Inside Doop

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?

Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

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Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

Under normal circumstances, finding a way to earn a point at Red Bull Arena would be a decent accomplishment for a Union team that’s won only one time there in 10 trips.

But considering where they are in the standings and how little excitement came from the game — except for the performance of one player — you’ll have to forgive Philly fans for not getting fired up about Sunday’s nationally televised scoreless draw vs. the New York Red Bulls.

Here’s a closer look at the game — and more — in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. What more can you say about Andre Blake at this point? The star goalkeeper has been the team’s brightest star over the past two years, winning the Union points in games in which they had no business winning points. Sunday’s game was the latest example as Blake made eight sparkling saves, including seven in the first half, to keep the Red Bulls off the board. And Union fans can exhale after the goalie went down with what looked like a neck injury before popping back up. This was easily his best game since returning from his Gold Cup injury and a good sign heading into the offseason next month.

2. The team’s center back pairing has been in flux for much of the season, and on Sunday, Richie Marquez made his first start since April, alongside rookie Jack Elliott. Perhaps the most interesting part of this pairing is that Elliott, a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft, has been the best and most reliable center back of a group that also includes veteran Oguchi Onyewu and Joshua Yaro, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft. And Marquez, a former late-round pick himself who emerged as one of the team’s top young players in 2015 and 2016, had fallen off the map until this weekend. So the biggest question now is whether Elliott continues his upward trajectory — the rookie put in another strong shift vs. the Red Bulls — or if he plummets on the depth chart like Marquez, who likely didn’t do enough to win back a starting role when everyone is healthy and available.

3. There was nothing doing offensively for the Union, who have generated very little in that department in road games this season. Against the Red Bulls, they had only two shots on target, missed a lot of passes, won only two corner kicks, and had less than 40 percent of the possession. The problems? Ilsinho getting yanked after playing only the first 45 minutes and Roland Alberg not getting on the field is another example of their inconsistency at playmaker. And over on the wings, Chris Pontius remains stuck on zero goals this season, Fafa Picault was absent with an illness, and Fabian Herbers’ injury absence continues to be a noticeable void. Aside from striker CJ Sapong, who’s enjoying a career year, which offensive player can you really count on going into 2018?

Three thoughts for the week ahead
1. What will the reception be like from Union fans when they return home to face the Chicago Fire on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) for their first game at Talen Energy Stadium in nearly a month? Although not yet officially mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with five games left, the Union have less than a one-percent chance to get in thanks to a six-game winless streak. And although there have been a smattering of boos for head coach Jim Curtin in recent games, it seems apathy has set in for most of the fanbase as they come to terms with another lost season.

2. The biggest noise from the crowd may be for Bastian Schweinsteiger if he takes the field for Chicago; the German legend has been nursing an injury. But the Fire, in third place in the East and coming off a 3-0 shellacking of D.C. United, still have plenty of other weapons if he can’t go. And, in many ways, their rise from last place in the East the last two seasons to a legitimate MLS contender shows how quickly teams can turn things around — if they make shrewd moves and spend money in the right places. Can the Union learn from that this offseason?

3. Who will start at center back with Onyewu poised to return from a suspension and Yaro potentially back from a minor knee injury? Curtin has said he doesn’t want to just throw young guys in there but it might be nice to use a few games — especially against high-octane offensive teams like Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle — to try to figure out who would be a better option between Yaro or Marquez to play beside Elliott next year. Or maybe Onyewu showed he has enough left in the tank to return to a starting role next season? Or will they have to bring in someone else? There will, for sure, be some interesting offseason decisions at center back.

Stat of the week
The Union have won just one game and earned only nine road points through 15 contests this year (with two road games left). Aside from their 2010 expansion team, when they earned seven points in 15 road games, their lowest road point total for a season is 13 (2012 and 2015).

Quote of the week
“These are results now, on the road in recent weeks, where if we did our work early on in the season, they would be positive results. But right now, as we chase from behind, it’s difficult.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
Blake is the easy choice here. The final score could have been ugly without him.

Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

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Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

The Union traveled all the way across the country, scored a couple of goals, and came within seconds of pulling off a huge win over a team that rarely loses at home.

In the end, of course, that will only make Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes even more frustrating as Union coaches and players are well aware that stringing together wins is the only way to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look at how a win turned into a draw and the brutally tough week that lies ahead.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Anyone who’s watched the Union for the last eight seasons knows one-goal leads are never safe in the final minutes, especially on the road. And in San Jose, some of those old ghosts came back to haunt the Union again as a late penalty called on Josh Yaro allowed Chris Wondolowski’s 95th-minute PK to tie the game and spoil an otherwise positive performance. Afterwards, Haris Medunjanin threw his arms up in the air and stormed off the field, the team’s first-year midfielder perhaps learning some of the many frustrations that comes along with being a Union player.

2. Yaro has now made critical mistakes in each of his last three starts, all filling in for Oguchi Onyewu. That’s surely a tough thing for Union fans to swallow considering Yaro was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and is not really progressing as well as he should be, injuries aside. Contrast that, meanwhile, with Jack Elliott, the 77th pick in the 2017 draft. Elliott continued to build his case for Rookie of the Year with maybe his pest performance yet, scoring his first MLS goal and looking far more comfortable defensively than Yaro, his center back partner.

3. Questions certainly remain about Roland Alberg’s consistency and chemistry with teammates, but we can’t forget that he’s one of the better ball strikers this team has ever had. He showed that again Saturday with a very nice goal that put the Union ahead 2-1 early in the second half. With Ilsinho hurt, some may have thought promising rookie Adam Najem would assume the No. 10 role. But until the team is eliminated from the playoff contention, Alberg will likely still get the chance to show just how dangerous he can be and perhaps keep racking up the goals.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Any time a team has to play games Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, it’s a rough stretch. This one is even harder for the Union considering they had to fly back to Philly from San Jose before they quickly turn around to head to Toronto and face the league’s best team Wednesday, and then come back home to host upstart expansion side Atlanta United FC on Saturday. As always, there will be questions as how head coach Jim Curtin deals with minute management to keep everyone fresh. It might be especially interesting to see if he’d consider resting anyone in Toronto considering even a full-strength Union team has little chance of knocking off Toronto FC, who are currently 9-0-3 at home and maybe even one of the best MLS teams ever assembled. That said, if the Union can pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost toward their playoff push and a moment they’ll remember for a long time.

2. Remember Maurice Edu? The Union midfielder hasn’t played an MLS minute in nearly two years but suited up for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Sunday, playing just over 30 minutes vs. Louisville City. Does that mean he’s ready to play for the Union? Not necessarily. Last year, he made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem, before then getting hurt as he was set to play for the Union. So the coaches may still want to give it a bit more time with the Steel, meaning a trip to Toronto is unlikely.

3. Another player who’s probably closer to returning is Andre Blake, who’s now missed eight straight games because of the Gold Cup and hurting his hand in the tournament final. John McCarthy continues to play well in his absence, but getting Blake back in time to face a star-studded Toronto attack could make a huge difference north of the border.

Stat of the week
With his goal Saturday, Alberg is tied for second on the team in goals this season with five. He also finished second on the team last season in that category, and his 14 total goals in nearly two seasons ranks fifth all time.

Quote of the week
“Both teams needed three points to be honest, so a tie kind of doesn’t do much for either of us at this stage.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw

Player of the week
On top of his goal, Elliott also helped set up the team’s second goal and made a couple of huge clearances in the box. The rookie was, by far, the team’s best player on the night.