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.
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.
[inline_node:287352]“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.”