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.

Union believe they found their missing piece

USA Today Images

Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

USA Today Images

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better than both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”