Over the past few months, the Union have talked a lot about beginning a new chapter in 2016. But in their first game of the season, they suffered from some of the same problems that hurt them during the franchise’s first six years of existence.
What went wrong in their 2-0 setback to FC Dallas on Sunday? Was it just a matter of going on the road for a brutally tough opener? Can they find a way to get points on the road next week? We’ll examine it all in the first Inside Doop of the year:
Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The first thought everyone had tuning into the contest was likely similar: “Well, this is an interesting lineup.” Head coach Jim Curtin made a few surprising calls, most notably starting three defenders with zero MLS games between them in Ken Tribbett, Keegan Rosenberry and Anderson. That’s a tough assignment for those guys considering their MLS debuts came against what Curtin would later call one of the league’s best front fours. Perhaps, predictably, they struggled at times to slow down the Dallas attack — although, it should be noted, that it was left back Fabinho (now the veteran of the backline) who made some of the biggest mistakes that led to the Dallas goals.
2. As the inexperienced backline continues to gel, goalkeeper Andre Blake will be called upon to perhaps carry a bigger load early in the season. He certainly rose to the occasion Sunday, making eight saves (two off the franchise record he set himself last year), including a few diving ones. As always, it was a bit of an adventure watching Blake scramble off his line and distribute the ball forward (he seemed to have some trouble controlling his punts because of the wind) but those are things the young ’keeper should get more comfortable with as he gains more MLS experience.
3. Ilsinho, the team’s new Brazilian midfielder, showed some of the quality that made him one of the team’s top offseason targets, at one point splitting a pair of FC Dallas defenders to get into the box. But, overall, it was a mostly tough day for the Union attack, which managed to put only two shots on target. Perhaps even harder for Philly fans to swallow is the fact that Andrew Wenger and Cristian Maidana — the two midfielders the team traded in the offseason — both started and scored for Houston in the Dynamo’s 3-3 draw with New England. Like the backline, the attacking unit that features newcomers Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Roland Alberg (who surprisingly didn’t get the start), as well as Leo Fernandes (who spent all of last season on loan with the New York Cosmos) will probably need some time to figure out each other’s tendencies.
Three questions for the week ahead
1. One of the biggest reasons why Curtin had to field such an inexperienced MLS lineup in the opener is because arguably his two best players — Maurice Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta — were out with injuries. Edu has been progressing slower than the team had hoped, suffering a stress reaction as he recovered from sports hernia surgery in October. Barnetta’s injury (tendinitis in his knee) appears less serious and he might be able to return soon to provide a punch in the central attacking midfield spot. Curtin knows he can’t rush those two back and believes his team has better depth to overcome those losses. Still, it’s a tough situation starting a season without two veterans who can provide stability and help the first-year MLS players grow.
2. Curtin revealed after the game that Richie Marquez dealt with a little bit of a hamstring issue during the preseason and, as he did, the coach began to like the center back pairing of Anderson and Tribbett. This seems like a tough break for Marquez, who was one of the team’s few bright spots in 2015 and looked poised to evolve into a leader of the backline this season. Will Curtin opt to move Marquez back into the role in which he thrived last year? Or, given that he doesn’t like to shake things up on the backline, will he give Tribbett and Anderson more time to grow together? (Meanwhile, Josh Yaro, who many people thought was the best player in this year’s draft, appears to be fourth on the center back depth chart as he adjusts to the pro game.)
3. The schedule-makers were certainly not kind to the Union, who will follow up their game vs. FC Dallas (one of the top contenders to win the MLS Cup this season) with a trip to face the Columbus Crew (a team that made it to the MLS Cup last season). And the Union traditionally struggle in Columbus, having lost there twice last season, including an ugly 4-1 loss on April 25. Can Philly slow down the Crew and escape with a point? It would certainly be understandable if they do not but, given that their last two seasons were doomed by poor starts, the Union would really like to avoid an 0-2-0 start going into their home opener the following week.
Stat of the week
Despite getting dominated in most offensive categories, the Union actually won the possession battle vs. FC Dallas (50.9 percent to 49.1 percent).
Quote of the week
“I think we are in a better spot than we were last year.” — Jim Curtin after the 2-0 loss
Player of the week
Andre Blake easily gets the nod, showing off the impressive athleticism and shot-stopping ability that once made him the top overall pick in the draft.