On the afternoon of March 15, when a Sebastien Le Toux goal in front of a sold-out PPL Park gave the Union its first victory of 2014, the fifth season of Philadelphia's MLS franchise was officially off to a great start.
No one could've anticipated 4 months would pass before the crowd in Chester witnessed another league victory.
But alas, 17 weeks after its home-opening triumph over New England, the Union last night snapped its wretched drought, claiming its first home MLS match in eight tries, a pivotal 3-1 win against the rival New York Red Bulls.
Conor Casey scored a goal and assisted on another and Zac MacMath played great in net to help the Union (5-8-7) earn three much-needed points in a nationally televised game. This was a crucial night - interim manager Jim Curtin on Tuesday deemed it "a real swing game" - as the Union entered in seventh place in the 10-team Eastern Conference but only four points behind New York and New England for a playoff spot.
"I think the Union tonight made a statement that we're going to be a team in the Eastern Conference that's going to be not just pushing for the fourth and fifth spot," Curtin said, "but a team that can play with anybody."
Casey got the scoring started in the game's ninth minute. After receiving a nice touch from Andrew Wenger at the top of the box, the veteran forward got Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga to bite on a cut back and fired a shot low to the far post that beat keeper Luis Robles. The goal was Casey's sixth of the season and also his sixth in the last six MLS games.
Casey's was the lone goal of the first half, but certainly not the only consequential turn of events. The Union was dealt a blow in the 33rd minute when playmaking midfielder Cristian Maidana went down, appearing to grab his left hamstring. Fred, who had only two prior appearances this season, replaced Maidana early in the 38th minute. The team does not think Maidana's injury is serious, Curtin said.
Fred, the veteran Brazilian midfielder, stepped up, though, scoring in the 51st minute. Casey redirected a cross from Sheanon Williams that bounced directly in front of the net to Fred, who buried the shot for his first MLS goal since Oct. 16, 2010, coincidentally also against New York at PPL Park.
New York (5-6-8) halved Philadelphia's lead in the 61st minute when Bradley Wright-Phillips scored his MLS-leading 16th goal of the season and Thierry Henry recorded his league-leading 10th assist.
The Union dodged a bullet 5 minutes later when Wright-Phillips was ruled offside on a Tim Cahill header that found the back of the net. The call proved even more crucial when, in the 68th minute, Eric Alexander pulled down Maurice Edu on a corner kick and Le Toux netted the ensuing penalty kick to provide the Union with a two-goal lead. Le Toux is 11-for-11 on penalty kicks in his Union career in league play.
MacMath put forth one of his better performances of the season, showing aggressiveness off his line and attacking the ball when needed.
"Especially as the season gets later and points become more important, I've got to make the big saves and the saves that I'm not really supposed to make," said MacMath, who had five saves. "As long as I keep on doing that, hopefully the team can keep scoring."
The performance was exactly the bounce-back effort Curtin sought in the wake of Saturday's game, a 3-3 home draw with Colorado after the Union led by two goals.
"Our response there was going to dictate how the rest of our season went," Curtin reiterated. "If you lose again at home and then you have to go quick turnaround on the road to Chicago [on Saturday], a team that's hungry, you're in a big hole . . . To grab three points tonight against an Eastern Conference opponent was a huge one for us."