MLS Playoffs

Union's season over after MLS playoffs loss to Toronto FC

Union's season over after MLS playoffs loss to Toronto FC

For the underdog Union to overtake powerful Toronto FC on Wednesday in the opening round of the 2016 MLS playoffs, they needed a near-perfect effort. 

They didn’t get it. 

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore abused Union rookie center back Ken Tribbett to help Toronto FC dismantle the Union, 3-1, at BMO Field. 

“Only one team’s season ends the right way, good and with a smile,” Union manager Jim Curtin told reporters after the game. “Our season ends now, it’s difficult. Somewhere deep down in there, I do feel like Philadelphia Union fans and players can walk a little taller. We’re a franchise that is moving in the right direction.”

Toronto FC will face New York City FC in a two-game aggregate playoff. 

After a strong first five minutes of the match, the Union’s worst nightmare came true in the 15th minute, when Tribbett, who needed to be subbed for poor play in a match against Toronto FC in late August, flubbed a clear that bounced back to Andre Blake. The goalkeeper aggressively pursued the ball but wasn’t strong enough to get possession, allowing Altidore to make a crisp cross-box pass to wide open Giovinco for the opening goal and 1-0 lead.

“We were happy with how we came out, we put pressure on them,” Union veteran Chris Pontius said. “The goal was a crazy play, it just breaks down and they get a goal.” 

Toronto FC’s lead was doubled by Jonathan Osorio just three minutes into the second half when he capitalized off a corner. But the Union battled back.

The Union managed to trim the host’s lead in half, 2-1. Tranquillo Barnetta’s corner was flicked by Tribbett to Ilsinho, who hit it back across the box to Richie Marquez. The center back found Alejandro Bedoya wide open on the doorstep. 

“I thought our team pushed the game,” Curtin said. “Especially in the second half.” 

Yet, despite the mild comeback for the Union, Toronto FC put the opposition away in the 85th, when off a fast break, Altidore buried one off another failed clearance from Tribbett for the 3-1 final.

“It was a mistouch,” Curtin said. “If you give Jozy two looks, he’s going to get one. They were broken plays.” 

Although the Union began the season with a burst and flirted with being the surprise of the Eastern Conference, they collapsed at the end. Curtin’s club completed the year with four straight losses and went winless in its final eight matches of the season.

“When we started the season, nobody had us playing in a 35th game, for sure,” Curtin said. “We had a dip in form and we don’t hide from that. But we’ve moved forward. We know we need to get better in the offseason.”

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since Aug. 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.

As playoffs near, newcomer Alejandro Bedoya delivers message to Union

As playoffs near, newcomer Alejandro Bedoya delivers message to Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union coaches were about to wrap up a team meeting earlier this week, Alejandro Bedoya raised his hand.

The new midfielder had something he wanted to say.

“I was able to give a talk to the team Monday and let them know we’re all in this together, this is the end of the season, guys are playing for their livelihoods really,” Bedoya said Wednesday. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen next season. Some guys are gonna retire, some guys are gonna leave, get traded, go somewhere else. 

“This is a great opportunity we have in front of us now with the playoffs and trying to win an MLS Cup here in Philly.”

Bedoya, of course, is one of the team’s least-tenured players, coming over in August from France for his first stint in MLS. And there are other players on the team who have worn the captain’s armband, including Brian Carroll, Tranquillo Barnetta and Maurice Edu.

But Bedoya, a U.S. national team starter who forged a successful career in Europe, brings a unique viewpoint into what will be his first foray into the MLS Cup playoffs. And Curtin was happy to see his new midfielder emerge as a locker room leader after a lifeless 2-0 loss to Orlando City SC on Sunday sunk the Union's chances of possibly hosting a game when the playoffs begin next week.

“To be honest, it’s one of the first time it’s happened, where guys put their hand up and looked in the mirror, which is important,” Curtin said. “I think that shows good leadership, it shows we are a team that’s in this thing together. It’s kind of commonplace for the coach to take blame and put his hand up because I am ultimately in charge of the lineup and what goes out there. But for whatever reason, on the day it just wasn’t us, it didn’t feel like us. And to have guys recognize that was important.”

Bedoya certainly took his share of the blame for the loss to Orlando, admitting he wasn’t at his best after returning from a rib injury that held him out of two recent U.S. national team games.

To be fair though, nobody was at their best, which made for an awkward situation after the game when the Union learned they all but guaranteed a playoff berth — thanks to a Chicago Fire win over the New England Revolution — but didn’t much feel like celebrating.

“It doesn’t take a genius to look at that game and say that was a lackluster effort at best,” Bedoya said. “For us, it’s just staying optimistic. We know we have a great group of guys. We know we have a good team. When we’re playing well, when we’re on our game, we can compete with anybody in this league.”

The Union will get a chance to show that when they host the New York Red Bulls in Sunday’s regular-season finale (4 p.m., TCN). 

The Red Bulls are an MLS Cup contender and have the top seed in the East all but locked up. The Union are also firmly planted into their own spot, so the game doesn’t have many implications aside from Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips’ Golden Boot chase.

But for the Union, the game is still being viewed as a big one because the last thing they want is to enter the playoffs on a seven-game winless streak — and then, perhaps, enter the offseason on an eight-game winless streak, a dubious distinction that would cast a shadow over the accomplishment of making the playoffs for just the second time in club history.

“It’s very important,” Bedoya said. “I think it’s more than about pride. You gotta play for yourself, for each other. You’re representing this club, this organization, this city. I think we know the last performance was not good enough, not nearly good enough at all. It can only be better. We just have to try to get a result and play our best so we can get some momentum going into the playoffs.”

Considering the Union are playing the best team in the East followed by a playoff game against possibly Toronto FC or New York City FC — two teams loaded with stars — any win from here on out would be considered an upset. 

But Bedoya is a star in his own right, and the team’s new Designated Player is trying his best to spread a positive message heading into what will be the defining moments of the 2016 season.

And his teammates are listening.

“Definitely, he is a big-time player, a guy who can make big plays and make stuff for us and it’s great to have him,” goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “I think on any given day, when all the guys are bought-in and sharp, we can stand up against any team and give it a good run. And I think hopefully this Sunday, we can get back on a run going into the playoffs.”