Union-Crew 5 things: Jim Curtin's depleted club begins crucial home-and-home series

Union-Crew 5 things: Jim Curtin's depleted club begins crucial home-and-home series

Union at Crew
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Looking to rebound from a disappointing road loss Wednesday to the Montreal Impact, Fafa Picault and the Union (6-8-5) kick off a crucial Eastern Conference home-and-home series at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday night against the Columbus Crew (9-10-1).

Here are five things to know:

1. Fighting a slump
All of the Union’s losses this season have come from a pair of lengthy losing streaks, one of four games and one of three. After dropping Wednesday’s match against the Impact, 2-1, the club hopes to avoid its third consecutive losing run in 2017.

“Consistency is what we’re striving for,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “You see around the league all different kind of streaks, the highs and lows, and it’s something you definitely want to avoid. Consistency is what we’re working for, it was something we were pretty good at last year in terms of bouncing back and not being a team that loses two in a row.”

Despite that lack of consistency and streaky nature of his team, Curtin does see positives. He believes that when the Union do slip down the losing path, they never let the bottom completely fall out.

“We’ve been in every game if you look over the course of the season,” he said. “We’re in every game but it is clear we have to all be pretty darn good on the night for us to get a win.”

Avoiding another losing streak is crucial for the Union’s playoff hopes. Six points out of playoff position with 15 games remaining, the Union, who have an extremely tough stretch of matches to finish the year, can’t afford to drop games in bunches this late in their campaign.

“We can’t have long losing streaks,” Curtin said. “We’re at the stage in the year where if you go on a long losing streak, that could be the end of it. There’s still a lot of games to play and we have a good team, but the series here vs. Columbus is one where we need to get results.”

2. Roster recovery
Between injuries and international call-ups, the Union enter Saturday’s match with a uniquely lean roster. 

“It’s a hard time for us in terms of personnel,” Curtin said. 

The club will be without Derrick Jones (concussion) and Fabian Herbers (sports hernia), but will also miss Andre Blake and Chris Pontius to Gold Cup duty.

“The good thing is you have guys getting called into the national team, which is a real positive,” Curtin said. “The international call-ups are one thing, the freak injuries, losing Herbers, losing Jones to the concussion, that can compound things and make it harder.”

What limits the Union, even more, is the suspension of Roland Alberg, who was dinged by MLS for a reckless tackle against the Impact. Losing Alberg means the Union are limited at both center attacking midfield and the right wing position. 

“The suspension to Roland makes it difficult, it makes your group thin,” Curtin said. “The one thing we do have is not a huge drop-off from our starters to our second-teamers, we do have that depth. But you do worry though that if you lose your top-end guys, it becomes challenging.” 

That means young talents like Marcus Epps and Adam Najem will see significant action.

“It’s a big opportunity for them,” Curtin said. “Two guys that have been very close to getting a starting nod regardless of injury or whatever it is.”

3. Potent Crew 
If the Union want to make the playoffs, they’ll have to get through the Crew. Gregg Berhalter’s club is currently outside looking into the postseason picture but sitting five points ahead of the Union, who have a game in hand but face the Crew in an upcoming home-and-home series. 

“We need to do it now with urgency and it has to start this weekend against Columbus,” Curtin said of his team playing with consistency. “This will be a big two-game stretch for us.”

But that’s easier said than done. Although Higuain is listed as out with a knee sprain, the Crew still possess a potent attack featuring Ola Kamara and Justin Meram. The club has tallied 30 goals in 20 games this season, good for fifth in the conference.

“They’re a team that really pass out of the back well, they’re one of the best passing teams,” Curtin said. “You have to disrupt that, you can’t let them walk the ball up the field because they are coached too well and they can pick you apart. We have to do a good job in terms of how we handle them in possession. They’ve conceded some goals but they’ve scored a lot of goals, too — they can really attack.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Alejandro Bedoya is back from Gold Cup duty with the U.S. men’s national team and is expected to help his club Saturday in Columbus. The Union captain will be a welcome sight for Curtin. “Getting Alejandro back in our group is very important,” Curtin said. “We have a group that will go on the field able to get a result against Columbus.”

Crew: Ranking sixth in MLS in saves, Zack Steffan, who was born in Coatesville and grew up in Downingtown, was on the Union’s Homegrown Player radar before he left the country for Germany’s SC Freiburg. The goalkeeper has since returned and is motivated to impress in front of his hometown club.

5. This and that
• Union speedster Picault tweaked his hamstring on Wednesday and was pulled from the game as a result. Although the club is tentative about the injury, Curtin expects Picault to play on Saturday. “There is an injury there but we’re confident it’s one he can play with,” the coach said. “That would be another difficult one to lose at this time.”

• The Union are 7-10-1 against the Crew all-time and 2-6-1 on the road in the series.

• Road struggles continued for the Union on Wednesday, as their record away from Talen Energy Stadium moved to 1-5-3 on the season. The Crew are 6-3-1 at home in 2017.  

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

USA Today Images

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union first traded for CJ Sapong ahead of the 2015 season, they knew they were getting a promising young attacking player.

What may have been less expected was Sapong developing into one of the top American strikers, a member of the U.S national team rotation and a foundational player that makes the Union’s entire system go.

So with Sapong’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2018 campaign, the Union knew they had to make sure to lock him up — which they did just one game into the season, signing him Wednesday to a new deal that runs through 2019 with a club option for 2020.

“I hope he continues to progress as a center forward,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart told reporters from the club’s training complex Wednesday. “I think CJ is a person that, [with] the way he takes care of his body and the professional that he is, has a long future in soccer. And he’s still growing as a soccer player.”

At 29, Sapong might not be considered young anymore. But it’s easy to make the case that his best soccer is still in front of him, considering he’s coming off a breakout 16-goal season — the first time in his career he eclipsed double digits — and is set up for even more success this year with the offseason additions of playmakers Borek Dockal and David Accam.

The combination of Dockal’s vision behind him with the speed of Accam and Fafa Picault on either side of him has Sapong as excited as inking a new deal.

“That gives me space to just chill in the box and eat when I can,” he said. “I find it hard to believe we’ll be kept off the scoresheet too many games this year.”

After opening his account in Philly’s season-opening 2-0 win over the Revolution on March 3, Sapong will look to find the back of the net again when the Union return to the field Saturday vs. Columbus at Talen Energy Stadium.

And putting all contract negotiations behind him should only provide further motivation to a player who can now rest easy that Philadelphia will be his home for years to come.

“He’s a guy who’s done everything for the badge, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and watch him grow and take his game to another level,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I’m looking forward to working with him for the next few years.”

Currently in his eighth MLS season, Sapong said he hopes to, at the least, hit double-digits in goals every year while continuing to do the dirty work and hold-up play that Curtin loves — and has endeared him to Philly fans.

“I owe a lot to Philadelphia,” Sapong said, “and how it’s transformed me as a person and a player.”

The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win

USA Today Images

The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win


CHESTER, Pa. — For years, the Union have yelled from the rooftops about their youth-first mentality and plan to win through player development.

On Saturday night, that plan finally came to fruition.

"It's a big step for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "The fact that some homegrowns weren't just on the field but left huge impacts on the game, it's special."

Anthony Fontana, 18, Auston Trusty, 19, and Derrick Jones, 21, all put their stamp on the Union's 2-0 season-opening win over the Revolution.

Fontana, hailing from Newark, Delaware, and who played 66 minutes at attacking midfield, opened up his MLS account in the 43rd minute when he gathered a tipped ball from C.J. Sapong and placed a confident shot past Matt Turner. 

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play here at this club,” Fontana said. “To be able to actually help the team today feels good.”

His teammates also couldn’t be happier. That includes Union and former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Alejandro Bedoya, who took Fontana under his wing throughout the preseason.

“I’m so happy for him,” Bedoya said. “He’s a good player so I hope he takes a good step this season. Not a bad way to start his debut, to score a goal. It’s just the beginning for him, he’s got a bright future.”

For Trusty, it was all about the clean sheet. Pairing with Jack Elliott on the left side of the Union defensive line, Trusty had the unenviable job of shutting down the Revs’ most potent option, Juan Agudelo. 

“It means a lot, but it’s also the challenge,” Trusty said. “The coach put me up to it and our organization put me up to it and they believe I can do it. I just set out to fulfill my role, do my task and keep the clean sheet and just play my role on the team.”

At one point in the first half, Agudelo beat Trusty and moved in on a breakaway, only for the rookie to catch up and steal the ball back.

“He made a couple key tackles in the box, won a lot of aerial duels in the box, did a lot of the things that don’t show up in the stat sheet for center backs,” Curtin said. “But the thing that makes me most proud is there was a zero at the end of the day. That’s what is most important. That means Auston did the job.” 

And while the win was a productive introduction for the Union’s crop of talented prospects, it was also an unforgettable experience for the local kids.

“It’s amazing,” Trusty said. “Imagine growing up in the Philadelphia area, being a little kid and coming to see these guys play, to be on the same field. I remember buying a ticket and coming to see these guys play and always dreamed of playing for the Union. For it to actually happen is amazing. It’s very humbling. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”