With a patchwork roster and battling travel to the vaunted West Coast last Saturday, the Union passed a sizable test by earning a scoreless draw against the San Jose Earthquakes.
But as the squad completes its three-game road swing in New England against the Revolution on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Union will have a different type of mountain to climb: not overlooking a last-place team.
"I always say this standings in this league don't matter," said coach Peter Nowak. "What worries me is that when you go over the first half of the season, there's been seven red cards given to the opposition, either home or away. It seems like seven red cards is a lot for 18 games. We need to be ready for that.
What Nowak was working to explain is the Revs' ability to draw severe cards. The latest example of this came on July 4, when Benny Feilhaber drew a red card and penalty kick at the expense of Real Salt Lake's Nat Borchers. Despite the awkward refereeing, the contest finished a 3-3 draw. The Revs have a 3-8-7 record
"It's a part of the game, but we need to be careful and watch for this," Nowak said.
The best way to stay out of defensive card trouble will be for the Union to control pace and possession, something they've done well during the first half the season. Ranked as the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference with 16 goals against, the Union's most effective strategy would be to snag an early goal and rely on their defensive strength to hold the lead and counterattack.
"Every goal on the road is important," said Nowak, whose squad is 2-4-3 away from PPL Park. "For our confidence, it would be better to get it done as soon as we can and continue to play that way. The games we won on the road, we scored and early goal and things got easier for us."
Overlooking the Revs might be a difficult task for the Union, who have friendlies against European powerhouses Everton and Real Madrid on July 20 and 23.
"I think it's going to be competitive but not like a league game or playoff game," Nowak said, when asked if playing three games in less than a week would take a physical toll. "I think we're going to be fine from a physical standpoint. The weekend game in New England on the turf will be difficult but we'll get back to it and be ready on Wednesday."
Missing Carlos Ruiz, Veljko Paunovic and Carlos Valdes to injury and illness, along with the trade of left back Jordan Harvey to the Vancouver Whitecaps, the first-place Union, at 7-4-7, were left shorthanded last Saturday. However, in the face of tribulation, the team responded well.
With Gabriel Farfan and Stefani Miglioranzi picking up the slack on the back end, the Union gained confidence through perseverance. This could give the squad a boost now that Valdes and Ruiz are set to make their return on Sunday. Miglioranzi, who suffered a sinus fracture, and Paunovic, with a hip strain, are both listed as doubtful.
One player that improved his game when the Union needed him the most was right back Sheanon Williams, who has been a steady force for his team all season long.
"He's getting better and better," Nowak said. "When he came to us, he was playing as a striker. It was a big move for him to defense but with his offensive mind, his speed and different qualities he posses, he's having a good season for us and he's still young. He's confident and looking to play a good second half of the season."
For the Revs, Sunday's match is a chance to break a long winless streak that dates back to May 14, when they defeated the Whitecaps, 1-0. With just 16 goals on the year, the Revs are the worst offensive team in the MLS. And missing their leading scorer Shalrie Joseph and back Ryan Cochrane to suspension, they will be at a sure disadvantage when the Union, who have just one loss in their last nine games, visit.
The need Toux relax
Leading the Union in goal scoring last season with a whopping 14 goals, striker and midfielder Sebastien Le Toux has been snake-bitten in 2011, finding the back of the net just once in 18 games. While the Frenchman has been useful in other ways, swapping positions and leading the Union with six assists, the goals simply aren't coming.
According to Nowak, Le Toux needs to simply relax.
"The production isn't there," Nowak said. "He needs to clear the mind a little bit. He recognizes the kind of work he's bringing to the team and we appreciate the fact that he's moving positions. I think he needs to relax.
The whole focus is on scoring goals, and that doesn't make it any better. He needs to make the game simple he's trying so hard. Let the game come to him and make it simple. If the pass isn't going to come, make another one. Be active. That's how you find a rhythm. He needs to just chill out a little bit."
E-mail Ryan Bright at firstname.lastname@example.org