Roland Alberg

Union Notes: Andre Blake, Roland Alberg upgrade Union's slim playoff hopes

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Union Notes: Andre Blake, Roland Alberg upgrade Union's slim playoff hopes

CHESTER, Pa. — Not only did the Union stave off playoff elimination with Sunday's 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, but according to FiveThirtyEight, the club also managed to turn a less-than-one-percent chance to make the postseason into exactly one percent.

So, you're saying there's a chance ...

"I think in soccer it's never over," Union left back Fabinho said. "I know it's hard to make the playoffs but we play for a great club. You saw today, 17,000 people came to watch the game. You have to play for those guys. Playoffs or not, our chances are very small but you have to play hard, always."

Four points behind the New York Red Bulls for the final playoff spot, the Union are in it mathematically. The Red Bulls, with three games left, haven't won in their last eight matches. But despite the minuscule chance of overcoming the deficit, the Union aren't changing their focus.

"We're not mathematically eliminated, we have to win two soccer games in a row which isn't impossible," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "A certain rival has to lose three games in a row, which also isn't impossible either. We're most focused on our performance, getting better as a group, evaluating things for not only this year but beyond."

Heroic Blake
Another game, another unbelievable effort from Union goalkeeper Andre Blake. 

"Andre is special," Curtin said. "He makes the spectacular save look routine. He made some incredible saves to keep it at 1-0. He's last year's [MLS Goalkeeper of the Year] for a reason."

Despite facing zero shots or attempts in the first half, the Jamaican was forced into multiple eye-popping stops in the second stanza.

Stuffing Sounders leading scorer Clint Dempsey on three different occasions, the goalkeeper wasn't phased by the sudden increase in work. He finished with five saves and his ninth shutout of the season.

"At any time the game can start changing," said Blake, who was called up for the Jamaican National Team for a friendly against Saudi Arabia during the upcoming international break. "When it's quiet, I just try to stay in the game mentally to stay connected. Be ready for anything."

Jet-setting Medunjanin
It's been a good week for Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin. With a secondary helper on Sunday, he became the fifth Union player in a season to record 10 assists. Sebastien Le Toux and Cristian Maidana both did it twice.

Medunjanin was also called up to the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team for upcoming World Cup qualification.

"It's an honor to play for my country," said Medunjanin, who was also called up in June. "We have an important game, we play against Belgium so we need to win two games. We play Belgium and Estonia, so if we win two games, we're going to be in the playoffs for the World Cup for next year, so I'm very excited to be there, to see my family."

Immediately following Sunday's match, Medunjanin headed to Newark Airport, where he faced an eight-hour flight to Munich, Germany. He'll then travel to Bosnia. But the long trip is a small price to pay for the veteran Medunjanin.

"It's a dream to play on the biggest stage like a World Cup," he said. "We have a good team but we only went one time to a big tournament. We need to fight and hopefully, we can be there next year."

Making it count
Marcus Epps didn't expect to get the start on Sunday. But when his number was called, following Chris Pontius's departure from warm-ups with an abdominal injury, the rookie didn't disappoint.

"It was definitely a surprise," Epps said. "I didn't know Chris was not going to be ready, but coach trains us to be ready at any moment, and as soon as I got the news, I just tried to focus in and make sure I'm ready to help the team as soon as the game started."
 
In the 28th minute, Epps gathered a pass from Ilsinho, and from the right side of the box, fired off a shot that beat Stefan Frei for the 1-0 Union lead. They never relinquished that advantage. It was Epps' second goal in six starts this season.
 
"I saw the defense was collecting and they were doing pretty well blocking my crosses and shots during the game," he said. "So I saw space near-post, and I thought it would be better to be composed and sneak it in near-post."
 
Quote of the match
"I feel good, man. I feel very good," said Fabinho, when asked about his three-shot performance.

"With Seattle traveling from across the country, you have an opportunity to play, go forward. I tried it today, I tried to score, I tried to cross. I felt very good. I had to help my team."

Stat of the match
122.7 — the game minutes it takes for Roland Alberg to score a goal. He buried his seventh of the season on Sunday. He scored once every 128 minutes last season.

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.

Inside Doop: Questions mount as Union's road woes deepen

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Inside Doop: Questions mount as Union's road woes deepen

The Union know, that to have any shot of sneaking into the playoffs, they’ll need to find a way to pick off points on the road, especially against some of the league’s lower-tier teams.

Consider Saturday a lost opportunity, then.

After earning a good 3-0 home win over Columbus on Wednesday, the Union couldn’t keep it going with a disappointing 3-0 setback in New England over the weekend.

Here’s a closer look at the past week and what lies ahead for the Union as their playoff hopes grow dimmer.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. The Union had dominated the Revolution of late, winning their last three matchups by a combined score of 11-0 heading into Saturday’s game, including a 3-0 home win earlier in the month. But the Union’s road struggles were too much to overcome in this one as they fell to 1-7-3 away from home this season. And it’s not just that the Union are losing on the road; they often look punchless in the attack and lacking any sort of ideas. It’s a far cry from how they play at home, where they’re a healthy 6-3-2 and have generated some fun and exciting moments along the way.

2. It was another eventful week for Roland Alberg, who got into an argument with C.J. Sapong over who would take a penalty kick in Wednesday’s win a week after expressing displeasure at Fafa Picault on the field and getting suspended for a dangerous tackle. And while the Union downplayed the whole scene afterward, many wondered what kind of teammate Alberg might be. There’s no way to know for sure about his status in the locker room, but it is fair to say that his chemistry on the field, particularly with Sapong, has been lacking. So has his production as Alberg failed to impose his will on Saturday’s game from the vital No. 10 spot — a position that continues to be the team’s most glaring need, either now or in the offseason.

3. The good news for the Union’s future is that two of their 2017 draft picks — Marcus Epps and Jack Elliott — enjoyed good weeks with Epps scoring his first career goal Wednesday and Elliott making a phenomenal goal-line clearance, among other great defensive plays, Saturday. Considering both were picked after the first round, that’s some good bang for the Union’s buck. Of course, it makes sense why Philly fans may temper their expectations here considering the standout trio from the 2016 draft class — Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers — followed promising rookie campaigns by being benched (either because of injury or inconsistent play) for most of 2017.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. After a brutal four-game-in-11-days stretch, the Union finally get a full week to prepare for their next one. Even more good news is that they get to play at home. The bad news is that the opponent is FC Dallas, one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Is it too soon to classify it as a “must win?” Perhaps. But considering how poor they’ve been on the road and how difficult their remaining schedule is, they really can’t afford to lose or draw at Talen Energy Stadium at this point in the season.

2. Will Andre Blake return? The star goalkeeper has now missed five straight Union games due to the Gold Cup and a hand injury he suffered in the Gold Cup final. And while backup John McCarthy has played well in his absence, it’s probably not a coincidence the Union are 1-3-1 in that stretch, given Blake’s unique ability to win his team points. There’s no sense rushing him back if he’s not ready, but Blake returning to face an excellent FC Dallas attack in front of the Sons of Ben would provide a nice bolt of energy to a fan base that certainly needs one right now.

3. Remember Rosenberry? The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up was supplanted as the team’s starting right back in April after playing every minute in 2016. And even the Union playing four games in 11 days wasn’t enough for head coach Jim Curtin to give Rosenberry any minutes over the past two weeks. Considering the second-year right back also isn’t getting time for affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, it’s fair to wonder how these past few months may or may not stall his development — and whether he still remains as big of a piece to the club’s future as he seemed to be last year.

Stat of the week
In four road games in July — three losses and a draw — the Union finished with a combined eight shots on target.

Quote of the week
“For me, I think he’s been the Rookie of the Year.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin on Jack Elliott after Saturday’s game.

Player of the week
Although he was kept off the scoresheet in New England, Sapong’s performance Wednesday was one of the best of any Union player this season as he scored his record 10th goal and added two fantastic assists.