Loss to Red Bulls has Union scram­bling

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Matthew DeGe­orge mde­ge­orge@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @sports­doc­tormd on Twit­ter

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS — MATT SLOCUM

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.

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