Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By JOEL HOOVER
In a season where parity has ruled the Major League Soccer standings, the Philadelphia Union suddenly find themselves in position to move to the summit of the Eastern Conference as the season’s final weeks kick off.
Despite looking over their shoulder at the chasing pack for the final East playoff spots in recent weeks, the Union are now just two points behind Sporting Kansas City and a point behind the New York Red Bulls at the top of the Eastern Conference. A win for the Union this Saturday at New York, coupled with a loss for Sporting to the San Jose Earthquakes, would put Philadelphia on top of the conference standings with just nine games to go in the season.
“We feel like we’re a good team…(we) can compete with anybody and we feel like we’ve proved that with some of the results this year,” Union manager John Hackworth said in the team’s weekly press conference Wednesday. “At the same time, we know what we are and we understand what we are not, so I think we have a mentality that we know every single game we are going to have to play to the best of our capability in order for us to give ourselves a chance to be successful.”
Given the tightness of the league table this season, a loss or draw would keep the Union, currently on 37 points, looking in the rear-view mirror at the chasing pack. The Montreal Impact sit at 35 points, the Houston Dynamo are in the final playoff spot with 33 points, and the Chicago Fire are not far behind at 31 points.
The key is that each of those three teams have played two fewer games than the Union, meaning the table could get all the more tighter as the season reaches its climax and the games even out. Such parity has made for wide-open races for the playoffs and Supporter’s Shield, but has also ramped up the pressure on the teams involved.
“It’s a little scary…you can’t ever rest on what you did last game, even if it’s a positive (result),” Hackworth said. “Our guys have been fantastic…they know we’re in a good spot, but they also know how vulnerable we are right now. If we take it for granted that we’re in a better spot, we can be hurt very quickly.”
Here are some more notes from the Union’s weekly press conference:
GADDIS WORKING HIS WAY BACK
After sitting out the Union’s 2-0 victory over D.C. United last weekend with an ankle injury picked up against the Chicago Fire the weekend before, left back Ray Gaddis is “still questionable” according to Hackworth. Though he was able to do some “running and cutting” on Wednesday at practice, the 23-year-old defender’s status for Saturday is still up in the air.
“We hope he’s available,” Hackworth said. “But I don’t want to say yet just because he hasn’t been cleared (by the medical staff).”
Gaddis had started all 23 of the Union’s matches prior to missing the one with D.C. United on the weekend, but his automatic place at left back has suddenly been put into question due to the form of summer signing Fabinho. After a somewhat underwhelming start defensively, the Brazilian did what Hackworth called a “great job” overall vs. United, as he showed ability going forward as a wing back and delivered a left-footed assist to Conor Casey from the flank on the Union’s second goal.
Whether Gaddis returns this weekend or not, questions are starting to arise about Fabinho potentially claiming a place in the lineup. His left-footed deliveries have been a commodity the Union have lacked this season and he has shown promise going forward in the attack despite some defensive lapses. At the very least, Hackworth says Fabinho’s performance means they don’t have to rush Gaddis back from his injury.
“Ray has been so important to our team this year…I think he’s had a stellar season,” Hackworth said. “We feel good about the fact that Fabinho is contributing and that he gives us a little something different. But when both guys are healthy, we’re going to have a tough decision to make.”
CLOSING IN ON A CLUB RECORD
While three points at Red Bull Arena would be both a huge boost in the Union’s push for the playoffs and also their first-ever result away against their I-95 rivals to the north, there’s another incentive for Philadelphia to chase a win this weekend.
A victory would match the club record in the Union’s short history for wins in a season with 11. That mark was set back in 2011, when Philadelphia went 11-8-15 for 48 points and made the Conference Semifinals in the MLS Cup playoffs, their only playoff appearance in team history. The significance of reaching that mark has not been lost on Hackworth as his team prepares for the weekend derby.
“It would mean a lot,” Hackworth said. “But at the same time, any victory in New York would be fantastic.”
The Union had picked up just eight wins in their inaugural season in 2010, followed by the 11-win season of 2011 and the tumultuous 10-win, 36-point season of last year. There is also ample opportunity for the Union to add to their win total over the remaining nine games to come after New York, as they continue to push for a playoff position with games against East rivals like Sporting Kansas City (twice), the Houston Dynamo, the Montreal Impact, as well as bottom-feeders D.C. United and Toronto FC.
“Our focus with every game in these next ten is to take it one game at a time to try and maximize our points,” Hackworth said.
- The Union enter their weekend fixture at Red Bull Arena 0-5-0 all-time at the venue.
- Hackworth said that the understanding between Sebastien Le Toux and Fabinho is improving on the left side of the Union attack after the D.C. game, while Keon Daniel and Brian Carroll are finding a better “rhythm” going forward and defending in tandem in the center of the midfield.
- Le Toux continues to top MLS with 12 assists on the season. Hackworth said he is pleased with the converted winger’s play and hopeful that Le Toux will add to his tally in the final ten games.
How do you see the Union faring this weekend vs. the Red Bulls? Should Hackworth revert to Gaddis when he is healthy again or stick with Fabinho at left back? How many more wins do you think Philadelphia will have in the regular season?
Share your thoughts below.