Loss to Red Bulls has Union scrambling
Chris Pontius knew what was missing during Saturday’s loss to the Red Bulls, but his veteran leadership alone couldn’t lift the Union to a much-needed win.
HARRISON, N.J. >> Three times a playoff qualifier with D.C. United, Chris Pontius wasn’t out of his depth Saturday night.
As the Philadelphia Union’s game against New York Red Bulls stretched beyond the Union’s collective tolerance, Pontius shined. He scored a goal, set up another, came within inches of a second spectacular equalizer. In the process, Pontius tied a single-season career high for goals and surpassed his best combined goalsand-assists total (16).
But Pontius’s poise in the 3-2 Union loss was in all too short supply rosterwide, and it’s reflected in the Union’s gradual slide down the playoff picture.
“I just think in certain moments of the game, especially in the first half when we get the goal, and Red Bull does a good job pressing you and forcing you into bad mistakes, we just needed someone to take a breath and get us out of the jam,” Pontius said. “We didn’t have enough possession in the first half to make them chase a little bit. And when we did go, we went to goal and we tried to throw numbers at them. Turned it into a little bit of a backand-forth.”
Saturday’s collision displayed two teams on relatively even footing in terms of talent. But the decider, as the intensity ratcheted up, was the reams of experience the Red Bulls have accrued in qualifying for the postseason for seven straight seasons (of, if you’d prefer, the duration of the Union’s existence).
On the other side, the Union, for all its front office’s attempts at acquiring proven winners, have just five players with MLS Cup playoff appearance, one (Charlie Davies) who can’t seem to extricate himself from the bench.
When push comes to shove late in games like Saturday’s, that knowhow can push a team over the edge … usually past the Union.
To put numbers to it, consider that the Union are 6-8 this season in games decided by one goal. In the last eight such games, though, the Union are a scant 2-6.
That paints the picture of a team failing to raise its level in crucial, gamedefining moments that spell the difference between a loss and a draw, or a win and a loss. It shines through in persistent traits like failure to defend set pieces (like the ones on which Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan converted Saturday to pace the Red Bulls) or ruthlessly finish chances during periods of ascendency (see the 1-1 draws with Toronto and Montreal).
The result is a five-game winless streak (0-3-2), a stretch of just three wins in 13 games spanning three months and a sub-.500 record at 11-12-9 for the first time since the opening weekend of the season. That’s how the Union have plummeted from the conversation of playoff byes for the top two finishers to sitting sixth and needing at least a win and a draw (against these Red Bulls and eliminated Orlando City) to scrape out the sixth and final playoff spot.
Taken in isolation, the record is hauntingly reminiscent of doomed seasons past. For the last two years, the Union would have no problem playing with teams, remaining within a goal and doing enough for a coach like Jim Curtin to trot out the tired postgame trope of deserving more from the game than his team actually took from it.
In specifics, the same trends are repeating. The Union lack the ability to take the sting out of opposing attacks, unable to keep possession (conceding 61.6 percent to the Red Bulls) or finish chances or just generally calm the game down to a more palatable pace. It’s also indicated by a defense that has allowed the fifth-most goals in MLS at 51, nearly nullifying the league’s fourthmost prolific attack at 52.
The excuses from the beginning of the season are wearing ever thinner. A defense composed mostly of rookies has gained too much experience to continue to blame youth. A forward with two goals in three months (CJ Sapong) continuing to play with adequate options on the bench isn’t a satisfactory explanation either. Delays in getting new players like Alejandro Bedoya, who left Saturday’s game with a rib injury but was called up by the U.S. National Team for a pair of friendlies Sunday anyway, acclimated are circumstances that just have to be dealt with.
“There’s always learning,” Pontius said. “That’s the beautiful thing of a season. You’re going to have your ups and downs. There’s going to be games where everything’s clicking. There’s going to be games where it seems you can’t connect a five-yard pass. But I think there’s obviously a lot we can learn tonight.”
Beneficial as the tutorials are, the time is quickly dwindling to put those lessons into action.
The Union’s Chris Pontius, reacting during a draw with Los Angeles back in May, is one of a small proportion of players who has raised his level in recent weeks. The lack of players following Pontius’s lead informs the Union’s fivegame winless skid.