The wait is finally over. The Philadelphia Union have a place to call home: PPL Park.
A new era will begin when 18,000+ fans pour into their spanking new stadium on Sunday, and an expansion team that has struggled on the road will experience a true home field advantage. Despite a less than stellar start to the season, playing 13 of their remaining 20 league matches in front of a fan base that has shown in just two matches the kind of impact it can have on the standings can only help turn around Philadelphia's fortunes.
Undefeated at home in two matches played at Lincoln Financial Field, a 3-2 win against D.C. United in the club’s home opener and a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas that saw Danny Mwanga’s first goal in stoppage time, the Union are relieved to be finished with a brutal early season stretch. Losing days of training week in and week out due to constant traveling, cramped airplanes, unfamiliar beds and time zone changes aren’t excuses -- and Philadelphia haven't been making any -- but they undoubtedly take their toll. Add in a lack of experience playing together that any expansion team faces and it’s clear the Union can improve on their 2-7-1 record.
Another indication that a climb up the standings is very feasible? The quality of their play this year. The Union have far outperformed their record, often falling victim to costly mistakes. Ball movement, possession and attacking creativity have been stellar at times, all signs that greener pastures are ahead.
Philadelphia will look to turn their season around against the team it all started against, Seattle Sounders FC. Seattle have also struggled in their second season, losing three of their last four, including a 3-2 loss to D.C. in their last match, dropping the 2009 MLS expansion team to 4-6-3. That mark is only good for sixth in the Western Conference despite 13 matches played, tied for most in the league and three more than Philadelphia.
The atmosphere at PPL Park won’t help Seattle any, and there’s a little added fuel to the fire after a highly-publicized battle of words between Union manager Peter Nowak and Freddie Ljundberg in the aftermath of the last meeting between these two clubs. Philadelphia fans won’t make it easy for any opposing player or side coming into PPL Park, but there will likely be some targeted taunting on Sunday.
The opening of PPL Park will be memorable no matter the outcome, but let’s take a look at some of the matchups on the pitch.
Chris Seitz and Philadelphia’s backline vs. Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani
When focused and in form, Montero is one of the deadliest strikers in MLS. Combined with Zakuani’s pace and emerging skill, the duo has racked up nine of Seattle’s 14 goals this season. Translation? Stop Moreno and Zakuani and you stop Seattle.
That task will be up to a Union defense that has struggled this season, giving up a league high 2.1 goals per game. Still looking for their first shutout, the crowd will provide the unit with plenty of motivation to buckle down and establish their home territory from the get-go.
Danny Califf and whoever replaces the suspended Michael Orozco (red card against KC) must stop onrushing runs like the one that led to Kei Kamara’s goal early in their last match. Cristian Arrieta, or Shea Salinas if Nowak chooses to start the midfielder in back for the second straight game to match Zakuani’s speed, must close down the right wing. Jordan Harvey will need to do the same on the opposite side of the field, while continuing to get forward like he’s done with success at times this year. In net, Seitz will look to take control of the defense in front of him and consistently display the immense potential that has been evident in stretches this season.
With two thirds of the season left, Sunday is the day for this defense to put their foot down, stay away from giving up an early goal, and set a different tone for the remainder of the season.
Philadelphia’s midfield vs Seattle’s midfield
The Union technical staff has been experimenting with different combinations in the midfield, but two constants since the first game against Seattle have been Fred and Stefani Miglioranzi.
Fred has done well in possession, but will look to be more effective at the point of attack in order to add to his lone assist on the season. Miglioranzi is consistently a steady holding presence in the midfield, and he’ll need to be at his best to confront Ljundberg, who will have to be more attack-minded than ever with Brad Evans out with a torn right meniscus. Talented midfielder Osvaldo Alonso may also miss the match, listed as doubtful with a quad strain.
It’ll be interesting to see if Nowak sticks with leading scorer Sebastien Le Toux in a midfield role, paving the way for Mwanga to start up top again with Alejandro Moreno. Le Toux’s versatility allows all three players to see the field at once, and the combination gives the Union more attacking firepower than any other.
If Philadelphia can shut down Ljundberg and muster some offense from a midfield that hasn’t put up big numbers yet this season, PPL Park will likely open with a bang.
Moreno, Mwanga and Le Toux vs. Seattle’s defense and Kasey Keller
Philadelphia has a strong attacking nucleus with Le Toux cementing himself as one of the more dangerous up-and-coming goal scorers in MLS, Moreno doing all the dirty work and distribtion that unlock opportunities for others, and Mwanga showing potential to be a top striker early in his rookie season. The key, however, will be contributions from the rest of the lineup. Yet to score multiple goals in consecutive matches, Philadelphia will need to receive help in the attacking third from their midfielders and defenders to break through early and often against one of the all-time American greats in Keller.
Keller had one of the poorest showings of his career against D.C., and you can bet he’s been anxious to redeem himself while MLS has been on break for the World Cup. Seattle’s backline is missing 2009 All Star Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who tore his left ACL, but there’s still plenty of talent there with Leo Gonzalez on the left, James Riley on the right, and a centerback pairing of Tyrone Marshall and Jeff Parke.
Seattle’s defense got the best of Philadelphia in the first meeting between the two sides, but the Union have had time to build cohesion and will have the backing of a fervent fan base on Sunday. No matter what happens, expect a battle at PPL Park. The first of many.
Last Match Highlights
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
OUT: MF Kyle Nakazawa (R knee sprain);
PROBABLE: MF Fred (L quad contusion); MF Stefani Miglioranzi (R foot contusion)
SUSPENDED: Michael Orozco Fiscal (through June 27)
Seattle Sounders Injury Report
OUT: MF Brad Evans (R knee meniscus); MF Michael Fucito (R knee contusion); DF Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (L knee ACL tear);
DOUBTFUL: MF Osvaldo Alonso (R quadriceps strain);
PROBABLE: FW Nate Jaqua (lower abdominal fascial tear); MF Peter Vagenas (R quadriceps strain); GK Terry Boss (R ankle sprain)
Date: Thursday, June 27, 2010
Time: 5:00pm ET
Location: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.
Television: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes
Talent: Glenn Davis (play-by-play), Kyle Martino (color analyst)