Once a Detriment, Union Defense Now Stout

Philadelphia backline has a 0.50 GAA in last six matches in all competitions

Defensive
struggles early in Philadelphia Union’s inaugural campaign have irrefutably
contributed to the club’s undesirable playoff positioning with five matches
left to play. With that said, the Union have managed to turn their greatest
weakness into a strength, a tremendous sign for a franchise in the midst of its
finest stretch yet.

The old story
was becoming all too familiar. Come out looking dangerous and controlling
possession only to commit a costly defensive miscue against the run of play
that changed the complexion of the match. That unfortunate fate felt
unavoidable at times, almost seeming as though the club was
expecting something to go wrong.

Not anymore.

Philadelphia
have given up a total of two goals in their last five matches in all competitions,
and three in their last six. Including a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara,
the Union are 4-1-1 since a demoralizing 2-0 loss to DC United that Manager
Peter Nowak deemed the club’s worst performance of the season.

The key to the
turnaround rests in the expansion side’s improved defensive form, which captain
Danny Califf attributes primarily to gaining experience playing together.

“I think the big
thing is continuity and getting to know each other better,” he told
philadelphiaunion.com after training on Monday. “We put an onus on trying to be
better defensively one to 11, so I think that’s starting to pay off and we’re
seeing dividends. Through the beginning of the year we were pretty unlucky with
goals conceded, so we’ve corrected those mistakes, been a bit luckier, and
things have turned around.”

Unsurprisingly,
Nowak likes what he sees, both in the near term and as a harbinger of things to
come.

“You have to
give them a lot of credit,” he said after Saturday’s 3-0 win over Chivas USA.
“They were not in an easy situation. You could easily drop your heads after the
goals we gave up in the first half of the season, be frustrated, be
discouraged, but these guys are fighting and that is what I always love in
players - when they have life.

“There are a
lot of hard choices, hard work, and if you just go and drop your head and then
be frustrated, it is very easy to do, but we have assembled a group of
fighters. … It is good for the future and it is good for this team as a
characteristic of what we want to do.”

The Union’s
recent improvement on the defensive side of the ball -- including their first
two shutouts in league play -- have coincided with goalkeeper Brad Knighton
replacing former starter Chris Seitz and recently signed defender Sheanon
Williams patrolling the right flank.

“They’ve come in and done a really good
job, so it’s brought an extra dose of confidence to the backline,” Califf
explained. “I think defending is about confidence, confidence that you can step
up and make a tackle, confidence that you can make a mistake and someone is
going to have your back. So with us having that confidence, it makes all the
difference in the world.”

To be fair,
Philadelphia had cleaned up their defensive act considerably before Seitz was
replaced. But never has the backline played as organized and mistake-free as
they are now. While it’s impossible to say for certain whether the improvement
is directly correlated with Knighton’s insertion, it’s difficult to argue with
the results.

Next up is a tough Colorado Rapids side away from PPL Park, where the Union have
struggled this season. Conor Casey’s absence due to yellow card accumulation
will help, but Califf knows that Gary Smith’s side is dangerous nonetheless.

“It’s going to
be key to not let them get in behind us,” he said. They have a lot of pace up
front with [Omar] Cummings and [Macoumba] Kandji. We have to know the way they’re
going to come at us and try to negate that. Either it’s dropping a bit deeper
to prevent balls from getting played behind us or stepping up a bit quicker to
defenders to make their service up front not as good. I think it’s going to be
a combination of both of those things.”

“We’ve been in
good form, so I don’t think we need to change a lot, except to go about the best
way against this team, against Colorado - go up the best way that’s going to
defeat their strengths.”

Even a win on
Wednesday would leave Philadelphia in need of a miracle finish to secure a
playoff spot, but there’s more at stake for the first-year club.

“You know, I
think we all feel that we’re a better team than what our record shows, what our
placing shows,” Califf said. “I think that for us to be able to finish off
strongly, end on a good note and show the rest of the league and our fans that
we’re a better team than our results have shown is a big thing. It’s a pride
factor.”

It’s also an
opportunity to continue progressing and establishing consistency on
the backline. While the Union have featured one of the better defensive units in the
league over the last month, consistency is measured over a much
longer period of time.

But is the
potential there for a once beleaguered backline to emerge as one of
the elite groups in MLS? 

“Yeah, I think so,” Califf said matter-of-factly, without a hint of hesitation. “Yeah.”