Off twin clean sheets, Union defense has found mojo again

CHESTER, Pa. – The defensive players on the Philadelphia Union knew they probably couldn’t keep up the blistering early-season pace that saw them earn four shutouts in their first six games. But they also knew they were far better than the unit that allowed 14 goals through seven games from July 29 to Sept. 7.

That’s why they were especially pleased to return to their shutout ways with back-to-back clean sheets in Philly’s last two games – a scoreless draw with Portland on Sept. 10 and a 1-0 win over Columbus this past Saturday.

“It’s big time,” Union center back Danny Califf said. “We showed over the last few games the kind of form we were showing early in the year. I think we did a great job limiting their chances.”

Indeed, the chances were few and far between for the Timbers and Crew, both of whom managed just one shot on target at PPL Park. In fact, since New England blitzed Philly for four first-half goals on Sept. 7, the Union have allowed a total of just two shots on net through five scoreless halves – which has really helped rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath ease into his new role as the club’s starting ’keeper with Faryd Mondragón hurt.

“It’s good – it means we’re getting back to our old ways,” Philly right back Sheanon Williams said. “We’re looking out for each other. We’re staying tight in the back. And, for the second game in a row, we limited their chances and stayed compact as a team.”

The Union have now registered a total of nine shutouts on the season and have surrendered a mere 82 shots on goal – or 2.9 per game. Last season, by contrast, they matched a league record with just two shutouts while giving up an average of five shots per contest.

One of the main reasons for such an upgrade, Califf said, is continuity. As opposed to last year, when the players on the backline fluctuated, the unit has been stable this season with the trio of Califf, Williams and center back Carlos Valdés only missing a total of four games between them. And, at left back, both Gabriel and Michael Farfan have filled in admirably after Philly dealt away Jordan Harvey in July.

“Just to have that relationship and bond is massive,” Califf said. “I don’t know if it can be overstated how big that it is to have games together under our belt.”

Califf also noted how important it is when the entire team is devoted to defense, pointing specifically to their most recent win.

Against the first-place Crew, Union manager Peter Nowak decided to start a young, offensive-laden lineup that included attacking midfielders Freddy Adu, Roger Torres and Zach Pfeffer. But before the game began, Nowak reminded all of them, “When the ball turns over you’ve got to do your job.”

They did.

“We played really well on the defensive side of the ball, from Sébastien Le Toux all the way back to Zac MacMath,” Califf said. “Guys you wouldn’t normally think of getting stuck in tackles were getting in tackles. Roger Torres was slide tackling. Sébastien was winning balls. When those guys are committed to defend like that, it’s so much better for us a group.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.