Union

Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

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Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

Union (8-12-7)  at Minnesota United (7-14-4)
8:00 p.m. on TCN

The weary Union, winless in their last four matches, aim to end their slide as they travel to TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night to take on expansion side Minnesota United for the first time in club history.

Here are five things to know.

1. Still fighting
With an 8-12-7 record and their playoff hopes all but dissolved, the Union don’t have much to play for Saturday, but that isn’t stopping manager Jim Curtin from demanding a focused performance.

“There are still seven games left and we’re going to chase all 21 points that are out there,” he said. “We still believe aren’t far off and that the foundation is a good one.”

If the final seven matches of the season can’t be about climbing up the Eastern Conference standings, Curtin wants to see steady improvement, especially away from Talen Energy Stadium. The club has only one win in its last six games.

“We’re not as concerned now with where we’re at in the table, we need good performances to get results,” Curtin said. “We’ve been poor on the road this year, it’s no secret. We’ve shown glimpses and shown a little bit of improvement. Now we have Minnesota.”

But that thirst for performance isn’t just about Curtin getting the most out of his beleaguered team. The manager feels the negativity and frustration coming from the Union’s fan base and wants to give them something to be proud of.

“There’s been negativity here and it’s deserved because he hasn't gotten the results that we set out to at the start of the season,” Curtin said. “I want to make the fans happy, I want nothing more than to win a trophy for this city and that will never change. I won’t stop working until I’m able to accomplish that goal.” 

2. Finding motivation
To achieve the performance level that Curtin is looking for in the final seven games, the Union players need motivation. That might not be an easy accomplishment with the club firmly outside of the playoff picture.

“Guys are always aware that they are fighting for not only three points but for the following season, how contracts are handled in the offseason,” Curtin said. “That’s a constant battle for every professional, so that’s nothing new for any of the guys.” 

Not pulling punches about where the Union currently stand, Curtin, whose club has been outscored 10-4 over its last three matches, explained how tough it can be to manage that motivation and keep minds from wandering. 

“As the season gets later, guys eyes start to wander,” said Curtin, who expects some roster changes this offseason (see story). “As it gets later on in the year, guys have an eye on different places and want to know where they stand. We have seven games left. We want to get better and get the maximum amount of points.”

While some players might be eying the door, others want to make the most of a bad situation.

“We wake up, get out there and deal with whatever situation is put in front of us,” Union forward C.J. Sapong said. “This season, there’s been a lot of adversity and we know if we stay true to ourselves we’ll get something out of it.”

3. Minnesota improvement
The Minnesota United aren't the same pushover they were at the start of 2017. With only five wins in its first 21 matches, the club has rattled two wins in its last four games.

“They are getting to know each other a little bit more,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said. “I think we have a better group than we had at the beginning of the season.”

The Union have taken notice. Despite being 7-14-4 overall, Minnesota United is 6-6-2 at home this season.

“It’ll be a difficult place to play,” Curtin said. “They kind of retooled their roster already this year and they are a strong team, a team that has kept the ball very well. If you look at the data, watch some of the films and they are dangerous. They have dangerous attacking pieces, [Abu] Danladi, the addition of [Ethan] Finlay, [Kevin] Molino, to name a few. We’ll have our hands full trying to neutralize them in their home stadium.” 

Heath credits an uptick in intensity and a team game for Minnesota United’s recent success.

“The level of performance the last two games, we need to build on that,” he said. “For me, it’s the intensity level and everyone putting in a full shift in, working hard for each other, defending the goal as a group and being really dangerous on the counter attack.”

4. Keep an eye on …
C.J. Sapong: Despite the down season from his club, the Union forward is having a career year with a team leading 12 goals in 26 games. The Union need finishing on the road and Sapong could be the guy to deliver it.

Kevin Molina: The playmaking midfielder is the creative force behind the Minnesota United attack. He leads the club with seven assists. 

5. This and that
• Union captain Alejandro Bedoya (yellow card accumulation) and center back Josh Yaro (red card suspension) will be suspended for Saturday’s match. Bedoya is expected to be replaced by either Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones, who is working to exit Curtin’s doghouse, while Oguchi Onyewu is expected to start in favor of Yaro.

• While the Union are relatively healthy, Minnesota United will be without midfielder Bernardo Anor, midfielder Thomas de Villardi, defender Jermaine Taylor and midfielder Sam Cronin, all listed as out for Saturday.

• Between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, Curtin understands his players might not be focused on soccer at the moment. “It’s a concerning time,” he said. “Fafa [Picault] has family in Miami and there are discussions going on with him. It’s scary. Some things you can’t really predict that are much more important than soccer.” Since then, Picault tweeted Friday his family arrived safely in Philadelphia.

• The Union have been surprisingly good against the Western Conference this season, holding a 3-2-4 record, which includes road draws in San Jose and Vancouver.

• One of the primary problems facing the Union offense is playmaking. Highlighting that deficit is Chris Pontius, who is second on the team in assists with six despite not registering a helper since May 17. Haris Medunjanin is first with eight.

Union notes, quotes and tidbits: Brian Carroll's 'very special' farewell tour ends perfectly

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Union notes, quotes and tidbits: Brian Carroll's 'very special' farewell tour ends perfectly

CHESTER, Pa. — Union midfielder Brian Carroll accepted his framed jersey and watched a tribute video from the field at Talen Energy Stadium, prior to Sunday’s 6-1 win against Orlando City SC. 

Playing in his final MLS game, the veteran took it all in.

“Tonight was special,” said Carroll, who wrapped up his 15th season after announcing his retirement earlier in the week. “Especially the win, but really just the whole week and the handshakes and the hugs and the pictures and the little interviews. It all made for a very special week. And to top it off this way was really icing on the cake.”

Carroll entered the match for Fafa Picault at halftime and played a flawless 45 minutes.

“I felt OK,” he said. “I just needed five minutes to catch my breath. Then I was all right. The game was pretty settled at that point so I could just sit in and try to help the guys around me so it was fun.”

Then, with the same class and grace that he carried throughout his career, Carroll rode off into the sunset after one final professional match in front of the fans.

“It was really special and I’ll never forget it, said Carroll, who is moving to Indianapolis and beginning a career as a financial planner. “I love this club and I will always do anything I can to support it and be there for the club. I thank you for all the kind words and support and I’ll miss you guys.”

On the hot seat
Finishing the season outside of the playoffs with an 11-14-9 record, Union manager Jim Curtin’s future has become a topic of conversation. And although it’s unlikely he goes anywhere this offseason, the coach was asked if he thinks about his future.

“You might as well just ask me if I’m a human being,” Curtin said. “Of course you think about things like that. When you guys ask, “Do you hear the boos?” Do you think I have ears? These are silly questions.”

From the sound of it, Curtin believes his job is safe. 

“I have a decent understanding of where I stand in the organization,” he said, “and I’ll continue to work to try to get it better and I know it’s not good enough right now, but I’ll continue to work as hard as I possibly can.”

Looking to the future
Despite the overall disappointing season, the Union used the finale Sunday to put on a show.

“There was something in the air,” said Union forward C.J. Sapong, who scored a pair of goals in the 6-1 rout. “It definitely felt like it was our day and it’s a good way to close the season. What can we take from this to implement for next season to do better.”

While the victory might feel like a deodorant that covers up the stink of another lost season, it did something interesting: It gave the Union the same record and point total as 2016 when they made the playoffs to only be dispatched by Toronto FC. 

“I think it just depends on which way you look at it,” Sapong said. “For me personally, given the talent we have in this locker room, I feel like we should be playing in the playoffs, playing for hardware. Give credit to my teammates, staff and fans for dealing with a very up and down year, but now it’s behind us. We put our heads down and look forward.” 

As Sapong said, the Union’s focus is on next season.

“We have offseason now to prepare,” Curtin said. “We’re not satisfied, but at the same time, the effort of the players, they gave everything. We asked them to bring a knife to a gunfight and they don’t complain. We recognized it wasn’t enough but there are still good things happening at the club.” 

Ilsinho's status
Ilsinho may not have a spot on the Union next season, but he played like he wanted one. The Brazilian playmaker buried two goals and had a key assist in Sunday’s season finale in an inspired performance.

‘I love it here,” he said. “I’m so happy here. All season I tried to help, I tried to do my best. Sometimes yeah, sometimes no, but it’s soccer you know. I love everything here, I like it here, I hope to be back.” 

But despite the output, it still wasn’t a productive season from Ilsinho, who has a team option on his contract for 2018. With six goals and five assists in 27 games, he was better than his two goals, two assist line in 2016, but still uninspiring. 

Still, the club liked what it got from Ilsinho at the No. 10 spot down the stretch.

“Ilsinho raised his game toward the end of the year,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for him. But again, the challenge is always to do it for 90 minutes, do it on the road. He shows he has incredible talent and he’s raised his level.” 

Record-breaking Sapong
With his 15th and 16th goals Sunday, Sapong finally snapped the Union franchise mark for goals in a season set by Sebastien Le Toux in 2010. While Sapong has brushed away talk of individual accolades throughout the year, the forward was able to appreciate the honor after the season finale. 

“Obviously, to have my name somewhere for hopefully a very long time, it feels good,” he said. “I still feel like we could’ve done better. We’re not playing for anything meaningful, but it’s good to get those individual accolades. At the end of the season, I feel like I impacted my team in a positive way and that’s all I try to do.” 

And to break the record in Carroll’s last game made it even sweeter. When Sapong was subbed out in the final minutes of the match to an ovation, he hugged Carroll. 

“I told him I loved him and it was a pleasure to play with him,” Carroll said. “I told him this week, too, that I remember in his days on an opposing team, I would have to mark him on set pieces. It seemed really unfair, so I’m really thankful that he’s on my team and I don’t have to mark him anymore.”

Union-Orlando City observations: Breaking records in season-ending rout

Union-Orlando City observations: Breaking records in season-ending rout

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. —  In less than three minutes Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium, the match was effectively over. Ilsinho and the Union began their scoring assault in the third minute and didn’t stop until team records and Orlando City were thoroughly broken. The Union easily won the season finale, 6-1.

It was an impressive finish to an unimpressive season for the Union, as the club completed 2017 with an 11-9-14 record and 42 points — a mirror image of 2016. On the other side, equally disappointing Orlando City finished at 10-9-15 and more questions than answers.

• Before fans got settled into their seats, Ilsinho and the Union took the 1-0 lead. In the third minute, Alejandro Bedoya, off the rush, sent a trailing pass from the right side of the box that found a seam and Ilsinho, who easily placed the open shot past Earl Edwards Jr.

• Stunning Orlando City, the onslaught continued three minutes later. Breaking down the right side of the box, Ilsinho’s centering pass found Fafa Picault, who beat his man for a header that went bar-down and in for his sixth goal of the season.

• With the quick goal and assist Sunday, Ilsinho was playing out of his mind. And while it may not make a difference regarding his future with the club, the second-year Union player treated Sunday’s match like a guy facing a team option on his contract at the end of the season.

• Continuing to dominate Orlando City, C.J Sapong produced in the 26th minute, when he buried a cross-box feed from Picault. The goal made it 3-0 Union, but more importantly, gave Sapong 15 goals on the season, setting the Union franchise record for goals in a single season.

• But he wasn't done. Sapong netted his second of the game in the 74th minute, cleaning up a Haris Medunjanin shot and rebound. Totaling 16 goals on the season, Sapong snapped his career high by seven. He was pulled in the 86th minute for the curtain call and ovation.

• Even with the three-goal lead, Picault showed no mercy to Orlando City. The speedster broke free in the 30th minute and fired a shot through the legs of Edwards, who didn’t stand a chance. Picault left the match at halftime with what was suspected to be a concussion.

• While that goal was Picault’s second of the game and fourth for the Union, it also set a record for most goals scored in a single half by a Union team.

• Like a U.S. Open Cup match against an amateur team, the Union made it 5-0 in the 63rd minute. Medunjanin captured his team-leading 12th assist on the season by sending Ilsinho on a clean breakaway for the goal. Sapong made it 6-1, a little over 10 minutes later.

• Orlando City’s goal in the 72nd minute, scored by Dom Dwyer, broke Andre Blake’s shutout and kept the goalkeeper’s 2017 total at nine for the season. That’s three above his career high earned last season when he won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Blake was outstanding Sunday, making four stops.

• Chris Pontius, who came off the bench in the second half, found himself on a breakaway with minutes remaining in the match. His shot hit the post to perfectly sum up his forgettable season.

• Playing his final game in MLS, Brian Carroll, who announced his retirement from professional soccer earlier in the week, received a pre-game name chant and ceremony. Playing his final minutes of the season, the veteran of 371 MLS games, took the captain’s armband and entered the match at halftime

• With the win Sunday, the Union pushed their record at Talen Energy Stadium to 10-4-3 — the best home record in team history. But with a putrid road record of 1-10-6, it’s easy to see why the club struggled in the Eastern Conference.