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Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

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Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

Away from MLS game action for nearly two years, Maurice Edu has learned a little something about himself.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pretty strong-minded person and I’ve dealt with other adversity throughout the course of my career,” he told the media on Tuesday. “It’s another challenge. But when put in situations that are unexpected, it brings out parts of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had.”

The veteran midfielder, moving from one year-long leg injury to another, hasn’t played an MLS match since Sept. 20, 2015. But the road back hit a milestone on Sunday, when Edu made a start for the Union’s minor-league club, the Bethlehem Steel. 

He logged 32 minutes and completed all 17 attempted passes in a defensive midfield position.

“It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things that have happened in the past because it takes the energy I need to put into other things,” he said. “So I’m just focused on what’s happening here and now for me, focusing on conquering every challenge that’s put in front of me every day.”

Though he never wavered, no one could blame Edu for losing his spark. The 31-year-old’s mental mettle was thoroughly tested over the last two seasons as he was hampered with leg injuries. In late 2015, Edu suffered a stress fracture that abruptly ended his season. One year later, just as he was ready to make his long-awaited return, he broke his left fibula. He’s been out ever since.

“I felt I’ve always been mentally strong but this has definitely challenged me in ways that are slightly different,” he said. “I’ve kind of had to play a waiting game and just be patient and be smart and also be smart with the thoughts I have in my head and how I channel my energy.”

On Sunday, Edu’s comeback began. And for him, it was just the beginning of something big.

“I’m happy because this year’s been hell,” Edu said. “Definitely happy with that. But the real excitement will be when I walk out on the pitch with the first team. Baby steps. A longer process than maybe I anticipated. Pleased with that but at the end of the day, my focus and my goal is to play with the first team. It’s not to be content to just be back fit, be back training or be back playing with the Steel.”

But that plan won’t be a given. The Union are currently stacked at the No. 6, No. 8 and center back spots, forcing Edu, currently in less-than-preseason form, to work through a number of players on the depth chart to make his dream first-team debut.

“He has some real competition,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Haris (Medunjanin), (Alejandro) Bedoya, (Warren) Creavalle, Derrick Jones, Brian Carroll, you can go through the list of guys he’s behind on the depth chart because they’re on Week 24 of the season and he’s on Week 1. He has still some work to do to get over that next barrier.”

Getting over that barrier means getting fit and up to game speed. 

“He has to work his way back to 90 minutes of fitness, which is hard for a guy who’s missed almost going on two seasons now worth of games,” Curtin said. “It’s great for him to get that first 30 minutes under his belt, connect his passes, gain the confidence he can do it again. Now he has to work his way to start for 90 minutes for the Steel. From there, we can then talk about being in the 18 for us.”

After two years away from meaningful soccer, Edu is ready for the challenge.

“These are all steps along the way,” he said. “To get to the bigger picture.”

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

BOX SCORE

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.