Flashback to March 25th, 2010. First Kick, the inaugural match for expansion Philadelphia Union, and start of the 2010 season. The stadium formerly known as Qwest roared with thirty-six thousand Sounders fans and a national TV audience that descended on the young Philadelphia Union. Twelve minutes in, Steve Zakuani carved out a pass to Brad Evans who neatly finished for an early 1-nil lead. A goal the young traveling Union never recovered. Possibly in awe of Sounders home fans, but more likely phased by the pace of play. Seattle played fast, so Philly had to counter with physical play to stay alive. Their central, back-line tough-man put his stamp on his clubs début. Danny Califf put a rough knee-check into the back of Freddie Ljungberg, resulting in a straight red-card ejection. Sounders went on to win 2-nil. It’s the type of play expected from most expansion clubs.
The 2009 expansion Sounders FC raised the bar for future franchise expansion. Not only by Major League standards, but by expansion standards of clubs in any sport. The Sounders were an exception that left Philadelphia a tough act to follow.
One year later both clubs are in second place in their respective conferences. Both clubs even hold mathematical possibilities of winning their conferences. Nothing remains of either clubs frenzied expansion pace. Both clubs now have settled into confident almost champion like skin.
The Union took beloved Le Toux from the Sounders but missed the playoffs. Former Sounders fan favorite, Sebastian Le Toux has rediscovered his scoring touch in recent matches. All too familiar to Sounders fans who adopted him as a favorite in helping the Sounders win the 2007 USL-1 title. Le Toux was acquired by Philadelphia from Sounders FC in the 2010 Expansion Draft. Sounders FC left him unprotected and the Union seized the opportunity. Teams can only protect eleven players from being drafted by expansion teams.
The 2009 expansion Sounders FC set high marks even veteran clubs would love to hit. Securing a winning record with 13 wins, win their first US Open Cup, make their first playoff appearance, and celebrate in front of record crowds. Philadelphia’s fans supported their team and opened a beautiful new soccer only stadium, but were unable to win any hardware or make the playoffs.
During their first offseason, Philadelphia took stock of their priorities. Rather than be influenced by the directions of other clubs, they began to forge their own direction. The result has been a team playing with acres more confidence. They are in second place in the East and with a win against the Sounders on Saturday, clinch their first playoff spot.
For much of the season the Union led the Eastern Conference. A conference exchanging leaders throughout the season. Top seed will likely change hands a time or two again before the final playoff positions are determined in the last three matches.
Their top-seeded form has waned since they rose to the top of the East early on. Their matches have been close and physical. Their defense ranks among the best in MLS allowing only 34 goals in 31 matches. Goals haven’t come easy.
Philadelphia only trails Eastern leaders Sporting Kansas City by one point. Retaking the lead and finishing at the top of the East would be a way to mark their confident rise as one of the best clubs in Major League Soccer in only their second year.
“Mathematically”, the Sounders could still pass the LA Galaxy to win the Supporters Shield for best overall record. LA would have to help by doing no better than losing and drawing their final two matches. The kind of results they have avoided all season. Through 32 matches they have lost only 4.
Sigi Schmid continually amazes with his ability to rest players and still put out a competitive line-up. For the Sounders, health seems to be a greater concern. As much as they would love to win in front of their home crowd, and make a push for the Supporters Shield, they have injuries to heel and injuries to prevent. Sounders have been without Mauro Rosales since his injury to DC United. Working him back into the lineup, resting some players, and giving minutes to others will be of more playoff value to Sigi and his Sounders.
A preview of a possible MLS Cup Final? Unlikely with LA and New York at the center of the playoff scene. Yet, with both clubs quickly shedding their expansion skin, revealing confidence usually only seen with veteran franchises, a championship preview on Saturday is not unthinkable.
© 2011 Sales on Sounders by Ryan Sales