Photo: Earl Gardner
Danny Cruz likely leads the league in a very important stat.
Red cards forced. He has three.
No team in Major League Soccer has benefited more from red cards this year than the Union. With Josue Soto’s ejection in the Union’s 3-1 win Friday over Chivas USA, Philadelphia’s opponents have seen at least one player ejected in seven of the Union’s last 12 matches. The Union are 3-0-4 in those games, at least four of which came against likely playoff teams. Philadelphia’s record in other games is 5-6-2.
The Union have scored 10 goals after the 75th minute of games, second most in the league. Six came against opponents who had gone down a man.
All told, MLS referees have handed out 44 red cards in 172 matches this season. More than 20 percent of them have been handed out in the Union’s 20 games: eight to Union opponents, one to the Union.
Instigating Setting the tone
What’s driving this?
The Union’s style of play.
Ask Wells Thompson, Doneil Henry, and Lloyd Sam, who all drew red cards with ill-advised tackles while under pressure from Danny Cruz’s attacks. Ask Seattle’s Lamar Neagle, who went nose to nose with Sheanon Williams and got tossed along with Williams. Or ask DeAndre Yedlin, who lost it later in that Seattle game after he missed a tackle and then demolished Michael Farfan to make up for it. There’s Josue Soto, who had already received a yellow card before he went ballistic and drew another in response to Jorge Gonzalez’s misguided indirect kick call. And don’t forget Je-Vaughan Watson of Dallas, who was booked for diving two weeks ago and sent off because he had already received one of five cards given to Dallas that game.
This phenomenon is nothing new for Philadelphia. With their aggressive style of play, Route 1 counterattacks and fantastically long throw-ins, they are America’s answer to Stoke City. They take opponents out of their comfort zones, and it often provokes red cards from opponents. Meanwhile, the Union somehow tip-toe the line of what referees find acceptable and draw few red cards of their own.
Antoine Hoppenot drove opponents mad last season, once provoking two New England players into bookings on one play. Michael Farfan led the league in fouls caused last year and was eighth in fouls suffered. Sheanon Williams argues half the fouls he receives and backs down from nobody. Conor Casey has added a new dimension, able to absolutely level opponents with impunity because most are too intimidated to get in his face about it.
This year, no player illustrates the red card phenomenon quite like Cruz, the Union’s famously aggressive winger.
Criticize Cruz’s touch in the final third all you want, but his no-holds-barred attacking play causes fits for defenders who don’t know how to handle him. Cruz knows only one speed on offense: Full speed. No matter what the defender does, Cruz puts his head down and goes full steam ahead. His reckless style may be a physical danger to himself and opponents, but if somebody is going to blink, it won’t be Cruz. Either move or get run over. Injuries clearly don’t bother him. He gets hurt every game but always comes back. Forget the traditional No. 7 winger. Cruz wears a classic running back’s number, No. 44, and plays soccer like the American football running back he once was. As with Chuck Norris, fear of small spaces may be claustrophobia and fear of spiders may be arachnophobia, but fear of Cruz running you over is simply logic.
Brawn and brains
Cruz is just one part of a team culture that respects resilience, toughness and handing out hard fouls when it serves your purpose. It goes back to original Union captain’s Danny Califf’s 2010 PPL’s Elbow against Toronto and the ethos Califf, former manager Peter Nowak and others established inside the locker room and on the field.
The Union have ranked among the league’s top three teams in fouls caused in three of their four years of existence. (The exception was 2011, their only playoff team.) This year, they are third, behind Kansas City and Chivas USA. Seven Union regulars are among the league’s top 60 in fouls caused this year. (Cruz and Hoppenot are not among them.) Imagine if Gabriel Farfan was still with the team. He caused seven fouls in one Chivas match this year.
John Hackworth talks about “Philly tough,” and real Philadelphians snicker cynically as if it’s some nonsense form of cheap marketing. It’s not. It’s how the Union play.
Equally as important, they do it with enough awareness that the Union are one of just three MLS teams yet to go down a man this year. The only Union red card this season came when Williams was sent off in a joint ejection with Seattle’s Lamar Neagle. It shows the Union may play rough, but they’re smart about how far they push it.
None of this earns the Union any style points, but it has gotten them enough standings points to make them a potential playoff team.