Union

Union-New York City FC 5 things: Seeking revenge vs. David Villa and company

Union-New York City FC 5 things: Seeking revenge vs. David Villa and company

Union at New York City FC
1 p.m. on 6ABC

After suffering their first loss since April 14, a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Real Salt Lake on the road, the Union (4-5-4) aim to regroup on Saturday as they travel to Yankee Stadium to challenge reigning league MVP David Villa and New York City FC (6-5-3).

Here are five things to know for the game:

1. Learning from the past
In the first meeting with NYCFC in mid-April, the Union stood toe-to-toe with their Eastern Conference opponent for a half, only to fall apart in the 51st and 90th minute for the 2-0 defeat.

"In the first 45 minutes we did make it uncomfortable but we didn't punish them," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "We turned them over but we didn't punish them and we were not able to sustain it for 90 minutes. We fatigued."

But the Union are a new team this time around. The loss to NYCFC was the Union's fourth consecutive defeat at the time. On Saturday, the same team will be 4-1-0 in its last five matches entering Yankee Stadium.

"When we played them earlier, it was when we were trying to figure out stuff," Union goalkeeper Andre Blake said. "Not to take anything away from them, they came here and they did good. But we have to believe we can go there and believe we can beat them. We're playing better than when we last played them and I think we're a better team now than we were then."

That belief stems from experience. Curtin, who wants to apply an aggressive press to disrupt NYCFC's more skilled attackers, knows his team has to hang with NYCFC for the full 90. The strategy is worthless unless the team can keep it up.

"In order to press a team with their quality, you have to be able to sustain for the entire time," he said. "It will be a real challenge in their building."

2. Preparing for the outfield
To also aid in their revenge match against NYCFC, the Union are in deep preparation for unique circumstances in the outfield at Yankee Stadium. The home field of NYCFC is considered to be near the smallest dimensions that FIFA will allow and is in the running for smallest in MLS history.

"We shortened and narrowed the [practice] field being that the New York stadium is a bit more narrow," Union attacker Fafa Picault said. "It's about getting used to it so we don't over-hit balls and get used to holding shape within the lines of the game."

Curtin didn't stop with just altering his club's practice field, which is located just outside Talen Energy Stadium. He assigned the Union's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel, to act as NYCFC in a scrimmage on the narrowed field.

"I put the group through a good training exercise where Bethlehem represented a New York City team and how they like to build out of the back," Curtin said. "It was a good exercise. Overall it was good preparation for what will be a good game this weekend."

3. Bedoya out, Creavalle in
If the Union are going to take a result from NYCFC, they'll have to do it without captain and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who is away from international duty with the U.S. men's national team.

Filling that void will be veteran midfielder Warren Creavalle, who will slide into the No. 8 spot behind Ilsinho and ahead of Haris Medunjanin. It will be Creavalle's first start of the season.

"He brings it each and every day in training," Curtin said of Creavalle. "He works his tail off, he's sharp, he competes, he fights for every yard and inch in practice. He's a true pro. He's a guy who will be called upon to play this weekend."

While Creavalle may not be a flashy replacement for Bedoya, he's a serviceable one. The midfielder covers ground and excels in mucking up the middle of the field for the opposition. That's exactly what Curtin is looking for on Saturday.

"He's a guy I have full confidence in," Curtin said. "He does the stuff that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. I'm excited for Warren. It's a good spot for him because it's tiny and not a lot of space for teams to hide. It's a good situation to have a quality player like Warren ready to go in."

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Although the rookie winger likely won't get the start on Saturday, Marcus Epps is expected to back up Chris Pontius on the right side of the Union's attack because of a lower-body injury suffered by Fabian Herbers. That means he could be a major part of the Union's second half. "We're happy with him," Curtin said. "He has a ton of potential and he's a guy we are really high on. With the injury to Fabian, he has an opportunity to step in and perform."

NYCFC: Villa is the player to watch on NYCFC because he's always the player to watch. Curtin called him probably the best player MLS has ever had. And that's without considering the incredible April goal against the Union, in which Villa buried a shot from midfield over Blake and under the crossbar. 

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-3-1 all-time against NYCFC, including a 2-0 loss at Talen Energy Stadium in April.

• Saturday's match will feature two of MLS' most productive scorers in C.J. Sapong and Villa. Both players are tied for third in the league with eight goals on the season.

• Led by Villa's 21, NYCFC leads MLS in shots on goal with 76 in 14 games. The Union rank ninth with 60 in 13 games.

• Both clubs have hit a speed bump on their season of late. NYCFC is coming off a 3-0 loss to Atlanta United and a 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution, while the Union are coming off a disjointed 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids and a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Real Salt Lake.

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.