Union's Chris Pontius embracing time with U.S. national team as Gold Cup stops in Philly

Union's Chris Pontius embracing time with U.S. national team as Gold Cup stops in Philly

CHESTER, Pa. — Chris Pontius wasn’t even supposed to be on the U.S. national team’s Gold Cup roster.

But after getting called in at the last minute as an injury replacement, the Union winger has emerged as an important member of the team — now with a unique opportunity to wear his country’s colors in front of his hometown fans.

After playing the full 90 minutes in the Americans’ 3-0 defeat of Nicaragua on Saturday — a result that clinched Group B — Pontius was kept on the roster after head coach Bruce Arena switched six players ahead of Wednesday’s quarterfinal game vs. El Salvador at Lincoln Financial Field (9 p.m., FS1). 

What does Arena’s confidence mean to Pontius?

“It’s huge for a player,” Pontius said from Penn’s Rhodes Field, where the USMNT has been training this week. “If you have a coach that instills confidence in you, it allows you to go play your game a little bit more freely. He’s always talking to us about our roles and what he wants from us. It’s different game to game, so that’s translated through him, and we knew what we needed to do, especially going into that last game. And we got it done.”

The 30-year-old Pontius got a few national team sniffs early in his career but had been mostly out of the picture until Arena was hired to succeed Jurgen Klinsmann in November. Soon after, he made his official debut in a friendly vs. Serbia in January and has since seen the field in the last two Gold Cup games.

“I’ll just say it this way: Bruce knows exactly what he’s gonna get from Chris,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “And Bruce has a tendency to like guys he can rely on.”

Curtin added that Union captain Alejandro Bedoya is equally reliable, which is why Arena leaned on Bedoya’s leadership to help the USMNT win Group B with a mostly young, untested roster. Bedoya was then one of the six players to be cut loose from the squad but only because he wanted to be with his wife, who gave birth to their second child Tuesday morning.

For Curtin, seeing two Union players start for the U.S. national team in a tournament game was an important step for the franchise. He’s also happy to see the Gold Cup stop in Philly for a pair of quarterfinal games — Panama faces Costa Rica before the U.S. and El Salvador tangle — a year after the Linc played host to a Copa America Centenario game between the U.S. and Paraguay.

Well, maybe not entirely happy.

“It makes me angry I’m out of town,” said Curtin, whose Union team will be in Montreal to face the Impact (7:30 p.m., TCN) during Wednesday’s Gold Cup doubleheader at the Linc. “Any time the national team can come to Philadelphia, you want to be able to attend those training sessions, to be at the games, to get a feel — because Philadelphia is a great soccer town. It’s got a rich history in soccer. The Philadelphia Union is still a newer club and trying to grow and become stronger. But when the national team is here, it’s special.

“Hopefully our fans in Philly can make this as hostile of an environment as possible for El Salvador.”

Considering the new additions to the retooled U.S. national team include four of the most accomplished players in USMNT history in Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, it may be tough for Pontius to see the field Wednesday.

But should the opportunity come to play in front of Philly fans, he’ll seize it.

“That would be great,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Either way, just being at USMNT camp for the second time this year after such a long hiatus is an “honor” he knows “every American strives for.” And he hopes the experience will translate to more success with the Union after an up-and-down first half of the season in which he logged a healthy six assists but failed to score a goal.

“Sure, I’ve had multiple games where I could’ve easily scored and I needed to do better with my chances,” said Pontius, who was shifted from the left wing to the right earlier in the season. “I know that. I’m well aware of it. Hopefully just playing at this level translates to success on the field with Philly for me.”

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?

Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire

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Union blow another lead, beaten by Fire


BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nemanja Nikolic scored two of his three goals in the second half, increasing his league-leading total to 24, and the Chicago Fire rallied for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union on Sunday.

The Fire (16-10-7) moved into third in the Eastern Conference, which would be good for a home game in the playoffs. Nikolic is four goals clear of his pursuers for the Golden Boot with one game to play.

Nikolic opened the scoring in the third minute, getting to a long feed from Brandon Vincent and aided by a bad angle by defender Jack Elliot before beating Andre Blake. Nikolic's penalty kick in the 64th tied it at 2 after David Accam was taken down in the penalty area. Nikolic completed his first career hat trick with an easy finish from the middle of the box on a feed from Brandon Vincent for the game winner in the 78th.

Chicago defender Johnan Kappelhof's own goal put the Union in a 1-1 tie at the six-minute mark and a feed from Haris Medunjanin to Alejandro Bedoya for a chip shot was good for the lead from the 13th minute.

Philadelphia (10-14-9) finished 1-10-6 on the road this season.