CHESTER, Pa. — As soon as the final whistle blew on Friday night to signal the end of the Philadelphia Union's latest failed attempt at winning a match, the boos immediately began raining down at Talen Energy Stadium. You couldn't really blame Union supporters. Not after a loss that stretched their team's winless rut to 14 total matches spread over two seasons and eight months.
David Villa's floating shot from more than 50 yards away provided a fitting end to New York City FC's 2-0 road victory over the Union on a night when NYCFC was clearly the better team, created the better chances, and outplayed a Union side that once again lacked attacking punch.
This has become the trend for a Union side that has struggled for answers in the final third, an issue that returned on Friday night even after coach Jim Curtin shook up his lineup. Curtin turned to Roland Alberg in the playmaking role he was expected to fill when the season began. Concerns about Alberg's fitness kept him from starting prior to Friday, but Curtin gave him a start to see if he could spark a Union attack that had managed just five goals in its first five matches.
Alberg failed to provide a spark, and offered little to the attack before being replaced by rookie Adam Najem in the 72hd minute. Instead of showing Curtin why he deserved to be in the lineup, Alberg did more to show Union fans why Curtin had kept him out of the starting lineup to start the season.
However, Alberg was by no means the one to blame for Philadelphia's lackluster display. It was a group effort, or rather a group lack of quality, particularly in the attacking half of the field, where wingers Chris Pontius and Ilsinho put a lot of defensive work into pressuring NYCFC's offense, but couldn't muster much in the attack.
NYCFC stuck with most of the same starters it has had all season, save for a shift at right back, where Ethan White returned to the lineup in place of Felix Brillant, whose defensive blunder led to D.C. United's winning goal last week. The NYCFC front six controlled play for stretches, and created good chances, only to be thwarted by bad finishing or Andre Blake's acrobatics.
Blake was the lone bright spot on the night for the Union. The Jamaican shot stopper kept the Union in the match with a series of top-shelf saves. Blake delivered the save of the night in the 22nd minute when he denied a Jack McInerney blast from 20 yards that kept the visitors off the scoreboard and helped keep the pro-Union crowd from turning on its struggling team. Blake delivered once again just eight minutes later, stretching to deny a Maxi Moralez blast immediately after Richie Marquez stopped a Villa shot with a sliding chest block that replays showed to be a handball — something that didn't go unnoticed by NYCFC, which protested vehemently at the no-call.
The Union had their share of luck in the first. Not only in the form of the missed penalty call on Marquez's handball, but also on a sliding tackle from behind by rookie Jack Elliott on Villa that drew a yellow card, but could easily have been a red.
The home side couldn't turn that good luck into an advantage though and watched as NYCFC took control of the match through healthy stretches of possession and sharper passing than the Union could string together.
Jack Harrison's 52nd minute goal gave NYCFC the lead, and control of the match. Curtin tried to counter with attacking substitutions such as Najem, Jay Simpson and Fabian Herbers, but none led to any serious testing of the NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Curtin's team didn't lack for hustle, but what the Union lacked in abundance was creativity. Only Haris Medunjanin really offered anything in the way of consistently effective passes. Medunjanin showed why he is among the league leaders in chances created, with his ability to break defensive lines with his pinpoint long passes from deep in midfield, but those passes were too often wasted by bad touches, poor runs and weak follow-up passes.
NYCFC grew sharper as the game went on, no doubt settling into a comfort zone when it became clear the Union weren't going to pose much of a threat in the second half. The visitors appeared content to return to New York with a 1-0 victory before Villa's prayer of a shot from near the center circle, which Blake couldn't race back in time to keep out. The goal summed up the Union night so perfectly. Blake had been their lone bright spot, but even he was left to hang his head in shame as the final whistle blew and disgusted Union fans voiced their outrage.
The Union return to Talen Energy Stadium next week to take on equally-struggling Montreal, in a match Philadelphia must win if this season is going to be turned around before it falls into nightmare territory. Union fans probably think 2017 has already reached that low.