The Philadelphia Union’s victory on Wednesday night continued the complete, proverbial 180 from the team that started the season with only 2 points out of a possible 18 after their first six games. “It’s early in the year, and those standings will change quite a bit,” Union winger Chris Pontius said in his post-game press conference. He also said they’d “…rather be a team that has a rough start and gets hot at the end of the year,” a clear reference to the Union’s early success and late-season failures in the 2016 season.
In a night where the defense put together their fourth straight shutout, it was the midfield and wing play that received the accolades for their performance. Despite having a relative quiet performance during the Union’s 4-0 victory against United, Ilsinho found his stride in his new #10 role as the attacking center midfielder for the club. “He’s a talented player. I think we’ve all seen his ability to go 1 v 1 on defenders,” coach Jim Curtin said of Ilsinho after the match. He also talked about moving his player from a wider role to the center, and the improvement and adaptation shown with each passing game. “A few of the things we were trying to get him to do as a winger, to run in behind and really stretch the defense, he’s doing a good job of at the #10 spot.”
Despite a dominating first half, the Union seemed to take their foot off the pedal a bit in the second. “I thought we lost our way a little in the second half. We were a little loose with some possession,” Curtin pointed out. The Union’s only real scoring chance in the second came in the 54th minute when Ilsinho placed a perfectly paced ball between Houston defenders DeLaGarza and Machado to a streaking Fafa Picault. Despite the play not resulting in a goal, it shows that with consistency, Ilsinho is more than capable of filling that “maestro” void left in the CAM role, and his choices throughout the night showed both confidence and versatility.
The Union will face a struggling Colorado team on Saturday, who find themselves last in the MLS with only 8 goals scored in 10 games this season. With that said, the Rapids showed they are still capable of a quality win as they pinned a 3-0 victorious result against a decent San Jose club just two games ago. The tough Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule for the Union doesn’t worry coach Curtin. When talking about the short turn around for Wednesday’s game, he said “everybody likes to say it’s an amazing feat for professional athletes to play Saturday-Wednesday, but trust me when I say the sports department does a great job with the Philadelphia Union. Our guys are more than ready to go.” This logic surely applies in his eyes to another short rest before hosting the Rapids on Saturday night.
Player of the match: Chris Pontius PHI – Pontius simply looks at home isolated on the right side. Both Sapong and Ilsinho have managed to draw in defenders, giving Pontius space on the wing, and providing ample opportunities for unchallenged cross attempts. If Pontius’ first cross was a foot lower, he easily would have had three assists on the night as he just missed an open Picault in the 3rd minute. His role changing from 2016 goal scorer, to 2017 goal provider, has been a smooth transition and is allowing a player like Fafa Picault to use his dangerous speed and knack for tracking down the ball in the box to his benefit.
Unsung hero: C.J. Sapong PHI – I’ve always been a big fan of C.J. playing with his back to the goal. A striker of his size immediately warrants the attention of both center backs, leading to opportunities to lay the ball off to open teammates. A perfect example of this was the first goal where C.J. won a header from inside the 18, nodding it back out to an open Ilsinho. Ilsinho seamlessly threaded the ball out wide to an open Pontius who found the head of Picault for a goal on an unmolested cross. Sapong’s size was also important in winning the ball that lead to the second goal. A tough tackle by the striker sent the Union breaking toward the Dynamo goal, and Sapong laid the ball off to a yet again open Pontius, who played the ball wonderfully into the box to Ilsinho, who slotted the ball past a helpless Joe Willis for the second goal. He doesn’t get his name on the goal scoring sheet, but Sapong was the catalyst for both goals.
Expected more, got less: Erick “Cubo” Torres HOU – Cubo is easily one of the best strikers in the MLS, and leads the usual three headed monster up-top the Dynamo 4-3-3 formation. Before the game I was worried that Union center back Oguchi Onyewu, and companion rookie Jack Elliot, would struggle with the pace that Houston could bring. But to their credit, they shut down the Mexican star, who before the match was averaging a goal per each start. Cubo was practically shut out from all facets of offensive play, and only managed a desperate 90th minute rocket that was fired about 5 feet over the bar. It was hard to tell if Cubo was just really off, or the Union defense figured a way to collectively shut him down, but either way Philadelphia managed to keep one of the best strikers in the game off the scoresheet.