,” United coach Ben Olsen told reporters after the match. “He’s in so many good spots and we’ve let him down a lot with lack of quality service. He knows what to do in the six yard box when the ball is delivered properly. We just need to continue to give him that type of service and he’ll start getting on the board more."
3. No US stars (or Álvaro Saborío), no problems for Real Salt Lake: RSL dispatched Colorado 2-1 at Rio Rinto Stadium to extend its season-opening unbeaten run to 11 matches. The Claret-and-Cobalt can tie Kansas City (2000) and LA Galaxy (1996 and 2010) for the MLS record in this department with a draw or a victory against FC Dallas on Saturday.
4. Instant impact in Portland: Fanendo Adi joined the Timbers last week and wasted little time before making his presence felt at Providence Park. Adi nodded down Diego Valeri’s free kick and watched Gastón Fernández thump home at the back post to allow the 10-man Timbers to claim a deserved 3-3 draw against Columbus on Saturday night.
Portland coach Caleb Porter desperately needed a potential target man to help out his side. If Adi can continue to exert this sort of aerial influence, then his signing will prove astute indeed:
5. Welcome to MLS, Erik Palmer-Brown: The promising 17-year-old center back made his full debut in the middle of a three-man back line for absence-ravaged Sporting Kansas City in the 2-1 defeat at Chicago on Sunday. Palmer-Brown – now the youngest defender to start a match in MLS history – conceded a first-half penalty and procured two yellow cards during his 64-minute spell.
“Obviously, this was not the easiest of situations,” Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “Unfortunately, it is what it is, and sometimes you get baptized by getting thrown into the fire. He did a little bit today. I thought in a lot of situations he was actually very good. But it was about him getting his debut. It put a lot of pressure on him today to have to come in and step in, and I thought he did a lot with the opportunity.”