Union

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.