Photo: Paul Rudderow
How thin the line between success and failure.
Less than a week after the Union earned three points with ten men, the Philadelphia Union could not overcome changes in their back line and a narrow Jeld-Wen field.
A 72nd minute set piece goal from Mamadou Danso handed the Union their second straight 1-0 west coast defeat. Aside from the continued offensive dearth, this match showed just how much Philadelphia’s success relies on their magnificent defense.
A late groin pull for Stefani Miglioranzi forced Sheanon Williams to shift into a central role and the Farfan brothers took wing back positions. On a narrow Jeld-Wen pitch, the Union’s nominal winger, Justin Mapp, played mostly on the right, cutting into the center when he could.
Rare has been the Union match in which possession appeared a priority and this was no different. Le Toux and Mwanga found space high and wide in the early going but found their options limited to playing backwards or going it alone. Carlos Ruiz maintained his role as a classic number nine and limited his involvement to plays in the box.
The back and forth nature of the game meant that most of the sustained action came from the wingers. Akron product Darlington Nagbe and Gabe Farfan played cat and mouse throughout the first forty-five, with both players making more errors than contributions.
Gabe’s forays into the Portland half earned the Union a free kick when Perlaza’s high boot struck face. The resulting free kick was lofted to the back post by Le Toux and, in a scene all too familiar this season, bounced harmlessly inside the opposition box.
Moments later Portland showed the visitors a better version of a set piece. Danso connected with a well-placed corner kick, drifting it just over The Dragon’s bar.
The Philadelphia response came through Danny Mwanga. He turned his defender on the right touchline and spun a grounder across the mouth of goal. Troy Perkins handled it before it reached Carlos Ruiz.
The right side of the pitch was opening up and Mapp, Okugo and Mwanga strung four passes together but the resulting cross eluded Le Toux. That kind of pressure was all too rare from Philadelphia though, and it was clear that Le Toux and Mwanga were moving around Ruiz rather than with him.
The second half started with good defensive pressure from the Union. Le Toux’s work created confusion in the back and Ruiz popped a toeball at Perkins. Perlaza immediately responded with a surprise shot from thirty out. Mondragon gathered well, although he was clearly unhappy with the space afforded to the Portland striker.
After a long spell of Union pressure, Portland made the first move of the night. Sal Zizzo entered for Nagbe, the obvious goal being more calmness in the midfield. Soon after, Nowak was forced into a change when Gabe Farfan pulled up lame. Kyle Nakazawa came on and Le Toux was pushed to left back (I know!)
The strange lineup could do nothing to prevent the Portland goal. A set piece is all about individual matchups, and without Califf on the field there was nobody to handle Danso’s sizable frame. In a scene incredibly reminiscent of the Los Angeles goal, a deep free kick near the middle of the pitch was lofted to the back post. Danso had only nod in the winner.
Nowak threw on Jack Mac and Roger Torres to stimulate the offense. Torres was having one of his off nights and… well, the truth is that any number of strikers will be limited if one of them only moves north and south. If you don’t drag a defense out of position at this level, they won’t offer many lanes.
There was only one more chance in the match. A long throw bounced around the box until Le Toux put a foot on it, blasting straight at Perkins. The keeper bobbled the ball and Portland reacted angrily when McInerney and Williams followed up.
A disappointing loss for the Union, but exactly the kind of speed bump a team built this way is bound to hit. No need to panic, but the questions that have been flitting under the surface all year should certainly be viewed with even more urgency.