Ryan Bright

Union-Fire Thoughts: Veterans fighting for jobs as unsuccessful season winds down

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Union-Fire Thoughts: Veterans fighting for jobs as unsuccessful season winds down

Union (10-13-9) at Chicago Fire (15-10-7)
5 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia+

The season that will seemingly never end for the Union continues Sunday in Chicago at Toyota Park when they take on the Fire in the penultimate game of the 2017 season.

Officially ejected from postseason contention over the international break, the Union will need to find some type of motivation to avoid being embarrassed by the playoff-bound Fire, who are still jockeying for playoff position.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

• Officially removed from postseason contention, the Union will face the Fire on Sunday in a meaningless match. But with an offseason expected to usher in significant roster change, Union manager Jim Curtin has put it bluntly: these guys are playing for jobs.

“We recognize we’re out of the playoffs now,” he said. “Which is tough for the group, but we’re still using these 90 minutes to evaluate players and get better.”

Keep an eye on Roland Alberg, Chris Pontius and Oguchi Onyewu. The three players could all be goners by the start of 2018 and could bolster their stock with a productive finish.

• Although the Union will ultimately finish 2017 with their heads down, they are ending the regular season relatively strong. The Union are 2-1-3 in their last six games, including wins over the Fire and Seattle Sounders and three draws on the road.

“It’s not an easy game for us, Philly is a good team,” said Fire midfielder Dax McCarty. “I think they were a little unfortunate to go through a tough season this year.”

• But outside of those three hard-fought road draws, the Union have been putrid away from Talen Energy Stadium this season, going 1-9-6 entering Sunday’s match. It’s been one of the primary reasons the club has suffered another awful season.

• Win, lose or draw on Sunday, with only nine points on the road in 2017, the Union will finish with the lowest road point total in franchise history since MLS added four games to the schedule in 2011.  The 2010 expansion team only managed seven points, going 2-12-1.

“Going on the road has been our struggle this year,” Curtin said. “It’s been our challenge.”

• The Union’s road struggles could prove costly against a team that plays exceptionally well at home. The Fire are 11-2-3 at Toyota Park this season, outscoring the opposition by a 38-12 margin. It’s the Fire’s final match at home this season, giving them added incentive to perform.

• If anger breeds determination, the Union will have something going for them Sunday. Both Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin were called up for World Cup qualifiers over the last two weeks and both players suffered through losses that ended their country’s hopes at a World Cup trip.

Despite scoring a rare goal, Medunjanin and Bosnia and Herzegovina lost to Belgium but defeated Estonia. Bedoya’s U.S. Men’s National Team took down Panama but had its spirits crushed by Trinidad and Tobago.

• Revenge will be on the minds of the Fire. On Sept. 23 at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union dominated the Fire, as Pontius scored twice and C.J. Sapong added the insurance. Luis Solignac scored the lone goal for the visitors in what was a lopsided match.

“They had a gameplan against us, to sit back and counter-attack us,” McCarty said. “I would imagine we’re going to see the same thing, so it’ll be on us to move the ball quicker. We need good movement and rotations behind their midfield.”

• Relatively healthy, the Union will be without Fabian Herbers, Maurice Edu and Ken Tribbett, who are all out for Sunday. Warren Creavalle and Josh Yaro are questionable.

• On the other side, the Fire are banged up. Although Bastian Schweinsteiger is questionable with a thigh injury, John Goossens, Jorge Bava, Daniel Johnson, Christian Dean, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw are all out.

• If the Union want a chance against the Fire, they will have to neutralize forward Nemanja Nikolic, who has a ridiculous 21 goals in 32 games this season. That’s including five goals and an assist in his last five matches. He’s on fire right now.

“He’s a good player and one of the top scorers in the league,” Elliott said. “We’ll have to get tight with him near the box and prevent his opportunities.”

• What makes Sunday’s match so important for the Fire is that it could change where they land in the postseason picture. Right now, the club is fourth in the East but could finish as low as fifth or as high as second.

“We did our jobs, so now we have to build good momentum for the playoffs,” said Fire coach and former Union player Veljko Paunovic. “We have a great opportunity. Playing at home, after a break, it’ll be a fantastic opportunity for us to get three points.”

• Despite an awful season from their parent club, the Bethlehem Steel, the Union's USL affiliate, have qualified for the playoffs in just their sophomore campaign. Currently holding the eighth and final position with a 12-12-7 record, the Steel will face Saint Louis FC in the regular season finale on Sunday to determine playoff seeding.

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

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USA Today Images

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.

Union-Sounders observations: Union stave off playoff elimination with win

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AP Images

Union-Sounders observations: Union stave off playoff elimination with win

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union fought off playoff elimination Sunday afternoon as they overwhelmed defending MLS champion Seattle Sounders, 2-0, at Talen Energy Stadium.

Setting a new club record for home wins, the Union, now 10-13-9 overall, are four points out of playoff position with two games remaining. The Sounders, who could have clinched playoff position with a win, fall to 12-9-11.

• While the Union will likely end 2017 outside the playoff picture, they are roaring down the stretch at Talen Energy Stadium. The club is 3-1-1 in its last five matches at home, earning points against teams with a combined 52-35-38 record. That includes the Sounders, Chicago Fire, Atlanta United and FC Dallas.

• Now 9-4-3 at home, the Union set a club record for total wins in a single season. The previous record was eight, set in 2016. Now if the Union could do something about their 1-9-6 road record they might be onto something.

• According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Union have been surprisingly good at home since May 1.

• Motivated early, Fafa Picault and C.J. Sapong tested Stefan Frei in the 19th minute, firing off a pair of chances that were fought away by the goalkeeper. But while saving his club early, Frei would eventually break in the 28th minute, when Ilsinho lifted a pass to the right to Marcus Epps who collected himself before placing his left-footed chances past Frei for the opening goal.

• Following an offensive flurry midway through the second half that should have resulted in a Union goal, Ilsinho, who paced the attack, went down injured. Although he walked off under his own power, the Brazilian was replaced by Roland Alberg.

Alberg did what Alberg does in the 88th minute, crushing a right-footed shot from the left side of the box that completely fooled Frei and found the far corner, icing the Union’s 2-0 win. It was Alberg’s seventh goal in 22 games.

• Frustration mounted for the Union with 10 minutes to go in the first half when Picault, on a shoulder-to-shoulder breakaway with defender Kelvin Leerdam, was bodied to the ground just outside the box.

There was no foul called on the play, despite heavy protest from the Union. If called, the foul would have been a red-card ejection for Leerdam for impeding a clear scoring opportunity.

• Although the Union played a stellar match as a whole, Fabinho stood out. The left back was an offensive force, earning a team-high three shots.

• Coming off the bench in the 55th minute, Sounders forward Clint Dempsey entered the match for Jordy Delem, making the Sounders even more dangerous. The move paid off as Dempsey earned a pair of potent chances that were turned away by heroic Andre Blake.

Blake finished the match with a five-save shutout.

• Minutes before the match began, Chris Pontius was pulled from the starting lineup for Epps. According to the team, the veteran winger tweaked something in his abdomen. If the injury is serious, it could put an end to what has been a nightmare season for Pontius, who is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

• The injury to Pontius left the Union light at right wing, forcing Union manager Jim Curtin to get creative. In the 77th minute, rarely-used forward Jay Simpson spelled Epps on the right side.

Simpson made his presence felt in the 87th minute with a golden opportunity. He headed a chip pass from Picault that was pushed away by Frei. However, the play earned the corner that Alberg’s goal originated from.

• Keegan Rosenberry (ankle), Josh Yaro (knee) and Warren Creavalle (hamstring) were scratched from the match with injuries, allowing Ray Gaddis, Richie Marquez and Ilsinho to jump back into starting positions. For the Sounders, Jordan Morris, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso missed the match.

• Next up, the Union travel to Chicago to challenge the Fire, who are 11-2-3 at Toyota Park this season. The Union crushed the Fire, 3-1, on Sept. 23 at Talen Energy Stadium.