Andre Blake

Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

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Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

The Union accomplished what they set out to do this offseason.

After years of instability under former leadership, they wanted to remain consistent with their roster, system and decision-making — which they did.

They wanted to bolster the attack with two marquee playmakers, one on the wing and one in the attacking midfield — which they did with their draft-day trade for David Accam and Wednesday's acquisition of Czech playmaker Borek Dockal.

And they wanted to give opportunities to teenagers coming through their burgeoning youth academy — which they did with the signings of homegrown defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie followed by the preseason decision to give prominent roles to center back Auston Trusty and midfielder Anthony Fontana.

But is it enough to keep up with the rest of the Eastern Conference and make the MLS playoffs? Or win the first playoff game in the club's nine-year history? Will the newcomers be able to mesh with the returning core? Who will star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into Saturday's season opener vs. the New England Revolution (7 p.m., PHL17), it's prediction time. (Part 2 can be found here.)

Team MVP

DZ: Andre Blake
Try to argue that the Jamaican isn't the most talented goalie in the league. You won't get very far. And while Blake's gifts will likely get him to a top European league at some point, the 27-year-old showed commitment to Philly by signing a new multi-year contract in the offseason. Considering the Union have an inexperienced backline, locking down Blake was a good move — and he'll likely reward them with plenty of show-stopping saves.

RB: C.J. Sapong
With 16 goals in 30 games, Sapong had a career year that was so impressive, it opened opportunities with the U.S. national team. Now that the physical scorer has a legit playmaker feeding him passes, Sapong is set up for an even bigger and better 2018 season. He'll lead the team in goals and be an MLS All-Star. 

Top newcomer

DZ: David Accam
The Union shook up the draft by sending money to the Fire for the speedy winger. Accam was great in Chicago, scoring 33 goals over the last three seasons, but he has the opportunity to be even better in Philly, where head coach Jim Curtin's 4-2-3-1 system is designed to maximize the production of his wingers if they can get behind the defense or beat fullbacks one-on-one. Look for Accam to do both, early and often, and perhaps find the back of the net even more than he did in Chicago.

RB: Borek Dockal
He'll be the quarterback the Union desperately need. The offense will run through Dockal and he'll have no shortage of targets. With Fafa Picault on the right, Sapong in the middle and Accam on the left, Dockal will have every opportunity to get on the score sheet with that powerful trio.

Biggest surprise

DZ: Auston Trusty
Given how much exposure he's gotten this offseason, from starting and scoring goals in the preseason to reading the traffic report on the PHL17 morning news, the 19-year-old center back won't surprise anyone when he makes his MLS debut Saturday. What will surprise people is how well he grows into the role — and how much trust Curtin shows in him by keeping him in his starting spot even when he has a bad game or two. "Trusty the Process" indeed.

RB: Alejandro Bedoya
With expectations low, Bedoya will surprise by shining next to Dockal in the midfield. The Czech playmaker will be a safety valve for the US national team stalwart, who will feel less of a burden in possession and make more advantageous runs into the box. He'll have a good season.

Biggest disappointment

DZ: The strikers
Sapong is enjoying a nice moment in his career, coming off a terrific season and well-deserved appearances with the U.S. national team. But is it fair to think he'll be able to duplicate that production after he never hit double-digits in goals in his first six MLS seasons? If he has to miss any time, the dropoff to Jay Simpson or Cory Burke may be steep.

RB: Haris Medunjanin
With 12 assists last season, the well-traveled veteran helped hold a shaky Union team together with his poise on the ball. But the 32-year-old struggled to gain his footing in the preseason and could be primed for a slump in his second MLS season. While it may not be a bad campaign for Medunjanin, there's some reason to believe he won't match last year's success.

2 Union players hopeful for hardware

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2 Union players hopeful for hardware

For the second consecutive year, the Union are well represented in the MLS awards discussion. 

Announced by the league on Tuesday, Union goalkeeper and reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake has been named a finalist for the accolade, while rookie center back Jack Elliott follows teammate and 2016 nominee Keegan Rosenberry as a finalist for Rookie of the Year. 

Both Blake and Elliott were bright spots in the Union’s dreary season by solidifying a defensive corps that only allowed 47 goals in 34 games. The Eastern Conference average was 49.7. 

Blake, who has become a bonafide MLS star, ended the 2017 campaign with force, adding his usual acrobatic flair to 88 saves in 26 starts — good for ninth in MLS. He also finished with a career-high nine shutouts, tied for fifth, despite playing fewer games than nearly all of the league’s top goalkeepers. 

For Elliott, it was about consistency. The 6-foot-5 MLS newcomer out of London, England, was drafted from the University of West Virginia in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Early injuries to Richie Marquez and Josh Yaro pushed Elliott into the fire early in 2017 and the 23-year-old didn’t look back. He made 29 starts and played in 30 games and scored one goal and one assist.

Yet, despite the production, neither Blake or Elliott is the favorite heading into the final selection, which will take place for rookies on Nov. 8 and goalkeepers on Nov. 16. Blake is up against Seattle Sounders’ Stefan Frei, who led MLS with 13 shutouts, and the favorite, Sporting Kansas City’s TIm Melia, who only allowed 24 goals in 31 games.

As a center back — a position that does not garner much attention in terms of individual awards — Elliott is at a disadvantage. He’s facing forward and 2017 first overall pick, Abu Danladi from Minnesota United, and attacking midfielder Julian Gressel from Atlanta United. Danladi finished with eight goals and three assists, while Gressel, the favorite to win, ended with five goals and nine assists.

MLS awards voting consists of total votes from selection media members, MLS players and MLS team front office members.

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.