A lot has been made about the Philadelphia Union’s start to the 2016 MLS Regular Season. The club is off to its best start since 2011 and can jump ahead of that season’s pace with a win on Saturday against San Jose (4 p.m., 6abc).
Following last week’s win against NYCFC, coupled with Montreal’s loss to Toronto, the Union jumped into first place. After Montreal’s midweek draw, the Union are back in second, but do have the conference’s best points per game average. Some personal accolades have flown in as well, with players like Andre Blake and C.J. Sapong stealing plenty of headlines.
And while that start means something, everyone around this league knows the long MLS season is a marathon, not a sprint. Still, their early season effort shouldn’t go unnoticed – and it hasn’t.
“I think our fans have come out – especially in the New York City game – and they realize something’s different, something is new,” head coach Jim Curtin said during his weekly press conference on Wednesday. “There is a buzz about the stadium, there’s new players here, there’s new things going on, and it’s positive right now. But, again, 34 games, not seven, so we still have a lot of work to do.”
One thing the Union can feel confident about is their play at home. They’ve now five consecutive home games (dating back to Sept. 20, 2015 against Houston) – a franchise record – and have won their first three home games at Talen Energy Stadium for the first time in franchise history. And it hasn’t been a fluke; they’re outscoring teams 7-1 at home and have really only been test by Orlando.
“I think that establishing ourselves at home is critical, to start 3-0 here is good,” Curtin said. “We’re hungry now, though, and want more. Our next two are here and they’re against two darn good Western Conference teams, so we’ll see what we are really about in these next two games.”
Enter San Jose, which will certainly be a good test for the home streak. The Earthquakes (4-2-2, 14 points) sit in fifth place in the highly competitive Western Conference and boast the league’s leading scorer Chris Wondolowski.
“First and foremost, I think it starts with their coach; Dom Kinnear is for me the guy that I always, whenever the next national team coach gets named, he’s the one that I always think of because he relates so well to the American player, he gets the most out of American players, so I always think of him,” Curtin said. “Anytime I’ve played against one of his teams it was always tough, incredibly well organized and just good teams. Now, coaching against him, it’s the same.”
In his second stint with San Jose, Kinnear has turned the ‘Quakes around quickly. After just barely missing the playoffs in his first season, San Jose – at least so far – looks like a team worthy of the postseason this year.
A big reason for that has been Wondolowski. The USMNT forward leads the league with seven goals and has one in each of his last four games. He’s just 29 away from passing Landon Donovan for MLS’ all-time record, and if he keeps going like this, it’s hard to see how he won’t get there.
“He’s as good as anyone at arriving in the box, runs as hard as anyone, will sacrifice his body,” Curtin said after recalling a reserve league game against a younger Wondolowski. “Great player, great career, great professional, and a really good person, too, if you sit down and talk to him. So, I can’t say enough about him, he’ll be a handful for our guys, another tough task that he’s not just a one-person assignment.”
That assignment looks to be for Richie Marquez and Josh Yaro. Yaro has played in each of the last two games, filling in for Ken Tribbett who has been out with a right ankle sprain. Tribbett has been a full participant in training this week, but remains questionable for Saturday.
Also on the back line, Ray Gaddis is expected to fill in for Fabinho, who is suspended on yellow card accumulation. Gaddis made his season debut against New York City FC on Saturday, playing the entire second half to help the Union keep the clean sheet.
San Jose has lineup questions, though, as well. Even at the same position. Andres Imperiale was retroactively suspended for Saturday’s match after fouling Dom Dwyer a week ago. Interestingly, it was not the more controversial of the two fouls, as Imperiale also took down Dwyer inside the box and Sporting’s penalty shout was denied.
But it’s already a tough spot for the Earthquakes, who are missing fellow center back Clarence Goodson with back soreness. Alongside Victor Bernardez could be veteran outside back Marvell Wynne, or perhaps the very promising youngster Fatai Alashe comes back from the midfield.
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