Early last week, Union interim manager Jim Curtin set a lofty goal for his team: to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
The Union did the next best thing, beating the rival New York Red Bulls in a nationally televised Eastern Conference showdown Wednesday and coming from behind to pick up a road draw vs. the Chicago Fire on Saturday.
Two wins would have been better, of course. But after a grueling stretch, the Union will happily take a 1-0-1 week heading into a two-week layoff from MLS play.
Let’s take a closer look at the past two games and what lies ahead for the Union in this week’s Inside Doop.
Three thoughts about the past week
1. At one point this season, the Union didn’t have a player score from the run of play for five straight games. That almost seems hard to remember after the Union poured in thee goals for the sixth time in eight games in Wednesday’s crucial 3-1 win over the Red Bulls. A big reason for the resurgence is Conor Casey, who had a goal and an assist against New York and has six goals since May 31. It certainly looked like the 32-year-old striker was slowing down after failing to score over the first three months of the season … but the MLS veteran clearly still has a lot left in the tank and has been extremely valued by Curtin since the new manager took the reins.
2. Sebastien Le Toux has also been consistently finding the back of the net for the Union while partnering well with Casey up top. But Le Toux’s greatest value might just be his skills in taking penalty kicks. The Frenchman was called to the spot in both of the Union’s last two games and delivered, scoring one high and to the right against New York goalie Luis Robles before beating Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson low and to the left to salvage a 1-1 draw in stoppage time. In both cases, the goalkeeper guessed the right direction but Le Toux’s shots were still too powerful for them to stop. They shouldn’t feel too bad about not making the save though; Le Toux is now a very impressive 12 for 12 on penalty kicks in his Union career.
3. Two more players also deserve to be highlighted: Ethan White and Fred. Neither player had been used much this season … but both stepped up in a big way when needed this week. Fred, the oldest player on the team, filled in for the injured Cristian Maidana to score his first MLS goal since 2010 on Wednesday, before making a terrific track-back defensive play four days later. And White, who hadn’t logged a single minute for the first four months of the season, has now played a full 90 in the last three games and has done more than enough to keep his starting center back spot.
Three questions for the week ahead
1. With the Union playing only in a friendly this week, the most important thing fans will be tuned into is the possible return of Carlos Valdes, the Colombian World Cup defender who starred for Philly in 2011 and 2012 before being sent away on loan. Curtin has been insistent over the past few weeks that the Union wanted to bring Valdes back from his loan stint as soon as the World Cup was over and that Valdes wanted to return to MLS too. But, it seemed, fans remained skeptical until last week when reports swirled in South America that Valdes was unhappy that he hadn’t been paid on time by Argentina’s San Lorenzo and didn’t report to the team’s camp. Now, it seems like it’s only a matter of time until Valdes returns to the Union. Will it happen this week? Will he be ready for the Union’s next league game -- a tough road tilt against reigning champs Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 1? Or could the deal still fall through? Stay tuned.
2. Another player whom Curtin hopes will be available against Sporting Kansas City is playmaker Cristian Maidana, who missed Saturday’s game against Chicago with a hamstring injury. If Maidana and Valdes are both able to play, the Union will be loaded with talent, but Curtin will also have some tough lineup decisions to make. Will Valdes play next to White or Maurice Edu at center back? And if Edu goes back to the midfield -- his preferred position -- how will Curtin maneuver the midfield to effectively get Edu, Okugo, Nogueira and Maidana together on the field?
3. Oh right, the friendly. On Friday, the Union will host Crystal Palace of the English Premier League in an international exhibition, a fun thing MLS teams do in the summer while EPL teams are in their preseason. Crystal Pace will be the fifth-ever Premier League team to face the Union but probably one with the least amount of star power. And with the Union just now getting back in the playoff race and trying to recover from a six-games-in-three-weeks stretch, it seems unlikely many starters will play. But the idea of these friendlies are to still try to challenge European teams as they prepare for the start of the season -- so will Curtin bite the bullet and give some playing time to at least a few regulars?
Stat of the week
Including the U.S. Open Cup, Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux have combined to account for 20 goals (16 goals, four assists) over the Union’s last 12 games.
Quote of the week
“We made a statement tonight. We talked before the game that respect isn’t given; it’s earned. And we had to grab it. And we did that tonight.” – Jim Curtin after Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Red Bulls.
Player of the week
Nicknamed Grandpa because of his advanced age -- 34! -- Fred effectively turned back the clock this week with a couple of great plays. There’s no question the Brazilian should be a key player off the bench for the rest of the season.