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.

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.