The stressful nature of the Philadelphia Union offseason has finally been relieved with the first kick of the 2018 Major League Soccer season. Let's face it; everyone around the region has been waiting for this game just to put the turbulent winter behind them and finally focus on what matters with this Union team: the on-the-field product.
While fans may have been disappointed not to see their shiny new toy, attacking midfielder Borek Dockal, on the field to kick off the year, the excitement for another Philadelphia Union season was evident as fans piled in to see thier squad square up with the New England Revolution on a cold, blistery night. Union Homegrown midfielder Anthony Fontana logged his first major league start in the absence of Dockal while Fabian Herbers steppud up to fill the shoes of recently suspended Philadelphia winger, Fafa Picault.
From the opening whistle, Philadelphia looked to be the team that was going to dictate the pace of the game. Aside from a few marking errors on New England counterattacks, the Union worked well down the wings with Herbers and Keegan Rosenberry linking up well with Alejandro Bedoya. To counter that side, newly acquired winger David Accam showed his dribbling prowess by beating any man that got in his way in one-on-one situations.
The most surprising aspect of the first half was the failure to capitalize on chances by C.J. Sapong. The highest scoring American forward in MLS last season had 3-4 clear cut chances on net but uncharacteristically missed wide with his head and foot. Despite the numerous missed chances, Philadelphia would catch their well-deserved break when New England defender Antonio Milnar Delamea fouled Sapong on a breakaway effort which resulted in a red card that would put the Revolution down a man in the 24th minute. With a man advantage, Philadelphia were able to work the ball almost at will across the field which resulted in a plethora of chances for the home team.
It wasn’t until a ball over the top in the 43rd minute would find Alejandro Bedoya’s foot, bounce around in the box and be driven home by 18-year old Anthony Fontana for his first professional goal in blue and gold. The Union Homegrown talent filled in valiantly for the missing Borek Dockal and was rewarded for his efforts by sending Talen Energy Stadium into a much-needed frenzy.
From there on, the Union continued to press the New England backline and control possession that would ultimately frustrate the opposition into consistent fouling and mistake after mistake. Late attacking substitutes Cory Burke and Jay Simpson would have their effect on the game giving Philadelphia the fresh legs needed to continually dictate possession. Tactical flexibility has always been a criticism of head coach Jim Curtin, but there's no denying he handled the situation to the best of his ability; including the late arrival of Derrick Jones to bolster the Union midfield and close down any holes for New England to strike. Burke would eventually fake out his man in the box and play a perfect pass into a streaking C.J. Sapong that found it’s way into the top corner of the net to increase the lead to 2-0 in the 69th minute. Another late red card given to New England's Claude Dielna for bringing down Cory Burke on a breakaway would put the game completely on ice and give the Union a near-perfect start to their 2018 campaign.
This is far from the finished product, but fans should be quite impressed at the level of play Philadelphia performed at in this chilly, eastern conference affair. The discipline and guidance of Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya kept the Union formation compact and organizaed for a large majority of the match. If not for a few glaring misses from the attacking three, Philadelphia could've easily blown this game open in the opening 30 minutes of the match. If Sapong continues to get chances like he did against New England, there's no questioning his ability to net at least 20 goals this season. While it wasn't an absolute rout, it was truly an impressive performance that Philadelphia fans can hang onto and carry with them heading into this promising 2018 season. With their next match being two weeks away against Columbus, the Union will have time to reflect on this performcance and fix those minor errors that could result in a fruitful attack once at full strength.
More stats and highlights available at MLS Matchcenter: