Union focused on tidying up suddenly vulnerable defense
CHESTER, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union are coming off a historically good comeback Wednesday against New England, rallying from three goals back in the second half to come away with a 4-4 draw.
But looking past the drama and excitement of that moment are deep issues that need to be resolved as the Union prepare for their second home game in four days – a critical Saturday evening contest against the Portland Timbers at PPL Park (7:30 pm ET, The Comcast Network).
And it’s pretty clear what those issues are.
“I think we’ve gone backwards a little bit starting with making individual mistakes with guys being unmarked and little plays that we need to clean up and not give teams easy goals,” said Union central back Danny Califf. “As soon as we clean that part of the game up and really go back to making it difficult for teams to score goals, we’re going to be right back to being successful as a unit.”
The club’s backline – which was a bright spot as the season began with Philly earning four shutouts in four of their first six games – has certainly been mistake-prone in recent weeks.
The Union have given up 14 goals in their last seven contests, and it's no coincidence they're winless in that span. It’s gotten particularly bad in the past three games, with Philly surrendering a total of eight goals, including four in the first half against the Revs.
After Wednesday’s draw, Union manager Peter Nowak noted the team’s starting fullbacks – Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan – need to prioritize their defensive responsibilities over moving forward on the flanks, saying he was not entirely pleased with their performance in the first half.
But Nowak was also quick to praise Califf, who along with fellow center back Carlos Valdés, has anchored the Union defense all season.
“Danny has been playing great for weeks,” Nowak said. “I never praise anybody but you can see his performance from week to week has been very solid, very stable. We need, across the backline, all of those guys playing the same way as they did in the second half [Wednesday].”
Philly’s backline now has an extra burden on it with the injury to 40-year-old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who is out for approximately four weeks with a broken finger. Mondragón was a vocal leader in the back, and his replacement Zac MacMath, while talented, is still an untested rookie.
But no matter the circumstances, the Union (8-7-11) need to find a way to pick up their first win since July 17.
The Timbers are just 1-8-3 on the road, but with a 9-12-5 overall record, they currently sit just three points behind Philly, making Saturday’s game a pivotal one in the playoff race.
“We know we need to come out stronger from the start and that will be the goal against Portland,” Williams said. “It’s another difficult game but they all are in this league. You have to be ready. I think we learned a tough lesson these last two games about falling behind early. We have to fix that moving forward.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.