Play-by-Play Plus: Two big tests await Union...on the road

The latest column from Union play-by-play man JP Dellacamera

Gaddis vs. Houston

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The Philadelphia Union currently sit in a good spot, holding down third place in a competitive MLS Eastern Conference.  An unbeaten run of four games (two wins, two draws) had seen the team rise to as high as second place, prior to the FC Dallas game. 

Not getting three full points at home hurts, especially when the club had a one goal lead and man advantage heading into the final seconds.  They will have to learn how to close out games like this, if they are to return to the playoffs.  In the second half of the season, for a variety of reasons, games become tougher to win.

For the Union, the second half of the MLS season begins without Jack McInerney and Keon Daniel, both away on international duty for this month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.  While Daniel is a key cog in the Union’s makeup, the loss of McInerney is the tougher one by far.  The 20-year-old striker has notched 10 of his team’s 27 goals, including five game winners. In a strange twist, McInerney has hit a dry patch, not scoring in his last three games – but the club has still managed to get results.

This has to help the confidence of a young Union team that couldn't win earlier this year, unless Jack Mac was on the scoresheet.  Conor Casey and others have picked up the scoring slack lately, with the playmaking help of Sebastien Le Toux (league high seven assists) and Sheanon Williams who has a career high six assists and leads all MLS defenders in that category.  The combination of Le Toux and Williams has made the Union dangerous on the right flank.

The second half of the season officially begins Wednesday versus a Real Salt Lake (10 p.m., TCN) team that might have been the hardest MLS team hit by the Gold Cup.  Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielder Kyle Beckerman and defender Tony Beltran are all on the U.S. squad while striker Alvario Saborio will suit up for Costa Rica.  That's four huge losses off of a team that is now leading MLS’ Western Conference with 33 points. 

RSL is on a four-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 9-1 during that stretch.  At home, they're 6-1-2 with their only home loss coming in late April against the Los Angeles Galaxy.  While the club is without these key players on Wednesday, there's a lot of depth on this squad so players like goalkeeper Josh Saunders and forwards Robbie Findley, Joao Plata, and Devon Sandoval could have opportunities to shine.

After the Real Salt Lake game, there's little time for rest and recovery as the Union head to Houston for a game Saturday against a struggling Dynamo team (9 p.m., TCN) that is uncharacteristically winless in their last seven games.  On top of that, the Dynamo offense has gone cold, going 329 minutes without a goal.

Will Bruin and Corey Ashe are away on Gold Cup duty, but the club still has goalkeeper Tally Hall whose 1.06 goals against average ranks fifth best in Major League Soccer.  The Dynamo will also have the advantage of not playing in midweek as they sit and wait for the Union arrival.

The more difficult part of the MLS schedule begins Wednesday. It's two games in 4 nights, dealing with altitude in midweek and the Texas heat on the weekend.  It's also the first time in 2013 that the team is playing without Jack McInerney.  It's going to be an interesting and challenging week for the Union.