Photo: Paul Rudderow
This is the point at which you find out what kind of team Philadelphia Union really is.
Are they a lucky, uninspiring team that plays ugly soccer and inflated their place in the standings through opposition red cards all year and is about to crash out of the playoff race?
Or are they a tough, resilient, underrated club that repeatedly shows loads of character as they overcome obstacles in a remarkable turnaround from last year’s debacle?
You’ll find out over the next few weeks as the Union enter the season’s final eight-game stretch shorthanded.
Does no Okugo + no true backup = no playoffs?
The Union host the first place Montreal Impact this Saturday and travel to San Jose the following week, all without one of their best players, center back Amobi Okugo, who is suspended for two games due to yellow card accumulation and a red card in Sunday’s 5-1 loss to Montreal.
They need to take probably 4 points from these matches to maintain pace in the playoff race.
And they have to do it without a single legitimate center back on the roster to replace Okugo.
Who will join center back Jeff Parke in trying to shut down MLS top scorer Marco Di Vaio, who lit the Union up for a hat trick in May?
Normally, you might say Sheanon Williams, a tough and fast right back who has deputized at center back before, but Williams is no center back. He stands 5-9 and has tied the league record for assists by a defender. He belongs on the right flank outrunning defenders, not banging with taller and stronger forwards in his own box.
But if it was to be Williams at center back, you would feel comfortable with Ray Gaddis sliding in at right back, where he is as good as most MLS starters. Unfortunately, Gaddis hasn’t played since spraining an ankle on Aug. 3.
If not Gaddis, it’s Michael Lahoud, an athletic holding midfielder versatile enough to play right back but who struggled Sunday in his first extended minutes since returning from injury.
After that, you have Chris Albright and Matt Kassel, who have played 4 and 33 minutes this season, respectively.
You could always try Albright at center back, where he has never been a regular. There’s even Aaron Wheeler in the middle, where he has played one half of a friendly. Alas, while Wheeler may be tall, he is a forward.
Someone asked about activating 34-year-old assistant coach Jim Curtin, a 6-4 former MLS All-Star center back. Not a bad idea.
It makes you wonder how Union insiders really feel about Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz’s assertion that the team needed a box-to-box midfielder (from Brazil’s lower divisions, to sit on the bench apparently) more than a third center back like Danny Califf. In the end, that choice could cost the Union the playoffs.
But there is hope for the tough!
But all is not lost.
For while the hand-wringers may wring hands, they forget one thing:
This team is Philly tough.
Ah ha! You think I jest? Perhaps a bit. We know how much some of you love Union manager John Hackworth’s use of the term, “Philly tough.”
Except this team really is Philly tough.
Sure, at times it’s just the immature, young punk sort of tough, throwing elbows and roughly forcing through tackles in frustration, as some Union players did after they frustratingly had two goals disallowed Sunday (one rightly, one wrongly).
But sometimes it’s the Conor Casey kind of tough, coming back from two years of injuries to regain your status as one of the league’s best forwards.
Other times, it’s Sebastien Le Toux’s kind of tough, returning from exile to show your two great years in Philadelphia were no fluke.
Or how about the Sheanon Williams kind of tough, willing yourself to play through injuries and unwanted position switches in 2012, losing some status in the process, and coming back to quietly have a breakout year in 2013?
Or maybe even it’s the Keon Daniel kind of tough, facing critique after critique (including on this site) during a long 2013 season and then showing through your absence Sunday that, while you may not be a CAM, you might just be a quietly important defensive and possession cog.
The Union are not a team of shrinking violets. To survive Peter Nowak’s tenure, you had to be mentally tough. Now is their chance to show just how “Philly tough” they really are.
American sports coaches love to pull the old “Nobody believes in us card” to motivate their players. Well, here is Hackworth’s chance.
Because, Philadelphia Union, almost nobody believes in you right now.
But your fans hold shards of hope just the same. As much as they might complain and criticize and howl and jeer, they want to believe in the Union. They want to cheer. Deep down, beneath walls fortified by decades of Philadelphia sporting failures that teach them never to dream big, they dare to hope, over and over again.
So, Philadelphia Union, here’s your chance. Print this out, and put it on the bulletin board. Let’s see what you’re made of.