Aside from the first match in club history, never have the Philadelphia Union (3-7-1) been so excited to go on the road.
Why? Because they’re headed right back home afterwards for four straight league matches at PPL Park.
The early stretch of the season was as tough mentally as it was physically, with long road stretches that seemed endless. But PPL Park’s grand opening – and it was grand after the Union dominated the Sounders 3-1 in comeback fashion – was just what the doctor ordered to re-focus a young expansion side.
That brings us to Saturday night’s tilt (10:30pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports en Español) against a struggling Chivas USA (3-9-1), losers of six straight league matches. Jonathan Bornstein’s homecoming from World Cup action will boost Martin Vasquez’s squad, but Chivas doesn’t benefit from much of a home field advantage, having lost their last three at the Home Depot Center to bring their overall home record to 2-4-0.
At PPL Park on Sunday, Philadelphia looked as dangerous as any team in the league in the second half. Crisp possession, frequent scoring chances, efficient finishing, and superior fitness equated to the finest half of soccer in franchise history.
The challenge for manager Peter Nowak & Co. is bringing the same intensity and confidence on the road with them, where the club has only earned three points in eight matches.
A win on Saturday would give the Union a world of momentum heading back to the Chester Waterfront. With only two points separating Philadelphia from 5th place in the Eastern Conference, a rise up the standings is in their future if they consistently play with the form they’ve shown at times this season. And yes, that means on the road as well.
Let’s take a look at a few of the key matchups on the pitch.
Sebastien Le Toux, Alejandro Moreno and Danny Mwanga vs Jonathan Bornstein and Zach Thornton
Le Toux’s shift back to an attacking midfield role essentially gives Philadelphia a trio of strikers, in addition to attack-minded midfielders Fred and Roger Torres. Le Toux is just as dangerous as a midfielder, with a goal and two assists last week and the game-winning assist against Houston in the club's only other road win after dropping back to allow for Mwanga’s late substitution. With six goals and five assists on the season, tied with Edson Buddle, Dwayne De Rosario and now Alvaro Saborio for the highest combined goals/assists total in MLS, the word on Le Toux is quickly spreading. No longer just a hard working, versatile option, Le Toux has taken his place among the league’s elite.
Le Toux will need to continue serving as a link in the midfield, and his 7th goal of the season early in the match would go a long way towards convincing the Union that they can be a different team on the road than they were in the first third of the season. In fact, Philadelphia have scored first on the road once all season and that was in Houston.
Moreno is constantly softening defenses with his physical play, creating space and opportunity for those around him. When he’s not racking up assists (tied with Le Toux for the team lead), he’s drawing fouls in and around the area like the one that led to a penalty kick last week. You can bet he’s hungry for his first goal for the Union, and one would think it’s on the way with Moreno looking for his shot more frequently of late.
Rounding out the trio is everybody’s favorite rookie, number one overall pick Danny Mwanga, who forced his way into the starting lineup with three stoppage time goals in a row off the bench. On Sunday, he showed that he can find the back of the net as a starter too. While maintaining his pace of 1.1 goals per 90 minutes is unrealistic, Mwanga has already proven that he belongs at this level. The question is just how good the 18-year-old can become with starter’s minutes.
In net for Chivas is Thornton, a physically imposing ‘keeper who had a stellar year in 2009 with career bests in shutouts (12) and GAA (0.87). 2010 has been a different story, however, with the opposition scoring an average of 1.57 goals per match against the Baltimore native. Chivas’ defense hasn’t been the same either, which is certainly contributing to the stark difference, but nor has Thornton. At age 36, it remains to be seen whether he can return to last year's form, or even close, and it’s up to Philadelphia’s attack to find out in the short term.
Bornstein’s return can only help a defense that has given up the fourth most goals per game in MLS. The left back is joined by Mariano Trujillo, Michael Umana and Dario Delgado, but it’s Bornstein who is the glue. If he can ward off Le Toux’s dangerous runs along the right flank, Chivas will have a far better chance of containing the Union. If not, it could be a long day for the Goats at home.
Justin Braun and Jesus Padilla vs Stefani Miglioranzi
Braun and Padilla are the only Chivas players with more than a single goal on the season, with four and three respectively. Braun is Chivas’ most dangerous player and is one of the better young talents in MLS. While defenders Danny Califf and Michael Orozco will have to do their part if Braun finds his way into Philadelphia’s third, the Union would be better off preventing situations like the one that allowed Kei Kamara to score early on a wide open strike from the edge of the box last match.
Much of that responsibility will fall on holding midfielder Stefani Miglioranizi. The elder stateman on the roster doesn’t get the headlines, but he’s been one of Philadelphia’s most consistent contributors through 11 matches. The Union are at their best in the midfield when Miglioranzi is winning loose balls or breaking up onrushing attacks, then jumpstarting the counter attack. If he can do just that on Saturday, the Union may very well be too much to handle in Chivas’ half.
Chris Seitz and the Union defense vs the club’s shutout-less streak
After an encouraging performance across the backline and Seitz’s best performance of the season, which including a game-changing penalty kick save with the score tied at 1-1, the Union have their sights set on the first shutout in club history. Seitz’s confidence is at an all time high, and his critics have quieted.
Despite a successful outing last week, no defense-goalkeeper combo is fully happy without a zero on the scoreboard for the opposition. Chivas has an offense that can be shut down, and the Union know they have the talent on their backline to do it, even on the road.
Michael Orozco Fiscal will be back from suspension to pair with fellow centerback Danny Califf, which leaves Nowak needing to choose between Shea Salinas and Cristian Arrieta on the right. Salinas could push up to his natural midfield position, with Torres coming off the bench as a second half spark plug, but Salinas’ speed is a nice compliment to Califf’s ball winning. The former Earthquake doesn’t lose his attacking instincts coming out of the back and he has the speed to get back on defense after making a run forward. Don’t be shocked to see Salinas starting in the same position again on Saturday, and possibly longer.
Last Match Highlights
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
OUT: MF Kyle Nakazawa (R knee sprain);
QUESTIONABLE: FW Alejandro Moreno (R knee contusion);
PROBABLE: DF Cristian Arrieta (R ankle contusion)
Chivas USA Injury Report
Date: Saturday, July 3, 2010
Time: 10:30pm ET
Location: Home Depot Center, Carson, Ca.
Television: Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Español