Union

Union-Impact 5 things: Searching for confidence, goals against visiting Montreal

Union-Impact 5 things: Searching for confidence, goals against visiting Montreal

Union vs. Impact
1 p.m. on 6ABC

After suffering four consecutive losses, the winless Union (0-4-2) will grasp for traction when they host the one-win Montreal Impact (1-2-3) on Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium.

It's a battle at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Here are five things to know:

1. Finding confidence
The Union's nightmarish start continued last Friday with a devastating home loss to New York City FC. It was the club's fourth straight defeat, which sank the Union to the bottom of MLS with two points through six games.

"We've put ourselves in a tough spot with our start," Union attack Chris Pontius said. "We know what we have to fix, everything is fixable. We have the talent here, we've seen it throughout games, we just need to put it together for 90 minutes."

According to manager Jim Curtin, the Union's issues, while plentiful, aren't easy to pinpoint and correct. But what Curtin can identify is that his club is putting in the work to turn things around.

"It's not for lack of effort," Curtin said. "This group is so deserving of a result. I feel for the guys because I see how hard they work each and every week."

However, one fixable aspect of the Union's game is a stiffening of their upper lip. If the fragile Union can maintain a strong mental state through the ebbs and flows of Saturday's match and beyond, Curtin is confident his team will begin to see favorable results.

"When things aren't going well, guys start to press and confidence is down," he said. "You start to see guys try to do too much and be the one to make a big play.

"There will be mistakes that are made over the course of 90 minutes. It's how you bounce back, that's how you get points in this league. It's something we discussed. Is there a magic potion to cure it? I wish there was but there's not. But we have to get through this together."

2. Finding the net
If the Union want to begin that turnaround, they will need to hit the net. Curtin's club is tied for the second-fewest goals scored in MLS this season at five, despite adding 70 total shots in six games.

"We need to punish teams, we need to put some goals away," Pontius said. "The past few games, we've started the game brightly, turned over teams in bad spots but we just haven't punished them and got the goals that we needed."

Alejandro Bedoya believes those goals will arrive. The Union captain, who remained confident in his team's ability to climb out from this hole, blamed his club's attacking issues on "small margins" in the offensive third.

"We've stressed that it's important to have a high energy level, it's been intense," Bedoya said. "The results have not gone our way but guys haven't gotten discouraged, which is a good sign. We're still confident, we just have to tweak a few things, we have to get sharper in the final third and execute on some plays. It'll come. We're not concerned with it, we'll right the ship."

But believing is only part of the equation. Curtin identified some of the on-field issues that have kept the Union out of the net and plans on fixing them for Saturday.

"The only way you get to goal in this league is playing that forward ball," said Curtin, who believes his team isn't being aggressive enough with its passing. "We've worked on that a great deal. There hasn't been a ton of times where our wingers have gotten in behind, teams are keeping us in front of them right now. It's fair to say we've had good possession but it's not where the other team is really threatened." 

3. Counter Impact
With just one more win on the season than the Union, the visiting Impact know exactly what to expect when the whistle blows at Talen Energy Stadium. They've been through it.

"It's going to be a tough game because they have to go out there and shine," Impact forward Dominic Oduro told the media. "The fans want a win, they want a win and the coaches want a win. They are going to come full force."

Expecting that pressure from the Union, the Impact will use their speed to work the counter attack. After all, it's their calling card.

"We're good at counter attacking, so hopefully we absorb the pressure and take that for our advantage," Oduro said. "They'll have the crowd behind them, so we have to be smart and absorb that pressure."

Curtin is well aware of what to expect. 

"Montreal is a very dangerous team that is good on the counter attack and has some very experienced players," he said. "We'll have to be sharp. They have a very dangerous group."

Although the Impact, who are coming off a 2-1 win against Atlanta United, know the Union are vulnerable, they refuse to take the hosts lightly. As Impact coach Mauro Biello told the media, it's a league of parity.

"We know they haven't won a game yet but this is a good team, a team that will be desperate to win," Biello said. "When you look at the standings, you can get a false indication. They have quality players on that side and we have to be ready on our end to go get points."

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: With Bedoya dropping from the No. 10 position back to his more natural No. 8 slot, the Union are expected to rely on Roland Alberg to take over as primary midfield playmaker for the second consecutive week. "His possession was deeper than we'd want it to be," Curtin said of Alberg's performance last week. "He connected a lot of his passes but we want them to take a little more risk and be a little more forward. He showed some good signs."

Impact: The Impact's MVP in 2016, Ignacio Piatti missed two games with an injury before returning last week with a vengeance. He scored a goal and registered five shots. In four career games against the Union, Piatti has two goals and two assists. 

5. This and that
• The Union are undefeated hosting the Impact, holding a 2-0-4 home record against the Canadian side. However, the club is 3-5-5 all-time against the Impact, outscored, 22-15.

• For the third game, the Union will be without goalkeeper John McCarthy, who is recovering from a concussion. Jake McGuire is expected to be the primary backup. Defender Josh Yaro (shoulder) is also out, despite being near full health.

• Throughout training this week, Curtin, who may be looking to counter the Impact's forward speed, played right back Ray Gaddis with the starting team ahead of Keegan Rosenberry, and Jack Elliott ahead of Oguchi Onyewu.

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.