By Ben Seal
Chester, Pa. – The stepping stones are many, and the wins come few and far between, but the Philadelphia Union is patiently progressing as the season carries on. The latest chapter in the two-steps-forward, one-back routine was a 2-1 loss to the Eastern Conference leaders Columbus Crew at PPL Park. The Union controlled the pace throughout and exhibited a higher level of structural play, but failed defensively at key moments and missed an opportunity to earn a positive decision.
Columbus substitute Steven Lenhart burned the Union backfield for two scores, keeping the result from matching Philadelphia’s high-caliber effort.
“That was two mistakes we made today that cost us a game,” said Union manager Peter Nowak. “It’s the big story of the season so far.
“When you dominate game after game, it’s like a broken record. It’s like Groundhog’s Day. We’ve got to find a way to be efficient.”
Despite the wide gap between the two teams in the Eastern Conference standings, it was the Union – relegated toward the bottom of the league – that played with conviction in the first half. Most of the run of play came at the Union (4-9-3) end, where Sebastien Le Toux picked apart the Columbus (11-4-4) defense with effective passing and ball control. And whenever the Crew managed to make a charge toward the Philadelphia goal, the home side answered immediately back.
Emilio Renteria tested Union keeper Chris Seitz in the 32nd minute, beating a defender up the middle and firing a 25-yard shot that [picappgallerysingle id=”9497550″]the goalie cleanly parried away. Moments later Philadelphia newcomer Justin Mapp put a left-footed charge into a distant shot that forced Columbus’ William Hesmer to leap to his right and make the stop.
The greatest response of the night came in first-half injury time, five minutes after the Crew put Philadelphia on its heels with the first goal of the game. Trailing 1-0, the Union needed something special from its best player and Le Toux delivered.
Substitute Kyle Nakazawa’s beautiful free kick from the right side swerved toward the left goalpost and right into the feet of midfielder Fred, but the Brazilian let it slip right by his cleats. Le Toux was waiting, pulling in the ball and taking a quick step before being taken down by Columbus’ Frankie Hejduk and earning a penalty kick. The Frenchman didn’t miss, burying his ninth score of the season into the lower right goal.
Le Toux’s marker erased a lead the Crew had earned five minutes earlier after Fred’s poorly timed tackle gave away a set piece from 40 yards. Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s fell right onto Lenhart’s head as he ran past Jordan Harvey and gave the ball a slight redirection that eluded Seitz.
The Union, which has yet to keep a clean sheet through 16 games, watched as Lenhart repeated the trick shortly after halftime to put the Crew back ahead. This time Renteria provided the entry pass for the striker, swinging a ball in from the right wing. Lenhart laid out, parallel to the ground, to send a forceful header into the back of the net and make it 2-1.
“You see every single fragment of the game. Going forward everything looks good; the movement of the ball, the flow of the game,” said Nowak. “Every single factor is there…and all of a sudden the goals come against us.”
Philadelphia didn’t relent, continuing to pressure the Crew until the game’s final minutes. Le Toux nearly created another score on an 80th minute free kick by Le Toux that skipped through the goal box as teammates Alejandro Moreno and Danny Califf narrowly missed scores.
“They get a few chances and we get punished, and we don’t punish teams with the chances that we get,” said Califf, referring to Columbus’ two goals on two chances. “That’s the difference right now between Columbus and us.”
“You’ve got to finish those chances,” Nowak said. “That’s the part that you have this killer instinct and say, ‘I’m going to bury it.’”
The French dynamo wasted a golden opportunity minutes later, when Andrew Jacobson worked the ball down low and passed back to Le Toux charging into the box, but his weak toe-shot was stifled by Hesmer and turned wide.
“If we can get that one big result and come in and just knock one out of the park it would be really great for the confidence,” said Califf. “We keep getting punched in the face so many times that it gets a bit difficult to take.”