Another year, another winless August for the Philadelphia Union. But unlike 2011, the team didn’t have a fast start to rest upon, and now they sit at a point where the MLS Cup Playoffs are a fading image.
On Wednesday night, the Union saw their all-time record in the late-summer month drop to 1-7-7 as they failed to capitalize on chance after chance being up a man against a surging Columbus Crew. The disappointing night was complete when Eddie Gaven collected the winning goal late in stoppage time to snatch victory 2-1 from the Union. The win drew Columbus within 2 points of the final Playoff spot.
A little over a month ago, it was the Union looking to be that team charging towards postseason qualification. A change in Manager, the youth core of the team beginning to hone their skills in regular roles, and the possibility of upgrades in key positions gave fans an opportunity to believe that there was still hope for the 2012 season.
Instead, as the summer has worn on, so has the new coat of paint they received in June. That outer dressing, presumably a mixture of confidence and relief at the end of the Peter Nowak era, has begun to erode, showing the flaws that still remain. Much of this is not the fault of the current Manager, John Hackworth, who had the temporary title of “Interim” removed recently. He can only field the team that was constructed by his former boss, Nowak, and former Scouting Director Diego Gutierrez.
Hackworth continues to try and pluck out the redundant or ill-fitting parts that have been assembled, but it may take an entire offseason for Hackworth to mold the squad to his liking. The most recent departure – and possibly most stinging – is Jorge Perlaza. This is not because Perlaza had much promise of fitting in with the team, but rather the mutual termination was a metaphorical picking of the scabs left from the trade of the club’s first SuperDraft pick Danny Mwanga. For fans, it was the realization of that unfortunate truth: “We traded Mwanga for nothing.”
So all of this frames what has been a disappointing August for the Union. That trend continued Wednesday night, and the match which started a little slowly got some energy in the 29th minute when Carlos Valdes’ free kick deflected off the wall and past Lampson for a 1-0 lead. Columbus equalized in the 41st minute, as left back Josh Williams flicked in a free kick from Federico Higuain. Two goals off of two set pieces, and 1-1 game at the half.
Then things got chippy after Antoine Hoppenot came on for Cruz. He got under Josh Williams’ skin, and a two-handed push of Hoppenot to the ground led to Williams’ ejection from the match. That set it all up for the Union to find a way through, break out of their mini-slump, and maybe turn a corner.
That didn’t happen. Freddy Adu came in with nearly 20 minutes remaining (more than the 8 or so he was given on Friday against Real Salt Lake). Adu continues to receive tons of criticism from both fans and the media, and the attacking midfielder did appear more focused, as he has at random moments in the last year or so he’s been in Philly. The Union pushed hard for a goal, but between Crew defenders selling out to block shots and Union attackers failing to put the shots that got through on frame, they were wasteful (Lahoud had two prime shots just barely miss over the bar). It didn’t help that the tactical implications of the Adu substitution called for Jack McInerney to make way, rather than a player like Gabriel Gomez whose offensive contributions were rather mundane in this match.
The 10-man Crew weren’t going to leave that opportunity for a full three points sitting dormant. And credit them, because many teams would have simply “parked the bus.” But Columbus created two high quality chances through Higuain in stoppage time. The first, a one-on-one situation between Higuain and MacMath, ended with a squandered chance. The second was the dagger, an unfortunate breakdown by the Union defense who had been left shorthanded after a hamstring injury forced Valdes to retire for the night. The backline was broken by Higuain, and Justin Meram crossed the ball to Gaven who put it in.
And so August ends, and maybe it’s a good thing. Hackworth acknowledged at the post-match press conference that the talk of playoffs is over now. After two draws and three losses, September represents a new month. Now that it’s clear that Hackworth will be leading the team in 2013, the remaining 10 games gives the current squad a chance to show that they belong.