Union

Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

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Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union play a game Sunday but head coach Jim Curtin knew he wouldn’t get many questions about that following Thursday’s practice.

And that’s not because the Union have already been eliminated from playoff contention when they hit the road to face the Chicago Fire (5 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia). It’s because all anyone can talk about this week is the historic U.S. national team loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday that caused the Americans to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and send shockwaves throughout the entire country’s soccer community.

That certainly includes Curtin, who played in MLS for many years before getting his start in coaching, first at the youth level.

“It’s devastating,” the Union coach said. “It’s a devastating result for anyone that’s involved in soccer. If you just take the 90 minutes and the simultaneous 90 minutes going on in different countries and the chain of events that happened, for it to all fall apart before our eyes was incredible. It will be probably a 30 for 30 or some kind of documentary.”

While the surreal set of circumstances that included last-ditch, come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras to knock the USMNT out was painful in the moment, many soccer people have since used it as a way to take stock of the state of soccer in the United States.

How does a country as big as this one fail to beat tiny Trinidad and Tobago in a do-or-die game? How did the U.S. go 3-4-3 in the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying when it had won the Hex the previous three times?

Curtin has heard all the takes, flying in from every direction, and has tried to figure it out himself.

“Is it grassroots? Not getting enough city kids involved in soccer? The academies letting us down? The coaches in our country letting us down? The player pool not being good enough? The fact that we haven’t qualified for the Olympics in two cycles? It’s a little bit of all of those things,” he said. “There’s no one answer. There’s no one person that’s right. It does prove we have to step back, evaluate things and get better for it.

“Listen, our country right now, we are the best at basketball, we are the best at American football, we are the best at baseball, we’re not the best at soccer. Sometimes maybe we feel like we’re taking big steps forward but the reality is it’s still newer in this country and we have to improve. We have to get better.”

MLS has certainly taken its share of criticism for the World Cup failure with some pointing the finger at USMNT stars like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and even Union captain Alejandro Bedoya leaving the more cutthroat world of European soccer to play club soccer in their home country. Interestingly enough, MLS has also probably made the rest of CONCACAF better — a point that was driven home when the Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres scored the game-winning goal for Panama shortly after the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto both scored for Honduras.

But while Curtin acknowledged the fact that the league’s “amazing facilities” and other factors have boosted the Panamanian and Honduran programs, he also said the USMNT still “has the quality in our player pool” to beat those countries out for a World Cup spot. He is concerned, though, that the league often favors foreign-born players at the expense of American ones.

“Listen, I’m a believer that the domestic league has to be a resource in developing players,” Curtin said. “It really has to be. You look at different countries and the way they do it — some are successful in doing it, some are not so successful. And right now, there are big decisions that have to happen, with the league and U.S. soccer.

“I think it’s critical because you do see the direction our league is going and it probably wouldn’t be one that would favor the American player right now to be honest, with the different ways money’s coming into it. So it’s an important time. We still have very good young American players in our league that are getting better each and every day and developing. But you do want to see more of it.”

While admitting it might be better served as an “eight-hour discussion,” Curtin also touched on the pay-to-play model of youth soccer in this country. He recognized that it’s “big business” for people who make a living doing it but that it “does get in the way of what’s best for kids.” And he said he’s been in rooms where people involved in youth soccer simply don’t listen to each other because “everyone has to show they’re the smartest guy in the room.”

“We’re probably one of the few countries in the world where soccer is a privileged sport, and if people want to argue that, they’re crazy,” Curtin said. “It’s a privileged sport in this country across the board. Do I have the answer how to change that? I don’t have it right now. I wish I did. But there are enough resources, we have enough facilities in the United States of America to do a better job of getting the best kids involved, regardless of whether they’re rich kids, regardless of whether they’re middle class, regardless of whether they have nothing. 

“I think we’re out of excuses, to be honest. I can’t come up with one reason why we can’t be better.”

While Curtin does not have a direct connection to the USMNT, he knows that “if our national team fails, soccer is going to fail in this country.” And missing out on a once-every-four-years event like the World Cup hurts the growth of soccer and is a big blow for all of the kids — his three included — that will have to wait five years to watch the U.S. on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

But for the Union coach, there are still too many exciting things happening around the sport and MLS for him to be entirely discouraged.

“Honestly, I still see the game moving forward,” he said. “The coverage for the game, MLS is getting better despite people that will blame the league for the collapse. The game is growing in our country, that’s inevitable. It’s on TV more. Does this hurt? Absolutely. It hurts the growth any time there’s a setback like this, but there’s still good things happening.

“We got punched in the teeth and now we have to get up and recover.”

Union Notes: Andre Blake, Roland Alberg upgrade Union's slim playoff hopes

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Union Notes: Andre Blake, Roland Alberg upgrade Union's slim playoff hopes

CHESTER, Pa. — Not only did the Union stave off playoff elimination with Sunday's 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, but according to FiveThirtyEight, the club also managed to turn a less-than-one-percent chance to make the postseason into exactly one percent.

So, you're saying there's a chance ...

"I think in soccer it's never over," Union left back Fabinho said. "I know it's hard to make the playoffs but we play for a great club. You saw today, 17,000 people came to watch the game. You have to play for those guys. Playoffs or not, our chances are very small but you have to play hard, always."

Four points behind the New York Red Bulls for the final playoff spot, the Union are in it mathematically. The Red Bulls, with three games left, haven't won in their last eight matches. But despite the minuscule chance of overcoming the deficit, the Union aren't changing their focus.

"We're not mathematically eliminated, we have to win two soccer games in a row which isn't impossible," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "A certain rival has to lose three games in a row, which also isn't impossible either. We're most focused on our performance, getting better as a group, evaluating things for not only this year but beyond."

Heroic Blake
Another game, another unbelievable effort from Union goalkeeper Andre Blake. 

"Andre is special," Curtin said. "He makes the spectacular save look routine. He made some incredible saves to keep it at 1-0. He's last year's [MLS Goalkeeper of the Year] for a reason."

Despite facing zero shots or attempts in the first half, the Jamaican was forced into multiple eye-popping stops in the second stanza.

Stuffing Sounders leading scorer Clint Dempsey on three different occasions, the goalkeeper wasn't phased by the sudden increase in work. He finished with five saves and his ninth shutout of the season.

"At any time the game can start changing," said Blake, who was called up for the Jamaican National Team for a friendly against Saudi Arabia during the upcoming international break. "When it's quiet, I just try to stay in the game mentally to stay connected. Be ready for anything."

Jet-setting Medunjanin
It's been a good week for Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin. With a secondary helper on Sunday, he became the fifth Union player in a season to record 10 assists. Sebastien Le Toux and Cristian Maidana both did it twice.

Medunjanin was also called up to the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team for upcoming World Cup qualification.

"It's an honor to play for my country," said Medunjanin, who was also called up in June. "We have an important game, we play against Belgium so we need to win two games. We play Belgium and Estonia, so if we win two games, we're going to be in the playoffs for the World Cup for next year, so I'm very excited to be there, to see my family."

Immediately following Sunday's match, Medunjanin headed to Newark Airport, where he faced an eight-hour flight to Munich, Germany. He'll then travel to Bosnia. But the long trip is a small price to pay for the veteran Medunjanin.

"It's a dream to play on the biggest stage like a World Cup," he said. "We have a good team but we only went one time to a big tournament. We need to fight and hopefully, we can be there next year."

Making it count
Marcus Epps didn't expect to get the start on Sunday. But when his number was called, following Chris Pontius's departure from warm-ups with an abdominal injury, the rookie didn't disappoint.

"It was definitely a surprise," Epps said. "I didn't know Chris was not going to be ready, but coach trains us to be ready at any moment, and as soon as I got the news, I just tried to focus in and make sure I'm ready to help the team as soon as the game started."
 
In the 28th minute, Epps gathered a pass from Ilsinho, and from the right side of the box, fired off a shot that beat Stefan Frei for the 1-0 Union lead. They never relinquished that advantage. It was Epps' second goal in six starts this season.
 
"I saw the defense was collecting and they were doing pretty well blocking my crosses and shots during the game," he said. "So I saw space near-post, and I thought it would be better to be composed and sneak it in near-post."
 
Quote of the match
"I feel good, man. I feel very good," said Fabinho, when asked about his three-shot performance.

"With Seattle traveling from across the country, you have an opportunity to play, go forward. I tried it today, I tried to score, I tried to cross. I felt very good. I had to help my team."

Stat of the match
122.7 — the game minutes it takes for Roland Alberg to score a goal. He buried his seventh of the season on Sunday. He scored once every 128 minutes last season.

Union-Sounders observations: Union stave off playoff elimination with win

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Union-Sounders observations: Union stave off playoff elimination with win

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union fought off playoff elimination Sunday afternoon as they overwhelmed defending MLS champion Seattle Sounders, 2-0, at Talen Energy Stadium.

Setting a new club record for home wins, the Union, now 10-13-9 overall, are four points out of playoff position with two games remaining. The Sounders, who could have clinched playoff position with a win, fall to 12-9-11.

• While the Union will likely end 2017 outside the playoff picture, they are roaring down the stretch at Talen Energy Stadium. The club is 3-1-1 in its last five matches at home, earning points against teams with a combined 52-35-38 record. That includes the Sounders, Chicago Fire, Atlanta United and FC Dallas.

• Now 9-4-3 at home, the Union set a club record for total wins in a single season. The previous record was eight, set in 2016. Now if the Union could do something about their 1-9-6 road record they might be onto something.

• According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Union have been surprisingly good at home since May 1.

• Motivated early, Fafa Picault and C.J. Sapong tested Stefan Frei in the 19th minute, firing off a pair of chances that were fought away by the goalkeeper. But while saving his club early, Frei would eventually break in the 28th minute, when Ilsinho lifted a pass to the right to Marcus Epps who collected himself before placing his left-footed chances past Frei for the opening goal.

• Following an offensive flurry midway through the second half that should have resulted in a Union goal, Ilsinho, who paced the attack, went down injured. Although he walked off under his own power, the Brazilian was replaced by Roland Alberg.

Alberg did what Alberg does in the 88th minute, crushing a right-footed shot from the left side of the box that completely fooled Frei and found the far corner, icing the Union’s 2-0 win. It was Alberg’s seventh goal in 22 games.

• Frustration mounted for the Union with 10 minutes to go in the first half when Picault, on a shoulder-to-shoulder breakaway with defender Kelvin Leerdam, was bodied to the ground just outside the box.

There was no foul called on the play, despite heavy protest from the Union. If called, the foul would have been a red-card ejection for Leerdam for impeding a clear scoring opportunity.

• Although the Union played a stellar match as a whole, Fabinho stood out. The left back was an offensive force, earning a team-high three shots.

• Coming off the bench in the 55th minute, Sounders forward Clint Dempsey entered the match for Jordy Delem, making the Sounders even more dangerous. The move paid off as Dempsey earned a pair of potent chances that were turned away by heroic Andre Blake.

Blake finished the match with a five-save shutout.

• Minutes before the match began, Chris Pontius was pulled from the starting lineup for Epps. According to the team, the veteran winger tweaked something in his abdomen. If the injury is serious, it could put an end to what has been a nightmare season for Pontius, who is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

• The injury to Pontius left the Union light at right wing, forcing Union manager Jim Curtin to get creative. In the 77th minute, rarely-used forward Jay Simpson spelled Epps on the right side.

Simpson made his presence felt in the 87th minute with a golden opportunity. He headed a chip pass from Picault that was pushed away by Frei. However, the play earned the corner that Alberg’s goal originated from.

• Keegan Rosenberry (ankle), Josh Yaro (knee) and Warren Creavalle (hamstring) were scratched from the match with injuries, allowing Ray Gaddis, Richie Marquez and Ilsinho to jump back into starting positions. For the Sounders, Jordan Morris, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso missed the match.

• Next up, the Union travel to Chicago to challenge the Fire, who are 11-2-3 at Toyota Park this season. The Union crushed the Fire, 3-1, on Sept. 23 at Talen Energy Stadium.