By Ben Seal
Chester, Pa. – The pieces have been in place for some time now for Philadelphia Union. The dynamic striker, the rookie sensation and the increasingly fluid midfield have the expansion team playing like it belongs with the top teams in MLS. But the sum of those parts has rarely been evident for a full 90 minutes, and the wins pale in comparison to the effort between the lines.
It looked briefly as if the picture would come into focus with an upset victory against Western Conference power Real Salt Lake at PPL Park, but another miscue left the Union with a 1-1 draw against the defending champions, and another reminder that it takes time to build a winning mentality.
“They have a lot of very gifted, dynamic players. They possess the ball well, move it around, they create chances. They’re dangerous going forward,” said RSL coach Jason Kreis of the Union. “But then I think they got a little stretched out on our goal. I think that’s something that’s been typical of them this season.”[picappgallerysingle id=”9533883″]
Kreis’ observation was spot-on. The talent has certainly been present, but it doesn’t make up for lapses in concentration. For the second straight game and fifth time this season Philadelphia scored first but couldn’t hold the lead.
As spectacular as the Union attack has looked at times, paced by Sebastien Le Toux’s nine goals and eight assists, the defensive presence has often been lacking. A first-half breakdown in the back end ensured the Union (4-10-4) would remain as the only MLS team without a shutout this year.
Tony Beltran’s through ball from the right wing collided with Philadelphia’s Juan Diego Gonzalez, but the defender fell down, allowing Fabian Espindola to collect the pass in the penalty area. Espindola dispatched of charging backer Danny Califf with quick footwork and went to net cleanly to put in the tying goal in the 17th minute.
“I was playing like he was going to play a shot with his left foot and he cut it back hard and I got a piece of the ball and it went back off his shin and right back to him,” said Califf, whose second-half header of a Le Toux corner nearly restored Philadelphia’s lead. “He took a good touch and a good finish.”
“We slip one play and then (RSL) have got a goal,” said Union head coach Peter Nowak.
The attacking combination of star forward Le Toux and 19-year-old standout Danny Mwanga has shown flashes of brilliance this season, and Wednesday night the duo was in full effect. The pair repeatedly combined to threaten Real Salt Lake (10-4-6), with Le Toux’s creativity on the ball confounding the opponent while his teenage counterpart’s sure touch kept play moving forward.
It took but eight minutes for the Union to strike, led by Le Toux and Mwanga, returning after sitting two games with an ankle injury. The French striker played Jordan Harvey’s throw-in off his chest to his right heel, where he flipped the ball behind him to Mwanga slicing into the box. The rookie took two calm touches and planted a touch shot inside the left post to put Philadelphia ahead.
“You can see the potential,” Nowak said of Mwanga, who has developed into a consistent complement for Le Toux up front. “You can see the little signs that, in the right environment, they are going to come pretty fast. Everybody knew that this day would come.”
The Union has excelled late in recent home games, pressuring until the very end, though the results have not followed. That trend continued against Real Salt Lake, as substitute Roger Torres sparked a flurry of action in the final 10 minutes that featured a series of Philadelphia corners. But the visitors cleared each set piece to safety and left the seventh-place Union once again short of victory.
“The best way to do it is just to score one, and then a minute later score two, and then maybe a minute later a third one,” Nowak joked about his team’s inability to finish consistently.
“After (Mwanga) scored the first one I said, ‘Now you have to score another one or I have to score another one, because we need to score more goals to win the game,’” said Le Toux.
The added scores never came, and the Union settled yet again, falling short of victory for the fourth straight game.
By Ben Seal