Union

Union-FC Dallas 5 things: Time running out on playoff dreams

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CSN

Union-FC Dallas 5 things: Time running out on playoff dreams

Union vs. FC Dallas
7 p.m. on TCN

With three losses in their last four matches, the stumbling Union (7-10-5) look to activate home-field advantage and kick their slide against Western Conference powerhouse FC Dallas (9-4-7) on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Running out of time
With 12 games remaining, the Union’s postseason hope is up against the clock. 

“Six home, six away left. There’s lots of soccer out there,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We recognize our margin for error is a small one now. We’ve done that to ourselves, but we have a good group.” 

As it stands, the Union are six points out from the final playoff position, but are in a battle with the Columbus Crew, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution and Orlando City to get in. To make matters worse, the Union can’t string together victories. The club has one win in its last five matches.

“There are four to five teams that have their eye on that spot and we all play each other a bunch down the stretch and those games are huge,” Curtin said. “It’s not an area you want to be in but at the same time, it’s a situation we put ourselves in. Things can change fast in this league. It starts with getting on a run and getting above that red line. It’s not going to be easy.”

That run could start on Saturday. Though the Union are playing one of the best in MLS in FC Dallas, they are at home. The Union are 6-3-2 at Talen Energy Stadium and have scored 20 of their 29 total goals there this season. 

“You have to find ways to win your home games in this league,” Curtin said. “Our road total in points is not good enough. It’s something we have to rectify. It’s going to take more than last year’s point total, so we have our work cut out for us but it’s not impossible. 

“We’ve been solid at home and we need to continue that.”

2. Without Blake
If the Union want a positive result against FC Dallas, they’ll likely have to do it without Andre Blake, who sliced his hand open in the Gold Cup final game against the U.S. men’s national team and still hasn’t fully recovered.

“Andre is still healing, he still has the stitches in,” Curtin said. “He ended up with seven stitches that go from one side to the other. We’re hopeful for the weekend. He’s been able to do technical exercises with the group, working on his footwork and staying active. We need to get clearance from the doctors that he won’t do further damage.”

Curtin then sounded more cautious on Blake’s return. The goalkeeper, who is tied for second in MLS shutouts with seven, missed the Union’s last five matches. 

“We’re following the medical side on this one,” the manager said. “There’s a chance but probably unlikely.” 

But fortunately for the Union, they have a backup plan. The Union expect backup keeper, John McCarthy, who has opened eyes since taking over for Blake (see story), to continue filling the shoes of the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

“Johnny has done a really good job stepping up his game in a tough spot,” Curtin said. “For him to have the success he’s had speaks to all the hard work he’s put in. He’s stepped up in a big way and has done a great job.” 

3. Redemption Dallas
FC Dallas enters Saturday’s match with a bad taste in its mouth. 

“After our last result at home, [these are] points that we need to take,” FC Dallas center back Walker Zimmerman said. “Points that will put us back in the Supporters’ Shield race. We’ve had a very successful run the last few games, we just need to keep that going.”

The club, which will be without suspended midfielders Atiba Harris and Carlos Gruezo, hit an irregular bump in the road last week against the Vancouver Whitecaps, dropping the match, 4-0. The home loss snapped a five-game unbeaten streak and three-game winning run.

“They are also coming off a disappointing result,” said Curtin, whose club lost to the Revolution, 3-0, last week. “We know they will be angry and eager to go.”

But even with that extra motivation, FC Dallas isn’t overlooking a desperate Union club.

“You can’t take any team in this league lightly,” FC Dallas midfielder Ryan Hollingshead said. “We’ll be looking for mounting back. It’s a big opportunity for us to get road points. We know Philadelphia has strengths and weaknesses and we’ll have to be ready for them.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: The Union’s leading scorer with 10 goals and five assists on the season, C.J. Sapong is the engine that makes the offense tick. In his last match at home, Sapong put up a goal and two helpers, setting a career high. Eight of Sapong’s 10 goals this season have happened at home.

FC Dallas: Tied for the league lead in assists with 10, Michael Barrios could be the key to unlocking the Union back line. 

5. This and that
• The Union have never defeated FC Dallas in MLS play, going 0-5-4 all-time and 0-1-3 at home.

• While FC Dallas has no listed injuries, the Union are limping a bit. Center back Oguchi Onyewu (groin strain) and Fafa Picault (hamstring strain) join Blake as questionable for Saturday.

• The first time FC Dallas visited Philadelphia was a heartbreaker for the Union. Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler scored but Blas Perez’s 95th-minute goal ended the match, 2-2.

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.