Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Revenge on the mind for home opener

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Revenge on the mind for home opener

Union vs. Toronto FC
4:30 p.m. on CSN

With the revenge factor and home-field advantage on their side, the Union (0-0-1) open their account at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday (4:30 p.m./CSN) against superstar Sebastian Giovinco and Eastern Conference favorites, Toronto FC (0-0-1). It's an early but important test for Jim Curtin's club.

Here are five things to know:

1. Lineup consistency
The Union are coming off an impressive 0-0 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps last Sunday, earning the club its first point of the season in a tough rough environment. 

"We had a good game against Vancouver," Union center back Oguchi Onyewu said. "It was a good point away from home. Now it's time to do business in front of our fans."

That strong road effort means the Union likely won't alter their lineup on Saturday. Following the solid outing, Curtin will start a very similar group against Toronto FC. 

"You won't see us change drastically from the guys who did well against Vancouver," he said. "How we want to set up and defend won't be different."

That means the Union could tap the impressive Derrick Jones, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya in the midfield, along with Fabian Herbers, Chris Pontius and Jay Simpson mounting the attack. Curtin, who likes to play a more up-tempo, attack-oriented game at home, isn't one to mess with a successful formula.

"We tend to have more of the ball at home," Curtin said. "We just need to get that final ball in the box a bit more reliably."

2. Stopping Gio
On Saturday, the Union will be tasked with something they haven't been able to do since Sept. 6, 2014 -- beat Toronto FC.

"They have very good players, these are the games that you test yourself," said Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, whose club went 0-1-2 against Toronto FC last season, including a first-round playoff loss. "We're looking forward to this game. It'll take teamwork to shut them down but we're placing an emphasis on defending."

And while emphasizing defense is something Curtin implores his team to do on every occasion, it's a must against Toronto FC, which boasts one of the more potent attacks in MLS. 

"They are a very good attacking team," Curtin said, “and one we respect a great deal. We think we have a good plan in place."

Part of that plan, which Curtin didn't disclose in full, is to stop Giovinco, the league's most dangerous attacker. It sounds obvious but easier said than done. Giovinco has 39 goals and 31 assists over the last two seasons.

"Gio is the league's most dangerous player," said Curtin, who also mentioned Toronto FC players, Jozy Altidore, Drew Moor and Michael Bradley. "He's tricky because it can't just be center backs that focus on him because one-on-one he can beat anyone. You're just trying to limit touches. When he gets the ball, you want him as far away from your goal as possible."

3. Lacking intensity
Entering the season as Eastern Conference favorites, Toronto FC had a mild letdown in its season opener against Real Salt Lake last weekend, tying the game, 0-0. But what TFC coach Greg Vanney was most concerned with was a lack of fire from his squad.

"Our overall engagement and intensity needs to get higher," he told the media. "We had a good start to the game in Salt Lake but we faded out of it a little bit. It was too easy for Salt Lake to get beyond our first line. We have to be more engaged and have more intensity."

But while Vanney wants his club to be more engaged against the Union on Saturday, he doesn't want it to change the game plan. Though he respects the Union, Vanney said Saturday is about what his team can do. 

"We're still worrying about things we need to improve upon," he said. "It's going to be about us. They have a good team, they looked well-organized and very disciplined in their approach last week. They made it difficult for Vancouver to get chances. I suspect it'll be a tough game." 

4. Keep an eye on
Sebastian Giovinco: Knowing how dangerous Giovinco can be, the Union's defensive game plan revolves around keeping an eye on the 30-year-old. "The message all week was about being organized and knowing where he is at all moments," Curtin said. 

Oguchi Onyewu: Center back Ken Tribbett was torched by Toronto FC twice last season -- once in the regular season, which got him pulled from the game at halftime, and again in the postseason. On Saturday, it will be Onyewu's job to help slow down a vicious TFC attack that tortured the player Onyewu is currently ahead of on the depth chart. "He's answered everything we've asked him to do,” Curtin said.

5. This and that
• The Union are 6-6-5 all-time against Toronto FC and 4-2-2 at home against the Canadian side. 

• It’s been two years and six months since the Union defeated Toronto FC. Over that six-game winless span, the Union, who are 0-5-1 against TFC since Sept. 6, 2014, have been outscored 13-7.

• Both Ilsinho and Warren Creavalle missed last weekend’s match with injuries. Creavalle is expected to be ready on Saturday but Ilsinho, slowed by a hamstring injury, didn't begin on-field training until Thursday, which puts his selection in doubt.

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.