As the Philadelphia Union take on the Houston Dynamo this Saturday at PPL Park (8 pm ET, watch LIVE online), a handful of former Union players will be playing in a game of their own more than 1,000 miles away.
The talent level isn’t the same, and the stadium doesn’t seat nearly as many fans — but such is life in the second-tier North American Soccer League where ex-Unioners Brad Knighton (above), Nick Zimmerman, Eduardo Coudet, Toni Stahl and Cristian Arrieta all currently make their living.
On Saturday, for the second time this season, Knighton and Zimmerman’s Carolina RailHawks take on a Fort Lauderdale Strikers squad that includes Coudet, Stahl and Arrieta — although Coudet, one of the NASL’s leading goal-scorers, will miss the contest at Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium because of a suspension.
“We were a good family in Philly,” Knighton told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s crazy all of us are playing on the same field against each other.”
All five players came to the NASL after being waived by the Union at different points in the preseason, and all have enjoyed varying degrees of success. No one, though, has performed as well as Knighton, who is arguably the best goalkeeper in the NASL, leading the league in goals-against average (0.84) and shutouts (6) while helping the first-place Railhawks to a blistering 14-2-2 record.
Knighton hopes to take the same path as ex-RailHawk standouts Daniel Paladini (Chicago Fire), Josh Gardner (Columbus Crew) and Tom Heinemann (Columbus Crew), whose NASL success vaulted them back into MLS this year.
“Everything’s been good,” Knighton said. “Getting released when I did, I didn’t have much of a chance to find another team in MLS. I was given an opportunity by Carolina coach Martin Rennie, and I can’t thank him enough. I needed games under my belt and I needed to develop. Hopefully it will lead to better things next year.”
Knighton admits that he was taken a bit by surprise that he was not in the Union plans for 2011 after earning two shutouts in eight starts last season and acting as a stabilizer in net after Chris Seitz was benched.
But the Union coaches decided to wipe the slate clean in the offseason, signing veteran Faryd Mondragón to start and drafting Zac MacMath to back him up. That left no room for Knighton, who felt like he was ready to be an MLS starter after backing up Matt Reis for three years in New England and then Seitz for most of the 2010 campaign in Philly.
“The writing was on the wall that there wasn’t a place for me there,” said Knighton, who still watches most Union games and stays in touch with the Union’s largest supporters’ group, the Sons of Ben. “I was surprised to see that because I put a good string of games together. But I’m happy where I’m at right now. You can get knocked down but you can bounce back.”
Knighton has certainly bounced back. The North Carolina native, who went to college at UNC Wilmington, is now playing near many of his and his wife's family members, is living with his good friend Zimmerman (who he urged the Railhawks to sign) and is the leader on a powerhouse team that he legitimately believes could be in the middle of the MLS table.
“It’s crazy how things work out,” said Knighton, two days before the Union reunion in Fort Lauderdale. “In the offseason, I was considering going back to school and nixing the whole soccer thing and finishing my degree. But a couple of people were telling me that I could still play and make a name for myself. I’m glad I did that.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.