chris pontius

Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

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Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

CHESTER, Pa. — It took months of mediocrity and lack of production from the No. 10 spot for Union manager Jim Curtin to finally move away from Ilsinho and Roland Alberg and try something new.

In their places Saturday, in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union tapped the athletic Warren Creavalle to protect the back line, which allowed playmakers Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya to be more flexible in how they attack the game.

“The best thing about the formation is there can be fluidity in it,” Curtin said. “We thought, matchup-wise, he’s been in good form and with what Chicago likes to do, we thought it was important to invert the triangle a little bit in some moments to get pressure to Dax McCarty, who is the engine of that team.”

Although Curtin insisted it wasn’t a formation change, saying, “it’s still a 4-2-3-1,” it was a breath of fresh air for a 9-12-9 team that needed a change. Ilsinho, who was out with Achilles tendinitis, and Alberg, who rode the bench for 90 minutes, entered Saturday with a combined seven goals and four assists.

“I think it worked well in terms of staying compact,” Bedoya, who captured an assist, said. “They struggled all night to play balls in between the lines in the middle of us. I think we got some good goals off some good combinations in the midfield.”

Curtin called it fluidity and Bedoya mentioned combinations. Creavalle continued that theme.

“I think it’s providing that balance,” he said. “Being able to help that back line and be able to connect them so they can make the game and have everybody connected.”

Agony over for Pontius
After 27 games of pure agony, Chris Pontius finally scored.

“About six months too late,” the Union’s 2016 leading scorer said jokingly. “But no, it feels good. Nice to get a win. Came back to a nice crowd and a big three points for us.”

Snapping the curse came easy against the Fire. Pontius potted his first two goals of the season Saturday — one was a header from a Keegan Rosenberry cross in the 10th minute, the other came off a rebound in the second half.

“It comes in bunches at times,” Pontius said. “You feel like you can do everything right in a few games and then other games you’re putting in so much effort and things just aren’t falling for you. Certainly, confidence is a big key for that and it was nice to get one especially early in a game like this.”

Record (almost) broken
With a second-half goal Saturday, C.J. Sapong nabbed his franchise-record tying 14th tally of the season. The total tied Union legend Sebastien Le Toux for most goals in a season, a mark set in the Union’s expansion season of 2010.

“Well, for me, it means that I’ve been able to score,” said Sapong, who was able to tap in a left-to-right cross from Fafa Picault along the goal line Saturday. “It’s a number that shows I’m having an impact on the field for my team.”

Without a strict No. 10 on the field for the Union and with right-wing Fabian Herbers injured all season with a sports hernia, service has been tough to come by for the Union. It’s one reason Pontius struggled so mightily all year. It’s possible that if the Union can find a skilled playmaker this offseason, Sapong could be set for an even more productive 2018 if he continues this form.

“The goals are a product of the guys getting him service,” Curtin said of Sapong. “His movement on the night was good, we’re happy with him and his individual accomplishments.”

Elevated effort
All during the week, Curtin mentioned pride and jobs as two reasons the Union players would show up Saturday and compete. After crushing the Fire, 3-1, it’s clear the club doesn’t lack the proper motivation.

“If you’re not putting the effort in,” Pontius said, “you can be out of a job next year. I don’t think there’s any more motivation than you need right there.”

Rosenberry mentioned another possible factor for the elevated effort.

“I don’t think we’re used to being counted on,” he said. “Playing as an underdog is something we’re used to and we’re going to embrace that until the end and see where we can go.”

Quote of the night
“Nope,” Creavalle deadpanned after several silent seconds when asked if he was happy to see Pontius get a goal. “He’s been working all year so I’m happy to see him get on the scoresheet. Keegan dropped him that dime so he has him to thank for that.”

Stat of the night
2,024 Minutes — How long Pontius went without a goal this season (including U.S. Open Cup).

Union-Revolution 5 things: After Gold Cup, Pontius returns but Blake out

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Union-Revolution 5 things: After Gold Cup, Pontius returns but Blake out

Union at New England Revolution
7:30 p.m., CSN

CHESTER, Pa. — With the Gold Cup over, the Union (7-9-5) get some much-needed help as they face the Revolution (6-9-5) tonight at Gillette Stadium, looking to win their second straight and improve upon this season’s road struggles.

Here are five things to know:

1. Pontius returns, with a trophy
Chris Pontius didn’t get to play in the final two games for the U.S. national team during their run to the Gold Cup title, but that didn’t make it any less sweet to win a championship.

“It was pretty special,” Pontius said Friday, two days after the Americans beat Jamaica in the final. “With the national team, a lot of guys were talking, there’s not many times you get a chance to win trophies. So you enjoy it.”

For Pontius, just getting back into the national team picture was special after many years away. But he knows to stick around, he has to perform for the Union.

“I’m ready to get back,” said Pontius, who has missed the last three Philly games while on international duty. “It was my first time sleeping in my bed in a long time. … I gotta put up a lot of numbers here and hopefully we get wins on the road and get into the playoffs. That’s what I can control and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

In addition to Pontius’ return, head coach Jim Curtin said Fafa Picault is set to come back from a hamstring strain, giving the team a lot more depth than it had on the wing over the past week.

2. No Blake, for now
The other player to return from Gold Cup duty this week is Andre Blake. But the Jamaican goalkeeper had to come out of the final because of a nasty cut to his hand — and the injury will likely keep him out of at least one more Union game.

“It’s good to know it’s not too big of an injury but I feel for him,” Pontius said. “For me, he was the best player in the tournament, hands down. He’s a big part of our team as well.”

The good news for the Union is that backup John McCarthy has been sharp in Blake’s absence, picking up the shutout in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Columbus Crew SC after making a couple of big-time saves vs. Columbus four days earlier.

But McCarthy’s start this weekend vs. the Revs may be his last, depending on how quickly Blake’s hand heals.

“We hope to get him back as quick as possible, hopefully for Dallas [next weekend],” Curtin said. “If he’s a quick healer, it could be a possibility.”

3. Dominating the Revs
The Union have beaten New England three straight times, outscoring the Revs by a whopping 11-0 margin in those games.

Does that give Curtin confidence they can win just their second game on the road in 11 games this season?

“You can throw that stuff out the window,” he said. “MLS makes no sense in terms of history or tradition, or rivalries, or whatever we want to talk about. It comes down to on the day, and on the day we know New England has five or six attacking players that can individually beat you yourself and score a goal.”

Even still, with many tougher road games looming ahead and the playoff red line probably higher than it was last last season in the East, Curtin knows they have to find a way to pick up points in games like this one.

“Even the one-pointers can come up and be so huge at the end of the year,” the Union coach said. “Not taking losses on the road is gonna be critical down the stretch.”

4. Players to watch
C.J. Sapong: The Union striker is coming off arguably his best game of the season, scoring his record 10th goal and adding a pair of pretty assists Wednesday. It also came with some drama as he argued with teammate Roland Alberg about who would take a penalty kick he drew. It will be interesting to see how Sapong responds just a few days later.

Juan Agudelo: The Union aren’t the only team getting players back from the Gold Cup as the Revs’ top striker returns, rejoining a potent attack that features Lee Nguyen, Kei Kamara, Kelyn Rowe and Teal Bunbury.

5. This and that
• The Revs are coming off a wild 4-3 win over the LA Galaxy last weekend in which Bunbury scored twice and Kamara also scored before revealing trade discussions after the game.

• The Revs bolstered their defense Friday with the signing of French defender Claude Dielna, who could be plugged into the lineup immediately vs. Philly.

• Union midfielder Derrick Jones has cleared concussion protocol after missing the last three games.

• The Union are 10-5-4 all-time vs. the Revs and 4-2-2 in New England.

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

Inside Doop: Absences, losses continue to pile up for Union

The Union gave us a glimpse into their future as two rookies made their first MLS starts over the weekend. But, in the end, a slew of key veteran absences were too much to overcome as the Union lost their second straight to fall further out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Here’s a closer look at the rough past few days and what lies ahead during another busy week that, if they don't turn things around, could sink their playoff hopes.

Three thoughts about the past week
1. The biggest surprise Saturday may have come before the game in Columbus even began — when the lineups revealed the Union’s attacking four consisted of two rookies making their first career starts (Adam Najem and Marcus Epps), their backup striker (Jay Simpson) and a winger who’s been mostly deployed centrally of late (Ilsinho). That’s because regular starters Chris Pontius, Fafa Picault, C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg, among others, were all absent due to injury, suspension or Gold Cup duty. And, well, it showed. While Najem did look comfortable on the ball at times, the chemistry was lacking up top, the team strung together very few passes moving forward, and they finished with a grand total of zero shots on target in a 1-0 loss to the Crew. Head coach Jim Curtin likes to talk about his team’s improved depth but there’s only so much you can overcome on the road.

2. Although he’s yet to win in three starts since replacing Andre Blake, who’s currently at the Gold Cup, John McCarthy has looked sharp in net. And in Columbus, he made a couple of big-time saves to keep his team in the game. Now, the Union will need him once again Wednesday when they face Columbus in the second half of a home-and-home series. That’s because Blake continued his stirring run in the Gold Cup by leading Jamaica to a huge 1-0 upset of Mexico on Sunday night and into the title game vs. the U.S. You could say that’s a tough break for the Union in the short term — Curtin has admitted part of him has been rooting for Jamaica to lose so he can get Blake back sooner — but having a player shine on such a national stage could end up being one of the high points of the year for Philly, especially given the current trajectory of the club.

3. While the Union’s offense was virtually nonexistent in Columbus, they did have a glimmer of life four days earlier in Montreal when Fafa Picault scored his fifth goal of the season. But even that moment was marred by the fact that Alberg and Ilsinho appeared not to want to celebrate with him. Afterward, Curtin revealed that there was a heated discussion at halftime with those players angry that Picault didn’t square a ball for Ilsinho that would have likely resulted in a tap-in goal. Curtin said he didn’t mind hearing that but you have to wonder if there may be some rifts growing in certain corners of the locker room.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. It’s something of a bizarre scheduling quirk that the Union meet the same Crew team Wednesday that they just played four days ago on Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium. But Curtin will hope that the game — and Philly’s lineup too — will look a lot different. Although Pontius and Blake will still be gone, squaring off in the U.S. vs. Jamaica Gold Cup final across on the same night, Picault and Sapong could return from their minor injuries and Alberg's set to come back from his one-game suspension. Of course, the Crew could also get some reinforcements with star playmaker Federico Higuain working to recover from a right knee sprain.

2. Even if the Union weren’t missing guys anyway, Curtin might still tinker with the lineups during a four-game-in-11-days stretch; after Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Crew, they travel to New England to take on the Revolution on Saturday. Veteran center back Oguchi Onyewu will likely be plugged back into the lineup after he was given a rest this past weekend and his fill-in, Josh Yaro, had what basically amounted to an own goal in the loss. Will Curtin opt to give any other guys a rest in either of the next two games?

3. Almost lost in the storylines of Saturday’s game was the return of captain Alejandro Bedoya, who had missed the three previous contests due to captaining the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup group stages and the birth of his second child. The true test now for the Union captain will be to see if he and fellow veteran central midfielder Haris Medunjanin can right the ship before it’s too late.

Stat of the week
With his season debut in Columbus, Charlie Davies became the 23rd Union player to play in a league game this year.

Quote of the week
“It feels amazing. As a kid when you dream of playing professional soccer in front of big crowds and stuff, it’s great to have that first start and put it in the books.”

— Union winger Marcus Epps

Player of the week
John McCarthy was one of the only bright spots in Columbus, making the kind of saves that would make Andre Blake proud.