Minnesota United

C.J. Sapong lands early goal as Union draw Minnesota United

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C.J. Sapong lands early goal as Union draw Minnesota United

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ethan Finlay tied it late in the first half and Minnesota United and the Philadelphia Union played to a 1-1 draw Saturday night.

Finlay, who was making his home debut for Minnesota (7-14-5), scored in the 40th minute, pouncing on a loose ball after Andre Blake saved a pair or United attempts.

C.J. Sapong opened the scoring in the fifth minute for the Union (8-12-8), finishing a wide cross by Fabrice-Jean Picault that skirted behind the entire Minnesota back line.

Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

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Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

Union (8-12-7)  at Minnesota United (7-14-4)
8:00 p.m. on TCN

The weary Union, winless in their last four matches, aim to end their slide as they travel to TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night to take on expansion side Minnesota United for the first time in club history.

Here are five things to know.

1. Still fighting
With an 8-12-7 record and their playoff hopes all but dissolved, the Union don’t have much to play for Saturday, but that isn’t stopping manager Jim Curtin from demanding a focused performance.

“There are still seven games left and we’re going to chase all 21 points that are out there,” he said. “We still believe aren’t far off and that the foundation is a good one.”

If the final seven matches of the season can’t be about climbing up the Eastern Conference standings, Curtin wants to see steady improvement, especially away from Talen Energy Stadium. The club has only one win in its last six games.

“We’re not as concerned now with where we’re at in the table, we need good performances to get results,” Curtin said. “We’ve been poor on the road this year, it’s no secret. We’ve shown glimpses and shown a little bit of improvement. Now we have Minnesota.”

But that thirst for performance isn’t just about Curtin getting the most out of his beleaguered team. The manager feels the negativity and frustration coming from the Union’s fan base and wants to give them something to be proud of.

“There’s been negativity here and it’s deserved because he hasn't gotten the results that we set out to at the start of the season,” Curtin said. “I want to make the fans happy, I want nothing more than to win a trophy for this city and that will never change. I won’t stop working until I’m able to accomplish that goal.” 

2. Finding motivation
To achieve the performance level that Curtin is looking for in the final seven games, the Union players need motivation. That might not be an easy accomplishment with the club firmly outside of the playoff picture.

“Guys are always aware that they are fighting for not only three points but for the following season, how contracts are handled in the offseason,” Curtin said. “That’s a constant battle for every professional, so that’s nothing new for any of the guys.” 

Not pulling punches about where the Union currently stand, Curtin, whose club has been outscored 10-4 over its last three matches, explained how tough it can be to manage that motivation and keep minds from wandering. 

“As the season gets later, guys eyes start to wander,” said Curtin, who expects some roster changes this offseason (see story). “As it gets later on in the year, guys have an eye on different places and want to know where they stand. We have seven games left. We want to get better and get the maximum amount of points.”

While some players might be eying the door, others want to make the most of a bad situation.

“We wake up, get out there and deal with whatever situation is put in front of us,” Union forward C.J. Sapong said. “This season, there’s been a lot of adversity and we know if we stay true to ourselves we’ll get something out of it.”

3. Minnesota improvement
The Minnesota United aren't the same pushover they were at the start of 2017. With only five wins in its first 21 matches, the club has rattled two wins in its last four games.

“They are getting to know each other a little bit more,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said. “I think we have a better group than we had at the beginning of the season.”

The Union have taken notice. Despite being 7-14-4 overall, Minnesota United is 6-6-2 at home this season.

“It’ll be a difficult place to play,” Curtin said. “They kind of retooled their roster already this year and they are a strong team, a team that has kept the ball very well. If you look at the data, watch some of the films and they are dangerous. They have dangerous attacking pieces, [Abu] Danladi, the addition of [Ethan] Finlay, [Kevin] Molino, to name a few. We’ll have our hands full trying to neutralize them in their home stadium.” 

Heath credits an uptick in intensity and a team game for Minnesota United’s recent success.

“The level of performance the last two games, we need to build on that,” he said. “For me, it’s the intensity level and everyone putting in a full shift in, working hard for each other, defending the goal as a group and being really dangerous on the counter attack.”

4. Keep an eye on …
C.J. Sapong: Despite the down season from his club, the Union forward is having a career year with a team leading 12 goals in 26 games. The Union need finishing on the road and Sapong could be the guy to deliver it.

Kevin Molina: The playmaking midfielder is the creative force behind the Minnesota United attack. He leads the club with seven assists. 

5. This and that
• Union captain Alejandro Bedoya (yellow card accumulation) and center back Josh Yaro (red card suspension) will be suspended for Saturday’s match. Bedoya is expected to be replaced by either Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones, who is working to exit Curtin’s doghouse, while Oguchi Onyewu is expected to start in favor of Yaro.

• While the Union are relatively healthy, Minnesota United will be without midfielder Bernardo Anor, midfielder Thomas de Villardi, defender Jermaine Taylor and midfielder Sam Cronin, all listed as out for Saturday.

• Between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, Curtin understands his players might not be focused on soccer at the moment. “It’s a concerning time,” he said. “Fafa [Picault] has family in Miami and there are discussions going on with him. It’s scary. Some things you can’t really predict that are much more important than soccer.” Since then, Picault tweeted Friday his family arrived safely in Philadelphia.

• The Union have been surprisingly good against the Western Conference this season, holding a 3-2-4 record, which includes road draws in San Jose and Vancouver.

• One of the primary problems facing the Union offense is playmaking. Highlighting that deficit is Chris Pontius, who is second on the team in assists with six despite not registering a helper since May 17. Haris Medunjanin is first with eight.

Jim Curtin on Union's attempt to jump-start Derrick Jones: 'We want more'

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Jim Curtin on Union's attempt to jump-start Derrick Jones: 'We want more'

With captain Alejandro Bedoya suspended for Saturday’s match against Minnesota United, the Union handed an opportunity to midfielder Derrick Jones.

“He and Warren (Creavalle) will be the two vying for that position to replace Alejandro Bedoya,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “It’s big shoes to fill but two guys I’m confident can do it.”

All Jones had to do was take it. Curtin laid out the player's path to the starting XI, a spot Jones hasn’t seen since July 6. First, the 20-year-old needed to join the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel for their match against Orlando City B. Second, he needed to perform well.

Curtin wasn’t convinced of the latter after the 1-1 draw in Florida.

“He had an OK game,” the coach said. 

It was an unconvincing effort in what has been an unconvincing second half of the season for Jones. After losing his starting job five games into 2017, and suffering a concussion midway through the year, the physically dominant midfielder has been a mediocre version of the player the Union saw early in the season.

“We had a good talk with Derrick to try and get him going again,” said Curtin, talking about himself and sporting director Earnie Stewart. “We’re seeing decent performances with the Bethlehem Steel, decent performances in training but we want more. We want more of the Derrick we saw at the early stages of the year.”

One of the Union's most promising homegrown players, Jones hasn’t been bad, just not dynamic and certainly not dominant, which the club wants to see from its better players at the lower levels. 

Curtin believes that Jones may have simply hit a wall.

“You get past the midway point of the year, with the younger players, there’s a tendency to maybe have a step back,” Curtin said. “The grind, the length of training, doing it each and every day, that’s what it takes to be a true professional. It’s something that he’s still learning and something that he’s worked towards.” 

Yet, even with the lackluster grade, Jones is up against Creavalle to start at the No. 8 spot for the Union on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Because when it comes down to it, the struggling Union are in need of a youth movement as they hang onto an 8-12-7 record and sit three points from the Eastern Conference basement. 

“The conversation that he’s had with Earnie, with myself, with the two of us, I think he has shown an improvement,” Curtin said. “Now, he’s a guy that is in the discussion for the starting 11 against Minnesota.”