CHESTER, Pa. — Returning from the three-week U.S. Open Cup and international layoff a much more dangerous-looking team than they entered it, the Philadelphia Union’s winless streak was nonetheless extended to six MLS matches. They found themselves on the wrong side of a 1-0 defeat by the visiting D.C. United on Saturday evening.
“This is a cruel game, and it’s feeling very cruel right now,” said Union interim coach John Hackworth. “I don’t think we deserved to lose this game.”
Hackworth, a Union assistant coach for two-plus years, was promoted to the head position after Peter Nowak, the only manager the franchise had ever known, was dismissed on June 13.
Under Nowak, last year’s postseason participants stumbled to a 2-7-2 record, primarily caused by a stagnant offense that saw only three players tally a combined eight goals.
In the first of three league matchups between the I-95 rivals, Philadelphia played with a fluidity and creativity that had been almost nonexistent during the early stages of this season. The Union midfielders, led by Freddy Adu and Gabriel Farfan, consistently found holes in the United defense, probing with incisive runs and lead passes absent from the single striker attack the team has preferred since its inception in 2010.
“Today was some of the best soccer we’ve ever played,” said the well-traveled Adu. “Guys wanted to make an impression on Hackworth, because he’s the new coach now. There was a lot of excitement, and we came out and played well.”
Adu set the tone early with a rocket that Hamid did well to tip over the bar, then a few minutes later sprung forward Josue Martinez free in the box for a shot that sent Hamid sprawling. Later, on consecutive possessions, substitute Antoine Hoppenot raced down the left side of the pitch before clanging a close shot off the post, then maneuvered through three United defenders to slide the ball just wide of goal.
In the 78th minute, Union defender Carlos Valdes slid through the ball to stop a breakaway, clipping United forward Chris Pontius in the process and earning a hotly contested, controversial yellow card. On the ensuing free kick, Pontius won position at the far post, deflecting teammate Branko Boskovic’s cross into the back of the net for the game’s lone goal.
Despite the disappointing and perhaps undeserved result, Hackworth was visibly impressed with his team’s play, and his optimism shone through in his post-game address.
“If we play that way every week, we’re going to win a lot of games,” said the 2008 United States Olympic Committee Developmental Coach of the Year award winner. “It’s awfully disappointing, but there are a lot of positives to take out of this game.”
Adu agreed, and noticed a different feel to his teammates’ play. “Guys felt free, guys felt like they wanted to play. When you’re playing like that, it’s so fun to be out there. We absolutely dominated them today, and on the field it felt like we were just taking it to them all game.”
In addition to Novak, also glaringly absent from the Union sideline was striker Danny Mwanga. After 12 goals in his first two seasons and none so far this year, the 2010 SuperDraft’s number one overall pick was shipped off to Portland for striker Jorge Perlaza.
In the void created by Mwanga’s departure and the one-game suspension of Lionard Pajoy, the team played “football” in the truest sense of the word – working the midfield, using space between defenders, coming at goal from the wings, dancing around opposing players.
“We played a great brand of soccer,” acknowledged Farfan, whose deft passing and nimble feet set him up as a key architect of the team’s style moving forward.
Visually, it was a welcome departure from an offensive strategy based on sending long passes down the field towards Mwanga, Pajoy or even Sebastien Le Toux, then stagnating while the striker held the ball up against multiple collapsing defenders.
“It’s like a new life for a lot of people, so everyone’s excited,” Adu said. “We had plenty of chances, we just didn’t finish them – we’re going to address that. If we play like we did today, we give ourselves a chance every game.”
The rejuvenated Union stay home, facing a visit on Saturday evening from Sporting Kansas City and their Danish shutout machine, keeper Jimmy Nielsen.
United will look to create some breathing room atop the Eastern Conference the following day, when they travel to New York to face the second-place Red Bulls.