Union

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Playoff implications as Union visit Red Bulls

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Playoff implications as Union visit Red Bulls

Union vs. New York Red Bulls
7:00 p.m. on TCN

Riding a four-game winless run and with just three matches remaining in the season, Alejandro Bedoya and the Union (11-11-9) look to alter their recent misfortune when they take on the powerful New York Red Bulls (13-9-9) on Saturday (7:00 p.m., TCN) at Red Bull Arena, in an Eastern Conference showdown with playoff implications.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing for Position
With three games left in the season and currently sitting fourth in the East, the Union are closing in on the organization’s second-ever playoff berth.

“Every point matters,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “We need to take care of business and get as many points as possible down the stretch. We know we have a good team, we know our fans deserve to be back in the playoffs and that is our singular focus at this point."

Though making the playoffs is the club’s singular focus, the Union have their eye on positioning. In MLS, the third and fourth seeds earn home-field advantage in a play-in game against the fifth and sixth seeds. Prior to Saturday, the Union, who have 42 points, are just two points ahead of D.C. United and one point ahead of the Montreal Impact.

All three clubs have played 31 games.

“We recognize it’s going to be a tough task but at the same time, we’ve set ourselves up nice where we control our own destiny,”Curtin said. “That hasn’t been the case in past years.”

But while you’d expect the Union to simply be satisfied making the playoffs and even hosting a game, the club isn’t content with a play-in game -- they want a top-three finish. The Red Bulls are second in the East with 48 points -- six more than the Union, who play them twice, including Saturday.

“It’s certainly realistic,” said Curtin, about claiming a top-three seed in the East. “The fact that we play Red Bull twice, you control your own destiny. But it’s going to be difficult.”

2. Bedoya and Barnetta
Earlier in the week, Tranquillo Barnetta made headlines when the the Union announced that the potent midfielder, who is out of contract after this season, will not return to the club next year.

That news overshadowed the fact that Barnetta might not play a major role on Saturday, after missing last week’s match with an injured knee suffered against the Portland Timbers.

“His injury is one that is manageable,” Curtin said. “We hoped to have him back for [Toronto FC last Saturday] but it just didn’t feel right, so we decided to hold him. I think he’ll play a role in the New York game, whether that’s as a starter or off the bench still remains to be seen.”

With five goals and four assists this season, Barnetta has been the engine that has the Union propelling toward the post-season. And with knee issues, that sidelined him early in the season, now bothering him again, the Union want to be extra careful.

“We have to have an eye on what’s best for him, his body and the club,” Curtin said. “Obviously, getting the most points we can and using him the best way.”

But if Barnetta can’t go on Saturday, the Union will be in decent hands. Last week, while filling in at the center attacking midfield spot for Barnetta, Bedoya scored his first MLS goal, when he chipped a beauty past the goalkeeper. The Union ended up tying the match, 1-1.

“It was a special goal,” Curtin said. “It was a special play from a very talented individual and a heck of a way to open your goal-scoring account for the club.”

3. Streaking Red Bull
The Union take on the Red Bulls in two of their final three matches of the season. And the way the Red Bulls are playing, that’s not a good thing for the Union. Saturday’s hosts are on a 13-game unbeaten streak.

“Red Bull hasn’t lost since early July so to think that you’re just going to take two games from them, there’s no guarantee in that,” Curtin said. “It’s going to be difficult.”

Even while riding the streak, the Red Bulls are still pushing. The club is three points behind New York City FC for tops in the East, with a game in hand.

“We’re full throttle right now,” said Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch. “It’s exciting and it’s at the right time.”

That poses a tougher challenge for the Union, who weren’t the dominant team in a 2-2 draw with the Red Bulls earlier in the season. But if Curtin’s club learned anything, it’s that they have to beat the Red Bulls’ energetic press, if they want a result on the road.

“We have to bypass their press,” Bedoya said. “We need to be calm on the ball, don’t panic and play through it. We can be a high energy, high press team as well, we have great players. Hopefully, we go there and take it to them.”

But the Red Bulls will be ready.

“They’ve done well breaking our pressure at times and establishing themselves as the game has gone on,” Marsch said. “We know the game will be different at Red Bull Arena, we can put it on our terms. This is a rivalry game, it’s a playoff team. We’re going to get their best and we’ll be ready for them.

4. Keep an eye on
• Sacha Kljestian: One of the better playmakers in MLS, Kljestian leads the league with 16 assists. And while it doesn’t hurt that he’s passing to MLS scoring leader, Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has 20 goals, the Union need to stop Kljestian if they want to stop the Red Bulls.

• Fabian Herbers: The rookie has three assists in his last three games for a team-leading seven helpers on the season. As long as Ilsinho is sidelined with a foot injury, the Union will look to Herbers, at right attack midfield, for consistent production. There’s no reason to believe he won’t deliver it.

5. This and that
• For the first time in 2016, Maurice Edu was on a Union game roster last week against Toronto FC. He didn’t play, though Curtin said that day isn’t far off. “He’s getting up closer to the numbers that we want him to get to each day,” the coach said. Mo is working toward getting to those numbers that we see fit for that position in MLS, and what it takes to play a game.”

• While Josh Yaro was suspended last weekend for earning a red card against the Timbers, he also suffered a concussion. He has fully recorded, but still might not make the start at center back after Ken Tribbett’s strong game on Saturday in Yaro’s place. “He was cleared this morning so he’s a good option to  have back in the lineup. It needs to be said that Ken did a really great job for us.”

• The Union are 5-9-3 against the Red Bulls all-time, but are 0-0-1 this season.

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.