Philadelphia soccer fans have been waiting 30 years for the return of first division soccer. Last Thursday, the wait ended with a 0-2 road defeat at the hands of the Seattle Sounders. Since the Union’s next game is not until next Saturday—thanks, MLS schedulers!—there’s plenty of time to dissect Philadelphia’s debut.
What went right?
The game started on time, on schedule. This is not to be underestimated. Until MLS management and players agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement the Saturday before the match, there was a very real possibility the players would have gone out on strike. A work stoppage would have caused the postponement of the game, inconvenienced hundreds of Philly fans traveling to the game, and brought great embarrassment to MLS and American soccer fans.
The Union found an identity. Granted, that identity might be a little thuggish, but the team’s five yellow cards—including one in the first minute—showed that the Union were going to make the Sounders earn their victory. Physical intimidation does not work the same way in soccer as it does in hockey or American football, but future opponents may get tentative knowing that the Union will play rough.
The team played hard. While it should be a given that professional athletes try hard all game every game, we know that’s not always the case. Despite a clear talent disparity and playing with only ten men in the second half, the Union brought it all 90 minutes. Roger Torres stood out in the midfield, and forward Sébastien Le Toux consistently found space to work in, though he was not able to convert any of his chances.
What went wrong?
Cards, cards, cards. Five yellows and a red (for rookie defender Toni Stahl’s second yellow, late in the first half) doomed any chance the Union had to steal this one. Whether Freddie Ljungberg or Fredy Montero hit the deck too easily is beside the point—Union players must learn the tendencies of referees and opposing players and not foul themselves out of the game. The Union drew numerous cards in their pre-season match against FC Dallas and again against the Sounders—and lost both games 0-2.
Danny Mwanga looked uncomfortable in the midfield. If there was a major surprise in manager Peter Nowak’s lineup, it was seeing 2010 number one overall draft pick Mwanga playing at all, let alone as a midfielder. Mwanga struggled with his touches most of the first half and was subbed out at halftime. Whatever Nowak was experimenting with, it didn’t work.
The defense was a step behind. Part of the reason the Union committed so many fouls was that the back line was playing catch-up for much of the game. The Sounders operated mostly at will, unless they were being tackled. For a team that’s supposed to be built on defense, it was a troubling display.
What still don’t we know?
Did the Union perform to the coaching staff’s expectations? The high-level of secrecy surrounding the club makes it hard to determine exactly what Nowak expected to see Thursday night. This is, after all, an organization that refused to name a starting keeper before the match even though everyone in Philly—up to and including the guy who asks me for spare change at Love Park—knew Chris Seitz would get the nod.
Did Nowak know the team would be nervous and outclassed, and just wanted to see effort? Or did the coaching staff think the Union had a decent chance of winning, and were disappointed with the sub-par play?
While we do know that at least one player, David Myrie who was released on Tuesday, didn't live up to the standards Nowak wanted, we won’t know what he really thought until we see who takes the field for the Union in their next game, at home against DC United on April 10th.
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