Defense backstops Philly win, rise to top of East

After trading stalwart left back Jordan Harvey to Vancouver on July 7, the Philadelphia Union’s defense could have easily sputtered or stalled.

Instead, the unit has cruised right along, driving Philly to the top of the Eastern Conference table.

Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, the Union put on perhaps their best performance of the season, manhandling overmatched New England 3-0. And it was the backline of Sheanon Williams, Carlos Valdés, Danny Califf and newly minted left back Gabriel Farfan that was instrumental in the triumph as the Union earned their seventh shutout of the season and second in as many games since the Harvey trade.

“When we dedicate ourselves to put forth everything we have and play good football, we can achieve important things,” Valdés said after the match. “We can surprise and give the spectacles that the fans enjoy with good football. I think that for us, that’s the most important thing that we can take home, aside from the three points.”

Just how dominant were the Union defenders in Foxborough on Sunday? Not only did they hold the overmatched Revs to zero shots on target but they also got into the scoring action themselves with Valdés and Williams each netting his first career MLS goal.

Williams’ tally, which came on a breakaway in stoppage time, was especially gratifying because the right back hails from Boston and previously trained with the Revolution.

“I grew up here but I was really looking for any team that gave me a chance,” Williams said. “I was here but I couldn’t sign with them for MLS reasons. They have a good team. They are struggling a little bit this year, but I know they’ll have better years.”

Meanwhile, Valdés, who in his first MLS season has become one of the league’s most reliable center backs, scored his first goal after Sébastien Le Toux headed down a free kick from Kyle Nakazawa and Valdés pounced on it in the box. That 24th-minute score came shortly after striker Carlos Ruiz got the Union on the board with his team-leading sixth goal of the season. 

"I was very happy,” Valdés said. “I've been trying to score for a few games now, but I didn't have the opportunity to do so. So, finding that goal finally was something I feel very proud of.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Union’s dominant performance Sunday was that it came on the road, where they won just two times all of last season. This year, though, it’s been a different story. The Union own a respectable 3-4-3 mark away from PPL Park, wrapping up their three-game road swing with a win and two ties. The stretch represented the club’s first three-match road unbeaten streak in club history.

And now, heading into a pair of prestigious international exhibitions with Everton and Real Madrid this week, the Union (8-4-7) sit all alone in first place in the Eastern Conference, two points clear of the Red Bulls with two games in hand.

“We’ve been vocal about it — we want to be in first place,” Williams said. “We want that spot, and we're going to do anything we can to fight for it."

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.