The Union started a three-game road trip on the other side of the country against the defending champions in one of the toughest stadiums to play in … and played pretty well.
Just not quite well enough to win.
Here’s a look back at the Union's 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Saturday and what they need to do to get points as two more daunting road games approach and the regular season nears its conclusion.
Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Lack of finishing killed the visitors is this one as the Union put a very respectable eight shots on target but were robbed a couple of times by Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson. C.J. Sapong also hit the post after an incredible setup by Tranquillo Barnetta, continuing the run of bad luck from the Union striker. Over his last six games — all starts — Sapong hasn’t scored and has only put two shots on frame. And he’s only scored two total goals since mid-May — a troubling statistic for a player that was counted on for a lot coming into the season. It almost goes without saying that Sapong needs to turn it on over the next couple of months or the Union could be facing a short stay in the playoffs, if they get there at all. (But it should be noted that thanks to some other results in the East, they still remain in very good position to get there.)
2. Keegan Rosenberry has been touted for MLS Rookie of the Year by many Union teammates and fans throughout the season. And he probably deserves it, even if the award is likely to go to Sounders striker Jordan Morris. But for one of the only times this season, Rosenberry looked like, well, a rookie, as he struggled to deal with the speed of Darren Mattocks, who assisted on both Portland goals. And his fellow first-round pick from Georgetown, Joshua Yaro, also had a tough night, getting shown two yellow cards. Before he was ejected, Yaro actually made a couple of very nice defensive plays, including a goal-line clearance, so his presence will be missed next week when he serves his one-game red card suspension.
3. Chris Pontius proved once again that when the Union need a goal, he’s the player to turn to. Continuing his remarkable comeback season after an injury-riddled stint in D.C., Pontius upped his team-high goal total to 11 — one off his career high. And he probably could have had another if not for a great kick save from Gleeson. Like Sapong, Pontius is going to be counted on for a lot of offense in the home stretch. And he looks like he’s poised to deliver.
Three question for the week ahead
1. With Saturday’s loss, the Union’s road record dipped to 3-8-4. And two of those three wins came against Columbus Crew SC, who are tied for the second fewest points in MLS. That probably doesn’t inspire much hope in Philly fans as the Union prepare to hit the road to face Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. But getting at least one or two points during that stretch could be vital so the Union can avoid going back on the road in the playoffs. If they can remain in fourth place or higher, they’ll host an opening-round game. If they fall to fifth or sixth, they could make a trip to, say, Montreal where their chances of moving on to the Eastern Conference semifinals drop precipitously.
2. Could it be time to give Sapong a day off? Sometimes that’s the perfect remedy for a slumping player and the Union do now have a solid option to replace him in the seasoned Charlie Davies, who head coach Jim Curtin likes to say heats up when the weather gets cooler. The Union could also give rookie Fabian Herbers time up top and return Ilsinho to his starting role on the right wing now that he’s healthy. Or perhaps Curtin will keep riding Sapong, who to be fair does do a lot of little things well even when he’s not scoring.
3. With Yaro suspended, Curtin will almost certainly turn to Ken Tribbett, who’s been platooning with Yaro for much of the season anyway. The big question is how Tribbett will fare against arguably the league’s best attack that features reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. national team standout Jozy Altidore. It didn’t work out so well the last time when Tribbett was repeatedly burned by Giovinco and pulled from a 3-1 loss on Aug. 20 at halftime. Perhaps he learned something from the experience. Or perhaps it will help him to have a defensive specialist like Brian Carroll shielding the backline — or, dare we say it, Maurice Edu, who’s now made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem Steel FC as he looks to finally make his season debut.
Stat of the week
After missing the previous six games with plantar fasciitis, Brian Carroll made his 366th career appearance Saturday. That moved the midfielder ahead of Jeff Cunningham and into fourth all-time for field players in MLS history, behind Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis and Steve Ralston.
Quote of the week
“It’s tough on the road in this league. I think the data shows it’s the toughest league in the world actually, percentage-wise, to win on the road.” — Union head coach Jim Curtin
Player of the week
On top of his goal and other near-goals, Chris Pontius also had a couple of nice setups and was unlucky not to get at least one assist. Andre Blake made another superhuman save but Pontius was the man of the match for Philly.