Chester, Pa. — The score line didn’t count towards the standings, but the words spoken by Everton manager David Moyes and captain Phil Neville were sincere.
Following Wednesday night’s 1-0 Union victory, Moyes and Neville both had high praise for the Union, Major League Soccer, and the atmosphere at PPL Park.
“I’ve played in Salt Lake twice, I’ve played in New York, I’ve played in Seattle and Houston,” Neville told reporters after the match. “Tonight was more like a European atmosphere, I thought. It was more European than [other MLS environments].
"It seems to be a good football city — good manager, good young team," Neville added. "It looks like a team that hasn’t got many superstars, but they play really as a team in a tight unit. I was really impressed with them.”
“I thought the Union played well; they passed it well,” said Moyes. “They passed it much better than us and kept the ball better. I thought they were quite impressive. They looked as if they’re an improving team.”
Still early in their preseason, Everton were understandably rusty in the final third of the field. The Toffees defended well, but had trouble linking up near the Union goal.
“I think what you saw for most of the night was that we were okay in possession up until the final third,” said Neville. “When you’re fully fit, that’s when it shows, and we weren’t sharp at all. Our ball retention in the final third was poor, and the Union probably found it easy to defend against us. I think the one-nil score line was probably a fair result in the end.”
Philadelphia out shot the Merseyside club, 18 to seven, with the Union putting four on target compared to just one for Everton.
“We didn’t play well — there were maybe mitigating circumstances,” explained Moyes. “I thought we did a bit better for 20 minutes in the second half. I thought the last 15 or 20 minutes, physically, we didn’t have enough people we could change, and we ran out of energy.
"No complaints though," Moyes continued. "I thought, in the end, Philadelphia deserved it. It looked like we might hang on and get a draw out of it. We had one or two opportunities but not really enough.”
A young Union squad did well to control possession for long stretches of the match. While the home side squandered a number of goal-scoring opportunities, they created more quality chances than Moyes’ squad.
“I think, when you’re in the early parts of preseason, sharpness plays a key,” said Neville. "You need sharpness in the final third. Union were sharp in the final third, they caused us problems, and they had good combination play. We just didn’t quite have that combination play in our final third. When [Apostolos Vellios] came on, he gave us a little bit more, and I think when Seamus Coleman went further up the field, he gave us a little more penetration.”
Everton’s number one priority during this preseason trip is gaining fitness for the upcoming EPL fixture. After multiple training sessions in the heat and 90 minutes at PPL Park, the club is just starting to find their legs again.
“What we’ve found in the past, is when we play MLS teams, we’ve gone back to play the English teams, the European teams, and it’s been easier," said Neville. "The preparation’s been so good. Tonight was probably the biggest test we’ve had this preseason.”
While Everton know their best form is still ahead, it didn't stop them from being impressed with the quality they encountered at a sold out PPL Park.
“The biggest progression I see is the confidence in MLS," said Neville. "I think, seven or eight years ago I came out with Manchester United, and there was still an inferiority complex that MLS teams couldn’t compete with European sides, with EPL sides. Each summer I’ve come out here, watched a lot of football, and I think now you see the league getting stronger and stronger.
"If I was an MLS player, I’d be confident about holding my own. They’re fit, and they’re tactically a lot better. I think the league’s improving and I’m a massive fan of the league."