CHESTER, Pa. — When jotting down their goals and expectations for the 2016 season, the Union wanted to own first place in the Eastern Conference by the June Copa America break.
Thanks to goals from Chris Pontius, Vincent Nogueira and Fabian Herbers on Wednesday night, the club can consider that mission accomplished.
“It’s fantastic,” Union center back Ken Tribbett said. “It was one of our goals to finish at the top of the East table going into this break and we’ve managed to do that. It’s a good feeling.”
The Union defeated the shorthanded Columbus Crew, 3-2, at Talen Energy Stadium, which propels the East-leading club to 6-3-5 on the season. It also pushes their unbeaten streak to a franchise-record-tying eight games. Meanwhile, the Crew, who were unbeaten in their last four games entering the match, fall to 3-5-5 on the season.
“Philadelphia was a good example of the hunger,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “The hunger that you need if you want to be at the top.”
In the blink of an eye, the Crew gained the early lead. In just the 14th minute, Ethan Finlay, off the rush and from the right side of the Union box, laced a perfect ball on the back foot of Ola Kamara for the easy goal. It was Kamara’s fourth goal in his last two games.
“He’ll get chances in this league,” Berhalter said. “It’s up to us to get him more chances. He’s a good goal scorer.”
But as they’ve done all season, the Union responded with emphasis.
Minutes later, Pontius walked possession along the top of the box before teeing up a right-footed curler that nicked off the head of Chad Barson and past Steve Clark to tie the match at 1-1 through 21 minutes.
It was Pontius’ fifth goal of the season and third against the Crew in two games.
“I saw that there was space in the middle so I was just trying to get a shot off," Pontius said. "I was putting it back post. I was trying to curl it in there."
Pontius continued his run in the second half, when in the 57th minute, he drove past a Crew defender on the left side of the box. With space, he hit a line-drive cross that skittered to Nogueira at the top of the box, where he fired off a shot that deflected off a player and through Clark for a 2-1 Union advantage.
“To be honest, I didn’t see Vince," Pontius said. "Vince is there at the right time and he’s able to finish and put it on frame."
Looking for life in the 74th minute, the Crew tapped a familiar face to hopefully earn the equalizer in former Union forward Conor Casey. Less than four minutes later, the former fan favorite earned a straight red for a sideline collision with Keegan Rosenberry, that caused the young Union left back to drop.
“Obviously [referee Robert Sibiga] saw something that was worthy of a red card,” Rosenberry said. “It was good for us to play on with a man advantage."
The opening was just enough for the Union to take the 3-1 lead in the 85th minute, when Ilsinho found Herbers off the rush. The rookie stopped the ball in the box and fired off a perfect right-footed shot that found the right corner. It was Herber’s first MLS goal.
“I got a great pass from Ilsinho,” Herbers said. “It was a counterattack and he put me through very well. I cut it with my left, so the defender was gone. I could have played Ilsinho back but I’m a striker and I go for it. Luckily it went in the far corner.”
The Crew’s Cristian Martinez scored a header in stoppage time to bring the visitors within one, but it wouldn’t be enough to outlast the scorching Union.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be, we still can improve,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “But for right now, we set the goal to be first in the East by the Copa America break at the beginning of the year and we’re there now. This is the start of something special."