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 lifeless in draw with Crew

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Union lifeless in draw with Crew

CHESTER, Pa. — In a matchup of two teams with perfect records, it ended up being a stalemate.

On Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union and Columbus Crew SC fought to a scoreless draw as goalkeepers Andre Blake and Zack Steffen finished with three saves apiece.

The Union move to 1-0-1 on the season while the Crew, who entered the day in first place in the Eastern Conference, sit at 2-0-1.

• With the Union coming off a weird early bye week, the game lacked fluidity for much of the first half as both teams only put one shot on target before halftime. 

• Borek Dockal, the Union’s new Designated Player, made his MLS debut after sitting out the opener. The Czech playmaker looked tentative early in the match and had some giveaways in the second half before coming out in the 77th minute. It’s too early, of course, to make any judgements but that probably wasn’t the kind of debut head coach Jim Curtin hoped to see.

• David Accam, the team’s other prized newcomer, enjoyed good start to the second half and was active throughout in his second game in Philly. It shouldn’t be long before he opens his account for the Union.

• Steffen came through with a couple of big saves early in the second half for Columbus. It might be hard for some Philly fans to see the Downingtown native and former Union academy player on the visiting side, even if they do get to cheer for a star ’keeper of their own in Blake.

• CJ Sapong, fresh off signing a new contract, couldn’t get on the ball much or even get any shots off. The Union striker had three goals and three assists in seven previous meetings against the Crew.

• On the other end of the field, Gyasi Zardes was held in check after scoring three goals in his first two games for Columbus following a trade from the LA Galaxy. That’s a good sign for the progress of Philly’s young center backs, Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty.

• Ray Gaddis entered the game as a halftime sub for Fabinho, who left with a leg injury. Fabinho and Gaddis are both two of the club’s longest-tenured players, and Gaddis being able to play as both a left back and right back is a nice luxury to have off the bench.

• Despite an announced attendance of 15,323, the crowd at Talen Energy Stadium looked smaller than usual — and with less energy. A lot of that probably has to do with the on-field play but in general, the Union seem to have a better home-field advantage during night games, when the atmosphere is more electric.

• A shoutout to the Sons of Ben, though, for unveiling some cool Philly tifo before kickoff — a “cheesesteak shark” preying on a boat of Crew rowers underneath the word “Jawns.” 

• The Union — who are 4-1-1 in their last six meetings with the Crew — are off again next weekend before before facing Colorado on March 31 in their first road game of 2018.

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

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With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union first traded for CJ Sapong ahead of the 2015 season, they knew they were getting a promising young attacking player.

What may have been less expected was Sapong developing into one of the top American strikers, a member of the U.S national team rotation and a foundational player that makes the Union’s entire system go.

So with Sapong’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2018 campaign, the Union knew they had to make sure to lock him up — which they did just one game into the season, signing him Wednesday to a new deal that runs through 2019 with a club option for 2020.

“I hope he continues to progress as a center forward,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart told reporters from the club’s training complex Wednesday. “I think CJ is a person that, [with] the way he takes care of his body and the professional that he is, has a long future in soccer. And he’s still growing as a soccer player.”

At 29, Sapong might not be considered young anymore. But it’s easy to make the case that his best soccer is still in front of him, considering he’s coming off a breakout 16-goal season — the first time in his career he eclipsed double digits — and is set up for even more success this year with the offseason additions of playmakers Borek Dockal and David Accam.

The combination of Dockal’s vision behind him with the speed of Accam and Fafa Picault on either side of him has Sapong as excited as inking a new deal.

“That gives me space to just chill in the box and eat when I can,” he said. “I find it hard to believe we’ll be kept off the scoresheet too many games this year.”

After opening his account in Philly’s season-opening 2-0 win over the Revolution on March 3, Sapong will look to find the back of the net again when the Union return to the field Saturday vs. Columbus at Talen Energy Stadium.

And putting all contract negotiations behind him should only provide further motivation to a player who can now rest easy that Philadelphia will be his home for years to come.

“He’s a guy who’s done everything for the badge, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and watch him grow and take his game to another level,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I’m looking forward to working with him for the next few years.”

Currently in his eighth MLS season, Sapong said he hopes to, at the least, hit double-digits in goals every year while continuing to do the dirty work and hold-up play that Curtin loves — and has endeared him to Philly fans.

“I owe a lot to Philadelphia,” Sapong said, “and how it’s transformed me as a person and a player.”