Union

Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

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Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

CHESTER, Pa. — It took months of mediocrity and lack of production from the No. 10 spot for Union manager Jim Curtin to finally move away from Ilsinho and Roland Alberg and try something new.

In their places Saturday, in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union tapped the athletic Warren Creavalle to protect the back line, which allowed playmakers Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya to be more flexible in how they attack the game.

“The best thing about the formation is there can be fluidity in it,” Curtin said. “We thought, matchup-wise, he’s been in good form and with what Chicago likes to do, we thought it was important to invert the triangle a little bit in some moments to get pressure to Dax McCarty, who is the engine of that team.”

Although Curtin insisted it wasn’t a formation change, saying, “it’s still a 4-2-3-1,” it was a breath of fresh air for a 9-12-9 team that needed a change. Ilsinho, who was out with Achilles tendinitis, and Alberg, who rode the bench for 90 minutes, entered Saturday with a combined seven goals and four assists.

“I think it worked well in terms of staying compact,” Bedoya, who captured an assist, said. “They struggled all night to play balls in between the lines in the middle of us. I think we got some good goals off some good combinations in the midfield.”

Curtin called it fluidity and Bedoya mentioned combinations. Creavalle continued that theme.

“I think it’s providing that balance,” he said. “Being able to help that back line and be able to connect them so they can make the game and have everybody connected.”

Agony over for Pontius
After 27 games of pure agony, Chris Pontius finally scored.

“About six months too late,” the Union’s 2016 leading scorer said jokingly. “But no, it feels good. Nice to get a win. Came back to a nice crowd and a big three points for us.”

Snapping the curse came easy against the Fire. Pontius potted his first two goals of the season Saturday — one was a header from a Keegan Rosenberry cross in the 10th minute, the other came off a rebound in the second half.

“It comes in bunches at times,” Pontius said. “You feel like you can do everything right in a few games and then other games you’re putting in so much effort and things just aren’t falling for you. Certainly, confidence is a big key for that and it was nice to get one especially early in a game like this.”

Record (almost) broken
With a second-half goal Saturday, C.J. Sapong nabbed his franchise-record tying 14th tally of the season. The total tied Union legend Sebastien Le Toux for most goals in a season, a mark set in the Union’s expansion season of 2010.

“Well, for me, it means that I’ve been able to score,” said Sapong, who was able to tap in a left-to-right cross from Fafa Picault along the goal line Saturday. “It’s a number that shows I’m having an impact on the field for my team.”

Without a strict No. 10 on the field for the Union and with right-wing Fabian Herbers injured all season with a sports hernia, service has been tough to come by for the Union. It’s one reason Pontius struggled so mightily all year. It’s possible that if the Union can find a skilled playmaker this offseason, Sapong could be set for an even more productive 2018 if he continues this form.

“The goals are a product of the guys getting him service,” Curtin said of Sapong. “His movement on the night was good, we’re happy with him and his individual accomplishments.”

Elevated effort
All during the week, Curtin mentioned pride and jobs as two reasons the Union players would show up Saturday and compete. After crushing the Fire, 3-1, it’s clear the club doesn’t lack the proper motivation.

“If you’re not putting the effort in,” Pontius said, “you can be out of a job next year. I don’t think there’s any more motivation than you need right there.”

Rosenberry mentioned another possible factor for the elevated effort.

“I don’t think we’re used to being counted on,” he said. “Playing as an underdog is something we’re used to and we’re going to embrace that until the end and see where we can go.”

Quote of the night
“Nope,” Creavalle deadpanned after several silent seconds when asked if he was happy to see Pontius get a goal. “He’s been working all year so I’m happy to see him get on the scoresheet. Keegan dropped him that dime so he has him to thank for that.”

Stat of the night
2,024 Minutes — How long Pontius went without a goal this season (including U.S. Open Cup).

Union-Orlando City observations: Breaking records in season-ending rout

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Union-Orlando City observations: Breaking records in season-ending rout

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. —  In less than three minutes Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium, the match was effectively over. Ilsinho and the Union began their scoring assault in the third minute and didn’t stop until team records and Orlando City were thoroughly broken. The Union easily won the season finale, 6-1.

It was an impressive finish to an unimpressive season for the Union, as the club completed 2017 with an 11-9-14 record and 42 points — a mirror image of 2016. On the other side, equally disappointing Orlando City finished at 10-9-15 and more questions than answers.

• Before fans got settled into their seats, Ilsinho and the Union took the 1-0 lead. In the third minute, Alejandro Bedoya, off the rush, sent a trailing pass from the right side of the box that found a seam and Ilsinho, who easily placed the open shot past Earl Edwards Jr.

• Stunning Orlando City, the onslaught continued three minutes later. Breaking down the right side of the box, Ilsinho’s centering pass found Fafa Picault, who beat his man for a header that went bar-down and in for his sixth goal of the season.

• With the quick goal and assist Sunday, Ilsinho was playing out of his mind. And while it may not make a difference regarding his future with the club, the second-year Union player treated Sunday’s match like a guy facing a team option on his contract at the end of the season.

• Continuing to dominate Orlando City, C.J Sapong produced in the 26th minute, when he buried a cross-box feed from Picault. The goal made it 3-0 Union, but more importantly, gave Sapong 15 goals on the season, setting the Union franchise record for goals in a single season.

• But he wasn't done. Sapong netted his second of the game in the 74th minute, cleaning up a Haris Medunjanin shot and rebound. Totaling 16 goals on the season, Sapong snapped his career high by seven. He was pulled in the 86th minute for the curtain call and ovation.

• Even with the three-goal lead, Picault showed no mercy to Orlando City. The speedster broke free in the 30th minute and fired a shot through the legs of Edwards, who didn’t stand a chance. Picault left the match at halftime with what was suspected to be a concussion.

• While that goal was Picault’s second of the game and fourth for the Union, it also set a record for most goals scored in a single half by a Union team.

• Like a U.S. Open Cup match against an amateur team, the Union made it 5-0 in the 63rd minute. Medunjanin captured his team-leading 12th assist on the season by sending Ilsinho on a clean breakaway for the goal. Sapong made it 6-1, a little over 10 minutes later.

• Orlando City’s goal in the 72nd minute, scored by Dom Dwyer, broke Andre Blake’s shutout and kept the goalkeeper’s 2017 total at nine for the season. That’s three above his career high earned last season when he won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Blake was outstanding Sunday, making four stops.

• Chris Pontius, who came off the bench in the second half, found himself on a breakaway with minutes remaining in the match. His shot hit the post to perfectly sum up his forgettable season.

• Playing his final game in MLS, Brian Carroll, who announced his retirement from professional soccer earlier in the week, received a pre-game name chant and ceremony. Playing his final minutes of the season, the veteran of 371 MLS games, took the captain’s armband and entered the match at halftime

• With the win Sunday, the Union pushed their record at Talen Energy Stadium to 10-4-3 — the best home record in team history. But with a putrid road record of 1-10-6, it’s easy to see why the club struggled in the Eastern Conference.

Union-Orlando City thoughts: Aiming to end season, Brian Carroll's career with a win

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Union-Orlando City thoughts: Aiming to end season, Brian Carroll's career with a win

Orlando City (10-13-9) at Union (15-10-7)
4:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia+

After 33 games, the 2017 season finale is here as the Union return to Talen Energy Stadium for the last time on Sunday to host Orlando City. And although the match is relatively pointless for the two woeful clubs, both teams want to end with a win.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

•At this point, it’s all about pride. Coming off a horrendous regular season that includes just one road victory, a nine-game losing run to begin the campaign and no All-Stars, the Union want to bury their awful season with a win.

“It was a disappointing season,” said Union goalkeeper Andre Blake. “The aim right now is to finish the season on a high note at home. We want to give the fans something to cheer for.”

•With a win, the Union can finish the season with 42 points. That would match last year’s output, which was good enough for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Union are eight points out of the postseason prior to Sunday’s match.

•Brian Carroll will say goodbye to the Union and professional soccer on Sunday after announcing his retirement. The 15-year veteran, who played seven of those with the Union, will get on the field against Orlando City for one final run. Next up for the Virginia native? He’s moving to Indianapolis to begin a new career as a financial planner (see story). 

“There’s always a job here with the Philadelphia Union if he wants one,” Jim Curtin said.

•The quiet Carroll, who, at 36, hasn’t played a minute of MLS action this season, ends his career (not including Sunday’s match) fourth all-time in MLS with 370 appearances and sixth all-time in minutes played at 30,778. He’s won two MLS titles and four Supporters’ Shields.

He’s second on the Union’s franchise list for games played at 165, behind only Sebastien Le Toux. But Carroll owns the minutes played title at 13,818. Although it may not have shown through his quiet demeanor, he’s been a really good player for a long time.

•Though it’s the Union’s final match of the season, the club won’t dip into the youth pool. Curtin’s belief is that players who contributed minutes with the Steel throughout 2017 deserved to dress for the USL club’s first playoff game on the road against the Louisville City FC on Friday night.

If Curtin would have known the Steel would have been crushed, 4-0, things might have changed. Adam Najem, Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty made the start.

•One player who didn’t suit up for Steel but also won’t dress for the Union on Sunday is right back Keegan Rosenberry. Coming off a year in which he played every minute of the regular season and earned Rookie of the Year runner-up honors, Rosenberry was suspended by the Union for using social media to gripe about playing time.

The real issue was the timing. A subtle post, in which Rosenberry asked fans to caption an image of him on the bench with a disgusted look, came just hours prior to the Union’s match against the Chicago Fire last weekend. Curtin called it, “unprofessional” and “inappropriate.” Rosenberry ends his season with just 14 games played.

•Curtin and the Union can’t take much from the first time they saw Orlando City, a 2-1 loss on March 18. Cyle Larin, who probably won’t play for his team on Sunday, scored twice for Orlando, sandwiching a lone C.J. Sapong score. 

“That feels like forever ago,” said Curtin, whose club is 2-2-2 against Orlando City all time. “Both of our seasons have shifted, there’s been highs and lows.”

•As usual, Fabian Herbers, Maurice Edu, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett are out for Sunday. Right-winger Chris Pontius is questionable with an abdominal injury, which could open space for rookie Marcus Epps to earn significant playing time.

•If Orlando wants to take down the Union, it’ll have to do it without Kaka. It was announced by Orlando City that the legend, who isn’t renewing his contract, would not travel for the finale. So, if you wanted to see Kaka, you’ll have to go to Europe. 

•It may be meaningless for the Union and Orlando, but Sunday marks Decision Day around MLS, in which all 11 games are played at 4:00 p.m. In the Eastern Conference, four teams (New York City FC, Atlanta United, Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew) are eying a Knockout Round bye.