Union upbeat after draw before break

Posted: June 10, 2014

NO MATTER the circumstances of the season to date, the match last Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps was always going to be an important one. The result would have 3 weeks to either offer good vibes or fester while Major League Soccer broke for this year's FIFA World Cup.

That notion certainly wasn't lost on the Union, which has experienced a struggle-filled first portion of the season. And minutes after the final whistle blew at PPL Park late Saturday, the mood in the Philadelphia locker room was, for the most part, upbeat entering a weeklong respite from the pitch.

Although disappointed that a late Vancouver penalty kick cost them two extra points, the players could take solace in their best stretch of soccer of the season midway though Saturday's second half, perhaps a glimpse of the team they could have been over the first 16 games.

"We've talked about this game and obviously going into a long break we wanted to go off on a good night," defender Sheanon Williams said after the Union's 3-3 draw with Vancouver. "I think even though we gave up the late goal, nothing we can do about that, we're definitely going to be positive going forward."

The Union enters the break with a 3-7-6 record, its 15 points placing eighth in the 10-team Eastern Conference, of which five teams qualify for the postseason. The fifth-place Columbus Crew has 18 points, but no team in Major League Soccer has played more matches than the Union, which averages 0.94 points per game.

That number could have been even less. On Saturday, Vancouver, in fourth place in the Western Conference and undefeated in the last month, took a 2-0 halftime lead against the Philly club. Most games this season, that would be enough against the Union.

But a shocking three goals in 8 minutes in the second half erased the deficit and gave the Union a lead. Conor Casey, a week removed from his first two goals of the season, scored two more against Vancouver. Cristian "Chaco" Maidana tallied three assists, setting the franchise's single-game record.

A Pedro Morales penalty kick in the 81st minute spoiled the Union's bid for three points, but the Union players feel as if they have something to build upon for the second half of the year. Before resuming its campaign on June 28 with a road match against first-place New England, the Union has at least one Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match, against the Harrisburg City Islanders on June 17.

"To be honest, that's the first time we've tied a game where it actually felt like a tie and not a loss," Williams said of Saturday's result. "I think that moving forward we can definitely try to improve on this - we've got some Open Cup games coming up, hopefully - and just put together a good stretch. I think that's what this team needs right now and hopefully we can continue this good run."

Said center back Amobi Okugo, "Throughout the season you go through peaks and valleys. I feel like we've gone through enough valleys in the beginning of the season. So I'm looking forward to the second half of the season where we can turn it up a notch and I feel like things are going to change."

With a lot of results to make up, the Union is starting to see a budding chemistry between Casey, the MLS veteran forward, and Maidana, the play-making Argentine midfielder continually adjusting to life in a new country. Casey, who battled an injury and lack of playing time earlier in the season, is tied with Sebastien Le Toux for the team lead in goals (four) after not scoring in his first nine appearances of 2014.

"He's got a great eye and he puts in a great ball," Casey said of Maidana. "For a guy like me that's all you really want, someone who can look those balls in. He's found me time and time again."

Saturday's was only the Union's third result in seven home games. Its lone win at PPL Park came in the March 15 home opener against New England.

"It's frustrating that we didn't get three points in that game [on Saturday], and at the same time there was a lot of character shown on that field by our team to come back and put that kind of energy in," Union manager John Hackworth said. "Clearly, Vancouver was putting all their players back and playing for that 2-0 victory, and we broke 'em down again and again. I thought we should've gone up 4-2 to be fair. A couple chances and it just didn't happen."

Free kicks

Homegrown midfielder Zach Pfeffer, the 19-year-old from Dresher and Upper Dublin High, started his first game for the Union since 2011. He was replaced at the start of the second half by Michael Lahoud, making just his second appearance of the season . . . Sebastien Le Toux returned from a back injury that cost him two matches and scored the game-tying goal in the 68th minute . . . Amobi Okugo once again sported the captain's armband, as veteran midfielder Brian Carroll did not play for the second straight match.

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