Union

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.  

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.