Jim Curtin optimistic as Union travel to continue preseason in Florida

Jim Curtin optimistic as Union travel to continue preseason in Florida

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s only been a week, but Jim Curtin is feeling optimistic.

“There’s a lot of buy-in right now,” the Union manager said at Talen Energy Stadium.

Following a week of pushing his team through training at The Power Training Complex, Curtin didn’t hide his excitement over this particular group, which takes to Clearwater, Florida, on Tuesday for the next phase of their preseason. He likes the variety, and more importantly, the experience.

“We have a good young group with a good mix of veterans that can show the way,” he said. “It’s exciting, the core group of guys has been in two [U.S. Open Cup] finals and a disappointing playoff loss. There’s hunger to take that next step and that next step is the hardest one, it’s a big one.”

One benefit to returning 21 players is that the Union get a head start on chemistry. Still, the club is using its stint in Florida, which runs through Feb. 25, to build on that heading into their first match of the season against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 5.

“It’s not going to be a new team but it’ll give us the opportunity to get to know each other well, play together as a team and build on the identity that we began to create last year,” defender Josh Yaro said. “It’s about gaining confidence and getting ready for the season opener. Everything we’re doing now is going to be focused on getting a result in Vancouver.”

But to get ready for Vancouver, the Union will need to shake off the end of last season. Despite a strong start, the club went winless in its final eight games of the season, including a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Toronto FC.

“We’re all moving forward and you can tell it with the atmosphere that we have and in the training sessions,” forward C.J. Sapong said. “Everybody is glad to be back and want to take it a step further this season.”

Florida camp also gives the Union a chance for evaluation. Whether it’s competition at center back between Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and Oguchi Onyewu, left back between Fabinho and Giliano Wijnaldum or forward between Jay Simpson and Sapong, Curtin, there are big decisions to make.

“It’s to be determined and a work in progress,” Curtin said. “There will be healthy competition, just like there is at all spots. That’s [Union sporting director Earnie Stewart’s] one thing, it’s creating that. Tough choices for me, though, so that’s good.”

With that in mind, Curtin is ready to take the next step with a team he feels good about.

"There are 21 other teams that think they have something special too, so I'm not naive," Curtin said. "But I really like where our group is at. Everyone is contributing in a real positive way and the locker room is tight. That part of things goes a long way." 

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.