Union Dues: Defensive Perfection, At Last
What better time to start a Philadelphia Union-centric column than the Monday after they put in their best performance of the season?
In shutting out the Chicago Fire, 1-0, on Saturday evening, the Union not only recorded their first-ever regular-season clean sheet, but also totally outplayed one of the league’s more talented teams.
Needless to say, on that night anyway, I was proud to be the man covering the team for MLSsoccer.com. It was that good of a match, especially if you consider some of the results they’ve had so far this season.
In the week leading up to the match, there were whispers that Brad Knighton would replace the much-maligned Chris Seitz in goal for the Union. Those whispers came to fruition, and what a show Knighton put on. After a not-so-pretty showing against FC Dallas earlier in the year, the 25-year-old couldn’t wait to get back out there for his club.
“I’ve been itching and scratching to get back in there,” Knighton said. “I felt like I let the team down in Dallas. These guys put everything into it, and I felt as if I let them down in my last start. I have been determined to get back in there. It felt great. I’m very, very happy for us as a team to get the three points because it was a team effort.”
Knighton wasn’t the only story. The guys in front of him, a patchwork defense, played the best they’ve played all season, starting with Union captain Danny Califf. Prone to mistakes at times this season, Califf and the rest of the defense were rock-solid in shutting down a number of very tricky Chicago players.
If Califf can continue to play the way he did against Chicago for the remainder of the season, Philadelphia could end their first campaign in MLS on a considerable high note, as he is the man who keeps everything together at the back.
No red cards for the team in over a month helps, too.
If nothing else, the win keeps the Union in playoff contention with seven matches to play, something that very few people thought possible earlier in the year. But with the Eastern Conference so tight at the moment, a few strong results down the stretch and Philly could follow the Seattle Sounders in making the postseason in their first year.
“We’ve been working really hard over the year, so just being able to win and to have a clean sheet for the first time kind of proves that we are moving in the right direction," rookie Danny Mwanga said. "Hopefully, from this game we’ll keep getting better and better until the end of the season.”
The end of the season looks to be a tough one for Philadelphia as their last three matches are against league powers LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew, in that order. If they’re able to play like they did Saturday in those games, though, we could be in for an exciting ride.
“It’s really a solid step,” Califf said. “Hopefully now we can take flight in these last seven games and give a challenge.”
Little-noticed observation of the week
The combination of Stefani Miglioranzi and Andrew Jacobson did an excellent job of shutting down two notable offensive threats in Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg. The play of Manager Peter Nowak’s two "engine room" midfielders rarely gets applauded -- at least not as much as it should -- but in this game they were brilliant. Also, Kyle Nakazawa’s leveling of Ljungberg near the end of the match was a real treat.
Union player of the week: Brad Knighton
Knighton couldn’t have asked for a better performance in his second match as a starter in league play. Confident and aware for the entire match, Knighton had a few key saves that helped his team to their first clean sheet of the year. If he doesn’t start on Wednesday, I’d be shocked.
Nowak-ism of the week
Thinking back to the first match of the season, Nowak was pretty upset with Freddie Ljungberg’s...how do you say..."theatrics" against his team. That didn’t change on Saturday with the Swedish midfielder on a new team. Nowak was visibly infuriated on the sidelines when Ljungberg went down early in the second half, showing that the Polish Team Manager doesn’t forget too easily.