CHESTER >> The middle line was difficult to discern Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium, so extreme were the poles of the emotional spectrum.
To Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, the 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes was both “frustrating” and “crap,” no offense intended to the opponent. But sleepless night notwithstanding, Jim Curtin still struck an optimistic tone, that the conversion rate of one goal from 22 shots and nine on target wouldn’t be the norm in 2018.
Valid as those seemingly disparate positions may be, the reality has the added texture of urgency — not the one that Bedoya lamented as missing in the final third, but one borne of the scheduling oddities proffered by MLS.
The Union (1-1-2, 5 points) will more than likely figure out their offense eventually — whether it’s via new faces Borek Dockal and David Accam or a return to something close to 2017 form for CJ Sapong or a wild card like Ilsinho. But the schedule is already applying pressure to get that done.
The Union have 17 home games. Three have elapsed, and one more will follow Friday against Orlando City. Already, the Union have left four points on the table via draws with the Quakes and Columbus. It would be foolishly reactionary to consider Week 6 of a season that stretches 30-some weeks to present a must-win or to think that the Union would be infallible on home turf. But the club is already in jeopardy of falling behind the pace it wanted to be on this season. Both can be true, and both can be concerning.
The Union are afflicted by a very Union-style brand of irony — that despite fielding the youngest backline in MLS history, it’s a faltering attack that’s holding them back in the first four games of the season. The backline didn’t escape Saturday’s encounter blamelessly, as a rash step into midfield by Auston Trusty allowed a jailbreak 5-on-3 by the Earthquakes that resulted in Magnus Eriksson’s goal in the 37th minute, set up by Danny Hoesen exploiting on a 2-on-1 flooding of Matt Real down the right wing.
Despite that miscue, the 19-year-old Media native still drew praise from Curtin.
“The things that Auston Trusty is doing right now, I think, things that go unnoticed sometimes when it’s just a 1-1 game but the situations he bails us out in, the duels that he wins, the composure that he has, being tuned in for 90 minutes, it’s fun to watch first and foremost, so I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Curtin said. “It’s a young backline, but one that I thought did a very good job on the night against four really good attacking pieces that they have. I thought we neutralized them, just feel kind of gutted for the guys just because they deserve three points.”
The attack, meanwhile, is still finding its footing. Accam made way after an unconvincing hour on the pitch, another exasperating combination of the Union not getting him the ball and the Ghanaian not imposing himself on proceedings.
The other new arrival settled in markedly as the game wore on. Dockal was more active creating space between the lines, gravitating into more dangerous areas as the game advanced. He fired a pair of shots on target — stinging the palms of Andrew Tarbell in the 12th minute with a drive from eight yards, then eliciting a diving save by Tarbell in the 62nd minute from 30 yards. The Czech No. 10 was responsible for four key passes, two from the run of play, and that doesn’t include his secondary assist when he sprayed a ball to Fafa Picault in the box for the winger to loft a cross onto the head of Bedoya.
“Still work to improve on, but our attack is one that we want all 11 guys to be involved in the attack, we want all 11 guys to be involved in defense,” Curtin said. “It’s demanding, but again if we can perform like this and really have control of the game and create chances, they will eventually go in.”
“We’ll score. We’ll score,” said Picault, playing his first game after a three-match suspension. “It’s not really a worry. We’re jelling. We’re getting new guys, and myself it’s also new. It’s going to work. It’s going to be fine. No worries.”
Worries might not stem from anything internally, but the external view is less forgiving. The Union have had an easy go of MLS’s first month, with three of four games against teams that finished sixth or worse in their conference last year, with a fifth coming Friday. They’ve had a leisurely four games in six weeks, three at home. This is as easy as the schedule is likely to get, once long trips out West and midweek games and the teeth of the Eastern Conference gauntlet converge.
Reason would dictate that the Union would need a cushion out of the first two months of the season, reserves of points to draw upon during the leaner times when the summer heat kicks up. And that’s before you consider the benefit of playing from a position of power in the standings rather than the perpetual chase mode that has long epitomized the franchise. One need look no further than the Union’s last two seasons, both with identical 11-14-9 records that produced much different postseason outcomes in part because of the strength of the team’s start. Yet through four games (small sample size, of course), the Union are collecting points at a rate that has historically been insufficient for playoff qualification.
If inspiration for urgency is needed, then perhaps the concern that April stumbles will bring October disappointments will do the trick.