What a difference a year makes.
After spending much of last Spring on the road, the Union schedule looks much more balanced and favorable in 2011. Peter Nowak's squad should be able to avoid travel fatigue this year, and with PPL Park good to go from day one, no home games will be played at Lincoln Financial Field.
The longest road stretch of the season is in July, when the Union travel to DC, San Jose, Seattle and New England in consecutive weeks. Most of the schedule follows a simple home-away rotation, though there are several instances of back-to-back home or away games.
The longest home stretch of the season starts in late August, with matches against New England, Portland and Columbus in succession. Philadelphia will play seven of their last 11 matches of the season at PPL Park.
The toughest part of the schedule comes early. On four consecutive Saturdays in April, the Union face LA away, New York at home, Seattle at home, and Salt Lake away. While two of the matches will be played at PPL Park, four title contenders in a row is never easy.
Here's a more detailed breakdown of the schedule:
March 19 – at Houston
March 26 – Vancouver
These were the two games we knew about before the release of the full schedule. The season opener at Houston is an interesting matchup. While Houston is a tough place to play, it was also the site of the Union's first-ever road win. Fans no doubt remember Danny Mwanga's dramatic stoppage time winner last year, as the Union stole three points at Robertson Stadium. Dominic Kinnear's side will look to rebound from a disappointing 2010 with a debut win at home.
Is it too early to call the Vancouver game a must-win? This is a complete role reversal from 2010. On March 26, the Union will be the more experienced side, hosting a fledgling expansion franchise. A loss or draw here would be disappointing. Analysts will expect the Union to take all three points against a new squad that will still be finding their feet. Former Union winger Shea Salinas was picked up by Vancouver in the expansion draft, and will be just the second ex-Union player to return to PPL Park (Shavar Thomas).
April 2 – at Los Angeles
April 9 – New York
April 16 – Seattle
April 23 – at Salt Lake
April 30 – San Jose
Talk about a tough stretch.
April's lineup features five of the eight playoff squads from 2010. Los Angeles and San Jose were semifinalists last year. New York won the Eastern Conference. Salt Lake was undefeated at home. And Seattle posted 48 points in just their second year in the league.
First up: the Galaxy. Last year's trip to Los Angeles was forgettable, with the Union quickly falling behind en route to a 3-1 loss. This year the Union face a new-look Galaxy squad that includes Juan Pablo Angel up top, who will essentially replace the departed Edson Buddle.
Then, the game that is circled on fans' calendars: home against New York on April 9. This match will air nationally on ESPN2.
Last April, the Union lost twice to the Red Bulls. A league loss was followed by an Open Cup defeat, both losses coming on the road just four days apart. But while the Union didn't win in New York last year, they held serve at home, defeating New York at PPL Park in the club's last home match. This will be a special night along the Chester Waterfront, as natural rivals meet early on in the season.
The Union defeated Seattle at home last year. It was the first win at PPL Park and the first game at PPL Park. Philadelphia will look to repeat that performance on April 16.
Then a tough trip to Rio Tinto stadium precedes a home date with San Jose, where the squad will look to avenge last year's late collapse against the Earthquakes.
Stealing points on the road from LA and RSL would go a very long way. But that's a tough proposition. LA and Salt Lake had a combined 20-4-6 home record last year. If the Union can't bring home those points, they'll need to pick up wins or draws at home against Seattle, New York, and San Jose. If the squad struggles in April, they'll find themselves in an early hole similar to 2010.
May 7 – at Portland
May 11 – Los Angeles
May 14 – at FC Dallas
May 21 – Chicago
May 28 – at Toronto FC
May is highlighted by three road trips in different directions – one north, one south, and one west.
The trips to Portland and Toronto are prime opportunities to pick up some points on the road. Portland is the other 2011 expansion squad and will still be inexperienced in May. Toronto remains an enigma – a team with strong home support, but underwhelming results over the years.
The second leg of the Galaxy series comes to PPL Park on May 11. Then a home game with Chicago follows a road trip to Pizza Hut Park, where the squad will take on last year's MLS Cup runner-up FC Dallas.
The best chances to grab points in May will be away at Portland, home vs. Chicago and at Toronto. Don't doubt the Union's chances at home against the Galaxy either. An expansion Philadelphia side nearly pulled out a result against LA last year, falling 1-0 on October 7.
June 4 – at Colorado
June 11 – Salt Lake
June 18 – at Vancouver
June 22 – Sporting KC
June 25 – Chivas USA
After traveling to Toronto, the Union will head back out west to face Colorado. The Rapids torched the Union at Dick's Sporting Goods Park last year, a humbling 4-1 affair. It was the Union's worst loss of the year, and the most goals conceded in a single game.
Salt Lake then comes to town on 11th of June. While RSL was stellar at home last year, they struggled at times the road, drawing seven times away from Rio Tinto.
Distance-wise, a June 18 match against Vancouver is the longest trip in 2011. But it's another opportunity to bring home road points against an expansion team.
The month ends with Wednesday and Saturday night home games against Sporting KC and Chivas USA. Former Union forward Alejandro Moreno will make his return to PPL Park on June 25, wearing the red and white of the Goats.
Four of the five matchups in June come against Western Conference teams. The trip to Vancouver is winnable, and back-to-back home games against KC and Chivas present an opportunity for Nowak's side to grab six points heading into July.
July 2 – at D.C.
July 9 – at San Jose
July 16 – at New England
July 23 – at Seattle
July 30 – Colorado
It's very possible that July will decide the outcome of the 2011 season. The squad plays its longest road stretch of the season, traveling to DC, San Jose, New England, and Seattle. It's important for Philadelphia to end June on a winning note and carry momentum into this road swing.
Last year, the squad won in New England but put in a disappointing performance at RFK stadium, losing 2-0 in the pouring rain. Winning two of these four road games would probably satisfy most Union fans. We know that Seattle is a tough place to place, and San Jose is on the opposite coast, but DC isn't a world beater and the Union proved they can win at Gillette Stadium.
The second-year club will hope to shake off travel fatigue in time for Colorado's trip to PPL Park at the end of the month. Danny Mwanga's seventh and final goal of 2010 was good enough for a 1-1 home draw against last year's MLS Cup winners.
August 3 – at Chicago
August 6 – Houston
August 13 – FC Dallas
August 20 – at Columbus
August 28 – New England
The Union begin August with a good chance of picking up three points on the road at Chicago. The Fire only managed four home wins last year, good for second worst in the league.
Then the Texas teams make back-to-back trips to PPL Park. The Union drew 1-1 at home with both Houston and Dallas last year. Last year's Dallas game was played at Lincoln Financial Field – Mwanga's first career goal kept the club undefeated at home – but this time the Union will get David Ferreira and company in Chester.
The squad then faces a Columbus team who will be without Steven Lenhart and Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The pair accounted for three of the five goals Columbus scored against the Union in last year's home-and-away series. New Union midfielder Brian Carroll will compete for the first time against his former club, which is still considered a quality playoff contender under Robert Warzycha.
August ends with a home game against New England. The Union fought to a 1-1 draw with the Revs at home last year.
At this point, August looks to be another stretch of winnable games and a chance to climb up the table.
September 10 – Portland
September 17 – Columbus
September 24 – at Sporting KC
September 29 – D.C.
The Union will only hit the road once in September. It's a stretch of four home games and just one road game, beginning in late August and lasting until October 2. Home games against Portland, Columbus and DC are all very winnable. Though it's hard to predict where those squads will be in the table, on the surface this stretch hardly looks like Murderer's Row. DC only won three road games last year, and while Columbus were solid at home, the Crew only won four league games outside of Ohio.
The trip to Kansas City's new stadium on September 24 breaks up a three-game home stand. The Union lost 2-0 at Community America Ballpark last year, but it's not far-fetched to say the squad could take points from five consecutive games during this August/September stretch.
October 2 – at Chivas USA
October 15 – Toronto FC
October 20 – at New York
One last trip out west precedes a Toronto match that will close out the home portion of the schedule and the season finale at Red Bull Arena.
Should the Union's season go down the wire, the away trip to New York could be an amazing finale. Like the first matchup, this one is also being picked up by ESPN2.
In the end, it's impossible to predict how these matchups will look before the season even starts. But when you consider the difficulty of last year's schedule, 2011 is looking a whole lot better already.
Nowak's squad will enjoy a much more balanced season, which in and of itself puts the Union in a better position to reach the playoffs for the first time.
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