There will be more at stake than three points when the Union (3-7-2) take to the pitch for the second time ever at PPL Park on Saturday. Philadelphia is still undefeated at home in three matches with a 2-0-1 record, but they’ll face a stiff test against a San Jose side (5-4-4) that is deceptively strong despite being winless since a 1-0 victory against Seattle on May 22.
The Earthquakes are 0-2-3 in their last five matches, but draws against two of the elite teams in the league, Columbus and Salt Lake, prove that they’re no pushover. Considering the MLS playoff format, where the top three clubs in each conference make the playoffs, followed by the best two remaining clubs in the league, Saturday’s match carries a bit of added weight. The Quakes are fifth in the Western Conference with 19 points, which would give them the eighth and final spot if the season ended today.
Playoff talk less than halfway through the season is premature, however, especially with the Union needing to get hot to enter the picture. Fortunately, a four match homestand is about to begin, with six out of the next seven league matches being played at the Union’s sparkling new home.
Coming off of a 1-1 draw with Chivas, just the second time the Union have walked away with points on the road this season, Philadelphia is looking for their first three match unbeaten streak of the season. Still with the least matches played of any club in MLS, Philadelphia is within just six points of 4th place in the East. If the expansion Union can muster three points against San Jose, confidence will be sky high heading into a mid-week friendly against Celtic, followed by three more league matches at home and another mid-week exhibition against storied EPL side Manchester United.
As manager Peter Nowak is likely preaching, one match at a time. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the matchups to watch on Saturday.
Number One vs Number Three
Two of the top three picks in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft will go head to head at PPL Park, with striker Danny Mwanga and defender Ike Opara each exceeding lofty expectations thus far.
Mwanga has been absolutely on fire since his stoppage time goal against Dallas six matches ago, with five goals in that span to put him in the lead amongst rookies. By the way, he’s played a grand total of 416 minutes all season. The Congolese striker, who is in the process of becoming a U.S. resident and may find himself on the U.S. National Team radar in the near future if he's not already, has unlimited upside and is more than justifying Nowak and coach John Hackworth’s decision to scoop him up before the highly touted Opara and number two overall pick Tony Tchani.
Opara has also been just what the Quakes expected him to be and then some, tallying three goals in addition to providing steady defending in the back. While Opara and the rest of the San Jose defense, which featured Bobby Burling, Ramiro Corrales and Jason Hernandez against D.C. last week, will surely be focused on stopping Union leader scorer Sebastien Le Toux, Opara’s success against Mwanga may very well determine the outcome of the match.
Shea Salinas vs his former club…and Bobby Convey
After being left unprotected in the MLS Expansion Draft, Salinas had trouble cracking the lineup in the early going for Philadelphia after starting the season at less than full strength due to injury. A natural winger, Salinas was initially employed off the bench as a late spark and as a fill-in on the backline against New York with defender Danny Califf serving a red card suspension.
After finally cracking the starting lineup in his natural role, the former Earthquake has settled in as the Union’s starting right back over the last three matches. While the absences of Alejandro Moreno against Chivas and Michael Orozco Fiscal against Seattle opened up starting spots in each match, Nowak started Salinas on the right in favor of Cristian Arrieta against Kansas City before the World Cup break. That decision would indicate that he’ll likely do the same even if Moreno returns on Saturday, which would force Le Toux back to the midfield and either Torres to the bench with Orozco Fiscal in the midfield again, or Orozco Fiscal to the backline with Arrieta coming out. A bit complicated, yes, but the bottom line is Nowak likes Salinas in the lineup.
If Nowak sticks with his recent trend of inserting Salinas from the opening whistle, he’ll be faced with at least part of the responsibility of shutting down SJ’s most dangerous player, Philadelphia native Convey. Convey is tied with rookie Michael Stephens for the second most assists in the league with seven, trailing only Landon Donovan. The former Reading F.C. star, who helped the English club earn a promotion into the EPL several years back, has been tormenting opposing sides all season with his dangerous runs along the left flank. On Saturday, he’ll run right into Salinas if he penetrates the midfield, and it’ll be up to Philadelphia’s versatile speedster to divert the threats.
Danny Califf vs Chris Wondoloski
With six out of San Jose’s 16 goals on the season, Wondoloski has been the Earthquakes’ most proficient scorer by a long shot in 2010. A trade from Houston back to the club that drafted him 41st overall in 2005 has clearly suited Wondoloski well, as the striker has more goals in 11 matches this season than he had in his previous five seasons in the league (4).
The Union will also have to be mindful of striker Ryan Johnson, who is still waiting to break out after scoring a career-high 11 goals in 2009, but Wondoloski has been the more productive of the two this year. With help from Salinas, assuming he gets the nod again, Califf will need to bear down on Wondolowsi when he has the ball and prevent him from receiving service when he doesn’t. Wondoloski has been dangerous in space this year, so the less Califf gives him the better. Shots from near the edge of the area have plagued the Union all year, mostly because attackers have been given a window to strike uncontested. Califf needs to make sure that doesn’t happen on Saturday.
Alejandro Moreno vs his right knee
Moreno’s absence was clearly felt by the Union last week against Chivas. Moreno may not have any goals this season, but his ability to occupy the defense, hold up play while others find dangerous positions to receive the ball, and then distribute with precision and intent are qualities that the Union simply can’t replace. While Moreno is likely to give it a go on Saturday, he’ll need to be sharp against a relatively stingy San Jose side that is giving up an average of 1.15 goals per game.
Philadelphia fans vs a level playing field at PPL Park
This one’s no contest folks. While all clubs have an undeniable advantage playing at home, PPL Park appears as if it’ll be one of the very strongest in the league. Moreno may have drawn the penalty kick that led to Le Toux’s goal. Fred may have scored the game winner after an enormous penalty kick save by Chris Seitz. And Mwanga may have put the nail in the coffin with his late goal. But make no mistake; it was the incessant energy surrounding the pitch and tangible desire of the hometown faithful to christen PPL Park with a win that drove the Union players to somehow work as hard in the 90th minute as they did in the first despite heat index levels that reached 106 degrees.
That same boost will be available on Saturday, but three points at home are never guaranteed no matter how strong a home field advantage is. With that said, the edge has to be given to the Union on Sunday, and Philadelphia fans are a big reason why.
Last Match Highlights
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
OUT: MF Kyle Nakazawa (R knee sprain)
QUESTIONABLE: MF Shea Salinas (L ankle strain)
FW Alejandro Moreno (R right knee), DF Cristian Arrieta (R ankle)
San Jose Earthquakes Injury Report
OUT: MF Andre Luiz (L knee internal derangement); DF Steven Beitashour (R knee sprain)
QUESTIONABLE: FW Scott Sealy (R quad strain)
PROBABLE: MF Joey Gjertsen (L quad strain); FW Eduardo (R hip flexor strain)
Date: Saturday, July 10, 2010
Time: 6:00pm ET
Location: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.
Television: Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Español