- After hitting a midseason lull, the Philadelphia Union are actively positioning themselves for a playoff push; More highlights from MLS Week 22.
Just a handful of weeks ago, what was going on with the Philadelphia Union was one of the great unexpected success stories of the 2016 MLS season. The team went into the Copa America break riding an eight-game unbeaten streak, played a balanced, effective style and figured at long last to be putting out a side that could make a serious run at MLS Cup.
But the team has struggled recently, and, as a result, first-year sporting director Earnie Stewart made a trio of moves that he’ll hope will swing the Union’s momentum back in a positive direction. The team didn’t just sign U.S. national team midfielder Alejandro Bedoya away from Ligue 1’s Nantes. It also completed a trade to acquire New England Revolution striker (and Bedoya buddy) Charlie Davies, while sending club icon Sebastien Le Toux to Colorado as a result of all of that.
For a side that was among MLS’s best in the early part of the season, this qualifies as a major makeover. But why?
It all goes back to the middle of that international break, when central midfielder Vincent Nogueira and the club mutually agreed to part ways, with Nogueira needing to return to his native France due to an undisclosed personal health issue. Just like that, the industrious heart of the Union’s operation was gone, a fan favorite who did all the little things taken away in an instant.
It’s not often that the departure of a single player can dramatically change a team’s fortunes, but that’s exactly what happened in Philly. Since the international break, the Union have gone 2-5-2, slipping from their perch atop the Eastern Conference to a mid-table position that may see the team needing to fight for a playoff spot if the trend continues.
The most glaring problem during that stretch: The lack of control the Union had in midfield. Bedoya, who broke into the U.S. national team as a winger but has since evolved toward a position in the middle of the park, where he starred for Nantes, can help with that.
“We have laid out very specific goals for our club this season and Alejandro adds the type of quality that can instantly guide us in achieving them,” Stewart said. “He’s a tremendous player in the prime of his career and we’re thrilled to welcome him to the club.”
Where Bedoya will slot in for Philly remains to be seen. Bedoya isn’t at his strongest in the box-to-box, No. 8 position preferred by Nogueira, but the impending return of Maurice Edu from injury will give the Union a solid defensive midfielder that can shield the back four and allow Bedoya more license to attack than he might otherwise.
And when he does attack, he may see a familiar face working to capitalize on the chances Bedoya creates.
A year after after a season when he scored 10 goals, Davies was hit with a litany of setbacks this season, be them personal–he and his wife Nina welcomed twin boys who were both three months premature in March–or physical (he suffered an adductor strain in April), or downright scary (Davies was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer, shortly after his adductor strain, but is now cancer-free).
If you can somehow look past all of that, what remains is an extremely talented player that adds a dimension the Union’s striker options didn’t provide (at least not all at once): Speed, smart movement and cunning in front of goal. C.J. Sapong will likely remain the starter in Jim Curtin’s 4-2-3-1 formation, but Davies should provide a nice change of pace. Which, not coincidentally, is just what the Union needs as a whole.
Davies made his club debut in a 2-2 draw vs. D.C. United, while Bedoya's debut is in the offing. Philadelphia is ready to make a playoff push its fans have been eager to see.
Offensive player of the week: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
I said last week that I couldn’t bring myself to give this award to Giovinco because he had been awarded it earlier in the season. I’m throwing that totally arbitrary restriction out the window this week, in light of the two unreal goals the reigning MVP laid on the Revolution at BMO Field on Saturday.
First, he kept it low, firing in a first-time shot into the back of the net despite the tough angle:
And then, almost as if it was a dare to himself to find a tighter angle than before, launched this high, looping beauty just under the crossbar:
Giovinco has been in the league for a season and a half now, so it seems like we should be getting used to these rapid-fire, world-beating displays. I’m not.
Defensive player of the week: Vytautas Andriuskevicius, Portland Timbers
The Timbers were put in a tough spot having to play a man down after just 13 minutes in their match against Sporting Kansas City, but the Portland back four performed well as a whole in limiting Sporting KC’s frantic attack not just while they were shorthanded, but also after their opponents got a red card of their own.
The Lithuanian known simply as “Vytas” was a big part of that, as his one-on-one defending helped slow down Sporting and launch a few of the Timbers’ very-effective counterattacks. His cross led to the opening goal of the 3-0 win, a fantastic strike from Diego Valeri.