MIRED IN a seven-match winless streak, the Union probably could use a game against a struggling opponent in the friendly confines of PPL Park. That's just about the reverse of what awaits tomorrow night, when the Philly club plays arguably Major League Soccer's best team in a notoriously difficult stadium for the opposition.
In Maurice Edu's opinion, Clint Dempsey, the Seattle Sounders and the soccer-crazed environment at CenturyLink Field will serve as a test of character for the Union (1-3-5), which hasn't won since March 15 and has failed to score in its last two contests.
"They're in a good run of form right now," Edu, the Union midfielder, said of the Sounders. "You know what to expect when you go to Seattle. For us, it's exciting. You want to go and play against good teams. You want to go and play in front of good crowds and good atmospheres, and I think if you can't get motivated for that game and get up for that kind of challenge then you're in the wrong sport. I think all the guys will be eager to go out there and try to get a good performance and a good win."
Seattle (5-2-1) is clicking on all cylinders, its 16 points tied for the MLS lead and double the amount amassed thus far by Philadelphia. Union manager John Hackworth this week labeled the Sounders "the hottest team in the league right now." Dempsey is their star, and the U.S. men's national team captain already has eight goals, just one less than the entire Union team. He leads the league in that category, as well as in shots on goal (14) and shots (30), and his three assists are just one behind three players who share the MLS-best mark.
"Clint's a good player," said Edu, a teammate of Dempsey's with the national team. "He's the captain of our national team and we know the quality he has going forward with the ball. He's a guy who likes to get touches on the ball and create. He has the ability to score goals, create goals for himself and also for his teammates."
Right back Ray Gaddis said he and the other Union defenders will focus on keeping Dempsey in front of them. Even if he's not finding the back of the net, Gaddis said, Dempsey typically impacts games in other ways. Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle each have three goals, marks that would lead Philadelphia.
Dempsey, 31, is in his first full season with Seattle. He made headlines when he signed last Aug. 3 as a designated player after almost 7 years in the English Premier League.
"You look at whether it's Clint, it's Maurice, whether it's Michael Bradley, these kind of marquee national team players coming back to our league I think is really important," said Hackworth, who served as an assistant with the U.S. men's national team from 2007-09. "For them to be really important players on their own club and continue that is I think a really good sign."
Way back during the Union's season-opening draw at Portland, Cristian Maidana stirred positive buzz among the fans back in Philly. In 80 minutes of that March 8 draw, the Argentinean midfielder recorded an assist, three shots on goal and, ultimately, dazzled with his playmaking ability.
But a quarter of the way through the season, that remains Maidana's best performance to date. He played 87 minutes the following week in the Union's lone victory thus far, but since has logged more than 56 minutes only once. Over his last six appearances, he has averaged 47 minutes.
Those numbers suggest Maidana's fitness level leaves something to be desired. Hackworth, during his weekly news conference on Tuesday, confirmed just that, but preached patience with the first-year Union player acquired in January after a stint with Argentinos Juniors.
Since Maidana joined the club, the Union's coaching staff has worked with him on his fitness, nutrition and sleep habits. He has improved in those areas, Hackworth said, but still has progress to make. The manager also indicated he'd like to see a bit better on-field awareness and work ethic from Maidana on both sides of the ball.
"It's a different culture," Hackworth said. "In Argentina, I think you eat dinner somewhere between 11 o'clock and 12:30 or 1 at night. His kids, when he first moved here, are bouncing off the walls at 12:30 and 1 o'clock at night. All of these kind of cultural habits have to be adjusted."
The starting lineup Hackworth put on the field for last Saturday's loss at Montreal featured a couple surprising changes. The most out of the ordinary was starting Fabinho, who spent the season's first eight games playing left back, as a left-side forward opposite Danny Cruz, who made his first start of 2014.
Fabinho did play midfielder last season, his first with the Union, and Hackworth said this week that's essentially how the club utilized him against the Impact. The manager doesn't view Fabinho as purely a defender.
"He played last year for this club a lot as an attacking player and did quite well," Hackworth said. "His entire career until he moved to Australia [in 2011] was spent as an attacking left-sided player. I see him every single day. We know what he's capable of on the attacking side of the ball. It just so happens to be that he's a versatile enough player that he could play either one of those positions."
The Union has featured a different lineup each week. It sounds as if the tinkering will continue.