Union

Union-NYCFC 5 things: Union aim to end recent 'bad spell' against Villa, NYCFC

Union-NYCFC 5 things: Union aim to end recent 'bad spell' against Villa, NYCFC

Sitting alone at the bottom of MLS, C.J. Sapong and the winless Union (0-3-2) look to break the curse and avoid their fourth consecutive defeat when they host David Villa and powerful New York City FC (2-2-1) on Friday night (7 p.m., ESPN) at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Fighting the way out
With three straight losses and few ways to improve before Friday's clash with NYCFC, the Union will have to strong-arm their way out of this slump.

"We're in a bad spell right now, we've lost three games in a row and that's hard," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "We have to fight our way out. We have to stick together as a group and fight our way out of this thing."

Although the Union are at a low point, they do have hope. The club is doing well enough to create offensive chances and is in the league's upper echelon in shots against. This comes despite giving up the fifth-most goals in MLS.

"We are creating chances and we're not giving up a lot of chances," said Curtin, who insisted these type of numbers will pay off in the long run. "We're second in the league in shots conceded which is good. Every team goes on a good run and every team has a bad spell."

To help the Union avoid falling into listlessness, Curtin is working to boost confidence with a mix of perspective and pushing on-field passion.

"We're not happy with where are on the table, we've lost three games in a row now," he said. "It's important to keep perspective and recognize the good moments that we've had. We do still have a very good group, a good team and we had good meetings this week. We've stressed bringing the energy, bringing the passion on our home field."

2. Lineup changes
Following last Saturday's bitter loss, Curtin hinted that he would explore significant changes to his starting group. But during his press conference on Wednesday, the coach backed off.

"There's always a consideration for everything," he said. "We'll discuss things through. But we believe in this group and we believe in the formation we play. It just takes us executing. Making roles as clear as possible is something that we've stressed."

On Saturday, when the Union fell behind a goal in the second half to the Portland Timbers, Curtin tapped rarely used Roland Alberg to step in as the No. 10, while Alejandro Bedoya fell back deeper into the midfield.

"Roland has worked hard in that regard and we rewarded him with some minutes in this game," Curtin said. "We look forward to New York City now and will make the best decision and best group out there to get a win."

He also picked forward Jay Simpson to join Sapong in the attack. But despite the personnel to run a two-striker set, don't expect the Union to move away from their typical 4-2-3-1 formation on Friday.

"We still believe in what we're doing and we don't want to make it more complicated for the players," Curtin said. "We haven't performed how we want to on the field but if we continue to believe in the system that we have, we will get the results that we deserve. We've been beaten three times in a 34-game season."

3. Matching intensity
Aware of the Union's recent struggles, NYCFC knows what to expect on Friday when it faces a wounded club desperate for a win.

"It'll be a tough game for us, we have to be ready to compete," NYCFC manager Patrick Vieira said. "They are going through a difficult period. We need to be ready to fight.

"It will be two teams who need to win games. If we manage to play the way we know and add a little more aggressiveness in our game, we'll have a chance."

Ratcheting up the aggressiveness and tempo is something Vieira is pushing for Friday, especially following his team's 2-1 loss to D.C. United last weekend. The defeat brought NYCFC's record to a lukewarm 2-2-1 on the season.

"We need to add something more to our game too if we want to compete against MLS teams," Vieira said. "The way we want to play is positive and good, but we need to add a little bit more."

For Curtin, the match will be about meeting that tempo and keeping Vieira's club off balance.

"We know what they are going to do, but it starts with our initial pressure, not letting them get a rhythm," he said. "I'm confident our group will have a good response and do that on our home field."

4. Keep an eye on
David Villa: Villa isn't just a productive scorer (three goals on the season), he's also become an MLS playmaker. The forward ranks fourth in MLS with three helpers. "He's a guy who if you focus too much on him he'll set up goals, too," Curtin said. "He has that ability."

Haris Medunjanin: The Union season is not be going to plan, but that's not the fault of Medunjanin, a defensive midfielder with a flair for playmaking. With just two assists on the season, the MLS newcomer is overdue for a breakout game. "He's as good a passer as I've worked with," Curtin said. "He only has two assists but that could be up around seven or eight already if we catch those little breaks I've talked about before. He's a true professional." 

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-2-1 against NYCFC all-time, but 2-1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium.

• Union goalkeeper John McCarthy will miss his third straight game with a concussion.

"McCarthy still is not cleared to play yet," Curtin said. "We're in one of those holding patterns where he's not quite cleared yet." Jake McGuire will once again be the backup.

• Another injury to monitor is center back Jack Yaro, who is also close to being back in the lineup after missing all season. The second-year MLS defender is near full recovery from a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason. "Josh would tell you he's ready to go now," Curtin said. "He's getting closer."

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

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Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nemanja Nikolic scored two of his three goals in the second half, increasing his league-leading total to 24, and the Chicago Fire rallied for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.

The Fire (16-10-7) moved into third in the Eastern Conference, which would be good for a home game in the playoffs. Nikolic is four goals clear of his pursuers for the Golden Boot with one game to play.

Nikolic opened the scoring in the third minute, getting to a long feed from Brandon Vincent and aided by a bad angle by defender Jack Elliot before beating Andre Blake. Nikolic's penalty kick in the 64th tied it at 2 after David Accam was taken down in the penalty area. Nikolic completed his first career hat trick with an easy finish from the middle of the box on a feed from Brandon Vincent for the game winner in the 78th.

Chicago defender Johnan Kappelhof's own goal put the Union in a 1-1 tie at the six-minute mark and a feed from Haris Medunjanin to Alejandro Bedoya for a chip shot was good for the lead from the 13th minute.

Philadelphia (10-14-9) finished 1-10-6 on the road this season.