CHESTER, Pa. – Through three empty efforts to open the season, the Philadelphia Union continued preaching patience. Against the visiting Columbus Crew on Saturday, Gabriel Gomez’ penalty kick stood as the lone goal as the team finally entered into the victory column.
Gomez’ second spot-kick tally of the season gave the Union their first lead in a match since relinquishing a 1-0 advantage over Portland in the season opener. Philadelphia midfielder Freddy Adu created space for himself towards the side of the box, then sent in a low, hard cross into which Crew defender Eric Gehrig turned his arm. The official immediately pointed to the penalty spot, and Gomez hit a soft chip over the lunging Andy Gruenebaum.
The Union had their goal, and no more would be needed.
“It was extremely important for these guys to have the feeling of three points,” said Union coach Peter Nowak. “We deserved it a long time ago, but today they played an exceptional game.”
After banking their first point of the season in a draw against the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps on March 31, the Union had a bye week to train and reincorporate U.S. Olympic hopefuls Adu and Sheanon Williams back into the first-team squad.
Play was chippy and physical early, and it remained that way throughout the match. In the opening minute, Philadelphia’s Gabriel Farfan required medical attention after taking an elbow to the face from Columbus striker Ethan Finley. Seven yellow cards were handed out on the afternoon, with five of the bookings going against the Union.
Nowak’s counterpart and former Poland international teammate, Crew coach Robert Warzycha, praised his team’s ruggedness while lamenting the loss. “It was a physical game, and we came to play,” he said. “We matched their intensity. Unfortunately, we gave up the goal.”
Columbus striker Olman Vargas had his share of first-half chances off of set pieces, but one of his headers was sent a yard wide, and the other two were cleared by Union defenders before troubling goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
The Crew saw their best chance come to naught in the 54th minute when MacMath dove out to kick aside Vargas’ point-blank shot from 12 yards.
“I just made myself as big as possible, and was fortunate that I got a piece of it,” said the keeper.
Second-half substitutes Bernardo Anor and Emilio Renteria gave the Crew some much needed energy, but couldn’t reach the score sheet. Within minutes after each entered the match, Anor sent MacMath sprawling on a shot that slid just wide of goal, and Renteria fought through three defenders at the top of the offensive box before losing possession.
MacMath’s second consecutive clean sheet also saw him aggressively chase down a ball in from Urso, catching it mere inches from the heads of both Vargas and Anor.
Conceding possession for much of the match, the Union let Columbus dictate the pace, but held on in the face of late pressure to keep the Crew off the board.
Nowak explained the team’s reluctance to dominate the ball and establish an offense in the second half. “When you don’t have a win, and you’re in a position where you’re leading, in the back of your mind it’s always about just holding up,” said the coach.
“Everyone in the locker room knew that we had to get three points,” said MacMath. “If we got anything else, it would have been a disappointment.”
The season is still in its infancy, and with the win, Philadelphia finds itself a mere two points off the (admittedly early) playoff pace.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Williams, who lined up at center back to replace Danny Califf, who was felled by a hamstring injury during warmups. “A lot of guys could have packed it in, so you have to be happy that nobody was putting their heads down.”
Nowak concurred, saying, “They start to see that the work pays off, and we’re going to have to keep going.”
The Union will take their first trip to California next week, as they do battle with 3-3-0 Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles on Saturday night.
Columbus stays on the road to visit the 2-1-0 Houston Dynamo on Saturday afternoon.