Union

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since Aug. 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.

Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

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Humble and unassuming, Union's Brian Carroll retiring as 'pioneer for the game in this country'

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s almost too fitting that Brian Carroll has decided to become a financial planner in Indianapolis.

For the retiring Union midfielder (see story), it’s a perfectly unassuming job for a perfectly unassuming guy. Someone who, without shin guards and cleats, always looked more like a business manager than a pro athlete anyway. An underappreciated, underrated, never-flashy player who was damn good at soccer and leaves the sport as a “pioneer for the game in this country,” according to Union head coach Jim Curtin.

“Having the opportunity to coach him here in Philadelphia, being around him, to work with him, it’s been a real honor for me,” Curtin said Thursday. “Once you reflect back on his career, the trophies that he’s won, the caps he’s received for the U.S. national team — he’s a true professional, a guy who always played the game with a smile on his face but also was kind of a quiet killer on the field.”

Carroll’s pedigree certainly is impressive. Two-time MLS Cup champion. Four straight Supporters’ Shields. Nine straight playoff appearances. Fourth-most MLS appearances in league history. Sixth-most minutes.

But when you stack him up against some other guys on the all-time leaderboard of games played (Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Steve Ralston, even his brother-in-law Chad Marshall), it’s fair to say he doesn’t get the same kind of national recognition. What gives?

“Because he goes about his business in such a quiet way, he isn’t a guy who is loud on the field or loud in the locker room, he’s just a lead-by-example kind of guy, and often those guys don’t get a whole lot of credit,” Curtin said. “[But] he’s a guy who anybody speaks about him in the game has nothing but positive things to say. Everybody has a Brian Carroll story, and they’re all positive. There are not a lot of guys that end their career with that — with not one person that you would ever meet that would say a negative thing about them. He’s been a guy who’s gone about his business the right way — an example of so many young players to learn from in our country.”

Even if he might not always get league-wide attention, anyone who ever played with Carroll certainly knows what he’s all about. Five years ago, then-Union teammate Danny Califf said he was “one of the most underrated guys in the league, and he has been for a long time,” before adding: “He’s happy to sit back and be in the playoffs and win championships — and let everyone else talk about the other guys that don’t.” Two years later, when Carroll was the team’s captain, Amobi Okugo revealed that everyone called him “The Iron Man.” 

But for Carroll, always a picture of humility, none of that stuff ever really mattered. And if he did fly under the radar, that's just fine with him, too.

“I think I have some athletic ability, thank goodness, but I’m not the fastest, the tallest or the strongest,” said Carroll, who remarkably was never shown a red card in any of the 370 games he played. “What I brought was consistency, work ethic and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability and me doing that enabled other guys to fulfill their roles and succeed at their roles. I’m happy and thankful that I was able to lead my team to some trophies, whether it be Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup.”

It’s a testament to his work ethic that the 36-year-old defensive midfielder continued to play at a high level as recently as last season. And although his playing time completely dried up this year, he holds no ill will toward the Union about that. If anything, he’s enjoyed the chance to step into a new role that’s involved coaching up his younger teammates at practice.

“I knew coming in these past couple of years my role was gonna change and be more supportive, still helping to lead,” he said. “One thing leads to another last year and I was a little bit more involved than what was planned. Then this year, it just kind of went according to plan — supporting the guys and helping them out in any way I can.”

Because of how he filled that role, many people speculated that he would transition directly into coaching or into a front office job. But while Carroll said he explored that path, he said the best thing for him to do with his family right now is to move to Indianapolis, where his wife is from.  

Of course, that could always change.

“There’s always a job here with the Philadelphia Union if he wants one,” Curtin said. “I know he’s moving into the financial world. I’m hoping he’s not sitting in a cubicle but if he is sitting in a cubicle, the door’s always open to come back here on the field to be a coach because he has so much more to give.”

He still has a little more to give as a player, too. Although he hasn’t played all season, Curtin said Carroll will likely play in Sunday’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC — for his 371st and final MLS appearance.

“I think it’s important for him to get on the field, so we will find a way to make that happen,” Curtin said. “I kind of half-joked about starting him and seeing how long he could possibly last being out a lot this year. But he’s been sharp in training the past couple of weeks, so it’s great. 

“He’s an experienced guy, so no matter where you put him on the field, he deserves for our fans to give him a proper send-off. And I know they will.”

Union suspend Keegan Rosenberry for 'inappropriate' tweet

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Union suspend Keegan Rosenberry for 'inappropriate' tweet

Keegan Rosenberry’s nightmare season has come to an end. 

The second-year right back, who has floated in and out of favor with Union manager Jim Curtin throughout the 2017 campaign, has been suspended for the final game of the regular season on Sunday against Orlando City, for what Curtin deemed “unprofessional” behavior on social media.

“His activity on social media prior to kickoff was inappropriate,” Curtin said. “It’s something that won’t be tolerated. It's a decision that he made, one that he’ll be held accountable for. It’s unprofessional and disrespectful to the guys in the locker room.” 

Shortly before the Union’s 3-2 loss to the Chicago Fire last Sunday, in which he wasn’t tapped to start, Rosenberry tweeted a photo of himself on the bench with an unhappy look on his face and the headline, “(Need some caption help)”. The image, which also included defender Richie Marquez, was viewed as a veiled comment on his lack of playing time. 

It’s since been deleted.

“He’s a great young player that I think will learn from this,” Curtin continued. “But as professionals, we are held to a standard. To do that right before kickoff is not something [Union sporting director Earnie Stewart] and I will tolerate.”

It’s been a rough year for Rosenberry, who, after playing every minute of the regular season in 2016, was benched in favor of a more defensively stout Ray Gaddis after the Union’s first six games. The 23-year-old 2016 Rookie of the Year runner-up only managed five more starts and eight appearances following his early-season struggles. 

Although he made a five-game comeback through August and September, an ankle injury knocked him back out. He finished the season with one assist and four shots.

Now, he’ll miss the finale.