The predominant question surrounding the Philadelphia Union right now is who on the club will replace the scoring of Carlos Ruiz, the star Guatemalan who has played his last game with Philly and is reportedly on his way to the Mexican club Veracruz?
The answer, at least after one game: Veljko Paunović.
The Serbian international, scored the club’s only goal on a brilliant blast from distance to lead the Philly offense against the Chicago Fire on Wednesday night. And the result for the undermanned Union — who were playing without Ruiz, starting right back Sheanon Williams (suspension) and even manager Peter Nowak (back spasms) — was a hard-earned point as Philly and Chicago battled to a 1-1 draw.
“I think Pauno stepped up,” said Union assistant coach John Hackworth, who was filling in for Nowak on the sidelines. “We asked him to play a different role tonight. We started him out high alone, with attacking players joining him. But he wasn’t really finding the game early, so we moved him farther wide, switched him with [Sebastien Le Toux], and that allowed him freedom to come find the ball underneath. It was better for him once we did that.”
Because of a hip injury that kept him out most of July, Paunović hadn’t been in the mix for the Union in recent games.
But on Wednesday, it was all hands on deck for the Philadelphia, who used four different starters from Friday’s loss vs. Colorado. None made as big of an impact as Paunović, who in the 35th minute pounced on a deflection from nearly 30 yards out and sent a low driving ball inside the far post to put Philly up 1-0.
The 33-year-old Serbian continued to make his presence known until exiting in the 75th minute for Kyle Nakazawa.
“He had a good game and obviously a fantastic goal,” Hackworth said of Paunović. “But then again, through the second half, he put the ball on floor, tried to control things, gave us some composure. So that was really good.”
Paunović, a former La Liga veteran who was signed by Philly on June 13, now has two goals in 356 minutes and has shown that he can be useful at either forward or in the midfield.
And without his performance – as well as two monster saves from goalie Faryd Mondragón – the Union would have certainly suffered their first losing streak of the season. As it was, they were able to extend their road unbeaten streak to four games against a Fire team that Hackworth called “much improved.”
The result also helped the Union (8-5-8) moved to within two points of the East-leading Columbus Crew, who have played one more game than Philly.
“In the end, I think we have to be satisfied with the game,” said Paunović, who later tweeted that Mondragón was his man of the match. “We get one point. This was a very hard game for us, very hard place to win. They showed they are a solid squad and they pushed us very hard. I think one point is not bad.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.