Photo: Earl Gardner
The Union have three remaining matches to close out the month of September. First up is Columbus, followed by Kansas City, and then D.C. United. The current standings have Columbus with a five point lead on the Union, Kansas City up by four, and D.C. trailing by two. The Union have one game in hand on the two leaders and D.C. have three games to make up. The good news for Philly fans is that two of the next three games are going to be at PPL Park where the chances of a favorable result are much higher than they are on the road.
The next three matches offer the Union the opportunity to make a move for the top of the table and put some distance between themselves and the other playoff contenders. Here are five things that could have a direct impact in those three games.
The previous two home games for the Union have resulted in draws (albeit one that was an absolute miracle). That has extended the current winless streak to eight games for a 0-3-5 record over the last eight games. The last time the Union earned three points was July 17 against New England, a game that the Union won 3-0. The only way to catch the teams at the top of the table is to take points away from them—victory against Columbus and Kansas City is a must at this point in the season. Should the Union pick up full points in the first two matches, they could settle for a draw against DC, but why would they? Wins will add confidence, confidence contributes to better play, and better play could mean playoffs.
2) Torres/Carroll partnership?
For the first time in a long time there might be something to be pleased about in regards to a lineup decision. In the last two games, Peter Nowak has paired defensive minded midfielder Brian Carroll with the offensively gifted Roger Torres, a pairing that was a long time coming. For most of the season Torres would only enter games in or after the 70th minute when the Union were in need of a goal or extra creativity in the attacking zone. Good play from Torres and a lack of team goals in the second half of the season has earned him a well deserved starting spot. A master in his role in the defensive part of the midfield who will never cheat too far forward and be caught out of position, Carroll is the perfect partner to play behind Torres. Carroll’s presence also makes up for Torres’ lack of defensive skill so the young Colombian can focus on what he does best, which is chance creation. Knowing Carroll is behind him should give Torres the confidence to work better with Adu in getting the ball into positions for the forwards to finish.
3) Neon Keon!
Has any one player been more missed by the Union than Keon Daniel has been since he went out on international duty? Clearly, visa is not accepted in as many locations as I thought. If Daniel returns to the lineup as a starter or comes in off of the bench, the question becomes where on the field will he be deployed? Daniel is arguably the most versatile player on the team—he has the skill sets and ability to play in any position on the field and not look out of place. With the struggle that the team has had defending aerial attacks it is possible that Daniel could take over the left-back position from the Farfan’s. Daniel’s ability on set pieces is also an underrated feature of his game and has been something the Union have missed since the Ruiz trade. All of which hinges on how fast Daniel can re-enter the country.
4) Forwards netting goals.
With the exception of Sebastian Le Toux finding his goal scoring form of late, the rest of the forward brigade has been absent from the score sheet. Danny Mwanga has not found the back of the net since June 26 against Chivas USA. Veljko Paunovic has two goals over his last seven consecutive starts for the Union—one of them scored against Columbus. These two guys must step up for the team down the stretch and find the back of the net. Paunovic has shown that he is not shy to go up in the air and win the ball or to take a crack at the goal from distance—if he continues to attack it can only be a matter of time before the ball starts to find the back of the net. That time needs to be now.
Mwanga, on the other hand, statistically speaking appears to be more shy about his attacking methods and he does not have a history this year of making a lot of shot attempts in his appearances. To his credit, he is accurate and gets his shots on goal, however with so few attempts it is becoming harder for him to make the big impact on a game. There was a lot of commentary after the New England game at PPL that Mwanga and Adu were playing well off of each other, especially on the play that netted Adu his first goal. The Union need Mwanga to start putting the ball in the net himself.
5) Lineup stability (try not to laugh)
This is completely on the coaching staff. The next three matches could end up being the three most important games of the season for the Union. The back line has been the only consistently manned part of the field all season. At this point the team has to know who should be in the starting eleven and they need to stick with it. PSP makes match predictions and lineup projections, but it would be smart to wager that over the next three games each one of those projected lineups will feature the same eleven players, barring injury.
Noticeable changes of late have seen Justin Mapp become a bench player, and Gabriel Farfan be replaced by brother Michael on the back line. The defensive change means that the other three defenders have to make up for Marfan’s defensive lapses, however it is clear that he is the more gifted attacker down the line—and a team that struggles to score goals will need that extra boost from the wings.
The top of the table is within reach for the Union and they have the opportunity to control their own destiny with these next three games. It is time for the team to take that destiny in hand.