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Union-Fire observations: Chris Pontius helps end 6-game winless streak

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Union-Fire observations: Chris Pontius helps end 6-game winless streak

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — In a battle between the bottom and top of the Eastern Conference, Chris Pontius and the limping Union stunned the Chicago Fire, 3-1, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The lopsided victory snapped a six-game winless streak to propel the Union to a 9-12-9 record. Meanwhile, the Fire, who were riding a three-game unbeaten run, fall to 14-10-6.

The Union made quick work of the Fire defense in the 10th minute when Warren Creavalle slipped a pass to Keegan Rosenberry, who shredded his defender with a fake to find the head of Pontius to open the scoring. 

Pontius struck again in the 55th minute, cleaning up a juicy rebound resulting from a Fafa Picault strike that was fought off poorly by goalkeeper Matt Lampson.

C.J Sapong added the 64th minute insurance when he finished a tight cross by Fabinho at the top of the crease. But Luis Solignac and the Fire countered just minutes later to make it 3-1, pouncing on sloppy play and a failed clear by the Union defense.

• The weight of the world was lifted from the shoulders of Pontius on Saturday, after the veteran, who led the Union in scoring last season, potted his first goal of the year in the 10th minute. Burying a feed from Rosenberry, Pontius snapped a 27-game scoreless streak. He added a second in the 56th minute by chasing down a rebound. The two goals summed up Pontius’ irregular slump — lack of luck and lack of service. He received both Saturday.

• By adding his 14th of the season in the 64th minute, C.J. Sapong extended his career high while also tying Sebastien Le Toux for the Union franchise record set in 2010. It was also his 30th goal with the Union. Sapong was subbed in the 86th minute for Jay Simpson.

• Keegan Rosenberry’s defensive struggles continued in the 67th minute, when Solignac beat the Union right back to a Nikolic pass. It was sloppy from the Union but not a back-breaker, as the goal, which made it 3-1, only ruined Blake’s shutout. It was Solignac’s sixth of the season.

• Owners of a six-game winless streak might sound bad, but things haven’t been terrible for the Union leading up to Saturday’s win. Over those six games, the Union earned four draws — three of which were on the road.

• The Fire will kick themselves over their performance against the Union. With an opportunity to stay one point behind New York City FC in the race for the No. 2 seed in the East, the Fire leave Talen Energy Stadium four points behind NYCFC, which earned a draw Saturday.

• Coming off a respectable performance last Sunday in a shutout against the New York Red Bulls, forgotten man, Richie Marquez, earned the start at center back against the Fire. Making back-to-back starts for the first time since late April, Marquez was good again. He made his signature well-timed slide tackle to break up a strong early challenge from Michael de Leeuw in the seventh minute to save a goal.

• While it may be late in the season for rarely-utilized Warren Creavalle, things are looking up. Instead of play shoot-first Roland Alberg at their impotent No. 10 position, the Union opted for the inverted midfield triangle, where Creavalle, who made his fourth start of the season, played defensive support. The move was to allow midfielders Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya off the leash offensively, a design that paid off when Bedoya found Picault for what kicked off the Union’s second goal. Bedoya also earned a secondary assist on the Union’s third goal. 

• Though Germany was well represented in the parking lot by fans, Bastian Schweinsteiger did not make the trip to Philadelphia. Fortunate for the Union, Saturday was the German legend’s third-straight game missed with a calf injury. 

• While the Fire were missing Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Union were without Josh Yaro and Ilsinho. Yaro has been nursing a knee injury, while Ilsinho is struggling with Achilles tendinitis. 

• Despite losing the possession battle, 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent, and passing accuracy, 89 percent to 79 percent, the Union were the dominant team. That’s a credit to the club’s rare potency in the final third. The Union earned six shots on goal a and buried three.

• Next up, the Union will be in the unenvious position of facing Atlanta United on Wednesday at the fortress known as Mercedes Benz Stadium. In its last four matches there, Atlanta has outscored the opposition, 17-3. It’s the league’s most advantageous home-field advantage at the moment.

Union midfielder Brian Carroll to retire after 15 MLS seasons

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Union midfielder Brian Carroll to retire after 15 MLS seasons

CHESTER, Pa. — Brian Carroll didn’t play a single minute in his first year in Major League Soccer.

That was in 2003.

Fourteen years later, he’s set to retire as one of the longest-tenured and accomplished players in league history.

Carroll, a mainstay of MLS and the Philadelphia Union, announced his well-deserved retirement Thursday ahead of the Union’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium (4 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia+)

If he plays in Sunday’s game, it will be his first minutes of the season as age and injuries have started to creep up to the 36-year-old defensive midfielder who’s been battling for a time in a crowded position.

But as recently as last season, Carroll was still a key player for the Union, who he spent seven of his 15 MLS seasons with, wearing the captain’s armband at times and being a consummate pro in an ever-changing locker room.

In all for the Union, Carroll has played 13,818 minutes, the most in franchise history, and 165 games, second only to Sebastien Le Toux.

Throughout his MLS career, the savvy midfielder known for his tremendous work rate played a total of 370 games (tied for fourth in league history) and 30,776 minutes (sixth all-time), winning championships with his two previous teams — D.C. United in 2004 and the Columbus Crew in 2008. He also won the Supporters’ Shield four straight years, with D.C. in 2006 and 2007 and with Columbus in 2008 and 2009.

His teams made the playoffs in his first nine years in the league, a streak that culminated with the Union’s first-ever postseason appearance in 2011 — his first season in Philly.

Carroll, a former star player at Wake Forest, also had success at the international level, earning eight caps with the U.S. national team and also playing for a couple of U.S. youth teams.

The father of three now plans to move to Indianapolis with his family and embark on a new career in financial planning.

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?