Two teams with intertwined fates met in Chester on Saturday with the top spot in the Eastern Conference on the line. While the New York Red Bulls played 35 minutes of the match with only ten men, they were able to claw back a goal for a 1-1 draw. Up a goal from Daniel Gazdag and a man thanks to Dylan Nealis second yellow in the 55th minute, Union manager Jim Curtin will view this as another two points dropped for his team after a Luquinhos equalizer ran their winless streak to five matches in a row.
While it’s debatable if these two teams are rivals, their clash at Subaru Park certainly felt like a rivalry match. As the game got tense, chants rang out through the stadium and tackles were flying in during the entire match which hurt the Red Bulls as Dylan Nealis was sent packing for a foul on Sergio Santos where he raked his Achillies. With eight yellow cards handed out and 25 fouls combined by both teams, it seemed like only a matter of time before somebody was going to get shown the door.
If the ending was disappointing, Gazdag’s opener for the Union showed exactly how this team wants to play soccer. Capitalizing on a missed clearance from a Red Bull defender, Gazdag gave the ball to Santos before pointing to where he wanted it played back to after he beat his man in the box. Santos played it perfectly to result in the 1-0 lead.
But while the Union have been a good side getting ahead in games, they haven’t been good at holding leads as the team seems to lack a killer instinct. This was the fifth consecutive league match in which the Union have blown a lead, resulting in a loss and four draws.
Former Union target Luquinhas was the man with the equalizer on Saturday night showing how intertwined these two teams are.
After a foul by Jose Martinez — which will see him suspended for the match Wednesday with Inter Miami — the Union defense was disjointed enough to allow the goal to happen. While the Union had the man advantage, they were unable to make it count, mainly due to the absence of forward Mikael Uhre. The Danish striker was signed to be the guy in the box to provide a finishing touch after winning the golden boot in the Danish first division last year.
But he has gotten off to a less than stellar start to his Union career due to missing time with multiple injuries to the same quad. He’s featured in only six games and scored one goal while assisting another. He is on the mend but this match came too soon for him to get back on the field. If he is able to get rolling, the sky is the limit for this team as they’re doing the right thing, taking 17 shots and putting six on target is good, but they lack the quality needed when Santos can’t play 90 minutes himself.
Another area of frustration is Nathan Harriel. The 21-year-old has been excellent in stretches since taking over at right back for Oliver Mbiazo. Early in this match he won the Union a corner through sheer determination. going up against Red Bull’s John Tolkin. But the Union system is built on fullbacks creating chances to cross from wide areas. Harriel’s opposite, Kai Wagner, showed that by being the most dangerous player on the pitch for either team racking up four key passes.
Harriel doesn’t even seem confident in his crossing. He only attempted two crosses in the match before being subbed out for Mbiazo and only completed 62 percent of his passes on the whole. With Alejandro Bedoya and Leon Flach more focused on off ball runs to create space, Curtin either needs to get Harriel help or push him to trust his right foot more. He is the starter because he earned the role, but he needs to grow into things if he’d like it to stay that way.
This is a Philadelphia Union team that wants to compete for the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup and they’re close. But they will need to keep tinkering to ensure that they stay ahead of their rivals. Heading into the match, Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber said, “I always love to play against Philadelphia, we are not always successful against them, but games against Philadelphia, let us grow, let us develop in a good direction. They are maybe one or two steps ahead of where [Red Bulls] are, with their group together longer.”
Based on how things played out, Struber was right. It’s hard to say that he Union didn’t deserve all three points. As hard as the Red Bulls might have fought back, being down a goal and a man is not a position you get much from very often.
On the bright side for Philadelphia, the Union have played three consecutive matches against playoff teams from last season and lost none of them so things are on track. But until the points come, fans will begin to get frustrated. Next up is a home match against Inter Miami, a game which is now as close to a must win as a match can get this early in the season if the Union would like to realize their ambitions. They’re still level atop the east on points with CF Montreal and Orlando City but they won’t be for long if draws don’t become start becoming wins soon.