Union hoping for another deep U.S. Open Cup run — but 'want more'

Union hoping for another deep U.S. Open Cup run — but 'want more'

CHESTER, Pa. — In 2014 and 2015, the Union were galvanized by the U.S. Open Cup, brushing aside all of the rough moments they endured in MLS play and charging into the title game of the historic tournament that’s open to American soccer teams at all levels.

This year, things might seem a little different as the Union sit in first place in the Eastern Conference heading into their first U.S. Open Cup game Wednesday vs. the Harrisburg City Islanders.

But when asked if the team may approach the knockout tourney differently based on their league success, head coach Jim Curtin gave a hard “no,” insisting that winning the whole thing remains the ultimate goal.

“The only thing that changes is mentally, when you’re a team that’s struggling or maybe having a difficult year, you can use it as a way to bring the group together and get confidence,” Curtin said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’re confident right now. It is the first time we’ve gone in [to the U.S. Open Cup] where we’re clicking on all cylinders. We have a much deeper squad so we can feel more comfortable going to reserves. It sets up nicely for us.”

Open Cup games are often a balancing act for teams as games are usually sandwiched in the middle of the week between MLS contests. So the fact that Curtin may utilize his team’s depth when its former USL affiliate pays a visit to Talen Energy Stadium on Wednesday (7 p.m.) should come as no surprise.

Still, it’s probably fair to say the Union have put a higher priority on the Open Cup than a lot of other MLS teams over the years. And that’s something that will continue, even if they do sprinkle some reserves into their lineup to keep other players fresh for Saturday's road tilt with New York City FC at Yankee Stadium.

“We still value it,” veteran midfielder Brian Carroll said. “We still want to win it. Obviously in the past, we’ve kind of used the tournament to propel us and help our season. Now we just want to continue to do well in the tournament, regardless of having some league success.”

Before the Union’s resurgence this season, you could probably make the case that the majority of the franchise’s best moments came in the Open Cup. From winning games in shootouts to overcoming red cards and weather delays to finding unlikely stoppage-time and extra-time winners, the Union rode a whole lot of cool — and bizarre — moments to the finals in back-to-back years.

But they also understand that part of the tournament's magic is lower-division teams pulling off upsets of MLS teams — or coming close. Last year, the Union needed John McCarthy to stand on his head in a shootout to beat the Rochester Rhinos in their first tourney game. And two years ago, they needed extra time to eliminate the City Islanders.

“For whatever reason, a lot of times they go long,” Curtin said. “I don’t want 120 minutes or penalty kicks. I’d like to come out and dictate the tempo and take our chances and score and be organized and tough to play against.

“I’m proud of our record at the Open Cup. Good teams make it to the finals. I think it’s something to build on, and we have some experience knowing what it takes to get through the tough early-round games.”

The City Islanders pose an interesting challenge to the Union, who were closely tied to the club for several seasons before launching their own USL team — Bethlehem Steel — this year. Curtin credited Harrisburg with being essential to the development of the Union's current starting center back combo of Richie Marquez and Ken Tribbett. And there have been many other players that have played for both clubs, including Harrisburg forward Aaron Wheeler, who has three goals so far this season, including two in a game against the Steel last month.

“There are a lot of close ties there and we’re very grateful for what Harrisburg did,” Curtin said. “But tomorrow they’re the enemy. We want to win and move on.”

Chris Pontius wasn’t with the Union during their last two runs to the title game. But he does know from experience both how difficult the early-round games can be and also how great it feels to win in the Open Cup.

Back in 2013, D.C. United went down two men in extra time before scraping by the Richmond Kickers in a shootout. That turned out to be the beginning of a historic run that saw D.C. win the Open Cup crown despite finishing the MLS season with one of the worst records in league history.

“That was the highlight of my career,” said Pontius, who took some time off of training during the Copa America break last week to rest. “Winning a championship, that’s what we’re all in this business for. For me, that was it.”

As a two-time MLS Cup champion, Carroll has gotten to hoist trophies before. But the 14-year MLS veteran has still never won an Open Cup, which is something he’s eager to accomplish — especially after the Union’s two straight heartbreaking home losses in the finals.

“We’ve had some recent success in the tournament but we want more,” Carroll said. “We want to get a trophy out of it. And it starts tomorrow.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better than both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”

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.”