Philadelphia Union opened their 2017 Suncoast Invitation preseason tournament with a 1-0 win over the host Tampa Bay Rowdies in St. Petersburg, Florida Saturday evening.
Jim Curtin selected a mix of veterans and new names for the start. Andre Blake defended the net behind Ray Gaddis, SuperDraft pick Jack Elliot, Richie Marquez, and Fabinho. Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin sat behind Alejandro Bedoya, with Fabian Herbers and Marcus Epps providing width behind CJ Sapong in the expected 4-2-3-1 shape.
Tampa Bay countered with a similar 4-2-3-1 that looked to choke the center of the pitch and force the Union away from new signing Medunjanin.
Former Union attacker Leo Fernandes nearly set up a surprise opener for Tampa Bay in the second minute, but Andre Blake beat trialist Paterson to the ball.
The home side kept the pressure on the Union, but former England international Joe Cole’s poor free kick relieved pressure following an Alejandro Bedoya foul just outside Tampa’s final third. Still, the Union struggled to string together coherent play. CJ Sapong’s loose touch was collected by Haris Medunjanin, but soon Derrick Jones’ loose back pass put the Rowdies back on the front foot.
In the seventh minute, the Union finally made a foray deep into the Tampa Bay half. Medunjanin’s line-breaking ball through the center flicked from Sapong to Bedoya, and the attacking midfielder drove at the home defense. As Sapong sprinted into the box, Bedoya laid the ball in front of him, but a late — and questionable — tackle took the ball away the striker’s foot.
Philadelphia was finding space up the right as Fabian Herbers dragged his man inside to create a lane for Ray Gaddis. The fullback cut inside his man deep in Tampa’s half and found Herbers at the top corner of the box, but the attacker’s deep cross was chaotically cleared for a corner that the Union could not convert.
The early moments of the match highlighted both the promise and growing pains ahead for Derrick Jones. After beginning with a poor giveaway and some loose touches, the young midfielder began to find more of the ball and spread it around well. In the 12th minute, Bedoya dropped the ball back to Jones for an open look on net, but the defense-first middie blazed his shot well over the bar.
It was also clear from the start that Philly’s route to success ran directly through the large and impressively skilled frame of Haris Medunjanin. Though preferring his left foot, Medunjanin broadcast a stunning display of passing prowess across the pitch. Long, early passes deep into the box fell to Herbers’ chest while quick turns under pressure opened up short, dinked connectors through the lines in the middle.
As the first twenty minutes drew to a close, Fabinho went down under a hard aerial challenge at the back post. As he was treated, the Rowdies transitioned quickly through Darwin Jones up the right, and only a pair of swift recovery runs from Gaddis and Medunjanin prevented a clear look at goal.
As the match wore on, Philadelphia increasingly controlled the ball but seemed intent on creating as many chances for Tampa Bay as for themselves. A poor Fabinho pass to Medunjanin nearly let the Rowdies in at the Union defense before the home side nearly caught the Union out with a good move up the left.
In the 31st minute, Medunjanin got too cute bringing down an aerial ball and sent the ball to the feet of Paterson. He rounded the defense but Blake beat him to the free ball.
Three minutes later, Tampa Bay was breaking up the left again, with a tight exchange near midfield releasing Darwin Jones behind Gaddis; a Richie Marquez slide tackle put out the fire.
The Union showcased their transition game in the 39th as Medunjanin’s wonderful early outlet pass sent Herbers on the break. The second year man drove hard at net but lifted his shot disappointingly high.
The yin and yang of Sapong came to the fore as the half ended. Medunjanin attempted to guide Sapong around his man with a fine pass, but the striker moved the wrong way. Sapong recovered by using an impressive mix of balance and strength to awkwardly move himself between the defender and the ball, earning a free kick just outside the box. Bedoya stepped to the ball and clobbered it into the wall to end the opening forty-five.
Medunjanin and Herbers were the standout players going forward throughout the half, with the former dictating play and the latter showing impressive creativity in his movement and aggression with the ball. Defensively, Ray Gaddis struggled to contain Darwin Jones, though he often found himself with little support. Marcus Epps never found the game, but in his few moments on the ball he showcased both patience on the ball and a notable lack of polish. CJ Sapong was predictably physical but — again predictably, unfortunately — lacked end product. Derrick Jones and Alejandro Bedoya grew into the game, and the latter produced a big chance for Epps in the 43rd minute with incisive movement that led to a blast over the bar from the rookie.
Overall, the most memorable aspect of the first half was the unapologetic physicality on display from both sides. Indeed, Bedoya, Herbers, and Jones were often deep in tangles of bodies.
The second half opened with one change for the Rowdies and eight for the Union. Chris Pontius replaced Bedoya as captain and moved outside so Ilson Jr. could slot into the attacking midfield role. Adam Najem took up the other winger role behind Charlie Davies. Derrick Jones remained in the center but now he was flanked by Warren Creavalle. Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, and Giliano Wijnaldum joined the back line around Elliot.
Philadelphia continued to attack up the right — even though they had an entirely new right side. Rosenberry connected well with Pontius but his cross was just in front of the charging Najem. Minutes later, it was Najem’s turn to break up the wing, but his cross was blocked out for a corner.
In the 54th minute, Najem committed a foul 35 yards from goal. Michael Nanchoff surprisingly chose to shoot, providing a useful example for dictionary writers to use with “ill-advised.”
A minute later, Davies earned a foul deep on the left, but Ilson Jr.’s kick was easily cleared.
The match was opening up, and Joe Cole opened the field for Darnell King, but his lofted cross from the left was easily claimed by Blake.
In the 60th minute, Tribbett earned a deserved caution for hauling down Leo Fernandes after the former Union man beat him to a poor pass from Jones.
Eerily familiar issues poppoed up for the Union as the half progressed. Most notably, advancing the ball through the center became rare, even with Najem tucking inside and acting almost as a fourth central midfielder. Wijnaldum provided a far calmer presence on the ball than Fabinho, but he did not offer the same strong running up the flank.
In the 68th minute, Tampa Bay dropped off Ilson Jr., and after he drove into the final third, the ball found Najem’s feet near the top of the box. The rookie flared a soft looping ball to the back post that was easily cleared. The Rowdies immediately broke the other way, and Wijnaldum showed excellent awareness to snuff out the attack. The Dutch man was quickly down the wing on the next attack, but lifted his cross beyond the far post.
In the 70th minute, Pontius executed a deft turn to drive into the box on his left, but he drove his shot directly into the keeper’s arms.
A minute later, Jones received a justified caution for slinging his man down in the center of the pitch. Tampa Bay respected the theme of the night with yet another poor set piece delivery.
In the 73rd minute Derrick Jones was in the book again, but this time for scoring the night’s opener. A brutal pass from the back into the middle of the field was easily picked off by the young midfielder, and he continued his run as Chris Pontius knocked the loose ball into his path. With time on his side, Jones shimmied in front of the goalie before rounding him to the right and slotting the ball home.
Three minutes later, Jones made way for Brian Carroll. Anthony Fontana also joined the fray as Najem’s night ended.
Tampa Bay was clearly tiring, though they maintained a high line and gambled often against the speed of Davies. In the 80th minute, Fontana nearly willed the match to life with a darting give and go through the center. The ball sat up for the youngster’s left foot, but he well-struck drive was directly at the goalie.
Fontana continued to make an impression when he zipped onto Ilson Jr.’s tall pass behind the defense on the right. A double team cleared the danger, but Fontana’s deep runs were pinning the Rowdies midfield back.
In the 84th minute, Tampa Bay’s Jamie Collins was sent off for using a poor choice of words with the assistant referee. Jim Curtin indicated he had no issue with the home side replacing their ejected player, so the Rowdies added Kyle Carr to their back four.
Late Tampa Bay substitute Morrell nearly evened the scoreline in the last minute when he stormed from right to left and forced Blake into a stunning save near the top right corner.
Moments later, the match drew to a close. Jim Curtin indicated that he was happy with the team’s play, though he was hoping for more chance creation (ten penalty box entry passes per half was the goal).
The Union next play against Montreal Impact on February 22 at 7pm EST.