Bloodied but unbowed Union beat New York City, retake first place

Chris Pontius, blood streaming down his face and all, was not going to be denied.

Scant moments after NYCFC forward David Villa struck the crossbar from 12 yards out and just minutes after Chris took an elbow to the face from Khiry Shelton (which opened up a cut so bad he was forced from the game twice and likely needed stitches after the match), Pontius gave the Union the lead. Wearing an oversize bandage to keep the gash from openly bleeding more, Pontius made a hard run into the box and was the recipient of a Tranquillo Barnetta pass, putting the ball past New York keeper Josh Saunders. The whole goal was very Philadelphian, mixing hard work and determination with a bit of skill; Barnetta was shoved at midfield but kept possession instead of going down, setting up a cross and then running into the box with Pontius to pick up the loose ball, casually touching the ball over a fallen body, and then sliding it over to combine for the opening goal in the 26th minute:

The Union pressed high with mixed results. NYC would keep possession on their side but didn’t really trouble Andre Blake, forcing just one save from the Jamaican keeper despite taking 13 shots to the Union’s 11, with eight shots off target and four shots blocked by the Union. Blake was good, claiming corners and coming off of his line to beat people to balls in the box, but he didn’t have to make any extraordinary saves like usual. When the Union shot, they were much more dangerous: five out of their 11 shots found their way on target, with three saves from Saunders. One of those shots, a redirection by CJ Sapong, started from a long free kick by Union defender Richie Marquez:

Watch how Sapong drags not one or two but three NYC defenders deeper into the box with his movement as he positions himself for the ball. He nods down the long free kick to Sebastien Le Toux in a repeat of his setup on Le Toux’s goal last week, and Seba hits this one on frame too but Sapong gets a foot to it here, redirecting it past the helpless Saunders in the 41st minute. It’s superb holdup play like this that is starting rumblings of CJ to the USMNT.

Despite owning a 60-40 possession advantage, NYCFC went into the half down 2-0.

Fabinho was subbed out for Ray Gaddis at the half, giving Gaddis his first appearance this year for the Union. Fabi picked up yet another yellow card, which means he’ll be suspended for the San Jose match in Philly due to yellow card accumulation. Gaddis’s speed and defensive know-how came in handy as NYC pushed the issue, subbing on Thomas McNamara in the 59th minute for Poku. Union manager Jim Curtin swapped like for like in the 65th minute as Ilsinho came on for Barnetta, who authored a sterling performance on this day. First-year NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira put RJ Allen on in the 70th for Ronald Matarrita, and Mix Diskerud in the 78th for Mikey Lopez, but nothing worked as the men from New York squandered a 65 percent possession advantage for the match. The Union’s final substitution occurred in the 81st with Warren Creavalle coming on for goal scorer Chris Pontius as the Union saw the game out.

The half began 2-0 to the Union and that’s how it would end as the Union took all three points in this early Eastern Conference showdown, reclaiming first place for themselves thanks to goal differential and a Montreal loss to Toronto FC on this day.

Observations and Notes:

-First XI: Blake; Fabinho, Marquez, Yaro, Rosenberry; Carroll, Nogueira; Pontius, Barnetta, Le Toux; Sapong. There was no party for NYCFC as Andrea Pirlo was not in the squad on this day due to a manager’s decision.

-This win gives the Union its first three-game home winning streak in any season, and its first five-game home winning streak dating back to last season.

Brian Carroll reached 350 appearances, a mark very few outfield players reach. Kudos to him on his longevity and fine form.

-NYCFC had the ball a ton today but aside from the Villa crossbar strike and a handful of other opportunities, I didn’t feel as though they were threatening. The Union in the second half at times seemed content to sit back and absorb some pressure as well, which is understandable with a 2-0 lead, and probably inflated NYC’s already-large possession numbers some.

-The Union organization bet a lot on Sapong with that contract extension and he’s repaid them rather handsomely with four goals and an assist in the first seven games. He’s also among the league leaders in fouls suffered, which sets up his team with free kicks in advanced positions. Curtin has said he’s hesitant to remove Sapong from games not only for the offensive help but due to all the defensive help and pressure he exerts on the other side.

-Speaking of fouls suffered, Sapong was being fouled and held and pulled the same as he was in Seattle, only today it was being called. He doesn’t go down easily, so when he goes to ground, something real has happened, and the officials were on top of it today.

-I was glad to see Blake have a relatively easy day. He’s a great goalkeeper but I don’t think anyone expects him to keep up the pace he’s had to set.

-More and more national writers are taking notice of the Union now as a real threat in the East, much like Colorado has risen from the ashes in the West. The U play an attractive style of soccer, attacking, pressuring, scoring goals, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

-Here’s why you shouldn’t discount the fast start: teams who get to 14 wins usually make the MLS playoffs. The Union have to win 10 out of their 27 remaining games to get to 14 wins. Even if they stumble a bit, they can still recover and get there easily. The early months count just as much as the months late in the season.

-We’ll have to see if the Flyers can keep the town’s momentum going tomorrow. Union fans certainly hope they do:

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