ken tribbett

5 Union players who need to ball out for a playoff upset in Toronto

5 Union players who need to ball out for a playoff upset in Toronto

Fair or not, the Union’s 2016 season will end up being classified by one game.

If they beat Toronto FC in the first round of the playoffs Wednesday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), it will be considered a success.

If they lose, it will be nothing more than an average season — slightly above average for those who think getting to the postseason for the second time in club history was the ultimate goal; slightly below average for those paying more attention to the fact they finished the regular season on a seven-game winless streak to barely grab the final spot.

Can the slumping team go on the road and beat Toronto in an elimination game? Probably not. But it’s certainly possible. And while every player in the lineup needs to play well for the Union to pull off the upset, there are five in particular that will likely be the difference between an early exit or a trip to the Eastern Conference Semifinals:

  1. Andre Blake: You might know him as Superman, or the best damn goalie in all of MLS. The guy has come up with some incredible saves this season, some of which have helped the Union earn points, others which came in a losing effort. There’s a distinct chance the Union are still bounced even if Blake does make a monster save or two. But if he doesn’t and just has an average game, it’s almost a certainty the Union’s offseason will begin on Thursday.
  2. C.J. Sapong: It’s no coincidence that the Union rose to the top of the table early in the season when Sapong was scoring goals and getting U.S. national team buzz. And it’s no coincidence they sunk to sixth place as Sapong hit a massive goal-scoring drought. It’s now been 10 games since Sapong scored in a 4-0 win over New England, and the Union are 2-6-2 in that stretch. Now would be a good time for the striker to snap out of his slump.
  3. Ken Tribbett: Oh, Ken. The center back out of Drexel has had some rough moments in his first MLS season, none more memorable than when he was burned for three first-half goals vs. Toronto on Aug. 20 and yanked from the game at halftime. But Tribbett had a solid outing in Philly’s last game vs. Toronto — a 1-1 draw on Sept. 24 — and will be called upon to start again with platoon-mate Josh Yaro dealing with an MCL sprain. Can he stop Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore? Not on his own. The key will be getting help from the rest of the backline and avoiding critical mistakes.
  4. Alejandro Bedoya: On top of Giovinco and Altidore, Toronto FC also boast one of the country’s top players in Michael Bradley. The Union cannot match that kind of star power. The closest they can come is with Bedoya, who knows Bradley and Altidore well from the U.S. national team. Adjusting to MLS is never easy for players who arrive in the middle of season, and that’s certainly been the case for Bedoya. But if the newcomer is able to control the midfield and go to-to-toe with Bradley, the Union will have a much better chance of surviving. 
  5. Tranquillo Barnetta: Will this be the final MLS game for Barnetta, who announced he’ll be leaving after the season to finish his career in his native Switzerland? That alone should be the perfect motivation for the Union to win. More than that though, nobody on this team has the ability to make something out of nothing and score a special goal than Barnetta. Can he do that in Toronto to keep his MLS career alive for at least another week? We’ll find out soon enough.

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

The Union left the country for a big game over the weekend and did not return to the United States with a win as they hoped.

But they did come back with a hard-earned point against the top team in the conference as well as the first MLS goal from their marquee summer signing, while inching closer to the playoffs. Here’s a look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Toronto FC and what lies ahead with three regular-season games left.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. It took Alejandro Bedoya almost two months to score his first MLS goal … but what a goal it was. After collecting a pass from Fabian Herbers midway through the first half (just barely avoiding being offside), the U.S. national team starter took one dribble and fooled goalkeeper Clint Irwin with a clever chip over his head and into the net. You don’t see those kind of chip goals often and when you do, they’re usually delivered by big-time playmakers — the kind of guys the Union don’t usually have but do now with Bedoya. Head coach Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya at the No. 10 attacking midfield spot with Tranquillo Barnetta injured also paid big dividends and showed the Union have more midfield options going into the playoffs … and into next season.

2. Coming into the game, a big storyline centered around center back Ken Tribbett, who got the start at center back about a month after getting pulled at halftime vs. Toronto. Another centered around right back Keegan Rosenberry, who was trying to bounce back from a rare off game in Portland the previous week. But, in the end, both players had some very good moments and helped limit the Toronto attack for much of the game, especially in the first half. Much of that had to do with another Curtin lineup decision as the Union head coach put two defensive-minded midfielders in front of the backline: Warren Creavalle, who also had a great hustle play that nearly led to a second goal right before halftime, and Brian Carroll, who’s now made two straight starts after missing six straight games with Plantar fasciitis.

3. Saturday’s game didn’t end without some late fireworks from the league’s hottest player, Jozy Altidore. Riding an eight-goals-in-nine-games streak coming in, the U.S. national team star struck the post in the 87th minute and was taken down in the box by C.J. Sapong in stoppage time on what initially looked to be a clear penalty. If you look at the replay from Sapong’s perspective, however, you could probably make the case that Sapong was going for the ball before getting impeded by Altidore. Either way, the idea of a ref not making a call that would likely decide a game (on a play that wasn’t a real goal-scoring opportunity) took some guts, especially as he got lambasted from the home team and its fans.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The brutal three-game road trip ends Saturday as the Union, after a loss in Portland and tie in Toronto, take on the rival New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., The Comcast Network). As conservative as it might sound, another point would probably make it a mildly successful trip considering the caliber of opponent. Either way, the Union’s playoff hopes and seeding will likely come down to their final two home games against Orlando and the Red Bulls. At this point, the best they can likely hope for is to hold off Montreal, D.C. United and New England for the No. 4 seed in the East, which would ensure them an opening-round home game. Luckily for them, Montreal and New England both lost this weekend, and although D.C. picked up a big win, they did so against another team in the playoff hunt in Orlando.

2. Another week means another question about captain Maurice Edu’s health. It’s now been more than two months since he returned to the practice field and almost a month since he started playing rehab games with the Bethlehem Steel. With only three games left in the season, it’s hard to see him becoming a starter after being out so long with a stress fracture. It also doesn’t help his case that Carroll and Creavalle are both playing well at his position. But if Edu’s healthy, there’s no sense not utilizing him as a midfield reserve or even as an emergency defensive replacement. The question, as always: is this the week he finally makes his season debut?

3. While Curtin’s lineup decisions played well in Toronto, one interesting one was not playing Roland Alberg. With Barnetta out, many Union fans probably expected Alberg to start at the No. 10 position — or, at the very least, come off the bench. But with the Union never falling behind, Curtin probably didn’t feel the need to bring in such an offensive-minded player. It was an understandable move considering the context but one that was surely disappointing for Alberg, who despite having nine goals in just over 1,000 minutes, has played only 19 minutes over the last three games and has started only once since the beginning of August. By now, you have to wonder what role the dynamic Dutchman will have in the playoffs — if he has one at all.

Stat of the week
With his seventh assist, the rookie Herbers moved into the top 10 in franchise history in career assists. He’s tied for ninth all time with Barnetta, Alejandro Moreno and Conor Casey.

Quote of the week
“I kind of even surprised myself.”

— Alejandro Bedoya, on his first MLS goal

Player of the week
Gotta give it to the guy who scored one of the best goals of the Union’s season, right? The Union now hope there’s more to come from Bedoya during the final stretch of the 2016 season.

Union's Ken Tribbett has shot at redemption vs. Toronto FC

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USA Today Images

Union's Ken Tribbett has shot at redemption vs. Toronto FC

CHESTER, Pa. — To say Ken Tribbett had a rocky game the last time the Union faced Toronto FC would be an understatement.

The first-year MLS defender out of Drexel scored a goal but was also victimized on three Toronto goals before getting pulled from the game at halftime.

Tribbett has played sparingly since then, losing his starting spot to Joshua Yaro, who he’s traded time with at center back for much of the season.

But when the Union face Toronto again this Saturday at BMO Field, Tribbett will return to the starting lineup while Yaro serves a one-game suspension for a red card he picked up in last weekend’s 2-1 loss to Portland.

“It’s a good opportunity for redemption,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Ken’s a guy we’ve leaned on heavily this year. He’s had a lot of great games for us. Obviously it’s no secret the Toronto game was a difficult one for him. A lot of the instances where we gave up chances the last time against Toronto were actually off of balls in our attacking half of the field that were turned over quickly and there was a second ball that was bouncing and we fell asleep for a split second. And I think Ken learned from that game.”

Tribbett admitted his last game against Toronto wasn’t his best performance but he isn’t scared to face his former tormentors again. In fact, he said he’s “grateful” for another opportunity to show what he can do and apply the lessons he learned from his last outing.

“Of course there are certain things you can always improve on,” Tribbett said. “Spacing in behind a big strong guy, you’ve got to learn to use your body. There’s a bunch of different things. I’ve learned my lesson and hopefully it’ll pay off on Saturday.”

The good news for Tribbett is that reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco has been out with an injury and likely won’t be back in time to face a Philadelphia team he’s scored against every time he’s faced them. The bad news is that Jozy Altidore is the hottest player in the league right now with eight goals in his last nine games for Toronto.

One of those goals came during Toronto’s 3-1 win in Philadelphia on Aug. 20 when Altidore muscled his way around Tribbett. Moving forward, the Union center back said the key to dealing with a big striker like Altidore is “maybe stay off and don’t wrestle with him so much.”

Of course, it won’t be just on Tribbett to contain Altidore but the Union’s entire young backline, as well as their midfield and goalkeeper Andre Blake.

“It’s always tough when you’re playing against a good player,” Tribbett said. “It’s even tougher when they’re scoring goals and in good form. All we can do is work together as a team to try to slow him down.”

One of those players who will look to slow down Altidore and the rest of Toronto’s vaunted attack is rookie Keegan Rosenberry.

Like Tribbett, he’s looking for a little bit of redemption after struggling in the Union’s last game in Portland. But also like Tribbett, he’s excited for the challenge this weekend’s north-of-the-border trip presents.

“Limiting his impact on the game is a challenge,” Rosenberry said of Altidore. “He’s feeling good right now. But we’re up for the challenge. It’s easy to get up for these types of games when you have those types of players that are feeling good.”

Normally, losing a player like Yaro — Rosenberry’s fellow rookie and old teammate at Georgetown — would be a big blow. But because Yaro and Tribbett have platooned for most of the year (be it for suspensions, injuries or whatever else), Rosenberry called it “lucky” that “both guys have plenty of experience.”

And although Curtin prefers stability along his backline, he too is glad that the two players have both logged a lot of big minutes in their first MLS seasons.

“They’ve both dealt with a lot of the top strikers,” the Union coach said. “I think it’s good. All these minutes and using all these different lineups that we’ve had to go to, it pays off in the big moments now — because it’s not a big deal for Ken to step in in Josh’s absence, and conversely I’d be completely comfortable with Josh jumping right back in.”

Tribbett said the competition between him and Yaro has been a good one because “both of us are true competitors” who naturally want to earn their spot.

But that will be on the backburner this weekend as Tribbett knows for sure he’ll be the one called upon with Yaro suspended.

And he’s ready to help the Union earn crucial points against arguably the best team in the East.

“I’ve been playing against top-caliber guys all year,” Tribbett said. “In the preseason, we played Toronto and we beat them 1-nil. We’ve shown that we can shut them down; we just need to do it again on Saturday.”