CHESTER, Pa. – Taken as a litmus test for a young team, the Philadelphia Union showed enough quality in Wednesday night’s 1-0 friendly loss at the hands of visiting Aston Villa to discount the disappointing result.
“You can tell they’re a good side,” said new Villagers manager Paul Lambert, less than two months into his tenure in claret and blue after three years at Norwich City. “For us, it was a really tough game. That was some really good football from them.”
While Villa had scoring chances both early and late, the only dent the club could make against the sterling goalkeeping of Philadelphia’s Zac MacMath and Chase Harrison was right before halftime. Young striker Nathan Delfouneso struck from 22 yards and sent a low, powerful shot past a diving MacMath, but he and star strike partner Darren Bent could not otherwise capitalize against the Union duo.
Villa keeper Brad Guzan, an American and 2007’s MLS Goalkeeper of the Year with Chivas USA, came away impressed by his countrymen and counterparts.
“They were fantastic. I thought Zac made some really great saves in the first half to keep his team in the game,” said Guzan, who played all 90 minutes. “And for Chase coming on at the half – it’s not easy for a goalkeeper to come into a game like that in the second half.
“They’re a testament to the youth and young goalkeepers that we have in the U.S. The ability to produce young goalkeepers is fantastic, and it looks like they can keep the line of good goalkeepers going.”
Philadelphia interim manager John Hackworth took advantage of the mid-week contest, giving substantial playing time to most of his first-choice players, letting them see how they stack up against a team from the top league in the world.
“That’s a great way for young players to test themselves, to see if they’re ready to play at that level,” said Hackworth. “Aston Villa plays a similar style to what a lot of our MLS teams do, to be fair. But they probably had a little more quality to some of their players, and for sure the intensity they brought to the start was excellent.”
The quality of the home side and the energy of the 17,000 fans made an immediate impact on the visitors, but Villa was not surprised. Schalke 04, Everton, Celtic and Chivas de Guadalajara have all come to PPL Park for friendlies in recent years, only to leave with their tails between their legs.
“The crowd gets right behind them, which only helps them,” said Lambert. “Philadelphia has beaten teams before us, so it’s really tough.”
Six Premier League clubs journey stateside in the coming days and weeks, a testament to the improvements in style and talent that American soccer and the MLS have made in recent years.
“This league is probably underestimated, there are some really good players here and a lot of American national players that play in Europe” said Lambert, a Scotsman. “We’ve got some British lads over here playing too, which is great for the league.”
“Look,” added Hackworth, “I’m not going to try to tell you that Major League Soccer is on par with the EPL, but we’re a lot closer than people think.”