Union

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

On Tuesday night, the Union's promising back four of Giliano Wijnaldum, Joshua Yaro, Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry all took the field together and led their team to a shutout.

The only problem: that team was the Union's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. And they did it at a baseball complex in Harrisburg.

How did it happen that such a talented group of young MLS players have essentially been relegated to the minor leagues to get game minutes? It was only last season, after all, that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year Runner-Up, Marquez was being viewed as a potential US national team center back, and Yaro was perhaps the best player in the entire 2016 draft. And adding some offseason pop, Wijnaldum was certainly an intriguing left back prospect from the Netherlands.

But what looked to be the Union’s starting defense in the preseason is now Bethlehem’s starting defense as Ray Gaddis, Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott charged their way into the lineup a few weeks back while Fabinho has refused to let go of his long-standing left back role.

And the backline may not be changing anytime soon, even as the Union’s three-game losing streak has sent them tumbling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference ahead of Saturday’s game vs. rival D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium (6ABC, 7 p.m.).

“I don’t think we have a back four issue,” Union head coach Jim Curtin insisted during his weekly press conference. “We have a team that needs to do a little bit better offensively and be a little bit cleaner with some defensive issues as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.”

As proof, Curtin pointed to the fact the Union have allowed only six goals in their last eight league games, four of which have come over the last two contests with influential midfielder Alejandro Bedoya out of the lineup (and two coming in last week’s loss to the Red Bulls while the Union were down a man).

One of the big reasons for the team’s stinginess has been the surprisingly steady play of Elliott, a rookie from England who in the past few months has gone from late-round draft pick to preseason afterthought to stalwart starter.

And he’s well aware that two of the team’s most hyped prospects — Marquez and Yaro — are waiting in the wings behind him, ready to take their jobs back.

“That doesn’t add pressure,” Elliott said. “It’s good to have that competition there to always keep you on the top of your game. It’s the same with all of the center backs here. We all push each other to be better players and we just have to keep the team going. We know if one of us went down, another one can step in.”

Injuries did in fact force Marquez and Yaro to enter the game on June 3 at New York City FC, but Elliott and Onyewu regained their spots the following game vs. the Red Bulls.

It’s a unique pairing with an unheralded rookie (Elliott) teaming up with a one-time American soccer legend creeping up in age (Onyewu), but it has been working well.

“We have a good understanding of how each other plays and our strengths,” Elliott said. “We’ve played a good seven, eight games together and we found a balance. You see over the last eight games, we haven’t conceded many.”

While the Onyewu-Elliott pairing certainly has been effective, it always seemed like a short-term fix to help stabilize a defense that got off to a rough start this year. The same can be said with Gaddis supplanting Rosenberry, who brings more of an attacking presence to the flank.

So even though the back four as currently constructed might not be the team’s biggest issue at the moment, it’s fair to ask why they’d get the benefit of the doubt when at least some may not be a big part of the team’s future? If three straight losses don't put the team’s top young players back into the lineup, what will? And how will continuing to come off the bench or play in Bethlehem affect their development?

For now, it seems, like Curtin is putting everyone on equal footing, regardless of age, where they were drafted, or which guys were the most hyped last year.

“I don’t think there’s a big drop-off or difference with all eight [defenders], to be honest,” the Union coach said. “It’s good to have these issues, to have a lot of good players to draw from. We had a hard film session but concluded in our last eight, we’ve given up six goals. We can build on that.

“And it does start with defense in this league. You look at teams at the top of the standings in each conference and they defend their butts off for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do it in patches in games but we’ve just been too inconsistent.”

Maybe, then, it’s time for another change.

Union reward Andre Blake with multi-year extension

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Union reward Andre Blake with multi-year extension

Updated 4:52 p.m.

Andre Blake will backstop the Union into the future.

The 27-year-old goalkeeper inked a multi-year extension Wednesday. The deal is expected to make Blake one of the highest paid goalkeepers in MLS and was completed using Targeted Allocation Money. 

Further details were not released.

“I am ready to lead,” Blake said. “I’ll definitely try to lead by my performance on the field and the way I carry myself off the field.”

While the extension was a no-brainer for the Union’s on-field success, the move was also an important one off the field. Historically, the club is known for its roster turnover and lack of continuity. Keeping Blake on the books for years to come gives the Union a well-respected face of the franchise that fans can appreciate. 

“It is a priority for us to build and secure the foundation of the Philadelphia Union, and Andre is as big a part of that foundation as any player,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “Ensuring he will be here for years to come is an important step for our club. We’re delighted to sign him to a new multi-year contract and would like to thank him for his dedication and hard work.”

Blake, a former first-overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and 2016 MLS All-Star, earned the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honor and claimed the runner-up spot for the award in 2017. He has proven himself to be one of the most exciting and productive goalkeepers in MLS, with 220 saves and 17 shutouts over 65 career matches.

Because of that success, and his heroics, while captaining the Jamaican National Team, Blake is viewed as someone who could transition to a European club. But despite the prospects and rumors, the Union claim there has never been a serious offer for the goalkeeper, making this extension a possibility.

“Right now my main focus is Philadelphia,” said Blake, who has never shied away from his interest in a European move. “I’m not worried about the future. I’m gonna live in the now and continue to work hard and make my performance speak for itself.”

Union's schedule sets team up for hot start

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Union's schedule sets team up for hot start

The Union’s 2018 season schedule was officially released Thursday and it revealed an advantageous start for the club.

After opening their season against the New England Revolution on March 3, the Union will have a week off before hosting the Columbus Crew on March 17. The club then visits the Colorado Rapids on March 31 but returns home to face the San Jose Earthquakes and Orlando City on April 7 and 13.

Five of the Union’s first seven games will be at Talen Energy Stadium, setting them up for important early success, as the team was an impressive 10-4-3 at home last season but went just 1-10-6 on the road.

But the Union’s early fortune quickly turns with five of their next seven games on the road. The team kicks off that crucial run with a three-game road trip starting on May 4 against the reigning MLS champion Toronto FC, and finishing against the Crew and Montreal Impact. That five-in-seven road set also includes the New York Red Bulls and a visit to the irreplicable home confines of Atlanta United.

Notable matches for the Union include the first-ever clash with expansion side LAFC at the freshly built Banc of California Stadium on June 30 and the Union’s first visit to D.C. United’s brand-new Audi Field (expected to open in June). The Union face the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at CenturyLink Field. Minnesota United (2017 expansion team) will make its first-ever visit to Philadelphia on Oct. 6.

As far as national exposure, the Union will be shown on ESPN twice, April 14 vs. Orlando City and Sept. 23 vs. Sporting Kansas City, and on Unimas once on April 28 against D.C. United.