Photo: Earl Gardner
Despite racing out to a quick 3-0 lead, the Philadelphia Union were made to sweat out some nervy moments before finally dispatching with the Harrisburg City Islanders 5-2 to reach the US Open Cup semifinals.
An early Freddy Adu penalty kick was quickly followed by goals from Jack McInerney and Lionard Pajoy, and the Union looked a certain winner at halftime.
But Harrisburg did not shrink from the challenge despite the lopsided scoreline and pulled two goals back in the early minutes of the second half as the Union sat back, protecting their lead.
To shake his team back to life, John Hackworth introduced Antoine Hoppenot. The Union’s super sub proved the difference, earning a penalty that Pajoy converted, providing the Union a two goal cushion. With the game stretched, Gabriel Gomez finished off Harrisburg with a late goal to put the result beyond doubt.
The Union will host the US Open Cup semifinal at PPL Park against Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday, July 11.
Despite hosting a league match only three days prior, coach John Hackworth fielded a full strength lineup, proving the seriousness of the Open Cup tournament to the Union franchise. With Carlos Valdes suspended after his scrap with Brandon McDonald against DC United, Porfirio Lopez made his first start since March, partnering with Amobi Okugo in central defense.
Harrisburg opened tentatively, and the Union were quickly on the front foot, comfortably moving the ball through the midfield and probing at their leisure while the City Islanders kept ten men behind the ball.
In the 4th minute, Lionard Pajoy’s sharp dribbling shook Andrew Marshall’s coverage, and his low, curling cross was awkwardly handled by fullback Stephen Basso who fell to the turf in an attempt to smother the ball. It was unfortunate for the City Islanders, but a clear penalty, which Freddy Adu converted, despite Nick Noble guessing correctly with his dive.
Adding insult to literal injury, Basso was injured on the play, forcing him from the field, with Tom Brandt entering the game in the 8th minute.
Before he could get a touch on the ball, however, the Union had bulged the net again. In the 9th minute, a poorly struck back-header failed to reach Noble. Jack McInerney reacted fastest, tucking his finish home calmly and sending the Union ahead by two.
The chances kept coming for the Union. A heavy touch was all that kept Pajoy from rounding Noble in the 14th. A minute later, Dustin Bixler did just enough to keep McInerney from toeing home Ray Gaddis’s low cross to the near post.
In the 29th minute, Pajoy atoned for his earlier miss and put the Union up three. With defender Bilal Duckett off the pitch receiving treatment for a knock of heads with Gabriel Farfan, the Union left back exploited the extra space on the wing. Skipping over the tackle of J.T. Noone and curling a seeing-eye cross through a maze of legs, Farfan dropped the ball in perfectly. Pajoy was quick to turn, shrugging off a defender before sliding his finish under the surprised Noble from close range.
Refocused and unwilling to concede defeat, the City Islanders attacked the Union from the opening whistle of the second half. It was only minutes before they pulled a goal back.
Following a strong, driving run, Yann Ekra picked out Brian Ombiji deep in the Union box, where he easily turned Porfirio Lopez before firing home. It was a warning shot that the City Islanders would not go down without a fight.
Before the Union could respond, former Union player Morgan Langley had cut the lead to a solitary goal. Ekra was again the architect when he found space through the center of midfield before feeding Langley in from the wing. Burying the ball beyond Zac MacMath in the 54th minute, Harrisburg was suddenly full of self-belief and within a three minute window, the Union’s three-goal lead was nearly gone.
In the face of surrendering such a large advantage, however, the Union rallied under the leadership of Brian Carroll, pressuring higher up the field to pin back Harrisburg’s ambition.
The reply was almost instant when Pajoy acrobatically headed an Adu free kick back towards goal. Unfortunately for the Colombian, the ball rang off the goalpost in the 57th minute.
To add a further spark, Hackworth turned to Antoine Hoppenot, whose first touches of the match sent him immediately in behind the defense. Knocked down in the box, he fought back to his feet and nearly tallied, announcing the danger he posed to the City Islanders defense.
Minutes later, Hoppenot’s pace again stretched Harrisburg to the breaking point. When he blew past Dustin Bixler in the box, the Islanders centerback could do little more than stick out a leg, felling the speedy striker and earning the Union their second penalty on the night.
Pajoy stepped up, eyeing his brace, and sent Noble the wrong way, restoring the two-goal cushion.
If Harrisburg was defeated, they did not show it, and they continued to throw numbers forward. But in the 81st minute, the Union broke through for a fifth time, ending Harrisburg’s hopes of the upset.
Stepping up to intercept a through ball, Amobi Okugo set off on a gallop up field. Despite aiming his pass for a streaking Hoppenot, a deflection saw the ball fall perfectly at the feet of Gabriel Gomez. With Noble stranded off his line, Gomez’s chip was on target, and the Union could coast home for the final ten minutes.
The Union now set their sights towards a semifinal showdown at PPL Park with Sporting Kansas City in two weeks time.
John Hackworth’s Post-Game Press Conference
Post-Game Player Interviews with Bakary Soumare, Ray Gaddis, Brian Carroll, Gabe Farfan and Amobi Okugo
Zac MacMath; Raymon Gaddis, Amobi Okugo, Porfirio Lopez, Gabriel Farfan; Michael Lahoud (Gabriel Gomez ’69), Brian Carroll, Michael Farfan; Freddy Adu (Antoine Hoppenot ’62), Jack McInerney, Lionard Pajoy (Jimmy McLaughlin ’83)
Unused substitutes: Chase Harrison, Chris Albright, Keon Daniel, Roger Torres
Harrisburg City Islanders
Nick Noble; Stephen Basso (Tom Brandt ‘8), Dustin Bixler, Andrew Marshall, Bilal Duckett (Colin Zizzi ’32); Jason Pelletier, J.T. Noone, Andrew Welker, Morgan Langley; Brian Ombiji, Yann Ekra (Garrett Pettis ’69)
Unused Substitutes: Tom Mellor, Lucky Mkosana, Drew Yates, Brian Holt
6 – PHI: Adu (PK)
9 – PHI: McInerney
29 – PHI: Pajoy (G. Farfan)
51 – HCI: Ombiji (Ekra)
54 – HCI: Langley (Ekra)
69 – PHI: Pajoy (PK)
81 – PHI: Gomez
60 – HCI: Marshall (caution)
74 – HCI: Langley (caution)
78 – HCI: Pelletier (caution)
90 – PHI: McInerney (caution)