Entering Wednesday’s midweek tilt against the Houston Dynamo, one could make an argument that the Union were the hottest team in the East: winners of two straight and earning seven points of a possible nine. But the Union entered the match last in the Eastern Conference, and until three matches ago, did not even have a win to show for its efforts.
Following Wednesday’s match, the Union were no longer last in the East, and the argument for “hottest team in the East” just became a lot easier to make.
The Union’s 2-0 win against Houston, who entered the evening as the top team in the Western Conference standings, was a systematic and thorough defeat of a very good team.
“Very professional performance from the guys, I think they put a lot into the game,” Union manager Jim Curtin said after the match. “That’s not an easy group to shut out and contain.”
With the shutout Wednesday the Union has produced ten points out of a possible 12 in the last three weeks, as well as four consecutive clean sheets. “We’ve challenged them, it’s not like a no-hitter where we’re not talking about it,” Curtin said after the match. “We’re talking about it a lot, and the guys have really taken pride in it.”
The Union found the net first in the 17th minute – a flick by Ilsinho towards CJ Sapong fell to the back four of Houston, who could not clear. Sapong outmuscled the Houston defenders to settle, touch back to Ilsinho, who fed wide to Chris Pontius. Pontius delivered to the back post on his first touch and Fafa Picault scaled above defender AJ DeLaGarza to head the ball off the bottom of the crossbar and into the net.
The Union would continue to press. In the 25th minute, the Union 3-man wall deflected a set piece from Houston that started a counter by Ilsinho, who carried from box to box himself and sent a rocket off the base of the post. The long shot careened back to Ray Gaddis who was pushing forward from his right back spot, and he launched a shot that appeared to be net-bound if not for a deflection by the Houston defender.
The Union would break through a second time before the half ended, in the 39th minute. Sapong was again involved in a dispossession of the Houston defense, which prompted a pass to the right wing for Pontius. This time, Pontius effectively touched once to move closer to the endline for his cross, and to open up space between the two retreating defenders. A wonderfully slotted pass found Ilsinho unmarked near the penalty spot, and he struck on net with his first touch past Joe Willis.
Curtin said of Ilsinho, “He’s a talented player, I think we’ve all seen his ability to go 1-v-1 at defenders…When he gets in space, it’s very difficult for defenders, no one guy is going to stop him. He’s playing confident right now, and I think it needs to be said he’s putting in a lot of work defensively too.”
In the first half, the playmakers that Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin have built around played with precision, toughness, and effectiveness – but perhaps not in the positions that those two decision-makers originally expected. Give Curtin credit – not until very recently have we seen Pontius play on the right, and Ilsinho attack from the “number 10″ position in the center of the field – but it worked to perfection on Wednesday evening.
Curtin said of Pontius’ recent performance, “He had a slow start to the year statistically, but he was still doing the work. Now you are starting to see balls bounce his way, he made some really good, decisive final passes tonight. He’s confident right now, a guy you can lean on and trust…and he’s been a leader for us through the tough early stages.”
“I certainly feel more comfortable out there,” Pontius said of playing on the right. “I can go inside, shoot on my left and still pose that option…tonight there were options for me to serve the ball, and we had Fafa get on the end of one and Ilsinho get on the end of one. I’ve said my role might be different every game, whether it’s assisting, whether it’s defensively, or getting on the score sheet, so we just take what they give us right now.
Picault playing in the Union lineup has made a significant difference as well. A pure class goal against DC United last weekend is only an appetizer for what Picault’s role will be for the Union this season. On Wednesday night, Picault was aggressive with balls in the air, and was effective in taking runs behind the back four. Picault and Sapong, while not necessarily playing off one another, make each other more effective with a second dynamic threat up front.
“We had a lot of new players, so I guess it was just a question of gelling,” Picault said after the game. “We’re gelling a lot better now, players are understanding their roles better and it’s working out.”
Ray Gaddis continues to make the most of his opportunities in the back four, replacing Keegan Rosenberry as the starter. Gaddis was solid in his 60+ minutes of action, but was substituted for Rosenberry in the 61st minute after Gaddis nearly drew a second yellow for a late challenge on Vicente Sanchez.
“The thinking there is – he and the refs had a conference saying ‘One more foul and he’s done’ – so we were proactive in that regard,” Curtin confirmed.
Oddly enough, Rosenberry earned a caution for his troubles in the 80th minute for what referee Jorge Gonzalez deemed stalling on a throw from the near touchline. He also contributed a key defensive header right at the back post as a delivery approached Houston striker Eric Torres in the latter stages of the second half.
The Dynamo threatened in stoppage time, as Andrew Wenger dialed in a cross that found the foot of Sanchez and past Blake for what appeared to be Houston’s first goal. But the ball was deemed past the end line before it was crossed, and the Union maintained its clean sheet and the two goal win.
With the 2-0 win, the Union has produced its fourth consecutive clean sheet, its third straight win, and its 10th point in the last 4 matches. The Union return home on Saturday to face the Colorado Rapids.