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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Union's season in five forgettable moments

Any conversation about the demise of the Philadelphia Union’s season seems to inevitably arrive at the same impasse, as far as John Hackworth is concerned. Yes, the Union won some games they probably shouldn’t, the coach will relent, but there were certain calls that went against the Union that hampered their chase of a playoff spot.

At the risk of the going down that same road – and trust me, that drum has been thoroughly beaten at PPL Park in recent weeks – the Union’s season does boil down to a few key moments. The team’s fate was ultimately sealed but its alarming propensity to turn wins into draws (or worse). (As a quick editorial note: I think it was a fair fate; teams that have to scuffle for draws against Toronto and D.C. United a total of three times this season don’t deserve postseason soccer. There are certainly an equal number of breaks that shouldn't have gone the Union's way that did. )

Below are five moments, a cumulative matter of inches, that stood between the Philadelphia Union and the playoffs … perhaps, the Supporters’ Shield.

A big (Le) miss

It was a long, long time ago, however similar the weather Saturday may have been to opening day March 2. The opener for the Union against Sporting Kansas City goes down as a 3-1 loss, but what is missed in that score line is the fact that the Union not only scored first, but had a chance to score several more times. The most clear-cut opportunity was this miss by Sebastien Le Toux, 1-v-1 against Jimmy Nielsen, one of several times this season the Frenchman’s finishing has been less than spot-on (plus more later). I won’t pretend that this miss would’ve somehow turned the Union into world-beaters. But up 2-0 inside of a half hour against the eventual runner-up in the East would’ve certainly made a strong case for three points in the opener, and then who knows…

The hand of Gonzalez(es)

Yeah, there’s no way we get out of this without validating at least some of the woe-is-me rhetoric circulating PPL Park. Let’s set aside for a moment that the Union squandered a second-half lead in this one, or that they allowed a significantly weakened Seattle side to squeak away with a point at PPL Park, or the fact that the two Danny Cruz goals scored in as many minutes accounted for 67 percent of his offensive production and a staggering quarter of the goals from midfield all season. Had any of those issues been rectified, that May 4 afternoon or as the season wore on, this analysis might be academic. As it is though, the Union were wrongly denied a penalty in this case, the ball clearly striking the outstretched arm of Seattle defender Leo Gonzalez off a Conor Casey shot. Referee Jorge Gonzalez didn't see it that way, though. Little did they know it would be the start of the fifth penalty-free season in the last 14 MLS seasons.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Compliments for Kassel: Hackworth praises defender's stand-in performacne

Yet again, this appears to be another week of tactical change for the Philadelphia Union. Facing a daunting task in needing to get a result in Montreal, manager John Hackworth is not only facing the prospect of reintroducing two players in Sheanon Williams and Fabinho back from suspension. He’s also having to cope with the loss of Michael Farfan to a yellow-card ban just as his form has improved, and the likely absences of Sebastien Le Toux (foot) and Michael Lahoud (ankle).

If Hackworth is looking for a reason to hope amid the changes, perhaps nothing provides more reassurance than the play of Matt Kassel last week against D.C. United.

Four days later, at his weekly press conference Wednesday, Hackworth was still extolling the virtues of Kassel, inasmuch as they served as an example for others to emulate this week.

“Matt Kassel’s performance in DC is probably going to go under the radar screen a little bit, but he deserves a ton of credit because he was so important to us battling back in that game,” Hackworth said. “He played at right back in the first half. He played kind of a hybrid left back/left midfield position in the second half. He got us to a point in the game where we could put Jack on the field and get a result. Guys like Matt and other guys are really valuable, and it’s just good to see that those guys are taking their opportunities at this time. We might have the same situation this weekend.”

Indeed, Kassel’s performance was important, if understated, in the Union salvaging a draw Saturday. It was in the game’s first minutes that Le Toux tweaked his foot injury, straining to make a clearance from a right-back position he was playing for the first time in his Union career. That’s when Kassel started warming up, and by the 16th minute the pain was too much for Le Toux to continue. Read more »

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Union-D.C. United: Lineups and pre-game thoughts

D.C. United (3-4-3 or 4-5-1)
Bench: Willis, Martin, Seaton, Nyassi, Pajoy, Porter, Shanosky

Philadelphia Union (4-2-3-1)
Gaddis-Parke-Okugo-Le Toux
Bench: Nikolov, Kassel, Gilberto, Fernandes, McInerney, Wheeler, Hoppenot

- Questions abound here that won’t be answered until kickoff. On what side does Sebastien Le Toux, the organization’s all-time leading scorer, play as a fullback? (I’d guess right.) Who occupies the central role in the midfield attacking triumvirate? (I’d go with Kleberson.) And which sides do Danny Cruz and the other midfielder occupy? (Who knows?)

- Here’s one thing you knew for sure: That the Union was likely going to utilize two holding midfielders – as it did against Sporting Kansas City – to aid the rebuilt backline that is missing Fabinho and Sheanon Williams due to suspension. Michael Lahoud would be the logical choice to pair Brian Carroll had he not been missing due to injury, but instead it’s Keon Daniel, who could provide a little more going forward.

- It’s an interesting Union bench. Gilberto makes his first appearance after it was all but said that he wouldn’t have a role this season, while Matt Kassel is the nearest approximation to a defensive sub. The biggest role of the group today could be played by Aaron Wheeler, especially if this game becomes the type of ugly, set-piece game it has the potential to be.

- And there’s a bit of confusion at the D.C. XI. It’s possible the Perry Kitchen slots into the center of defense, making it a 4-5-1. But as written, it appears to be a 3-4-3, which would be, uh, unusual. Either way, look for Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius to be manning the flanks and attacking the fullbacks. Luis Silva should slot into the space behind Conor Doyle.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The new math: What the Union need to make the playoffs

Plans have changed for the Philadelphia Union over the last few weeks. With so many moving parts in the playoff race, it’s no surprise that the projections are a bit of a moving target. Some of the previous estimates, well, they’ve proven not to hold up too well, thanks to a variety of factors.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the equation comes down to six teams vying for three spots in the playoffs (with New York already having clinched a spot and assuming Kansas City is essentially safe). Here’s what it would take for each team to reach postseason paydirt.

(Listed are all the relevant stats, including the top three tiebreakers, in order, of wins, goals scored and goal differential.)

Let’s start with the Union:

Union (12-10-9, 45 points); 38 goals scored, even
Remaining schedule: at D.C. United, at Montreal, vs. Sporting KC
The line for playoff qualification could be drawn by the Union. If they could somehow get two wins, then there’s really no way I see a team with 51 points missing out on the top five. They’ve managed results against each of the three teams they have left, twice beating D.C. (we’ll throw out the lackadaisical performance in the U.S. Open Cup), drawing at home with Montreal and beating SKC at home two weeks ago. If they could even get five points, they might be good, though two draws on the road and needing a win at home in the season finale against KC is quite the predicament. Could three points get them there? Conceivably. But two wins in the next three would all but guarantee it.

Houston (13-10-8, 47 points); 39 goals scored, plus-2
vs. Sporting KC, vs. Red Bulls, at D.C. United
Every MLS team’s worst nightmare is the Dynamo going into the playoffs with a head of steam. The Union, though not in a position to be picky, probably wouldn’t want to see a team that they’ve lost to twice this season and that eliminated them from their only playoff appearance in 2011. The Dynamo are 3-0-1 in their last four, but they don’t have a win against either of their next two opponents this season (0-3-1). Kansas City has a chance to clinch a playoff spot this week with a win, but New York is already in, so we’ll see how hard they push in a trip to BBVA Compass Stadium. Houston could run the table, but realistically two wins and a draw put them out of the reach of the teams behind them.
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John Hackworth may be mad about not being the longest-tenured coach in Philly. Or not

John Hackworth sent a few mixed signals at Wednesday's press conference, and that's not even to mention the intentional misdirection on who will occupy the spots on the Union backline in the absence of Fabinho and Sheanon Williams.

The presser opened with Hackworth being introduced as the longest-tenured pro sports coach in Philadelphia, that mantle having been vacated by the Flyers firing of Peter Laviolette Tuesday.

Hackworth opened by saying that reports positing Chip Kelly, hired in January as the Eagles coach, as the longest tenured pro coach in Philadelphia didn't much matter. He added that it didn't bother him on an individual level, but was more an insult to MLS.

"The first answer is that I think that it doesn’t matter at all," Hackworth said.
"It’s completely irrelevant, especially with how long it’s been. It hasn’t been very long. The second answer is that it does piss me off, to be very clear. But it’s not about me. I think it’s incredible that in this day and age, in the world we live in, with how popular our sport is, that in a city that says that it is such a sports town to say that, eh, it doesn’t count as one of the top professional sports, I think that’s crazy."

The implications for defender Amobi Okugo were clear.

"It’s crazy. Soccer’s still growing," he said. "Maybe if we make the playoffs and the other teams stay on their downward spiral like they have been maybe we’ll get more recognition. I’m not wishing bad on the other teams but if we make the playoffs and do make a little run, it might get us a little more recognition. But in the meantime, we’ve been like the little stepbrother that no one cares about. Philly loves winners. If we win, we’ll start getting some more recognition."

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Union-Toronto FC: Lineups and pregame thoughts

Philadelphia Union (4-1-3-2)
Bench: Nikolov, Kassel, Daniel, Kleberson, Le Toux, Hoppenot, Wheeler

Toronto FC (4-4-1-1)
Bench: Frei, Agbossoumonde, Elmer, Earnshaw, Bekker, Lambe, Wiedeman

- No real surprises for the Union today. Knowing the stakes and their need to take the game to Toronto, you’d expect them to deviate from the two holding midfielders they used successfully last week against Kansas City. Brian Carroll sits back in midfield by himself, but the attacking trio of Kansas City – Fabinho, Michael Farfan and Danny Cruz – is preserved. Jack McInerney comes in for Michael Lahoud to pair Conor Casey up top.
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