Another in a series reviewing the Philadelphia Union’s 2016 season.
The story so far: The Earnie Stewart era was off to a torrid start with the Philadelphia Union sitting in first place at the Copa America Centenario break in June. They were riding high on an 8-game unbeaten streak going into the break.
The Union continued their unbeaten streak in all competitions when the defeated the Harrisburg City Islanders 3-2 at home in their initial US Open Cup match of 2016 on June 15th. The Union bookended the first half with a goal at each end of the half. A goal from Walter Restrepo in the 3rd minute and a goal from Roland Alberg in first half stoppage time gave the U a cushy 2-0 lead into halftime. They got a scare later in the match as Harrisburg scored goals in the 79th minute and in the first minute of stoppage time. That tying goal made it appear that the match would go into extra time but Roland Alberg scored the winning goal on a free kick just outside the penalty area.
The next day, the Philadelphia Union’s season blew up.
The team announced that the club and Vincent Nogueira had mutually agreed to terminate Nogueira’s contract duemutually agreed to terminate Nogueira’s contract due to “personal health issues” and his desire to be back home with his family in France.
The Union’s early season success was a team effort, but it doesn’t happen without a solid number 8, and the Union had that in Nogueira. His ability to posess the ball and his guiding vision on the field was critical. On the occasions he did not play, the team’s play was noticeably diminished. With Maurice Edu’s injury seeming to be indefinite, the team did not have a true box-to-box midfielder to take his place.
On June 18, the Union traveled to Yankee Stadium to take on NYCFC 3-2 in their first MLS match following the Copa America break. Not only was Nogueira now gone, the Union were also missing C.J. Sapong who had sprained his ankle in the Union’s last match before the Copa America break. Fabian Herbers took Sapong’s place at striker, with Warren Creavalle taking Nogueira’s spot at the number 8 position. NYC took a 3-0 lead when Andrea Pirlo scored in the 50th minute. Roland Alberg (who was subbed in for Creavalle at the half) got one back with a goal five minutes later, but that was all the boys in blue could manage for the rest of the game. An own goal by NYC’s Frederic Brillant in the 88th minute made the final score 3-2. The Union’s unbeaten streak was now over.
Despite the loss, the Union were still in 1st place in the East as they hosted the Chicago Fire four days later on June 22 for a midweek match. This time Alberg started in Creavalle’s place at number 8. The game started out badly as David Accam scored a breakaway in the second minute. But the rest of the game was the Roland Alberg show, as he scored a hat trick, one being on a penalty kick. The Union ended up winning 4-3. Union fan were calling Alberg “Goaland” and it appeared that maybe he was the replacement for Nogueira.
Roland Alberg’s second goal of the match
On June 25, the Vancouver Whitecaps came to town. Alberg continued his hot streak by scoring the game’s first goal in the 14th minute. A botched catch of a corner kick by Andre Blake found the head of Andrew Jacobson who scored and tied the game in the 19th minute tied the . A Kenneth Manneh goal gave the Whitecaps took the lead in the 41st minute. The Union pressured Vancouver in the second half, but could not score. The Whitecaps sealed the game in 84th minute on a Christian Bolanos goal. Chris Pontius scored a consolation goal in stoppage time, but the match ended as a 3-2 Union loss.
The Union had yet another midweek match when the New York Red Bulls came to town for a US Open Cup match on June 29. Herbers had suffered a hamstring injury late in the Whitecaps game, so Sebastien LeToux took over at striker. The Union conceded the first goal as NYRB’s Mike Grella scored off a corner kick in the 17th minute. A brace by Pontius in the second half gave the Union a 2-1 win. The ending of the game was notable for the behavior of NYRB’s head coach Jesse Marsch as he spiked two balls in front the Union’s bench as he left the field following an ejection.
The month of June ended with Union still on top the Eastern Conference table, two points above the Red Bulls. It looked as perhaps the Union would survive the departure of Nogueira. But July would not be as kind.
The Union started the month with a trip to Houston to take on the Dynamo. Sapong was back on game day roster, but was not considered fir for 90 minutes so he did not stat. With Herbers still out and LeToux sitting out with a concussion from the previous match, the Union had no true strikers so Jim Curtin tried using Alberg as a false nine. It didn’t work out so well with a 0-0 score going into 2nd half stoppage time. Four minutes into stoppage time, a Creavalle foul just outside the penalty area during a Dynamo attack set up a free kick. Former Union midfielder Chaco Maidana kicked the perfectly, sailing the Union wall and into the net. The Union would go home empty handed. The loss, combined with a NYCFC win over NYRB, saw the Union get knocked out of first place.
The Union shook the loss off as they returned home to host DC United on July 9. Sapong was back in the starting XI. Alberg, now back in the number 8 position, scored the first goal on a penalty kick in the 20th minute. Ilsinho scored his first MLS goal on a penalty kick in the 37th minute. Ilsinho followed that up with his first goal scored in course of play with a beautifully shot ball from the back of penalty area. The Union won the game 2-0.
The Union continued their tradition of hosting a preseason game for a European team on July 13. For the second year in a row, that team was Crystal Palace from the English Premier League. The Union starting XI was mostly composed of players that would see action in an MLS match, with the exceptions being goalkeeper John McCarthy and midfielders Leo Fernandes and Walter Restrepo. The lineup was replaced wholesale (except for Fernandes) for the second half, giving some minutes to some little-used and never-used players. The match was a total snooze-fest, ending in a 0-0 draw. No Union player was injured, so this pointless money-grab of a match could be considered a victory for Union fans.
That meaningless match was folllowed up four days later with one that was packed with meaning as the New York Red Bulls returned to Chester. A brace by NYRB’s Sacha Kljestan would be all the scoring in the first half. The Union countered by scoring two goals in the second half. The first was a penalty kick by Sapong in the 60th minute and a goal by Pontius one minute later. The Union were reduced to 10 men in the 72nd minute when Ilsinho received a red card for hitting Connor Lade with an elbow to the face. The Union managed to hold on to the tie with the game ending 2-2. With the draw, the Union maintained their number 2 position in the Eastern Conference table.
The Union organization endured some off-the-field drama when they announced on July 19 that their Canadian TV analyst, Peter Pappas, had pled guilty to a prescription kickback scheme in connection with his day job as a prescription drug salesman. With Pappas facing jail time and deportation, the Union fired him, leaving the team to scramble for a replacement to work alongside play-by-play man JP Dellacamera before their next MLS match. Fortunately for the Union’s media team, the situation would not impact the Union’s next match the following day. They would end up using Janusz Michallik for a few matches and Matt Kassel for one, before settling on Tommy Smyth for the remainder of the season.
On July 20, the Union took another break from MLS play as they traveled to Boston to play a US Open Cup match against the New England Revolution at Harvard’s Jordan Field. Both teams were playing to win as they both fielded first team lineups. The Revs’ Je-Vaughn Watson scored the initial goal in the 43rd minute. Thanks to Blake, the Union didn’t fall further behind as he come up big with two saves on shots by Kei Kamara. Going into the 90th minute, it looked like the Union’s Open Cup might be over when Herbers scored on a beautiful scissor kick. Neither team could break through in extra time and the match would have to be decided by penalty kicks. The Revs won the shootout 4-2 with LeToux and Sapong both failing on their tries. The Union made the US Open Cup final the previous two years, but they would not be there this year.
The Union were in still in second place in the East when they traveled to Montreal on July 23, but this visit was a disaster. The Union suffered a humiliating loss to the Impact, 5-1. Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti toyed with the Union back line all game with Didier scoring a hat trick, with goals in the 19th, 42nd, and 52nd minutes.
The entire Union team looked terrible, as this was a beatdown in every sense of the word. With NYRB beating NYCFC that week, the Union slipped to third place. The winning form the Union was showing two months earlier was now looking like a mirage.
The Union limped home and hosted Real Salt Lake on July 31. Alberg gave the Union a halftime lead when he converted on a penalty kick on the 44th minutes. RSL would quickly tie it in the start of the second half when Joao Plato scored in the 47th minute. Javier Morales gave RSL the lead with a goal in the 54th miniute. The Union could not find an equalizer and the Union lost 2-1. The Union were now in fourth place and just 4 points above the red line to end the month.
The Union were looking less and less like a playoff team. Sapong’s form in particular went down from scoring at a torrid pace to regularly missing chances. Alberg did not emerge as the Nogueira replacement, as he returned to his role as super-sub. As despair started setting in amongst the Union faithful, an interesting rumor emerged from ESPN. The were in “advanced negotiations” to sign US Men’s National Team midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who had most recently been playing with FC Nantes in France’s Ligue 1. If the Union could pull that off, Bedoya would be more than a replacement for Nogieura, but an upgrade.
But the Chicago Fire stood in the way. They had the number one slot in the allocation order that MLS uses for signing USMNT regulars. The Union had to hope that Chicago would not sign him, and would be willing to deal. For now, Union fans could only hope.
Mike is a South Jersey native and resident who has been a Philadelphia Union fan ever since the team was just a twinkle in the eyes of the Sons Of Ben. He is also a lifelong fan of the Phillies and an Eagles season ticket holder since 1985.