The Philadelphia Union’s season has had enough peaks and valleys to create the world’s steepest rollercoaster.
Saturday’s performance at Talen Energy Stadium saw the Union speed at 100 miles per hour to the top of the fastest curve on the track.
There was dazzling brilliance from Ilsinho, who produced a goal and two assists, including a crafty flick to set up the first goal, one that will go down as one of the most creative team combinations in franchise history.
“It felt amazing,” Ilsinho said. “After this game, it’s not about the goal or assist. It’s about a big win. We got a big win. We did a very good job. Everyone was on the same page. Everybody did a great job.”
“His talent’s undeniable,” Union manager Jim Curtin said about Ilsinho. “When you see this player train day in and day out, the things he can do with the ball, players are scared to get close to him. You’ve seen it in flashes in the games, but the challenge is always for every player to play at your top level for 90 minutes, and when he plays at his top level for 90 minutes, you guys see the results.”
C.J. Sapong was in the right place at the right time on two occasions, and he took a big step toward a grand prize, a 25-foot stuffed bear in the form of the Union single-season scoring record currently held by Sebastien Le Toux.
“Not only is it just easier all around, but it’s fun as well,” Sapong said. “The little kids kind of come out of you on the field. That’s always a beautiful thing to win that way. We just have to keep it up moving forward. It’s about being consistent and continuing to play at this level.”
But much like the different creations of yourself that you see in a house of mirrors, you never really know what shape the Union attack will be in any given week.
The Union have been maddeningly inconsistent, more frustrating to figure out that Harry Houdini’s best trick. They turn into a shell of themselves on the road, but then explode with creativity in front of the home fans. Not only has the attack clicked on all cylinders, the Union defense has been tougher to break through than a straight jacket.
“We are fighting every game to score a goal as soon as possible, especially against a good Dallas team that have a lot of good technical players,” Haris Medunjanin said. “The first half we proved we are a good team also and if we play together, stick together and are on the same page, then it’s difficult to beat us.”
A 7-3-2 home record with only one concession in their last four home games has established the Union as a formidable force at Talen Energy Stadium, but their bugaboo has been 1-7-3 road mark. But Saturday’s showing was an example of just how well the Union can play during the final 11 contests of the 2017 campaign.
Establishing Ilsinho as the permanent starter in the No. 10 role is a no-brainer after Saturday and his goal and assist production against Columbus in his previous start on July 26. Roland Alberg will be reduced to a meager late-second half substitute at the rate the Brazilian is adjusted to the role in the middle of the attacking trio.
“After a couple games, yes [I feel more comfortable at the No. 10],” Ilsinho said. “The first game was hard. The second one was different. But now, after a couple games, I feel more confidence. But with the guys, I try to just run for help.”
With Ilsinho showing his flair in the final third and willing to track back on defense, it opens up more space for Sapong to work in against the opposing center backs that have eyes on Ilsinho’s next move. It also keeps Fafa Picault and Chris Pontius in one-on-one battles out on the wing. With Picault’s speed and Pontius’ high work rate and aerial ability, opposing full backs should face a challenge each game from here until the end of the regular season.
The defensive spine has been the strong point of the Union all season long. Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin have meshed well together in defensive midfield and the unlikely combination of Jack Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu has produced remarkable results.
Very few missteps have been made by the four members of the spine in front of goal. The positional awareness each player contains combined with the little details that have been done right all season made it maddeningly difficult for opposing attackers to create quality scoring opportunities.
But now, just like it has been for most of the season, the focus is on replicating Saturday’s success. A home game against Montreal in a week’s time is the perfect chance to take the next step and bury a playoff rival at the same time.
If it all goes right, the Union’s run to the finish line might be as tame as a beginner roller coaster, but until they prove it possible, the fans riding the season-long coaster will be awaiting the steep drop with heart racing fear.