IN A LEAGUE with so much parity, teams that do all the little things right stand out from the rest.
It appears the Union has figured this out, and what it has done on a micro-level has made it a mainstay atop Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.
For starters, goals are being scored from distance because guys are taking shots. Think of some the goals this year: Danny Mwanga's rip from just outside the 18-yard-box last week against Colorado; Justin Mapp's goal that put the Union up a pair in a 6-2 rout of Toronto FC; Carlos Ruiz' 35-yard swerving rocket against Chicago. All goals resulting from chances being taken when the opportunity arises - which in many games hasn't arrived at a premium.
"We have a variety of guys taking shots from distance and that has been the key," said Union assistant John Hackworth. "It pulls the [opposition's] defense out. Teams know they have to step out on us now, and it's not just Sebastien [Le Toux] anymore, it's Justin and Carlos and Danny."
In 12 league matches, the Union has totaled 115 shots, 39 of which have been on frame. The game-by-game might seem low (9.6 shots, 3.25 on goal) but when you look at it from a defensive standpoint, it's not as if the Union is giving teams major chances to score, either. The defensive front of Danny Califf (who made the MLS All-Star ballot this week), Carlos Valdes, Jordan Harvey, Sheanon Williams and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon have given up only 10 goals on 132 shots, 34 on goal.
Another tough challenge arrives this week in Real Salt Lake. RSL, the 2009 MLS champion, is fourth in a tough Western Conference, but has been hampered by injuries, players leaving for international duty and a taxing run in a CONCACAF Champions League campaign, nearly qualifying for December's FIFA Club World Cup. Despite playing in only 11 matches as a result of CCL commitments, RSL, led by MLS All-Star goalkeeper Nick Rimando, has allowed only six goals - and only two on the road (1-0 loss in Portland, 2-1 loss in Columbus).
"It's a critical game for both of us, especially considering that earlier in the year, RSL was one of the best teams in the league by far," Hackworth said. "They lost some of their form, I think, after their Champions League run, but I think they are back, and it's really going to be a factor of which team can execute. You are going to see two of the best teams in the league at PPL Park this Saturday."
And surely the victor will be the team that did all the little things right.
MY TAKE ON CANDYGATE
Earlier this week, a few players were fined for missing the Union's commercial flight back to Philadelphia following Saturday's match against Colorado. It has been reported that forward Danny Mwanga, midfielder Keon Daniel and defender Sheanon Williams, missed the final boarding call for the US Airways flight because they stopped for candy at a store in the airport.
I will admit such things do happen and in the grand scheme there really isn't much to elaborate on, but I must say it isn't the incident that appalled me as much as the reaction when asked what, if any, repercussions would come out of the infraction.
Union assistant John Hackworth dismissed the incident as a "nonissue," claiming the press is "blowing it way of proportion." I can understand Hackworth's disdain for anything that would tarnish the Union's otherwise squeaky-clean image, but it amazes me that he would think supporters wouldn't want to know the outcome of the incident.
A Union official later explained that players can be fined for anything ranging from being a few seconds late to a meeting or a practice to leaving a dirty sock on the locker-room floor.
"I want to emphasize that this is really nothing and it doesn't go beyond them being fined," huffed Hackworth. "You guys write whatever you want to about it, but it's really not an issue for us."
Hey, it's not a issue for us, either. While blogs have done a superb job of running with it, the mainstream media have kept it quiet. In fact, only two credentialed reporters waited to shed light on the situation Wednesday, only after the fan-driven blog, the Brotherly Game, first reported it Sunday.
Not exactly "blowing it out of proportion."
If you ask me, the whole thing reeks of an attempt to cover up an albeit minor incident, but an incident nonetheless. Smells very reminiscent of two previous feature films I like to call the "Curious Case of Michael Orozco Fiscal" or "O Jeremiah White, Where Art Thou?"
Anyway, I've probably wasted enough expensive newsprint on this subject, and I am sure the Union would wholeheartedly concur, but hey, it can't be sunshine and sprinkles all the time.
ODDS AND ENDLINES
John Hackworth spoke with a heavy heart when providing the reason for the dismissal of 21-year-old forward Chris Agorsor. "It's not easy to answer this question. With Chris, we think he has to put himself in a position as a young player to get games, and those opportunities weren't going to happen here. If we can't find a way to develop a player, then it's not really good for us or for the player" . . . Despite his injury, Justin Mapp (groin strain) did train this week, and is listed as probable for tomorrow's match . . .
The World Football Challenge continues to grow. Italian giant Juventus FC will take on Mexican side Club America on July 28 at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Little known fact: When the original WFC schedule was created, Club America was to take on Real Madrid - the Union's July 23 opponent at Lincoln Financial Field - here in Philadelphia, but the Union struck a deal to supplant Club America as Real's opponent.
SHOTS ON GOAL
Upcoming game: Real Salt Lake (6-3-2, 20 points) at Union (6-3-3, 21 points)
When: Tomorrow, 4 o'clock
Where: PPL Park, Chester
On the web: Streaming online at MLSSoccer.com
For kicks: Real Salt Lake comes off a Wednesday night loss to Columbus in which coach Jason Kreis noted his team's lack of "commitment." Kreis' thoughts on the Columbus loss and lackluster second-half substitutions: "When you put guys in the game you expect them to make an impact," Kreis told ESPN Radio in Salt Lake City this week. "You expect them to raise the level of emotion. You expect them to raise the level of the energy on the field. You expect them to do everything that they can to make defensive plays to keep results, and the guys that went into the game just didn't get it done" . . . The loss in Columbus was RSL's second on the road (2-2-1) . . . Threats Javier Morales (ankle fracture) and Paulo Araujo Jr. (strained hip flexor) are out, but forward Fabian Espindola (two goals, assist) has emerged as the team's playmaker. In addition, midfielder Kyle Beckerman and forward Andy Williams complete a potent offensive corps.
INJURY REPORT (as of Tuesday)
Out for the Union: Amobi Okugo, MF (left ankle sprain). Probable: Justin Mapp, MF (right groin strain), Michael Farfan, MF (right groin strain); Stefani Miglioranzi, MF (right groin strain).
Out for Real Salt Lake: Javier Morales, MF (left ankle fracture dislocation); Paulo Araujo Jr., FW (right hip flexor strain). Questionable: Robbie Russell, DF (left hamstring strain). Probable: Collen Warner, MF (left ankle sprain)
For the Union: Carlos Ruiz, FW (Guatemala)
For Real Salt Lake: Arturo Alvarez, FW (El Salvador)
DID YOU KNOW . . .
Former Union defender Shavar Thomas is on Jamaica's Gold Cup roster? Thomas, now a defender with Sporting Kansas City, was one of 10 players picked during the 2009 expansion draft, but he played in only one match.