Union fall to D.C. United in Hackworth's debut
CHESTER, Pa. – When Philadelphia Union interim manager John Hackworth was announced to the crowd Saturday evening at PPL Park, there was a huge roar.
The energy from the fans continued throughout the night and the Union responded with a lot of energy of their own, creating many scoring opportunities and controlling the run of play against visiting D.C. United.
Only one problem: they weren’t able to score.
And, in the end, some of those good feelings were spoiled when D.C. United’s Chris Pontius scored the game’s only goal to lift the visitors to a 1-0 victory over the Union in Hackworth’s first game at the helm.
Hackworth took the reins from embattled ex-manager Peter Nowak, who was informed just three days before Saturday’s game that his services would no longer be needed.
“Everyone, from the staff on down to the guys on the field, put in a great performance tonight,” Union midfielder Brian Carroll said. “I thought we did everything right but score one. Unfortunately, it you don’t score the other team can sneak one in – and that’s what it kind of feels like tonight.”
United’s goal came after Union captain Carlos Valdes was called for a questionable foul and D.C. sub Branko Boskovic played a perfect free kick into the box. Pontius was able to run onto the pass and tap it in past Union goalie Zac MacMath, who finished with two saves and was rarely tested the rest of the night.
“The referee calls a foul so you have to deal with it,” Union defender Sheanon Williams said. “We have to match up better. It was late in the game and I don’t even remember if they had a shot on goal. That being said, we gave up a dangerous set piece and it hurts.”
Aside from the goal, the Union defense mostly shut down the D.C. attack, and much of that was due to Williams, who had an outstanding game at right back.
Williams had been playing center back for the past couple of games but was switched back to his natural position on the outside, with Hackworth calling him “one of the best right backs in the league.”
It was one of a handful of changes Hackworth made to the lineup. Others included starting Jack McInerney at striker and Amobi Okugo at center back. McInerney and Okugo, one of just three remaining franchise originals, had played sparingly this season while Nowak ran the show.
“Hack talked to me during the week and said I was going to start playing a little more,” McInerney said. “He gave me the start and I’m grateful for that.”
Despite playing without top striker Lionard Pajoy, who was serving a one-game suspension for a foul he committed in the Union’s last league match, McInerney and the rest of the Union offense began creating dangerous chances early in the game.
In his first start of the season, McInerney came close to scoring on a first-half free kick from Michael Farfan and had another shot go wide after gathering a through ball from Freddy Adu right before halftime. The maestros of the attack, Adu and Farfan played good balls from the midfield throughout most of the night.
The Union finished with 15 attempts on goal and four shots on target.
“It’s just a matter of execution now,” Hackworth said. “You don’t create that many chances against this quality of a team. This is a cruel game and this feeling is very cruel right now because I don’t think we deserved to lose this game. But those guys are very good and they’re all young. They are young players and they need more chances. They need to be able to finish in these kinds of games.”
Perhaps the Union’s best chance came in the second half when reserve striker Antoine Hoppenot hit the post with a tough-angle shot after another quality Adu through ball.
D.C. United probably remembered Hoppenot well. Less than two weeks ago, the rookie out of Princeton scored the game-winning goal to knock D.C. out of the U.S. Open Cup and launch the Union into the quarterfinals of the tournament.
“He’s a little diamond, isn’t he?” Hackworth said. “He’s a sparkplug. He’s dangerous. He stretches people and he’s deceptively tougher than them too. Now we need to get him to find that last ball a little better and finish, and I think that’s going to come for sure.”
The Union are now winless in their last six games and fall further behind first-place D.C. United, who have reeled off four straight victories.
But after seeing his players respond so well to him after the sudden and shocking midweek coaching change, Hackworth is certain the Union are prepared to turn a corner and begin climbing the Eastern Conference standings.
“If we play that way every week, we’re going to win a lot of games,” the Union’s new manager said. “I’m disappointed but I take a lot of positives out of this game.”Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for CSNPhilly.com and MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.