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Homecoming cut short
Andrew Wenger was the first player out of the locker room for the Montreal Impact last Saturday.
For family and friends who made the trip down I-95 to watch him and his teammates play the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer action, it was certainly a welcomed sight.
In normal circumstances, though, they might not have seen him so quickly.
The 2009 Warwick High School grad received a red card and was ejected in the 75th minute in what ended up a 1-1 tie for the Impact in front of 15,691 fans at Philadelphia’s PPL Park.
Afterward, prior to boarding the team bus in rainy, cold conditions at the player’s exit, Wenger declined to address the play on which he received the card.
“I have no comment,” he said.
During the game’s telecast, Channel 6 announcers expressed some surprise about him receiving a red card, instead of a yellow, from the incident, in which he made a sliding tackle against Union newcomer Vincent Nogueira with his left studs slightly elevated. Red, Wenger’s first as a professional, carries an automatic one-game suspension with it.
Asked if he was given an explanation, Wenger said, “I’m sure I’ll find out in the coming days.”
Since being drafted first overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, Montreal has played in Philly three times, but he didn’t make the trip with the Impact in his first two seasons.
This time there might not have been the throng of supporters who showed up to PPL Park in 2012, when a hamstring strain prevented Wenger from traveling to Philly in an eventual 2-1 Impact loss, but he was still greeted by several friendly faces nonetheless.
“They’ve made the trip before when they thought I was going to come, so they weren’t sure … The guy that called wolf,” Wenger chuckled. “They didn’t know if this time was actually going to happen. And even then it was brief. A glimpse.”
Wenger’s first game in Philadelphia was also the first game back for Montreal forward Marco Di Vaio, a 20-goal scorer for the Impact in 2013. The Italian star sat out the Impact’s first three games due to a suspension he received in the team’s 3-0 playoff loss to the Houston Dynamo last season.
While it might have been considered a homecoming for Wenger, the former Warwick standout deflected that storyline to the team, who brought an 0-3 record into the game.
“We needed to get a win or get some points because we’ve had a rough start to the season,” said Wenger, who picked up a goal in the Impact’s 3-2 loss to FC Dallas on March 8. “That was the main focus here today.”
Despite the return of Di Vaio to the Impact’s starting lineup, the Union took a 1-0 lead into the halftime break on a goal by Nogueira in the 35th minute on the soggy PPL Park turf.
Wenger, who started the Impact’s first three games, came off the bench with 14:25 elapsed in the second and was on the field when the 37-year-old Di Vaio nearly finished a remarkable play, picking the ball up 30 yards out from his own goal, carrying it the length of the field and shooting just high over Union keeper Zac MacMath.
“You saw it today – it was a whole different dynamic (with Di Vaio playing),” Wenger said. “He was lethal today, which worked getting a goal and getting it tied.”
In the 69th minute, Wenger got the ball near midfield, kept his balance following a challenge from a Union defender, and fed the ball to Di Vaio on the left flank. Di Vaio got a shot away, but fired a little bit wide of the short-side post.
“You always want to give the ball to Marco in dangerous areas,” Wenger said. “That’s when the magic happens.”
Roughly six minutes later, Wenger’s day ended after making the sliding tackle against Nogueira. Protests from Montreal’s players fell on deaf ears and Wenger, wearing his white No. 33 jersey, left through a tunnel at the south end of the stadium near the Sons of Ben supporters section.
Outside of the Impact’s locker room afterward, manager Frank Klopas, discussing whether the red card was a fair decision, said, “It’s hard for me to say from there. (Andrew) made a challenge. I didn’t review it. But I have to review it and go from there.”
With the Impact playing a man down, they found a way to overcome the adversity. Di Vaio took a cross field pass from midfielder Justin Mapp and bent a shot into the right corner of the net around Union keeper MacMath in the 80th minute.
Both MacMath and Impact keeper Troy Perkins brought their A-game to the field, and Perkins finished with four saves to help preserve the tie, giving the Impact their first point of the season.
Asked if the tie took some sting out of getting a red card, Wenger said, “It’s always helpful and it’s always positive for us to get our first point of the year. So there’s some solace there.”
“It was a game that we played well,” Klopas said. “For us, being a man down and showing a lot of character as a group, having some good moments in the game, walking away in a difficult place to play and getting a point in the way we had to come back and fight short-handed for long periods of time, I think it’s a very positive result and something we can build on, for sure.”
How well the Impact builds on their 1-1 tie won’t be known until they host the New York Red Bulls this Saturday, April 5. Wenger will be unavailable to play in that game, but the marathon that is the MLS season is still young. With Di Vaio back in the mix, the Impact has a key piece of the puzzle back, and Wenger plans to continue working hard, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.
“I think it’s going to kinda depend what guys are in form and who we’re playing and where we’re playing and what the (lineup) calls for,” Wenger said about his role. “Just be ready and try to take my opportunities.”