Photo: Paul Rudderow
Who: Philadelphia Union (11th Place in the East, 2 points, 0-2-3) v. New York City FC (5th Place in the East, 7 points, 2-1-2)
What: 2017 Regular Season Game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, PA
When: Friday, April 14th, 2017 at 7:00pm
Whistle: Jose Carlos Rivero (REF), Peter Manikowski (AR1), Kevin Klinger (AR2), Allen Chapman (4th)
“Don’t mistake activity with achievement” – John Wooden
The 2017 edition of the Philadelphia Union might be remembered for several things at this point in the season: Stunning, world-class training facilities, a plethora of seemingly creative offseason signings, the search for a Chief Tattoo Officer, a commitment to social media and food trucks, or perhaps, the appearance of puppies to adopt on game days. All of those things are fun and interesting and valuable to a rich fan experience, and notable in their own way.
Five games into the season, however, 2017 will not be commemorated for winning ways. As we reach the middle of April, the Union don’t have one victory to show for their efforts and, besides road-tripping Montreal, are the only team left in the league with that dishonor. There is activity in Chester, PA, but no achievement. If Friday night fades into Saturday morning and that’s still the case, this may be the last match for head coach Jim Curtin.
Scouting Report: New York City FC
A pair of one-goal away losses to conference rivals D.C. United last week and Orlando City to start the season bookended a three-game home stretch where NYCFC won twice and drew once, scoring seven goals. The common narrative for the Yankee Stadium-based squad is this: City are built to win home games on their narrow pitch, where high defensive pressure and a compact midfield can be both beguiling to opposing teams and deadly, and where counter attacking goals happen quicker than automatic intentional walks (#socceronabaseballfield). Away matches, those played on wider and longer fields, tilt immediately in favor of whomever is hosting The Pigeons, and results are difficult to come by.
However, City’s home and away winning percentages in their short existence are within percentage points of one another, rendering the narrative a bit lacking in facts. The true story is this: There are enough good players on the field for City to play decent soccer on any pitch. Couple that with one of the best young players in the league, Jack Harrison, and perhaps the best finisher in the league, David Villa, and the team can win even when they’re not at their best.
City have trotted out some version of the same 4-3-3 in every match this season, despite their coach’s usual tinkering. However, our friend Martin Bihl, who writes about NYCFC at The Last Word On Soccer, thinks static rosters and personnel might not be what the Union encounter Friday.
“I’m interested to see how many changes head coach Patrick Vieira makes for the Union match. Aside from the fact that NYCFC are winless on the road, that locker room on Saturday was a morgue. When I walked in I had the distinct feeling I’d stumbled into the scene of a recent a$$-chewing. The question is: Will Vieira use this as an opportunity to send a message to some players he feels have been slacking, and to reward those he feels have been hustling? Either way, it should make for some fun in Chester.”
Injury Report: Mikey Lopez (Questionable), Jonathan Lewis
Scouting Report: Philadelphia Union
Count on the Union to look as they have throughout the entirety of their thirteen-match winless streak. The organization’s vertically-integrated commitment to a 4-2-3-1 formation will override any sense of external urgency to change for the sake of their coach’s survival, and the only real choices the coach will make will be between Fabian Herbers and Ilsinho on the right and CJ Sapong and Jay Simpson up top (expect Herbers and Sapong, both for their own form and the lacking form of the others).
The Union will press City out of the back, as their instructional videos have shown us, and will attempt find a win from effort, grit, and the occasional bit of flourish (ie., Sapong’s backheel pass to an onrushing Fabinho last week). Goals, if they come, will be because of hustle toward the back post for crosses or rebounds, or an opportune bit of fortune late in the match as the City players tire, much like the Herbers-to-Sapong goal against a fading Toronto FC several weeks ago.
Injury Report: Josh Yaro, Ilsinho (Questionable), Ken Tribbett (Questionable)
Key Matchup: Jim Curtin v. The (Potential) Sands of Time
There are interesting storylines in this match all over the field: Jack Harrison running at the unfortunately rebooted Fabinho 1.0, Andrea Pirlo and Alejandro Bedoya chasing one another on both sides of the ball (and comparing hair products… get back to me with notes and recommendations, gentlemen; this man-bun-to-be I’m growing won’t style itself), and the potential appearance of a fifth former Union player to go against the club this season and earn points. (Andrew Jacobsen, Sheanon Williams, Jordan Harvey, and Amobi Okugo make four. Sebastian Le Toux would have been the fifth, but he stayed on the bench. Thus, Ethan White at right back for City counts as the fifth, and, while Marco Farfan of Portland is a Farfan, he is not one of the Farfans so he’s out.)
You’ll notice that this list doesn’t even mention World Cup winner David Villa having a run against the gushingly porous Union backline, worst in the Eastern Conference in goals allowed.
The reason for this omission is simple. Every fan, pundit, and player with an inch of knowledge about the state of this Philadelphia organization will be watching Jim Curtin. They’ll be watching to see whether or not he makes pregame adjustments to his lineup or personnel, whether he overcompensates toward attack if the Union go down a goal early, or whether he dips deep into his substitution well for an attack-minded player not named Roland Alberg.
They’ll be watching to see how the frog reacts as the lukewarm water he’s swimming in begins to truly boil.
Player to Watch: Alejandro Bedoya
Jim Curtin went out of his way in 2015 and 2016 to bring Bedoya to Philadelphia. He orchestrated a transfer fee and the highest salary on the team for the US international, and convinced an otherwise stingy front office to pony up the cash for both. With two goals and no assists to show for his typical hard work in nineteen matches with the club, it’s time to see if the player can return the coach’s favor with the only stats that matter: Goals and wins.
Make no mistake. If the Union win Friday, Bedoya will have a hand in it.
Prediction: 1-0 Union
Jim Curtin keeps his job if the Union take six points from nine in this home stand. The team missed their first chance at three points last week against an unrelenting Portland side, but Curtin gets the first three of those six here. CJ Sapong gets onto the end of a perfectly driven cross from Bedoya, who has floated out wide to find space, and slots it in. After that, the home side possess smartly and cohesively, and when that doesn’t work, parry everything The Pigeons throw at them. Oguchi Onyewu finally earns his red card at the end, and though it ain’t pretty, maybe he and his team start to discover their own brand of “Philly tough.”