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Union-Red Bulls 5 Things: Aiming for 1st win of season vs. rival Red Bulls

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Union-Red Bulls 5 Things: Aiming for 1st win of season vs. rival Red Bulls

Red Bulls (5-4-1) vs. Union (0-4-4)
7:00 p.m. on TCN

Coming off a fortunate road draw and shutout against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the winless Union will be tested once again Saturday night when they host Bradley Wright-Phillips and the potent New York Red Bulls at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know.

1. Building Blocks
For some, last week’s scoreless road draw with the Galaxy, who dominated the Union throughout, was a lucky and undeserved result. For the Union, it was a long overdue step in the right direction. 

“It was something to build on moving forward to Red Bull,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose team is coming off back-to-back draws after losing four consecutive games. “It was something positive to build off of, the overall fight and grit from the group to get a clean sheet in a tough environment.

“It’s a minor victory to get a draw, but the clean sheet part of it is good.”

While it may not have been the prettiest match, the Union did scratch out the shutout. It was the club’s first since the opener on March 5, and the first time the Union allowed less than two goals in a game in their last seven attempts.

“We need to build off of that,” attacker Chris Pontius said. “We got a clean sheet now we have to turn it into another one. We were a little lackluster offensively in that game, so we need to do a little both now. We need to win the ball in better spots and spur the attack in that way.”

But now Curtin needs more from his club if the Union want a chance against the Red Bulls.

“Collectively, we can all do a little more,” Curtin said. “Everyone needs to raise their game. We know we have a lot of things we can work on and clean up, we haven’t had a full 90-minute performance. It’s important we get all of our guys playing at their highest potential.” 

2. Elliott’s Impact
Despite the Union’s poor start, one positive has been the emergence of rookie center back Jack Elliott. 

“He’s played great,” said Curtin, who singled out Elliott as an individual who played well against the Galaxy last weekend. “Jack’s skillset, just his size and presence. What people don’t realize is how good his feet are and his passing. He can start the attack. He does read the game very well and he’s two-steps ahead, he has a high soccer IQ, he’s an intelligent guy.” 

That’s high praise for the 6-foot-5, 21-year-old, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Elliott is set to start his fourth-straight game Saturday, as he has overtaken Oguchi Onyewu as the club’s full-time right center back. 

“To be honest, the year he’s been above and beyond what we anticipated but it’s a credit to him and how hard he’s worked,” Curtin said. “We gave him an opportunity to debut and he’s done well. He’s a guy who we believe in and who has done a good job in his performance.”

The pressure hasn’t gotten to Elliott. The quiet youngster is fitting in nicely. 

“I’m settling in well,” he said. “Learning how everyone plays. It’s been good.”

But that could change against the Red Bulls. Just a few weeks after guarding New York City FC’s David Villa, Elliott will be tasked with defending the always potent Wright-Phillips.

“He’ll have a tough task this weekend,” Curtin said. “Bradley Wright-Phillips is one of the league’s best strikers.” 

3. Rivalry Expectations
With the Red Bulls and Union on different tracks this season, it would be understandable if the visitors didn’t take the Eastern Conference basement dwellers seriously.

But according to Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch, that won’t happen.

“We made it very clear, and our team is not foolish and not naive, but we made it very clear that this game down in Philly is against a desperate team a team that will throw everything at us,” the manager siad. “They want to show their fans that they are a good team and that their season is still around to be saved.” 

With that known, the Red Bulls have a plan. They want to manage the Union’s motion and match the expected physical intensity.

“It makes them more dangerous than ever,” Marsch said. “A good start will be key, managing the game will be key and being physically up for the game will be key. We’re excited.” 

To keep his team’s attention against a winless Union side, Marsch is playing up the rivalry. Although the two clubs have had emotions flair in recent years, the two sides have never met in the postseason and rarely ever play a match that carries more weight than any other MLS regular season game.

“We wanted to put an emphasis on the game in Philly, it’s a rivalry game and a team that always gives us a great match,” Marsch said. “We know whenever we play Philly they give everything they got and that’s what makes rivalry matches so good. We’ve never had an easy time in Philly, it’s always been a battle so we’ll be prepared for that again.” 

4. Keep an eye on
Bradley Wright-Phillips: The striker, who already has four goals in nine starts this season, has five goals and one assist in eight career games against the Union. If the Red Bulls are going to crush the hosts, they’ll do it off the foot of Wright-Phillips.

Ray Gaddis: Although it’s not a given that Gaddis will even make the start, he’s been one of the biggest surprises of the year for the Union. The overlooked right back took over starting duties for Rookie Of the Year nominee Keegan Rosenberry and seems primed to make his third consecutive start Saturday. “Ray has come in and done a good job,” Curtin said.” He’s given us some good defending.”

5. This and that
• The Union are currently tied for fourth all-time with the longest regular season winless streak in MLS history with 15. The Colorado Rapids, from July 2014 through April 2015, hold the league record with 18 regular season games without a win.

• The Union are 4-4-2 at home all-time against the Red Bulls.

• There’s an illness going around the Union, which claimed Ilsinho last week against the Galaxy and is now attacking Richie Marquez. Both players are questionable for Saturday. Josh Yaro (shoulder) and Maurice Edu (broken leg) remain out. 

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.