Sounders playoff hopes slowed by Blake and the Union

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The Philadelphia Union continued its home success on Saturday afternoon, with a 2-0 win over Western Conference playoff contenders, the Seattle Sounders.

The Union showed strong in the first half, bossing play on both sides of the ball. Seattle found its feet in the second half, however, pushing the attack to the Union. Andre Blake stood out once again for Philadelphia, making 3 world-class saves. Will Bruin, Nicolas Lodiero, and Clint Dempsey all saw their surefire goals tipped away by the reigning MLS goalkeeper of the year winner. Blake is consistently the difference maker for Philadelphia, and when he makes saves like those, the Union usually end up on top.

Marcus Epps opened the scoring for the Union on the afternoon in the 28th minute. Philadelphia moved the ball well, with Epps beginning and ending the combination. He laid the ball for Haris Medunjanin, who, with a deft look at goal, opened enough space to pull a pass to Ilsinho at the top of the 18. The Brazilian midfielder looked eager to go at goal, but with a deft touch, clipped a pass across the Seattle backline to find a wide-open Marcus Epps on the right side. Epps took a touch in, opened his hips, and buried the ball at the near post.

Questions must be asked about Seattle, however, as the defense was scattered. Epps initially was doubled teamed, and two passes later had no one close to him. Seattle needed at least one defender to stay in that area after Epps pulled the ball back. Instead, by the time the ball came to Ilsinho, 3 players were surrounding the Brazilian, but not closing him down. It gave him enough time to pick his head up and find the killer pass. Stefan Frei was also questionable in this play, allowing a goal at his near post. He misread Epps, thinking the young winger would curl a shot back post, and it left Frei leaning back. Frei should have relied on his defenders, who had gotten back by the time Epps shot, to cover the back post while Frei could deny the near post. Whenever a ball goes in near post, immediately people think, “keepers shouldn’t allow goals at the near post.” While this general rule is often overused, it does stick in this situation. The far post shot is always the harder to finish, so usually the keeper wants to deny the shorter, easier option, and in this situation Frei left himself exposed.

Frei once again was caught off guard, as Roland Alberg made his mark on the game in the 88th minute. Alberg took a short ball on a corner kick, at first just trying to shield the ball in the corner. Alberg caught Nicolas Lodeiro on his heels, and turned into play. Alberg drove into the box, and, when the whole stadium thought Alberg would cross, the Dutchman hit a wicked knuckling shot. Frei leapt up to tip the ball away, but the movement on the ball was too much for Frei, who certainly was  expecting a cross. Frei did get a hand to it, but he couldn’t push it past the back post as the ball touched off the far post and into the net.

Curtin had his tactics right on Saturday, employing his usually 4-2-3-1, but choosing to attack in the wide areas, getting Fafa Picault and Marcus Epps behind the Seattle defense. The first goal was a result of Epps breaking away down the right, and Picault gave Kevin Leerdam and the rest of the Seattle defense a nightmare for large portions of the game. The runs in the wide areas freed up Ilsinho and Alejandro Bedoya in the middle, giving time for the midfielders to drive at the Seattle center backs and find final passes.

The second Union goal didn’t come down to tactics as much as a piece of magic from Alberg, who looks driven to earn a starting spot. His impact off the bench is surely noted, however, by Curtin and the Union. Perhaps he is too invaluable in the late minutes to convince Curtin to replace Ilsinho at the #10 position.

Both teams return to action in two weeks, as this match takes us into the international break. The Union will travel to Chicago to take on the Fire, while Seattle looks to finally clinch a playoff spot at home against FC Dallas.

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