Sebastien Le Toux came back to Philadelphia on Saturday as expected to face his former club. To the relief of Union fans, the defense they saw in 2011 also reappeared, earning the home team their first point of the 2012 season in a 0-0 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The lead-up to the match was quite spirited. Manager Peter Nowak became agitated by a reporter’s question about the French attacker’s homecoming to PPL Park. While there was no parade or visible signs of confetti (as he sarcastically predicted), there was a mixed reaction from the modest crowd on a cold, overcast Delaware Valley afternoon. This was not only the return of Le Toux, but also of another fan favorite, Jordan Harvey. Both men started for Martin Rennie’s Vancouver side in a 4-4-2 diamond.
Nowak put aside the unconventional defensive tactics described on this blog earlier this week, and instead went back to a typical 4 back system. Danny Califf was selected into the backline after some discrepancies about potential injury problems. The other big change for the Union was the replacement of Danny Mwanga with rookie forward Chandler Hoffman, the first start of his pro career. Hoffman postured as a left wing in a 4-2-3-1. It was only after 30 minutes that the UCLA graduate took on a forward role, after Nowak instructed 4-4-2.
The first half saw no shots on goal from either team, a testament to the defensive fortitude adopted by both teams. Vancouver’s backline was led by USMNT veteran Jay DeMerit. He enjoyed a healthy battle throughout the match with Lionard Pajoy, the Colombian signed by Philadelphia after Le Toux’s departure. DeMerit seemed to get the better of Pajoy most of the time.
Le Toux was still very comfortable at PPL Park, getting behind the defense twice in the first half. The second time, he was barely beaten to the ball by goalkeeper Zac MacMath outside his area. The young keeper adeptly slid to get the ball out of danger. That was the last quality chance for Le Toux until the 82nd minute. At that point he dribbled behind the defense and had a one-on-one opportunity with MacMath from 10 yards. Le Toux’s shot went high and wide.
There was a slight tactical change for the Union to start the second half. Nowak brought Porfirio Lopez out of the game, and moved Gabriel Farfan from right winger to the left back position. This was see as an effort to inject a better possession and passing traits into that role in the scheme. The other Farfan brother, Michael, then came in to station directly behind the two strikers. Hoffman then played as a hybrid striker/left wing, drifting back and left in the build.
But the Union defense turned out to be the story. Vancouver failed to register a shot on goal for the entire match, and that could be attributed to a defense and keeper with restored confidence. MacMath was assertive in his area, commanding his space much like he did during Faryd Mondragon’s injury absence during the latter parts of the 2011 campaign.
Philadelphia had their chances to score as well. Perhaps the best came in the 47th minute off a corner kick. Keon Daniel curled an inswinger to the far post, and Carlos Valdes’ shot bounced up and hit the post before being cleared away. Three minutes later, Gomez swung a cross from deep on the right, and Carroll found it at nearly the same spot as Valdes. His shot was low, but Cannon was able to pounce on it just on the goal line.
While a point at home against a team making the long distance trip isn’t a great result, for a Union team that has struggled to find the right track early it’s a start. The Union will hope to gain momentum after ending their losing streak. Vancouver continues to show promise early in the season, but their schedule gets much tougher from this point forward. Their next 2 matches are against the two hottest teams in MLS, the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City.