The Philadelphia Union went into Saturday's contest against the visiting Seattle Sounders FC with a 3-1 overall record, standing atop the Eastern Conference. The game finished in a 1-1 draw, but it was one the Union easily should have won. They remain the leader in the East with 10 points and a 3-1-1 record.
All it took was one little lapse on defense in the 91st minute. Sounders forward Fredy Montero crossed the ball into the six-yard box, where Alvaro Fernandez, a late substitute for Seattle, rose above the defenders and headed the ball off the inside of the far post to tie up the game with little time left on the clock.
For 90 minutes, the Philadelphia Union had imposed their defensive will on the Sounders offensive attack. Until the last minute goal, Philadelphia's back-line only allowed one lone shot on goal, which ended up being a huge play in the game.
In the 77th minute, goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon had deflected the ball into the middle of the box off a Montero cross, where Fernandez was the recipient of a point-blank opportunity to put Seattle on the board. It was to no avail as defender Danny Califf stood along his team's goal line and made the save of the game, Fernandez's shot finding Califf's right shoulder, bouncing off and then finally cleared out of the area.
Carlos Ruiz broke the scoreless tie in the 32nd minute off a beautifully taken free kick from 24 yards out. With the rain pouring down and wind howling, Ruiz stepped into the shot, perfectly bending it just over the wall and into the back of the net. Kasey Keller reacted far too late and barely got a touch on the ball as it soared past him and sent the Sons of Ben and the rest of the crowd into a celebratory frenzy.
Ruiz and Sebastian Le Toux continuously put pressure on Seattle's back-line but were one bad touch or one bad pass away from a solid scoring opportunity in the first half. Keon Daniel played very strong in the midfield, slashing back and forth, holding the ball and distributing it to the open players and allowing them the chance to make a play. Amobi Okugo also played a very strong game, oftentimes making a solid defensive effort to break up any Seattle attack.
Peter Nowak's squad came out of halftime and continued their on-field dominance. Danny Mwanga came into the game for Stefani Miglioranzi and immediately added another attacking option for the Union. Mwanga and Ruiz held the forward positions while Le Toux pushed further outside to play more of a winger. The trio gave the Sounders FC defense a fit, working together with nice one-two's, give-and-go's and well-placed through balls to Le Toux and Daniel along the touchlines.
Le Toux had a chance to put the Union up 2-0 in the 50th minute when Ruiz controlled the ball at midfield and sent Le Toux streaking down the right side of the field and in on goal. His shot was driven low, but it was right at Kasey Keller, the poised veteran who has stopped plenty of breakaways in his career.
Seattle's star forwards, Fredy Montero and Nate Juqua, entered the match in the 66th minute, and they sparked their team's slumping attacks. Once they entered the game, the momentum slowly shifted in their favor, with the Union playing more in the defensive third. They maintained their "bend but don't break" style, with Seattle coming close on several occasions, but standing their ground, Philadelphia's seemingly impenetrable defense held their opposition to just one on-goal opportunity.
Despite the late goal given up, the Philadelphia Union are a much improved squad, not just from last season, but from the beginning of the 2011 season up to now, five matches in. The chemistry is building and it can be seen with the on-field performances of the defense, midfielders, and forwards.
While they still lack stud finisher up front, Ruiz and Le Toux put great amounts of pressure on the defense and do a superb job of holding the ball up and finding their support. The movement off the ball has gotten much better with the midfielders showing for the defenders and then finding their forwards and making runs off of them.
The defense has been rock solid, and newly signed goalie Faryd Mondragon has been outstanding between the pipes with a 0.25 GAA, tops in the MLS. While the elements may have hindered both team's true attacking abilities, the Union must find more success in their attacking third. Ruiz, Le Toux and Mwanga, when on the field together, work very well with one another, but at times become too passive instead of looking to put the ball on net.
They can't make winning 1-0 a habit, because the better teams will find ways to score. There is one thing I know, and that is that the Philadelphia Union's defense is up for any challenge. The goals will come.
And so will the wins.