Photo: Peter Andrews
Starting the 2017 MLS season 3,000 miles from home in another country is an extremely difficult task.
But the Union were up to it in a cagey affair at BC Place on Sunday night, earning a point through a scoreless draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps in their opening match of the 2017 season.
The storyline was a man of the match performance from Union academy product Derrick Jones in his MLS debut. Smooth and assured throughout, Jones looked strong in the midfield alongside fellow debutante Haris Medunjanin.
“I thought he was the best player on the field tonight — both teams,” Jim Curtin said of Jones following the match.
The offense, meanwhile, showed flashes but clearly remains very much a work in progress.
Union head coach Jim Curtin handed MLS debuts to four players in his starting 11. Most notable was the selection of Derrick Jones, signed to a homegrown contract last year and making his first ever MLS appearance. Jay Simpson displaced C.J. Sapong as the starting striker, while veteran Oguchi Onyewu made his first professional appearance since 2015 at center back. Ilsinho missed the match due to a hamstring injury suffered during training on Saturday.
On a cold evening inside the dome of BC Place, the early portion of the match saw both teams feel each other out. Vancouver sought to test Onyewu’s speed by looking for Erik Hurtado over the top. The Union attempted to build more methodically, using Medunjanin as a fulcrum to get other players involved. Jones announced his arrival in the league with a couple of sturdy tackles.
“He kinda calmed us down when we needed to be calmed down,” Curtin said after the game. “I thought he really stepped up and grabbed a hold of the opportunity.”
Vancouver had the first true moment of danger in the 24th minute. Hurtado and Alphonso Davies worked a delicate sequence just outside the 18-yard box that slipped Cristian Techera clean in on goal. Manneh, with only Andre Blake to beat, pulled his first-time shot well wide.
Frankly, very little of note happened in the half. The Whitecaps had the majority of the possession, but consistently failed to convert that possession into chances — or even half-chances.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, put little consistent pressure on the home side. The best moment was a pass from Chris Pontius to Simpson streaking into the box in the 42nd minute. With little support from his teammates, however, Simpson ultimately turned the ball back to Vancouver.
Neither side made any changes to start the second half, but the Union came out looking lively. Alejandro Bedoya forced David Ousted into two saves, one at the low post after a nice pass from Herbers and the other on an audacious backheel off a Pontius cross.
With Pontius and Bedoya growing into the game, the Union pressed on. There were shouts for a penalty on a marauding Pontius run, though the referee waved play on. The home crowd felt that they were getting the worse of the calls, screaming in anguish after Onyewu escaped a card for shoving a Whitecap player to the ground.
Carl Robinson brought on new boys Brek Shea and Fredy Montero for Manneh and Hurtado in the 58th minute, while Curtin immediately countered by swapping Simpson for C.J. Sapong. Simpson showed flashes good and bad in his debut but still has a lot to prove.
“Jay did a good job — did a lot of dirty running, worked hard, created some chances,” Curtin said. “Just getting on the same page, it takes a little bit of time.”
The Whitecaps came close in the 65th minute. Off a corner, former Union man Jordan Harvey hit one hard and low from point blank range. In the blink of an eye, Blake went low and looked to have denied the shot, though replay showed that Keegan Rosenberry’s knee provided the crucial save.
Fafa Picault entered the match in the 70th minute, earning his MLS debut in place of Pontius. Picault immediately added a different dimension, his pace on a completely different scale than the rest of the Union attack.
Vancouver aimed to use Shea to break the deadlock, but the lanky Texan’s skills let him down time and time again. After Herbers earned a yellow card for a poor challenge, the match largely petered out in the final minutes.
The lack of excitement at the conclusion was fine by Curtin.
“We do want to be a team that does better in the late-game moments, staying calm and closing games out, [and] I thought tonight was a good example,” he said.
Philadelphia will be back in action next Saturday in their home opener, hosting defending Eastern Conference champions Toronto FC at Talen Energy Stadium. Toronto opened their season with a 0-0 draw against Real Salt Lake.
Andre Blake, Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Oguchi Onyewu, Keegan Rosenberry, Derrick Jones, Haris Medunjanin, Fabian Herbers, Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Pontius (Fafa Picault 71′), Jay Simpson (C.J. Sapong 61′)
Unused Subs: John McCarthy, Ray Gaddis, Ken Tribbett, Warren Creavalle, Roland Alberg
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
David Ousted, Sheanon Williams, Erik Hurtado (Brek Shea 59′), Christian Dean, Tim Parker, Jordan Harvey, Kekuta Manneh (Fredy Montero 59′), Mattias Laba, Alphonso Davies, Andrew Jacobson, Cristian Techera (Nicolas Mezquida 77′)
Unused subs: Paolo Tornaghi, Jakob Nerwinski, Russell Teibert, Mauro Rosales
VAN: Matias Laba (delaying restart) — 55′ ‘
PHI: Fabian Herbers (unsporting behavior) — 80’
|Vancouver Whitecaps||Philadelphia Union|
|1||Shots on Target||5|
|6||Shots off Target||0|
|48%||Duels Won %||52%|