The Philadelphia Union suffered a crushing loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS action on Saturday, but there's no rest for the weary as the team welcomes Scotland's Celtic to PPL Park in Chester, Pa. tonight for a high-profile exhibition match. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m., and the game is not being televised either nationally or regionally.
The match comes at an odd time for the Union. Philly finds itself in last place in the MLS' Eastern Conference with a 3-8-2 record, but that position in the standings isn't really indicative of the team's level of play in its debut season. In fact, it's tempting to say the Union has been a bit unlucky (in true soccer parlance) so far this campaign.
There's no doubt the visit of a "glamour" team like Celtic will lift the spirits ... as well as sell a few tickets ... around the place, especially considering the Earthquakes had just three shots on goal Saturday but managed a 2-1 win. After tonight, the Union hosts Toronto FC at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at PPL Park, then faces Manchester United of the English Premier League in a friendly at Lincoln Financial Field next Wednesday night.
Celtic is getting ready for the mid-August kickoff of the Scottish season and will be trying to catch main rivals Rangers, who won the title last time around. Diehard soccer fans know Celtic is a team with tons of pedigree, both on the domestic and European fronts. However, casual fans will be intrigued to learn that Celtic is sort of the Notre Dame football team of soccer ... they truly have a worldwide following.
The club was started in the 19th-century slums of Glasgow, Scotland by Catholic priests to cater to the immigrant Irish population. To this day, the flag of the Republic of Ireland flies over the team's Parkhead stadium in Glasgow, and Irishmen the world over flock to Celtic's matches in great numbers, no matter which country they're played in. Expect to see heavy fan support tonight for the team that wears its green-and-white hoops proudly.
On the field, former Celtic star Neil Lennon has taken over as manager. Lennon was a force with Leicester City in the English Premier League in the 1990s, and he's been welcomed to the touchline with open arms by the Celtic supporters. Although religion doesn't play as big of a role in the Glasgow rivalry between "Catholic" Celtic and "Protestant" Rangers, Lennon's contention that he wanted to play for a "united Ireland" while representing Northern Ireland in international matches has always gone over well at Parkhead.
Greek striker Georgios Samaras is Celtic's most dangerous player, while goalkeeper Artur Boruc of Poland has won three league titles with the team. Samaras was a lanky, hard-to-mark forward during his stint with Manchester City in the English Premier League, but there have always been question marks about his work rate and fitness levels. The athletic Boruc, on the other hand, is rock solid and gives Celtic a chance to win every time out.
As far as the Union is concerned, manager Peter Nowak will definitely try to win the game. There will be an unspoken gentleman's agreement between himself and Lennon, however, that the style of play won't get too physical so neither team picks up any injuries. Expect a fast-paced but fair game, and names like Kyle Nakazawa, Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney ... guys who have been on the fringe of the starting 11 for the Union ... should earn a place in the lineup.
It's hard to predict a result in these friendlies, but it's fair to say that the last 30 minutes will see a distinct fitness advantage for the Union, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Philly pile on the late pressure and pull away for a 3-1 win. That's not to say they're better than Celtic by any stretch, but Lennon's team is easing into its season whereas Nowak's boys are already in midseason form.
No matter what, it should be interesting, and the pageantry at PPL Park will make for a memorable night. With no stress as far as earning league points is concerned, the Union might actually turn on the style against their well-known opponents. And attacking, flowing soccer is what all fans want to see in the end, no matter which team you support.