Union

Union-Dynamo 5 things: Riding high into mid-week showdown

Union-Dynamo 5 things: Riding high into mid-week showdown

Union vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Riding a four-game point streak and coming off back-to-back wins, the scorching Union (2-4-4) set to host potent Cubo Torres and the equally hot Houston Dynamo (6-3-1) in a rare mid-week tilt at Talen Energy Stadium on Wednesday night.

Here are five things to know:

1. Committing to Defense
The Union’s dramatic turnaround starts on the defensive side.

After giving up two-plus goals is six-straight games this season, the Union have rattled off three consecutive shutouts, outscoring their competition 7-0 over that span. It’s resulted in two wins and a road draw.

“The best defenders in the world can do nothing if there isn’t pressure to the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “And that’s where we’ve been better. That makes everyone’s job across the back line a lot easier and more predictable. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. But it does give us a chance in all these games.”

While the team is scoring goals in droves, the players believe it’s a stronger commitment to defending that has the Union winning games. The club has won back-to-back games for the first time since Aug. 24 and Aug. 27, when they defeated the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City.

"I think we're just working a little harder and everyone is committed to defending,” Union goalkeeper Andre Blake told reporters. “I think we all get that it's going to take 11 to defend. We all understand that there are no plays off and we've just got to work as hard as we can on the defensive side of things."

Blake, who had a rocky start to the season but is now tied for second in MLS with four shutouts on the season, wasn’t tested often, earning the one-save effort last Saturday. And even though it didn’t involve much work, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year will take every clean sheet he can get.

"As a goalkeeper, I can take some of those nights,” he said. “If we have 35 games and I get zero shots and all shutouts, then I'll take that. The guys are doing very well and it's making my job easier, so I just need to make sure that whenever something is coming my way that I'm in the right mindset and ready to make a save."

2. Stopping Cubo
The Union’s defensive resurgence will be tested on Wednesday. With 21 goals on the season, the Dynamo, led by Torres’ league-leading eight goals, are atop the Western Conference in points and currently lead the league in scoring.

“We need to stay consistent and collectively defend from top to bottom, from C.J. Sapong to Andre Blake,” said Union defender Ray Gaddis. “We want to be a cohesive unit, do the dirty work and stay together. We know we are facing a good Houston team, we just need to stay together and focus on the task.”

That task includes stopping the league’s leading scorer. Facing the New York Red Bulls on May 6, the Union were able to stop Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Last Saturday, they completely shut out Luciano Acosta, frustrating the attacking midfielder into taking a red card.

“We’ve done a good job limiting the opponent's chances,” Curtin said. “The biggest thing with that is trying to cut out their key guys. We’ve done a good job of limiting touches, chances and played some decent soccer along the way as well.“

Next up: Torres.

“He’s clinical around the goal,” Curtin said of Torres, who earned four his eight goals from penalty kicks. “Their wingers are so dangerous, Alex is so dangerous on the dribble, it results in a lot of fouls around the box. I think they had six PKs, five scored, so we have to be smart because they are so dynamic.”

3. Dynamo’s Road Problem
Leading the Western Conference with 19 points in 10 games may be an impressive feat for the Dynamo. But it doesn’t mean they are perfect.

The Dynamo, who have played a large chunk of their home games early this season to avoid mid-summer heat in Houston, are 6-0-1 at home but a paltry 0-3-0 on the road.

“This is a test for us,”  Dynamo fullback DaMarcus Beasley said. “We don’t try to look too much in the future but eight of our next 11 are away from home.”

The goal for the Dynamo over that span, beginning on Wednesday, is transferring their impressive home play to the road. According to Beasley, that hasn’t been an easy process, leaving the club still trying to find themselves away from BBVA Compass Stadium.

“If we figured it out we’d be winning on the road,” Beasley joked with reporters. “There’s no secret. We have to think that we can win and be able to incorporate what we do at home on the road. So far we haven’t done that. I can’t pinpoint it but we’re working really hard to try and make that right.”

4. Keep an eye on
Dynamo: Leading MLS in goals, Cubo Torres has eight goals in eight starts this season. One of the more potent offensive forces in the league, he had a goal and four shots against the Vancouver Whitecaps last week.

Union: Defensive midfielder Haris Medunjanin broke out offensively last week by notching his first MLS goal and two assists. He now sits tied for third in MLS in helpers with five on the season.

5. This and that
• The Union are 4-6-4 against the Dynamo all-time.

• With four assists on the season, Chris Pontius is two off his career high in helpers. He earned six total in 2016.

• The Union will be without midfielder Roland Alberg (hamstring) and center back Josh Yaro (shoulder), while Dynamo forward

• Alberth Elis is questionable with a hamstring injury.

Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

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Alejandro Bedoya, CJ Sapong, Warren Creavalle called upon for international duty

A trio of Union players are being called upon for international duty.

Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and forward CJ Sapong have been named to the final U.S. Men's National Team roster for an upcoming international friendly against Portugal on Nov. 14 in Leiria, Portugal. 

Bedoya has earned 65 international caps for the USMNT including four World Cup appearances. Conversely, Sapong has earned just two caps, both in friendlies. However, Sapong recorded 16 goals this season, setting a career-high and a new franchise record. His 16 goals were tops among American players in MLS, one more that USMNT mainstay Jozy Altidore.

Union midfielder Warren Creavalle has also been called up by Guyana in their friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Creavalle has earned three international caps. He played in 13 matches for his club team, his second most in a season since joining the Union in 2015.

Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

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Too many familiar chords for Union's Stewart in end-of-season address

CHESTER, Pa. — Earnie Stewart has a lot of qualities you’d want in a sports executive.

He’s patient. He’s even-keeled. He’s endlessly positive. He always has a plan in mind, and he’s always thinking about the future.

If the Union sporting director has a fault, it may be that he doesn’t seem to have a great read on Philly sports fans, many of whom might have, let’s call it, different personality traits than him. But if Union supporters are feeling negative and impatient these days, it’s certainly for good reason.

The franchise has been floundering near the bottom of MLS since its inaugural season in 2010, while watching teams that entered the league around the same time (Toronto, Seattle, Portland) soar past it and more recent expansion clubs (New York City FC, Atlanta, Orlando) open their wallets for MVP-caliber players while drawing big crowds.

Stewart, meanwhile, has admitted the focus in Philly has been on building a foundation and committing to the franchise’s infrastructure through a new practice facility, a minor-league affiliate and an ever-improving youth academy. 

But even if the Union executes flawlessly in all of those aspects, it doesn’t necessarily give the team a competitive advantage over other MLS clubs, most of whom have the same things in place. Similarly, the rebuilding process won’t bear fruit in the way it does for teams in other leagues like the Sixers and Astros since the MLS draft isn’t a reliable mechanism to acquire foundational pieces.

Soon, the club’s youth academy, fueled by a partnership with Bethlehem Steel FC (where the top players can bypass college and get professional minutes) could very well lead to exciting things. But for a team that stresses development, developing young players has never been a particular strong suit — the regression of Keegan Rosenberry (along with the injuries to fellow 2016 standout rookies Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers) serving as the latest, most glaring example.

Besides, focusing on development and infrastructure shouldn’t take away from building a team that can make the playoffs, which the Union failed to do in 2017 for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history. Philly fans want a winner today, and seeing an expansion team like Atlanta roll into the playoffs behind star South American imports and record crowds has only made their frustration more pronounced.

Which brings us to Stewart’s end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

In his address with reporters, Stewart dove into many of the roster changes the team has made as it declined the options of several players. Still, it didn’t feel like very much will change at all.

For starters, he announced that Jim Curtin will be retained as head coach despite his 38-50-31 overall record. Second, he said that the team’s search for a new attacking midfielder would start in its “own backyard” and didn’t rule out bringing back Ilsinho, possibly in a reserve role, rather than wipe the slate clean after the 2016 season showed it’s the biggest position of need. And third, he hedged when asked if ownership would spend more money to keep up with other teams.

“We have those conversations and I have to say that our ownership group with [majority owner Jay Sugarman] leading that has been good,” Stewart said. “But we’ve also chosen a path that we have as a club, that we started at least since I’ve been here two years ago. That’s our pathway. That’s who we are, that’s who we want to be, and the most important part is we’ve got to come to grips with that.

“Can you spend like the Torontos? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different way, and I think we’ve found that way. When you look around at what we have at the club and the facilities we have, we’re still building because a lot of times it’s only seen in player spending. But this is such a young club that there’s so much that needs to be built. You can bring in the best player you want but if you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s not going to work.”

The thing about this is no one is even asking them to spend like Toronto FC, who dishes out over $18 million a year to three star players: Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Clearly, it’s a strategy that works, as Toronto posted the best record in league history this season after advancing to the MLS Cup final a year ago. But at this point, Union fans would settle for bringing in just one difference-maker in the $2 million range (plus a transfer fee) — the kind of salary that lured star playmakers Miguel Almiron (Atlanta), Diego Valeri (Portland), Romain Allesandrini (LA Galaxy) and Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle) to MLS. 

Imagine one of those players behind striker CJ Sapong and in front of central midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The Union could easily make the playoffs. Throw in a veteran defender and a quality winger and you could make the case they’re a title contender.

That’s the thing about MLS. There’s a lot talk about building a foundation and grooming young players but, in the end, your success boils down to how much you spend and whether or not you acquire the right players. 

Teams can literally scout anywhere in the world and the Union have had success mixing young Americans in with talented midfielders from France, Argentina and Bosnia, where Medunjanin — an excellent acquisition — hails. But Stewart has also had a lot of misses with his signings as Roland Alberg, Jay Simpson, Giliano Wijnaldum and others failed to make the kind of impact the club needed.

Stewart didn’t really accept much blame for any of those guys, saying Alberg actually had a “very good role” with the Union and that fellow Dutchman Wijnaldum was a “very talented kid” who simply struggled to adapt to a new country. He also didn’t appear to think the 2017 season was a particularly poor one, pointing to the fact that Union finished with same point total, with a better goal differential, as in 2016. Nor did he express any alarm over young players' development, noting that “every player developed this season, except the output wasn’t always the same on Saturday or Sunday.”

On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with being this positive and Stewart very may well may have big things in store this offseason. But after hearing so much about progress for eight years without ever seeing very much of it, it’s easy to understand why Union fans might not share in his optimism.