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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's schedule sets team up for hot start

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Union's schedule sets team up for hot start

The Union’s 2018 season schedule was officially released Thursday and it revealed an advantageous start for the club.

After opening their season against the New England Revolution on March 3, the Union will have a week off before hosting the Columbus Crew on March 17. The club then visits the Colorado Rapids on March 31 but returns home to face the San Jose Earthquakes and Orlando City on April 7 and 13.

Five of the Union’s first seven games will be at Talen Energy Stadium, setting them up for important early success, as the team was an impressive 10-4-3 at home last season but went just 1-10-6 on the road.

But the Union’s early fortune quickly turns with five of their next seven games on the road. The team kicks off that crucial run with a three-game road trip starting on May 4 against the reigning MLS champion Toronto FC, and finishing against the Crew and Montreal Impact. That five-in-seven road set also includes the New York Red Bulls and a visit to the irreplicable home confines of Atlanta United.

Notable matches for the Union include the first-ever clash with expansion side LAFC at the freshly built Banc of California Stadium on June 30 and the Union’s first visit to D.C. United’s brand-new Audi Field (expected to open in June). The Union face the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at CenturyLink Field. Minnesota United (2017 expansion team) will make its first-ever visit to Philadelphia on Oct. 6.

As far as national exposure, the Union will be shown on ESPN twice, April 14 vs. Orlando City and Sept. 23 vs. Sporting Kansas City, and on Unimas once on April 28 against D.C. United.

Union sign Jamaican national team mainstay

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Union sign Jamaican national team mainstay

The Union signed forward Cory Burke Thursday.

Burke, who is a mainstay on the Jamaican national team, spent the last two seasons with the Union's United Soccer League affiliate, the Bethlehem Steel. Burke, 25, ranked second on the team with 9 goals last season. The forward will occupy an international roster slot.

“We are pleased to sign Cory to our First Team and reward his excellent performance with Bethlehem Steel FC,” said Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart. “Cory’s success is a testament to the importance of Bethlehem in developing players within our organization. Under Brendan Burke and his staff, Cory has been playing in our system for two years now. We anticipate a successful transition to the Union, and we are looking forward to see Cory take the next step in his career.”

Burke will likely start the season behind CJ Sapong and Jay Simpson on the forward depth chart. Burke will assume the hole that Charlie Davies' departure left on the roster.