Through six games, the defensive foursome of Danny Califf, Carlos Valdés, Jordan Harvey and Sheanon Williams had been both steady and impenetrable for the Philadelphia Union, allowing a mere two goals and doubling the club’s shutout total from a year ago with four clean sheets.
But with Califf (sickness) and Harvey (red card suspension) both out for Friday night’s 1-0 loss against the Portland Timbers at JELD-WEN Field, Union manager Peter Nowak was forced to scramble.
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In their place, Nowak inserted twin brothers Gabriel and Michael Farfan – putting them at left back and right back, respectively – while shifting Williams over to center back alongside Valdés.
Considering that the Farfan brothers were both making their first MLS starts, Williams didn’t have much experience in the middle, and the Timbers had netted eight goals through their first three games at home, Philly’s defense could have crumbled in a hostile environment.
Instead, the makeshift unit held relatively strong throughout the contest, even as the club suffered a disappointing narrow defeat while with Califf and Harvey back home.
“We brought Danny in on Wednesday to check out the situation, and the travel and the weather were not going to help him get back to where he was a week ago,” Union Nowak said about Califf’s absence. “Especially with the games we have coming up, we need to be up and running. We don’t need any setbacks.”
The only goal the Union’s defense allowed came in familiar fashion.
In the 71st minute, Portland’s Jack Jewsbury lofted a free kick into a crowded box. Mamadou Danso snuck away from Williams, leaped high in the air and headed it home, beating Philly ’keeper Faryd Mondragón to the near post.
It’s only the third goal the Union surrendered this season, but interestingly enough, all have come on headers off set pieces. Even when Califf and Harvey return to the lineup, that is something Nowak knows his club must work on.
“We need to work very hard on the many things that happened today and the past week,” Nowak said, “because anyone who plays against us right now knows the free kick is going to be a weapon.”
The Timbers had some other scoring chances – especially late, when Nowak subbed in offensive dynamos Roger Torres and Jack McInerney to look for the equalizer – but the Union never broke down.
Talented Colombian imports Valdés and Mondragón were steady as always, while the Farfans, both converted midfielders, looked confident in the back and stretched the Timbers with runs down the flanks.
Gabriel Farfan also had one crucial sliding tackle to break up a Timbers’ counterattack in the 61st minute. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Timbers’ goal came after Gabriel limped to the sideline and was replaced by midfielder Kyle Nakazawa.
Also hurting the Union was the absence of defensive midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi. The Brazilian was slated to start the game in the backline but pulled himself from the lineup before the game with groin issues.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.