Another in a series reviewing the Philadelphia Union’s 2016 season.
The story so far: The Earnie Stewart era has begun with the Philadelphia Union showing promise as they took 9 points in their first six matches, putting them in third place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Going into week 8 of the MLS season, things were looking positive for the Philadelphia Union. They were in third place in the East. Orlando City also had 9 points, but had second place with a better goal differential. First-place Montreal only had a 3-point lead with 12 points. First place was within reach.
On April 23, the Union hosted New York City FC at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester. The Union didn’t have their best showing, but Chris Pontius and C.J. Sapong continued their strong start to the season, with each getting a goal. Combined with a clean sheet from Andre Blake, the boys in blue had a 2-0 win under their belt. With Montreal losing to Toronto FC, and Orlando City losing to the New York Red Bulls, the Union found themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference. They were tied with Montreal in points with 12 and wins with 4 each, but the Union’s better goal differential gave them the right to claim first place.
The San Jose Earthquakes came into town the following week. Pontius got on the score sheet once again when he headed in a corner kick taken by Tranquillo Barnetta in the 30th minute. The Union found themselves with a man advantage as San Jose’s Abibal Godoy was booked with his second yellow card of the match in the 59th minute. Despite the advantage, the U could not hold on to the lead as Simon Dawkins tied the match in the 83rd minute, and the match ended as a 1-1 draw.
The Union concluded their three-game homestand a few days later with a midweek match against the LA Galaxy. Vincent Nogueira gave the Union an early lead when he tapped home his own rebound in the 4th minute. But goals from Robbie Rogers in the 15th minute and Mike Magee in the 47th minute put LA in the lead. The U came back and tied it in the 63rd minute when LA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy let the ball out of his grasp after a goal line save, and Keegen Rosenberry’s shot from a yard out went in for his first MLS goal. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. Over two months into the season, the Union had yet to lose at home.
Keegen Rosenberry scores his first MLS goal.
Results on the road were a different story up until then. They had lost three of their first four road matches. If they really wanted to make a run for the playoffs, they would need to turn that around. They went to Montreal for a clash between the top two teams in the conference on what was a rainy night. Didier Drogba showed why he is considered one the best players on the planet when he blasted the ball into the top left corner of the goal in the 3rd minute. The Union tied it in the 24th minute on a nice team goal finished by Sapong. Blake came up big against Drogba a couple of times to keep the match tied, which ended with a 1-1 score. The Union had their second result on the road.
Nice team goal finished by CJ Sapong
The Union returned home for a Friday night match against DC United on May 20. Neither team was able to score in the first 90 minutes, but thanks Richie Marquez’s first MLS goal in stoppage time, the Union took the 3 points and sent a stunned DC United home empty-handed. Blake was stellar once again in front of the net.
A few days later, the Union travelled to Florida for a midweek match against Orlando City SC. Barnetta started the scoring in the 51st minute. The Lions evened it up in the 68th minute when Kevin Molino scored. Cyle Larin put the Lions in the lead in the 71st with a controversial goal. A Kaka cross bounced off Larin’s chest toward Blake. The ball bounced off Blake’s hands and Joshua Yaro cleared the rebound. Looking at the replays, it didn’t appear that the ball crossed the line, but it was called a goal by the referee. But then it was Ken Tribbett’s turn to notch his first MLS goal in the 75th minute and give the Union a valuable road point.
Cyle Larin’s goal did not appear to cross the line.
On May 28, the Union traveled west to visit the Colorado Rapids. The match was scoreless through the first 86 minutes before the Rapids’ Sam Cronin scored to give Colorado the lead late in the match. But the Union once again came up with some stoppage-time heroics as Brian Carroll scored in the 92nd minute to give the U another road point.
The Union came home and hosted Columbus Crew SC for their final match before the Copa America Centenario 2-week break. Blake was called away for service with the Jamaican national team, and Matt Jones got his first MLS start as his replacement. Ola Kamara gave the Crew an initial lead in the 14th minute. Pontius scored an equalizer in the 22nd minute, and Nogueira put the U into the lead with a goal in the 57th minute. Fabian Herbers sealed the win his first MLS goal in the 84th minute. The Crew managed to get a stoppage-time goal from Cristian Hernandez, but it was too little, too late as the Union won the match with a 3-2 score.
Jim Curtin’s squad went into the Copa America break riding high on an eight-game unbeaten streak. They were in first place in the Eastern Conference standings with 23 points; 4 points ahead of the New York Red Bulls and the Montreal Impact.
The team had every reason to be optimistic. Blake was establishing himself as one of the premier goalkeepers in MLS. Rosenberry, Yaro, Tribbett, and Marquez were all impressive on the back line (with old man Fabinho sometimes playing well too). Sapong was off to blistering start. The Union’s risky signing of Chris Pontius was paying off big time. Sebastien LeToux was creating chances. Barnetta was earning his big salary at the number 10 position. At defensive midfield, Brian Carroll was as steady as ever.
Anchoring it all was the calming presence of Nogueira, with his decisionmaking and sharp passing. Warren Creavalle played adequately on the occasions when Nogs had to be held out due to injury, but the team was noticeably better with him the lineup.
The Union fans had started to think the unthinkable–that this could be a team that could make a deep run into the playoffs and perhaps even make it to the MLS Cup final.
That was all going to change with a bang when the Copa America break ended.
Next: The Nogueria Bomb.