July 10 was one of the most frustrating days of this inaugural Union season.
Hosting San Jose, the Union took an early lead when Fred latched on to a stellar flick-on from Danny Mwanga. But a strike from Cornell Glen in the 45th minute erased the lead, a disappointment to end the half.
Dominating the run of play in the second half, a Union onslaught in search of a game-winner quickly turned into a San Jose counterattack, with Arturo Alvarez dribbling the length of the field to send home a stunning stoppage-time winner. Two goals, conceded in the final minute of each half, left the Union with a 2-1 loss, the squad’s first-ever home defeat.
But fast-forward to September, and a different looking Union side that has taken seven points out of the last three league matches. San Jose is clinging to a playoff spot in their own right, and a win on Wednesday can distance Frank Yallop’s squad from Seattle while closing the gap on FC Dallas.
For the Earthquakes, the key to success is defense – they’ve recorded nine shutouts this year, including three in their last six games. In fact, no visiting team has scored at Buck Shaw Stadium since July 31.
“Defensively, they’ve been very good the last couple of games,” Union goalkeeper Brad Knighton told philadelphiaunion.com. “They have Buschy (Jon Busch) in goal, a great goalkeeper. They’ve been sound at the back as well. They haven’t really given much away. I think they’ve got no goals against, at home, in, I think, three or four hundred minutes. So, it’s going to be tough to break them down, but I feel like we’re going to be able to, and hopefully we can get something out of the game.”
The Union are also enjoying a recent spell of staunch defensive play, highlighted by Knighton’s shutout against Chicago on Saturday. Peter Nowak's side has kept clean sheets in exhibition matches against Celtic F.C. and Chivas de Guadalajara, but Saturday’s win was the first league shutout in team history.
The trip to the Bay Area is a homecoming for Shea Salinas, who was a winger for the Earthquakes before being picked up in this year’s expansion draft. He returned to action Saturday and played 21 minutes after recovering from a stress fracture that held him out over two months.
“I have a bunch of friends there,” Salinas told philadelphiaunion.com. “I was there for two years, so I made a lot of connections. Going back and playing in front of them, it’s important to play well, and we definitely want to get a win.”
For Salinas, the key to this return trip is to build upon the effort put forth in Saturday’s shutout. For the offense, that means getting the ball to Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga , who have combined for 18 goals on the year. Mwanga’s status is uncertain, though, despite receiving good news when X-Rays on his slightly separated shoulder came back negative.
“Offensively, I think we just need to do the same thing we did last game, get the ball wide, get it in the box obviously,” Salinas added. “Sebastien and Danny are important for us; they’re our two most dangerous players. If we can get them the ball as much as possible, we’re going to be a lot better.”
This San Jose lineup will look slightly different than the starting eleven we saw in Philadelphia. Defender Ike Opara looked like a potential Rookie of the Year candidate before he fractured his foot, and midfielder Ramiro Corrales, who also featured in the July 10 matchup, is out with a knee sprain.
But bolstering the San Jose attack is Brazilian playmaker Geovanni, who most recently starred with English side Hull City. The crafty midfielder opened his MLS scoring account with a crackling effort against the Houston Dynamo on September 5. He also tallied his first assist in the 2-1 victory.
While Union captain Danny Califf acknowledged that it’s important to identify potentially dangerous players like the SJ's Designated Played, he believes Philadelphia’s defensive effort will dictate the outcome more than who lines up on the other side of the pitch.
“Any time you put a good player in the mix, it’s going to take some focus by us to try and counter that, so that’s certainly going to come into our game plan,” he said. “It’s really cliché, but I think it’s more about us.”
A playoff berth has seemed improbable for the expansion Union ever since a rough start to the season that can be attributed at least in part to playing eight of the first 10 games on the road. But the club is looking more cohesive with each passing match, and increasingly like a team with a true identity.
A win on Wednesday would leapfrog the Union past Chivas USA and Chicago and into a tie with Kansas City in the standings, just six points away from that final playoff spot.
“With this league, it’s crazy,” Salinas said. “You think you’re completely out of it, you have a streak of bad games, you look at the standings, and you tell yourself, ‘Wow, we’re still in this.’ So, it’s neat to look at it and say we can still make the playoffs. It gives us an added motivation.”
Even with the playoffs in sight, Goalkeeper Brad Knighton says the team doesn’t focus on the standings. The only priority worth focusing on is Wednesday night against San Jose.
“No, I mean, we don’t look at all that stuff,” he said. “We can only take care of what we can do; we take it one step at a time. We’ve got another game this Wednesday, we’re looking for a result, and we’re going to do everything we can to try and get these three points and move up the table.”