CHESTER, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union have felt unlucky and snake-bitten all year.
On Saturday, the team’s newest player joined the party.
In what turned out to be quite the inauspicious MLS debut, marquee transfer-window signing Tranquillo Barnetta was whistled for a penalty less than a minute after coming into a crucial contest vs. the New York Red Bulls at PPL Park.
And the call proved to be crucial as it led to the first goal of the Union’s gut-wrenching 3-1 loss to the rival Red Bulls – and an apologetic Barnetta after the game.
“Of course you hope you don’t start like this,” the Swiss midfielder told reporters. “I say sorry to the team, but we have to go and look forward to the next game.”
While Barnetta was remorseful, he also thought the call was a weak one, explaining that he was standing behind Red Bulls newcomer Shaun Wright-Phillips and trying to get out of the way when referee Armando Villarreal pointed to the spot in the 65th minute of the then-scoreless game.
His teammates and coach agreed.
“Poor Tranquillo, I put him in the game and within 30 seconds he’s on the wrong end of a tough call,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin, who was upset at a couple of other officiating decisions as well. “That has nothing to do with him – it’s just an, unfortunately, freak play. He did everything he could not to touch the guy, and it’s a tough one. There’s an element of feeling snake-bitten.”
After Sacha Kljestan banged home the ensuing penalty kick to put the Red Bulls ahead, Barnetta helped the Union find the equalizer when he sprayed a ball out wide to Cristian Maidana, whose cross set up Sebastien Le Toux’s 73rd-minute goal.
But the Red Bulls scored a minute later and then iced the game in stoppage time to hand the Union their 13th loss of the season and spoil Barnetta’s first MLS game.
Still, many of Philly players not only stood behind their new teammate but also expressed excitement about what the three-time World Cup veteran can do once he fully integrates into the lineup.
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“It’s something that can happen,” Union forward Fernando Aristeguieta said. “He has no fault on that. He’s an experienced guy. He’s a guy that will handle it good. He knows that the team is behind him. For me, he doesn’t have any fault.”
“It’s unlucky,” midfielder Zach Pfeffer added. “It can happen to anybody. He’s a great player, great person and a great addition to our team.”
And although the penalty call and loss left a sour taste in Barnetta’s mouth, he was still appreciative of the warm response he got from the fans for his first MLS game after more than a decade in the Bundesliga.
“It was great,” said Barnetta, who was signed by the Union on Wednesday and introduced to the media Friday. “Also at the warm ups, they were excited I’m here. I hope that next time I can give a little more back than a penalty.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.