MONTRÉAL - The Philadelphia Union have visited Stade Saputo four times since the Montréal Impact joined Major League Soccer in 2012. On all four occasions, they've left with a loss.
This time, the defeat was by just a 1-0 margin. But after Felipe Martins stuck home the rebound of Patrice Bernier's long-range blast in the 14th minute, there were few occasions all afternoon when it seemed the Union could come away with a result.
"We give them a couple of opportunities early in the first half and they capitalize on one of them," Union manager John Hackworth said. "And then we do a lot of good things but don't execute in the most important moments of the game, and you walk away frustrated that you lose a game like that."
The goal sequence started with a rare bad pass by Union right back Sheanon Williams. Bernier pounced on the ball before it reached Maurice Edu, and was off to the races. He struck the shot from 25 yards out, and the wet ball caromed off Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath's hands and chin. Felipe made a beeline for the rebound and slipped in behind defender Aaron Wheeler, who was watching the ball and had his back to the 18-yard line.
Hackworth acknowledged that it was "a really bad pass" by Williams. It was caused by the Union's desire to play the ball out of the back calmly and on the ground, instead of whacking the ball a long way through the air.
"That's a pass that we make a lot of times, and in this case Bernier does an excellent job of picking it off," Hackworth said. "Because we're in this period of transition - and we're not under any presure - we had plenty of options that were different than that, and it's just a really bad turnover that results in us being unprepared."
Hackworth stressed that he did not fault either Wheeler or fellow central defender Amobi Okugo for the sequence.
"That's not the kind of play that you think is going to happen," Hackworth said. "It's hard to prepare for that because nine times out of 10, that ball is played into somebody's feet or it's played behind them, and they [the centerbacks] are not in a position where we have to worry about that."
The Union (1-3-5, 8 points) had a decent number of chances to tie the score. A week after registering zero shots on goal at home against Houston, they struck five against the Impact (1-4-3, 4 points). And there were nine corner kicks that created further opportunities.
But with Cristian Maidana and Sébastien Le Toux replaced by Fabinho and Danny Cruz in the starting lineup - and with a cold rain pelting the field all day - the Union's attack rarely seemed to be in full flow.
Perhaps the best chance to score came not long after Felipe put the Impact ahead. In the 27th minute, Cruz and Andrew Wenger played a neat give-and-go that led to a first-touch shot for Wenger. Impact goalkeeper Perkins sprawled to his left and just barely got his hand to the ball.
Not surprisingly, Wenger received a chilly reception in his first game at Stade Saputo since being traded from Montréal to Philadelphia earlier this month. He was the Impact's first ever draft pick in team history, but his potential was stunted by the Impact's annual carousel of coaching changes.
He also was burdened with the pressure of playing in the shadow of superstar striker Marco Di Vaio. Now that burden is gone, but it's been replaced by the pressure of having to deliver the goods every game for the Union.
Wenger scored in his first game after the trade, but his finishing touch has gone missing since.
"We do well defensively and we do well moving the ball, but we can't put the ball in the back of the net, and at the end of the day that comes down to me," he said. "And a few other guys, but really, that's the difference right now... we have to do better and I have to do better."
Maidana and Antoine Hoppenot entered the game in the middle stages of the second half, and quickly livened up the action. But the Union's improved ball possession and more flowing attack only produced one chance that required Perkins to make a save.
The result was the Impact's first victory of the season, after an eight-game winless run to start the year. And it was the fourth time this year that the Union failed to beat a winless team after the opening week. That streak includes when Montréal came to PPL Park earlier this month.
"We've played teams that are in slumps, and I don't know if we come in and take them lightly, but every team in MLS is able to beat any other team in MLS," Okugo said. "We can't make it a habit, these ties and these losses - we've got to get out of the hole."
The 23-year-old is well aware of the pressure that is building on his team, and he isn't afraid to talk about it. That includes getting the attention of his teammates, as he did in a players-only huddle near the Union's bench right after the halftime whistle blew.
"I just tried to rile up the guys and tell them that it was going to be a battle," he said when asked what he told his teammates. "We can't just come here and expect to win."
With just over a quarter of the 2014 campaign now gone, the chances for the Union to make up for the points they've lost so far are already starting to diminish. It doesn't help that Okugo and his teammates have to go to Seattle in a week to face a Sounders team that's on a four-game unbeaten run, with 13 goals scored in that span.
Between Seattle's high-powered offense, its raucous crowds and its notoriously difficult articifial surface, next Saturday won't be the easiest game in which to learn to grind out a result.
Still, it's something the Union have to get right - and Okugo was the first to admit it.
"I remember that last year, we would win and then fans would complain that it was ugly," he quipped. "It can be pretty soccer, but you've got to battle it out too. It's not La Liga, it's not the Bundesliga, it's not the EPL - it's MLS, and it's going to be a battle every game."
Hackworth pled for patience as he tried to stress the positives of his team's performance.
"My opinion is that it's always a work in progress," he said. "In this case you have a team that's still playing the game very well, and we're just going to have to be patient. I still believe that if we play that way every game, we're going to come out on the better end of it."
There's no question that the Union are playing much more aesthetically pleasing soccer this year. But at the end of the day, though, the sport is as much of a results-oriented business as every other sports - and Hackworth acknowledged that his players "simply need to put the ball in the net."
"We've tried to instill a system that is based on a lot of ball movement and a lot of forward, positive possession, and that's working," he said. "We need to take our chances better, and once that happens... you think those are going to fall your way eventually."