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Smallwood: Union make a point of playing smart in opening game

THIS IS soccer's version of the conundrum of not intentionally fouling when you have a three-point lead in the final seconds of a basketball game.

THIS IS soccer's version of the conundrum of not intentionally fouling when you have a three-point lead in the final seconds of a basketball game.

You can't lose if a guy shoots two free throws, but coaches wouldn't be coaches if they didn't fear that an opponent could get three free throws or complete a four-point play if fouled while attempting a three-pointer.

Most coaches won't do it.

On Sunday night in Vancouver, the Union were defending a corner kick against the Whitecaps in their 2017 Major League Soccer opener.

It seems like a smart security blanket for a team to put a defender on the goal line at the near post but traditionally that defender is a yard or two off of the line.

In the 66th minute, Vancouver's Cristian Techera took an outswinging corner that drop to the foot of defender Jordan Harvey who was in the middle of the box about eight yards from the goal line.

Harvey one-timed a leftfooted shot that had Union goalie Andre Blake beat. The shot would have found the corner of the net but Philadelphia All-Star defender Keegan Rosenberry was stationed right next to the post and deflected the ball out with his knee.

Rosenberry wouldn't have blocked Harvey's shot if he was off the line.

The Whitecaps took another shot but the ball was again blocked before the Union ended the threat by clearing the ball from the penalty area.

Rosenberry's save was the highlight play of a 0-0 draw for Philadelphia.

Obviously, the Union would've preferred the win, but road games in MLS are all about getting points and earning one point wasn't a bad way to start the season.

"That's this league," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "It's not easy to get points when you travel away, especially coming out here to the West Coast.

"At times, travel in this league is hell. Coming out here was a 16-hour trip. You're fighting jet lag and eating dinner at 2:30 in the morning. It's tiring, but I think the boys did well.

"We could have been sharper in the final third, a bit more patient in the buildup. Overall, I thought it was a solid job defensively. We got a point."

Every point matters whether they come during the first few games of the season or the final few.

Last season, the Union found out how important building a cushion is when they made the playoffs despite earning only two points in their final seven matches.

If you're a bit tired from staying up late to watch the entire match, you probably feel disappointed that the Union's performance wasn't a bit more dynamic.

It was impressive that Harvey's shot was the only one Vancouver had on goal, but let's face it, the excitement in soccer comes from the buildup to goals. It would have been nice to have seen the Union put a couple in the back of the net.

"I thought that there were two very organized teams tonight that kind of canceled each other out a little bit," Philadelphia manager Jim Curtin said. "Chances were few and far between. I think, overall, it was a fair result."

Something to remember is that this is quite a different team from last season. The Union had seven different starters on the pitch against Vancouver than they did in last year's opener at FC Dallas.

Rookie midfielder Derrick Jones, Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin, center back Oguchi Onyewu, striker Jay Simpson and substitute midfielder Fafa Picault all played their first regular-season game for the Union.

That basically means it's likely to take a little time before the Union pull it all together.

The critical thing about that, however, is to not dig a deep hole while figuring things out.

A year ago, Curtin calculated that it would take 47 to 50 points to make the MLS playoffs. His formula for the Union was "10 (home wins in Talen Energy Stadium), you win some on the road and draw a few, you'll be in the playoffs."

The Union, who host Toronto FC in the home opener on Saturday, got only eight wins at Talen and three more on the road.

Still, the nine points they earned from draws pushed the Zolos to 42 points, which was enough to qualify in the final spot.

In fact if the Union picked up two more home wins to reach 10, they would have earned 48 points, been seeded fourth and had a home match in the playoff elimination round.

Although MLS has added expansion teams Atlanta United and Minnesota United, the regular season will remain at 34 games, so Curtin's points target should remain about right.

Clearly the Union's goal is to find a several more wins.

Still, getting points from draws on the road can lead to good things - sort of like putting a defender on the near post.

smallwj@phillynews.com

@SmallTerp

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