Union

'Stars were in perfect alignment' for Sapong, Union in first win of season

'Stars were in perfect alignment' for Sapong, Union in first win of season

CHESTER, Pa. -- C.J. Sapong had a special night.

In 11 minutes Saturday, the Union forward claimed his first career hat trick and simultaneously sank the New York Red Bulls for the 3-0 win at Talen Energy Stadium (see story)

“To score [a hat trick] in that fashion, when you know you’re just trying to get into a zone, work together with my teammates, that’s the best way,” Sapong said. “You never go out and expect to score a hat trick. For me to know that I can have an impact on the team and hit a career milestone, I’m happy.”

But Sapong’s production didn’t come without a bout of fortune. His first goal happened at the 74-minute mark and was a shot off a fast break that deflected off of Aaron and bounced past Luis Robles. The second was a combination of volleys from Fabian Herbers and Chris Pontius that allowed Sapong an opportunity from the crease. 

“The stars were in perfect alignment for us,” Sapong said.

The third was a penalty kick from a Red Bulls' handball, which Sapong confidently finished to the right of Robles. The Union striker was surging.

“Haris [Medunjanin] tried to take the penalty but I was like, ‘No, no chance,’” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s C.J.”

More than just a landmark effort from Sapong, it was a team slump-buster. With the victory, the Union snapped a 16-game winless streak dating back to last August. It was also their first win in 2017, pushing their record to 1-4-4. While it may not look it on paper, it was exactly what the club needed.

“Honestly, C.J. has been one of our bright spots this year and I think a lot of people have noticed that even with not many results going our way,” Keegan Rosenberry said. “For him to get the goals, and with us getting the win, is awesome for us and for him. Hopefully, we can keep him going, give him good service and keep him going in a good way.”

Rosenberry wasn’t the only teammate to remark on Sapong’s strong play. The forward entered Saturday’s game leading the Union with four goals and nearly doubled that late in the second half to tie Cubo Torres of the Houston Dynamo for the MLS lead in goals with seven.

“Look at him,” Bedoya said. “He wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season. But he’s mentally strong, and as a striker you also need service. So it’s up to us, the whole team, to get him those chances and he’s been putting them away. Credit to C.J. for being mentally strong and getting these goals.”

But he needs more, as the next step for the 29-year-old is a career season. He’s never scored more than nine goals in a given year but has seven already in 2017. And if the Union are going to pull out of the Eastern Conference basement, they’ll have to do it through their primary forward.

“The games just haven’t gone our way,” Sapong said. “We’re still at the bottom of the table right now. We still have a lot of climbing to do, but we have a little bit more incentive, inspiration and motivation to do that now."

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

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Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nemanja Nikolic scored two of his three goals in the second half, increasing his league-leading total to 24, and the Chicago Fire rallied for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.

The Fire (16-10-7) moved into third in the Eastern Conference, which would be good for a home game in the playoffs. Nikolic is four goals clear of his pursuers for the Golden Boot with one game to play.

Nikolic opened the scoring in the third minute, getting to a long feed from Brandon Vincent and aided by a bad angle by defender Jack Elliot before beating Andre Blake. Nikolic's penalty kick in the 64th tied it at 2 after David Accam was taken down in the penalty area. Nikolic completed his first career hat trick with an easy finish from the middle of the box on a feed from Brandon Vincent for the game winner in the 78th.

Chicago defender Johnan Kappelhof's own goal put the Union in a 1-1 tie at the six-minute mark and a feed from Haris Medunjanin to Alejandro Bedoya for a chip shot was good for the lead from the 13th minute.

Philadelphia (10-14-9) finished 1-10-6 on the road this season.