Chicago Fire

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

usa-jim-curtin-union.jpg
USA Today Images

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

usa-phi-union-chi-fire-goal.jpg
USA Today Images

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.

Union-Fire Thoughts: Veterans fighting for jobs as unsuccessful season winds down

union-fire-game-notes-101517.jpg
NBC Sports Philadelphia

Union-Fire Thoughts: Veterans fighting for jobs as unsuccessful season winds down

Union (10-13-9) at Chicago Fire (15-10-7)
5 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia+

The season that will seemingly never end for the Union continues Sunday in Chicago at Toyota Park when they take on the Fire in the penultimate game of the 2017 season.

Officially ejected from postseason contention over the international break, the Union will need to find some type of motivation to avoid being embarrassed by the playoff-bound Fire, who are still jockeying for playoff position.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

• Officially removed from postseason contention, the Union will face the Fire on Sunday in a meaningless match. But with an offseason expected to usher in significant roster change, Union manager Jim Curtin has put it bluntly: these guys are playing for jobs.

“We recognize we’re out of the playoffs now,” he said. “Which is tough for the group, but we’re still using these 90 minutes to evaluate players and get better.”

Keep an eye on Roland Alberg, Chris Pontius and Oguchi Onyewu. The three players could all be goners by the start of 2018 and could bolster their stock with a productive finish.

• Although the Union will ultimately finish 2017 with their heads down, they are ending the regular season relatively strong. The Union are 2-1-3 in their last six games, including wins over the Fire and Seattle Sounders and three draws on the road.

“It’s not an easy game for us, Philly is a good team,” said Fire midfielder Dax McCarty. “I think they were a little unfortunate to go through a tough season this year.”

• But outside of those three hard-fought road draws, the Union have been putrid away from Talen Energy Stadium this season, going 1-9-6 entering Sunday’s match. It’s been one of the primary reasons the club has suffered another awful season.

• Win, lose or draw on Sunday, with only nine points on the road in 2017, the Union will finish with the lowest road point total in franchise history since MLS added four games to the schedule in 2011.  The 2010 expansion team only managed seven points, going 2-12-1.

“Going on the road has been our struggle this year,” Curtin said. “It’s been our challenge.”

• The Union’s road struggles could prove costly against a team that plays exceptionally well at home. The Fire are 11-2-3 at Toyota Park this season, outscoring the opposition by a 38-12 margin. It’s the Fire’s final match at home this season, giving them added incentive to perform.

• If anger breeds determination, the Union will have something going for them Sunday. Both Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin were called up for World Cup qualifiers over the last two weeks and both players suffered through losses that ended their country’s hopes at a World Cup trip.

Despite scoring a rare goal, Medunjanin and Bosnia and Herzegovina lost to Belgium but defeated Estonia. Bedoya’s U.S. Men’s National Team took down Panama but had its spirits crushed by Trinidad and Tobago.

• Revenge will be on the minds of the Fire. On Sept. 23 at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union dominated the Fire, as Pontius scored twice and C.J. Sapong added the insurance. Luis Solignac scored the lone goal for the visitors in what was a lopsided match.

“They had a gameplan against us, to sit back and counter-attack us,” McCarty said. “I would imagine we’re going to see the same thing, so it’ll be on us to move the ball quicker. We need good movement and rotations behind their midfield.”

• Relatively healthy, the Union will be without Fabian Herbers, Maurice Edu and Ken Tribbett, who are all out for Sunday. Warren Creavalle and Josh Yaro are questionable.

• On the other side, the Fire are banged up. Although Bastian Schweinsteiger is questionable with a thigh injury, John Goossens, Jorge Bava, Daniel Johnson, Christian Dean, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw are all out.

• If the Union want a chance against the Fire, they will have to neutralize forward Nemanja Nikolic, who has a ridiculous 21 goals in 32 games this season. That’s including five goals and an assist in his last five matches. He’s on fire right now.

“He’s a good player and one of the top scorers in the league,” Elliott said. “We’ll have to get tight with him near the box and prevent his opportunities.”

• What makes Sunday’s match so important for the Fire is that it could change where they land in the postseason picture. Right now, the club is fourth in the East but could finish as low as fifth or as high as second.

“We did our jobs, so now we have to build good momentum for the playoffs,” said Fire coach and former Union player Veljko Paunovic. “We have a great opportunity. Playing at home, after a break, it’ll be a fantastic opportunity for us to get three points.”

• Despite an awful season from their parent club, the Bethlehem Steel, the Union's USL affiliate, have qualified for the playoffs in just their sophomore campaign. Currently holding the eighth and final position with a 12-12-7 record, the Steel will face Saint Louis FC in the regular season finale on Sunday to determine playoff seeding.