Union

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Union embracing Vancouver challenge in opener

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Union embracing Vancouver challenge in opener

Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
9:30 p.m. on TCN
 
Optimistic about building off their playoff-caliber season in 2016, the refreshed Union, led by Alejandro Bedoya, will take new weapons and the same young core to the West Coast, where they will open their 2017 account against Fredy Montero and the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday (9:30 p.m., TCN) at BC Place.
 
Here are five things to know.
 
1. New season, new expectations
Traveling across the country to challenge an out-of-conference opponent in its home opener isn't an ideal situation for the Union. But the players are ready for the test.

"We need to embrace the challenge," Union attacker Chris Pontius said. "It's the first game on the road, it's going to be a tough environment so we have to enjoy it and play our game."

Getting off a good start is paramount for a Union team returning much of its core from the 2016 season. Fresh in the club's memory is its disastrous end of season run that saw them go winless in their final seven games, not including a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Toronto FC.

"We want to advance further in the playoffs," Union right back Keegan Rosenberry said. "The second half of our year was a bit of a disappointment, we took a downward turn, so if we can be more consistent with the team performance and results as the year goes on, we'll all be happy with it."

To achieve that, the Union will try and bottle that first-game buzz.

"You can feel the excitement heading into the first week," Pontius said. "It's always a fun time of the year. We're looking to get off on the right note."

2. Midfield Power
To fulfill their playoff expectations this season and make a dent against the Whitecaps, the Union will need production from their midfield. That will have to come mainly from the duo of captain Alejandro Bedoya and newcomer Haris Medunjanin, who will face regular-season competition for the first time since Medunjanin was acquired in the late January.

"It's clear that Ale and Haris have a real understanding with each other and respect for each other," Curtin said. "They are internationals, they have played the game at the highest level at big clubs. Their experience speaks for itself, how to manage games, in the hard parts when the game gets sped up, they don't have any panic in them."  

Medunjanin, a Bosnian national, and Bedoya, a U.S. National Team starter, will be together in central midfield for the Union, with Bedoya at the No. 10 spot and Medunjanin at the No. 8 or No. 6 position.

"They are two of our best players, and you need your best players on the same page," Curtin said. "We will have them close to each other on the field, that's for sure. They will play off of each other in a positive way."

Another ingredient to watch in the Union midfield will be Derrick Jones. The 6-foot 3, 20-year-old Homegrown will make his first MLS start Sunday for the injured Warren Creavalle.

"Derrick has been excellent all preseason, he's the first true homegrown," Curtin said. "He played in our academy, did it with Bethlehem Steel and now he'll jump to our first team. We are perfectly comfortable putting Derrick out there. He'll be able to rise to the occasion."

3. Weary Whitecaps
While Sunday will be the first match of the season for the Union, the Whitecaps have been warming up with CONCACAF Champions League action. And that could be to the Union's benefit.

"Two games in three days is difficult," said Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson, whose club tied the New York Red Bulls, 1-1, and defeated them 2-0, in the home-and-home series that concluded Thursday. "We knew the start of the season would be difficult for us."

Even with the Whitecaps' possible fatigue and unknown personnel, Curtin is maintaining a particular game plan. He wants to the see his Union suffocate the game and win ugly.

"I don't want to say making the game a little bit ugly, but there will be moments where safety has to come first," he said. "If you have to, foul to stop a transition. They're certainly a team you want to do that against because they are organized and when they go to break out, they have real pace. They have a real dynamic group, they are a handful. Overall, it's a tough task."

Robinson, who hopes to have a more offensive team than the one last year that just missed the playoffs in a tough Western Conference, knows what the Union are bringing to BC Place.

"They are a good team and had a good season last year," he said. "They will be hard to break down, we know that. They like to play a certain way that we know. Jim has them very organized and they will be a dangerous team. But we're home and we need to make this a fortress this year."

4. Keep an eye on
Ilsinho: The Brazilian, in his second MLS season, is expected to play a larger role in the Union's offense and prove he's more than just a playmaking wing. Although Ilsinho possesses incredible ball skills, Curtin has instructed the veteran, who slimmed down this offseason, to shoot more. Because of that, expect him to make a goal-scoring impact.

Fredy Montero: The former Seattle Sounders forward is still acclimating himself to Vancouver since signing with the club in mid-February, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous. Montero buried his first goal during his club's CCL win over the Red Bulls on Thursday. "He adds something different this year that we've been missing the last three years," Robinson said.

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-3-2 all-time against the Whitecaps.

• Sunday will be the seventh season opener in Union history. The club is 1-4-1 in openers over that span but have been on the road for four of those six games.

• Playing in Vancouver will mark the third time in seven years the Union begin a season on the west coast. They faced the Sounders and Portland Timbers in 2010 and 2012.

Union-Orlando City thoughts: Aiming to end season, Brian Carroll's career with a win

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Union-Orlando City thoughts: Aiming to end season, Brian Carroll's career with a win

Orlando City (10-13-9) at Union (15-10-7)
4:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia+

After 33 games, the 2017 season finale is here as the Union return to Talen Energy Stadium for the last time on Sunday to host Orlando City. And although the match is relatively pointless for the two woeful clubs, both teams want to end with a win.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

•At this point, it’s all about pride. Coming off a horrendous regular season that includes just one road victory, a nine-game losing run to begin the campaign and no All-Stars, the Union want to bury their awful season with a win.

“It was a disappointing season,” said Union goalkeeper Andre Blake. “The aim right now is to finish the season on a high note at home. We want to give the fans something to cheer for.”

•With a win, the Union can finish the season with 42 points. That would match last year’s output, which was good enough for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Union are eight points out of the postseason prior to Sunday’s match.

•Brian Carroll will say goodbye to the Union and professional soccer on Sunday after announcing his retirement. The 15-year veteran, who played seven of those with the Union, will get on the field against Orlando City for one final run. Next up for the Virginia native? He’s moving to Indianapolis to begin a new career as a financial planner.

“There’s always a job here with the Philadelphia Union if he wants one,” Jim Curtin said.

•The quiet Carroll, who, at 36, hasn’t played a minute of MLS action this season, ends his career (not including Sunday’s match) fourth all-time in MLS with 370 appearances and sixth all-time in minutes played at 30,778. He’s won two MLS titles and four Supporters’ Shields.

He’s second on the Union’s franchise list for games played at 165, behind only Sebastien Le Toux. But Carroll owns the minutes played title at 13,818. Although it may not have shown through his quiet demeanor, he’s been a really good player for a long time.

•Though it’s the Union’s final match of the season, the club won’t dip into the youth pool. Curtin’s belief is that players who contributed minutes with the Steel throughout 2017 deserved to dress for the USL club’s first playoff game on the road against the Louisville City FC on Friday night.

If Curtin would have known the Steel would have been crushed, 4-0, things might have changed. Adam Najem, Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty made the start.

•One player who didn’t suit up for Steel but also won’t dress for the Union on Sunday is right back Keegan Rosenberry. Coming off a year in which he played every minute of the regular season and earned Rookie of the Year runner-up honors, Rosenberry was suspended by the Union for using social media to gripe about playing time.

The real issue was the timing. A subtle post, in which Rosenberry asked fans to caption an image of him on the bench with a disgusted look, came just hours prior to the Union’s match against the Chicago Fire last weekend. Curtin called it, “unprofessional” and “inappropriate.” Rosenberry ends his season with just 14 games played.

•Curtin and the Union can’t take much from the first time they saw Orlando City, a 2-1 loss on March 18. Cyle Larin, who probably won’t play for his team on Sunday, scored twice for Orlando, sandwiching a lone C.J. Sapong score. 

“That feels like forever ago,” said Curtin, whose club is 2-2-2 against Orlando City all time. “Both of our seasons have shifted, there’s been highs and lows.”

•As usual, Fabian Herbers, Maurice Edu, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett are out for Sunday. Right-winger Chris Pontius is questionable with an abdominal injury, which could open space for rookie Marcus Epps to earn significant playing time.

•If Orlando wants to take down the Union, it’ll have to do it without Kaka. It was announced by Orlando City that the legend, who isn’t renewing his contract, would not travel for the finale. So, if you wanted to see Kaka, you’ll have to go to Europe. 

•It may be meaningless for the Union and Orlando, but Sunday marks Decision Day around MLS, in which all 11 games are played at 4:00 p.m. In the Eastern Conference, four teams (New York City FC, Atlanta United, Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew) are eying a Knockout Round bye.

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

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USA Today Images

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.”