Union

Union-Impact 5 things: Andre Blake, Alejandro Bedoya return

Union-Impact 5 things: Andre Blake, Alejandro Bedoya return

Union vs. Impact
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Separated by just three points in the Eastern Conference standings, and with both teams coming off lopsided losses, the Union (11-10-7) and Montreal Impact (9-8-10) will kick up the intensity Saturday night as they battle for playoff position at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Returning stars
Missing last weekend’s match against the Chicago Fire, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and goalkeeper Andre Blake will return to the Union from international duty, just in time to face the Impact. 

“We’ll have Alejandro and Andre back [Saturday] with us,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club lost, 3-0, without the pair of standouts. “It’s great to get them back, they are two players that played very well for their national teams and contributed in big ways. To have them back coming into the team makes us a lot stronger.”

It also makes the Union midfield a more cohesive group. Without Bedoya at the No. 8 spot, the Union were forced to use Tranquillo Barnetta at the No. 8 and Roland Alberg at the center attacking midfield position. It hasn’t been a successful setup for the club all season and proved itself unsatisfactory against the Fire, as the Union were held off the scoreboard.

On Saturday, Bedoya will play the No. 8, with Barnetta playing a more offensive role.

“It’s a different role than I’m used to,” Bedoya said. “But I’ve adjusted just fine and done what the coaching staff has wanted me to do. It’s not so much being involved offensively but being the link guy between the defense and the offense and make sure we don’t get scored on.”

2. Playoff importance
If the Union want a favorable spot in the East playoff picture, they need a result against the Impact on Saturday. As it stands, the Union, in the fourth position, are three points ahead of the Impact, though Montreal has a game in hand.

“It’s no secret, you don’t want to just get in at the six or five spot because you put almost nine or 10 months of work together to get thrown out there on a Wednesday,” Curtin said. “It can be over in a second on the road. That’s not what we want to work towards.”

With a top-two spot nearly out of the question, what the Union do want is the three or four spot in the East, which would guarantee them a first-round home game. That’s easier said than done, as the Union host the Impact, then hit the road for three straight games against Toronto FC, Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls. 

Saturday’s match is of utmost importance if the Union want to see home in the playoffs.

“The value of home field in our league is more so than any pro sport that there is right now,” Curtin said. “[Seeds] three, four [are] critical because you want to play a home game, and that’s one off game, too, it’s do-or-die. You don’t want to work for nine months to have to go on the road and have it be over on a Wednesday.” 

3. Stopping Drogba, Piatti
The last time the Union faced the Impact, they were destroyed, 5-1, with Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti combining for six points (four goals, two assists). 

“They’re class players,” Bedoya said. “Drogba, his name speaks for itself, and Piatti has been one of the best players in the league. You have to be tight on them. If we can stop those two guys, we’ll be in better shape.”

That’s an easy strategy to draw up. Piatti has 14 goals and five assists in 25 games, while Drogba has nine goals and five assists in 18 games. Drogba scored in the Impact’s 4-1 loss to Orlando City on Wednesday.

“I’d put Piatti, [Sebastian] Giovinco and [David] Villa as the top three guys right now in our league in terms of form and difficulty in shutting down,” said Curtin, who also called Drogba a world-class player. “Piatti is a handful, he’s a real handful.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Returning from international duty, it’ll be Blake’s job to help stop the dynamic attacking duo of Piatti and Drogba. If anyone can do it, it’s Blake. The Union will need him.

Impact: Drogba has absolutely crushed the Union this season. In two games against the Union, the Impact have six goals. Drogba has four of them. If the Union want to stop the Impact, it starts with the legendary forward. 

5. This and that
• Maurice Edu made his in-game season debut last weekend with Bethlehem Steel. After a little over 30 minutes, he was replaced by doctor’s orders. However, it was just a start for the midfielder who is on the mend from a broken leg but will not play against the Impact (see story). “We want him to get a little sharper each time as we go,” Curtin said. “And get him back integrated with the first team.”

• The Union are still one win away from tying the franchise record for wins set at 12. 

• The Impact lead the all-time series, 5-3-4, and have a win and draw over the Union this season.

• Since joining MLS last season, Drogba has 20 goals in 29 games.

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.