Photo: Paul Rudderow
PPL Park may not have sold out for Tuesday night’s US Open Cup quarterfinal between Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders, but the 4,313 fans who made their way to Chester certainly got their money’s worth.
Seven goals, a gritty fightback by a confident underdog and, finally, a decisive final 30 minutes by a Union side who are suddenly brimming with confidence.
That’s right. Confidence.
It was awfully recent when finishing seemed the biggest problem for the Union. Could Jack McInerney convert his chances? How about Lionard Pajoy? Could Antoine Hoppenot develop into a predator and not just a sprinter? It didn’t take too long for the answers to those questions to reveal themselves: Yes, yes and yes.
Sure, McInerney was gifted the chance to double the Union’s lead early in the match, but a striker devoid of confidence settles that ball before shooting, giving the defense a chance to recover. Instead, McInerney chose to hit the bouncing ball first time, curling it low and into the corner before the goalkeeper could set himself.
In giving the Union their first three-goal lead of the night, Lionard Pajoy showed the composure and touch in front of goal that was lacking from his early season performances. When Gabriel Farfan’s perfectly struck cross found its way through the entire Harrisburg defense, Pajoy still had work to do. Putting one defender on his back, the big Colombian tucked the ball around another City Islander before burying his finish, all from within six yards of goal.
With Harrisburg back in the match in the second half, the Union looked to Antoine Hoppenot, who has become John Hackworth’s go-to impact sub since taking over as Union boss. Driving toward the net with purpose and intent, Hoppenot slowed just long enough to give Harrisburg’s Dustin Bixler hope of a sliding intervention. The show-and-go move that followed had Bixler shaking his head almost before the referee had blown his whistle and pointed to the spot. He knew Hoppenot had beaten him.
Big. Bad. Carroll?
Young teams lose focus. That’s how it goes. The real question is whether they show the character to flip the switch back on after they’ve let their attention fade. The Union passed this test on Tuesday recovering quickly after conceding two goals in three minutes, re-establishing their control in the important Cup tie. Their strong, professional response to Harrisburg’s fight back was due, in no small part, to the leadership of stand-in captain, Brian Carroll. Both with his play and his voice, which could be heard echoing to all corners of PPL Park, Carroll chided his teammates, offered encouragement and helped to reorganize his troops. The Union heeded his words and responded before the City Islanders could launch another wave of attacks. Pajoy powered a header off the post moments before Hoppenot drew his second penalty in two matches. There is no substitute for veteran leadership, and Carroll made sure the Union’s frayed nerves failed to devolve into a complete unraveling.
Zac MacMath – 5
Could not be faulted for either goal, as he was hung out to dry by his defense, but he never looked comfortable on the night. Under the high ball especially, MacMath seemed too eager and attacked too aggressively, forcing him to punch or flap at balls that should have been easy catches. Clearly, he was having communication issues with his backline, specifically Lopez.
Ray Gaddis – 5.5
Made a few rookie mistakes that would have been more troubling if he were not still a rookie. Showed his pace in recovery, and he was able to catch up with any attacker who beat him. Continued to be a reliable threat bombing forward up the wing.
Amobi Okugo – 8
From converted midfielder to leader of the Union backline, all in about three weeks. Okugo channeled his inner Valdes on Tuesday, putting in a strong performance on the ground and in the air, directing traffic around him all the while. Helped to relieve pressure in the Union midfield by providing a safe, sure-footed passing option at all times.
Porfirio Lopez – 2
The highly-touted offseason signing looked so poor against Harrisburg that it is hard to imagine what, if any, value he still holds for the Union. Badly at fault on both goals, Lopez struggled with his defensive positioning throughout. Was no better with the ball at feet, punting it up field rather looking for the simple pass. Completely out of sync with his teammates.
Gabriel Farfan – 6.5
Got in Morgan Langley’s head with some rough treatment, with the speedy Harrisburg winger taking himself out of the game at times through sheer frustration. His move to set up the Union’s third goal was brilliant, Ge lifted both the ball and his feet over the sliding defender in one move before composing himself and threading his cross through to Pajoy.
Michael Lahoud – 4
Needs to do more than simply knock the ball around in his defensive half of the field to justify his continued selection. Lahoud lacks the incisive ability to turn the ball up field and be a cog in the attack. He is dangerously close to becoming known as the guy who plays defense for Freddy Adu.
Brian Carroll – 7
See above. Led well as always with his simple, sound play, but stepped it up in terms of his vocal leadership, a trait not usually associated with the mild-mannered Carroll.
Michael Farfan – 6
The flair may not have been there from Farfan, but the creative fulcrum of the Union midfield had a tidy game keeping the ball moving. The Union need another technical, creative influence in the midfield to take some of the pressure off Farfan, who had to drop too deep to receive the ball since neither Carroll nor Lahoud were frightening the opposition with their offensive chops.
Freddy Adu – 3
A second consecutive performance where Adu looked at best anonymous and at worst disinterested and out of sync with his suddenly gelled teammates. Slowed play down with his dribbling, failing to capitalize on the team’s momentum. Among a team of guys who get it done with hard work and effort, Adu wants to be the creative, focal playmaker. The problem is, none of that is working right now. Alarmingly quick to bail out of a 50-50 challenge, he ceded the ball to Harrisburg far too easily. Took his penalty well enough.
Jack McInerney – 7
It’s hard to call a player with no goals a poacher. With 3 goals in 2 games, Jack McInerney can officially be anointed with that moniker. Reacting quickest to Bixler’s misplaced header, McInerney coolly slotted home a finish that was not as simple as it appeared at first glance. He did the hard work off the ball to harass, pressure and ultimately exhaust Harrisburg’s Marshall and Bixler, setting the stage for the foul on Hoppenot and Gomez’s late goal. He may be a teenager, but that center forward spot is looking more and more his by the day.
Lionard Pajoy – 8
Pajoy has finally found a position. While McInerney runs himself ragged, Pajoy is thriving in the space created up the left flank and, given time on the ball, his skills are beginning to shine through. He beat Andrew Marshall twice before serving in the ball that Stephen Basso handled in the opening minutes. Pajoy then got on the score sheet with a strong, smart finish in the 29th. Seconds after the Union conceded a second goal, Pajoy nearly restored the cushion as he stretched at the back post, banging his header off the post. He got his brace from the penalty spot and will have confidence galore going forward. For a second straight match, put in the defensive effort to get behind the ball and get his head on balls in the defensive third.
Antoine Hoppenot – 6.5
Ran the great lines Union fans are coming to expect from him and, had his teammates been quicker to release him on several occasions, he could have been in behind even more often. Showed off his speed and smarts to earn the Union their second penalty of the night, restoring a multiple goal lead. Still needs to get his head up a little quicker to survey the field around him, but that is a small critique considering how much of an effect Hoppenot can have on a match so early in his career.
Gabriel Gomez – 6
Took his chipped goal very well. It was clear Gomez was glad to be back on the pitch following the injury he suffered against Dallas. He showed the typical signs of rust, including a heavy first touch and inaccurate passing, but moved his feet well, without any sign of lingering pain. His appearance was useful, considering the Union will need him back to top form during the congested schedule over the next few weeks.
Jimmy McLaughlin – 6
Appeared to relish the chance to play at a more natural position. Aggressive with the ball at his feet, McLaughlin has yet to show any nerves at the professional level, and his intensity was palpable when he came on to help the Union see out the result. As nature takes its course and he continues to develop physically, McLaughlin will be a player to watch for the Union.