Union

Union-Sporting KC 5 things: McCarthy taking over in goal for tough road clash

Union-Sporting KC 5 things: McCarthy taking over in goal for tough road clash

Union at Sporting Kansas City
8:30 p.m., The Comcast Network

Riding a modest two-game MLS winning streak, the Union (6-7-4) hit the road for a big test against one of the top teams in the league in Sporting Kansas City (8-4-7) on Thursday night.

Here are five things to know:

1. Depleted but still powerful
The Union are certainly catching Sporting Kansas City at a good time as three of the club’s premier players — Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler — are with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup. On top of that, Roger Espinoza is suspended and leading scorer Gerso Fernandes is questionable with an injury.

Nevertheless, Union head coach Jim Curtin warned that SKC is deep enough to overcome those losses, especially at home, where they own a sparkling 6-0-3 record this year.

“The way they play will be the same,” Curtin said. “They have a true system they believe in. They have a ton of experienced guys in [Ike] Opara, [Benny] Feilhaber, guys who’ve been through MLS games. It’s gonna be a difficult task. You can never take them lightly.”

SKC head coach Peter Vermes is confident in his team’s depth, too.

“One man’s absence is another man’s opportunity,” he told reporters in Kansas City. “For the good majority of games that we’ve had to make changes, guys’ performances have been good.”

2. McCarthy takes the reins
The Union will also be missing some key guys due to the Gold Cup as captain Alejandro Bedoya is with the U.S. national team while star goalkeeper Andre Blake recently joined Jamaica.

Blake is coming off two straight shutouts — his sixth and seventh of the season — and made some big-time saves in those wins over the New England Revolution and D.C. United.

Now, the Union turn to backup John McCarthy, who has played only in the Union’s two U.S. Open Cup games this season, most recently a shootout loss to the New York Red Bulls last week.

“Johnny’s coming off a really good performance vs. Red Bull,” Curtin said. “I think he’s in good form and is gonna do a good job for us in KC.”

After playing in 11 games in his rookie season in 2015, McCarthy has made only one league start since the start of the 2016 campaign — a 3-0 loss to Chicago last year. But his teammates have faith in the Philly native and La Salle alum.

“Dre, like I’ve said before, is to me the best goalie in the league,” Union winger Fafa Picault said. “But we definitely believe in John and what he’s able to do for us. We’ll count on him to make big saves. We’ll be ready and I’m sure he’s ready as well.”

3. Defense leads to offense
While Blake naturally deserves a lot of the credit for the team’s two straight shutouts, the backline has also been especially stingy, particularly the center back pairing of veteran Oguchi Onyewu and rookie Jack Elliott (who’s good to go Thursday after leaving Sunday’s game with a contusion).

“They defend individually really well,” Vermes said. “It’s like a bunch of little pitbulls on the field in the way they won’t give you time and space on the ball.”

Curtin also noted that the hard work on defense has lead to more offensive success with three different players scoring in last week’s win over New England, including attacking midfielders Ilsinho and Roland Alberg.

“It’s great for their confidence,” said Picault, who’s been one of the team’s most dangerous offensive players.

4. Players to watch
Union: C.J. Sapong, who spent the first four years of his MLS career in Kansas City, is back in old stomping grounds. And he could make it a special trip as he’s just one goal away from reaching the double-digit mark in goals for the first time.

Sporting Kansas City: The hosts may be missing a lot but still have a big weapon in center back Ike Opara, who is a dominant defender and dangerous offensively on set pieces. “People might laugh at this comment and I don’t really care,” Curtin said. “I’ve watched every KC game and Ike Opara is playing for me at an MVP-type level.”

5. This and that
• Chris Pontius was a late call-up to join Bedoya on the US national team but will be available for the game in Kansas City before departing.

• Sporting KC is undefeated at home in 17 straight games, with 10 shutouts in that stretch. They’re one of four teams in the league without a home defeat this season.

• SKC has allowed only 13 goals in 19 games, by far the lowest goals-against average in MLS.

• Of the Union’s six victories this season, five have come by shutout.

• In Philly’s last trip to Kansas City, they had one of their worst endings in franchise history, allowing two goals in stoppage time to turn a late 2-1 lead into a 3-2 loss. Just two days later, Curtin decided to bench goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi, who never played another game for the Union.

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

Jack Elliott didn't expect to come to the United States to play college soccer. He didn't expect to get drafted into MLS. Few people likely would have predicted that he'd make the Union coming out of the preseason and even fewer probably believed he'd find his way onto the field just four games into the rookie season.

But there he was last week, having climbed up the depth chart due to surprisingly steady play and a couple of injuries, entering the Union's game vs. D.C. United at RFK Stadium in a daunting spot at halftime. 

And now, with Richie Marquez undergoing concussion protocol and questionable for Saturday's game against the Portland Timbers at Talen Energy Stadium (7 p.m., TCN), the England-born Elliott may very well get the start in Philly's second home contest of the 2017 season.

"At first, there were a bit of nerves," Elliott admitted of his earlier-than-expected MLS debut. "But I didn't really have too much time to think about it and be nervous about it."

Indeed, Union head coach Jim Curtin didn't even get a chance to talk to Elliott at halftime when Marquez exited the match with concussion-like symptoms. Instead, it was performance director Garrison Draper who told Elliott to get on the field and warm up with Curtin relaying a message to the rookie through Oguchi Onyewu.

According to Elliott, Onyewu then told him, "I trust you. Just play your football." And the new center back pairing teamed up nicely to help keep D.C. United in check as the Union sliced their two-goal halftime deficit in half before eventually dropping a 2-1 decision.

Although the loss adds significantly more pressure to the Union's upcoming three-game homestand, with the club winless in its first four games, the play of Elliott was certainly a bright spot as Curtin praised the rookie's passing and positioning.

"I'm confident in Jack that he can play in MLS,” Curtin said. "I believe he has the size, the feet, the passing ability to play in the league. And he showed that, to his credit, against D.C. United."

More than 3,500 miles away, Elliott's parents enjoyed the game from their home in Norbury, a town just outside London. They stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch, unaware that their son would get in. When he did, they proudly texted him, which he saw as soon as he returned to the RFK visiting locker room.

In many ways, it was the culmination of an interesting journey that was set in motion a few years ago when a West Virginia University assistant coach who hailed from his area in England scouted him and offered him a scholarship.

Elliott -- who played so much soccer as a kid in soccer-mad England that the grass in his backyard eventually disappeared -- was planning to go to a university in his home country, but he immediately jumped at the new opportunity to cross the Atlantic.

"It wasn't a huge deliberation for me," Elliott said. "As soon as he told me, I told my mom I really wanted to do it."

Elliott admits that going from London to Morgantown, West Virginia, was a little bit of a culture shock at first, as was the speed and physicality of soccer in the U.S. But his teammates welcomed him in with open arms and he grew into a dominant and reliable player for the Mountaineers, missing only one match in four years and anchoring a backline that recorded eight shutouts during his senior season.

Because of his success in the college ranks, Elliott was invited to the MLS Combine in January, where he thought he played well enough to get drafted -- though he admitted it was never "an expectation." The Union picked him in the fourth and final round with the 77th pick, ahead of only seven other players, with Curtin calling him to congratulate him and telling him he expected "big things."

But the truth is, many players who get selected in the third and fourth rounds of the draft don't get offered an MLS contract with some instead signing with a lower-division affiliate or pursuing professional opportunities elsewhere. In the past, the Union even have had cut late-round draft picks in the first week or two of the preseason.

Having already made it that far, however, Elliott wasn't worried.

"I didn't really think too much about the statistics of all that," he said. "I just played the way I played football -- connecting passes, showing my passing range. I got the height and I've been trying to improve and show what I've got."

Elliott's 6-foot-5 frame is certainly one big reason why he looks like an MLS player, which he showed with a pair of impressive preseason performances before getting rewarded with a rookie contract in late February. With Onyewu providing sound advice, he then quickly passed Ken Tribbett -- last season's surprise rookie starter -- as the top center back reserve behind Onyewu and Marquez, at least until Joshua Yaro returns from a shoulder injury.

"It starts with the preseason," Curtin said. "He came in really fit, really confident and showed his ability to pass out of the back. He got to play in preseason games and we started to see that against some good forwards that he belonged. And his evolution in training each and every day when he goes against our forwards, he does a good job as well. He's progressed very quickly.

"You always have to be ready for your opportunity," the Union coach added of his debut. "That's how it starts. That's how it started for Richie Marquez. That's how it started for Josh Yaro. And now Jack Elliott would be another guy who had that debut moment and rose to the occasion. We really believe in our young guys. It won't be the last time a young guy steps up in a big spot. I'm happy for Jack to get his debut and now we want more."

Whether or not "more" comes Saturday is up in the air. Curtin said he believe Marquez should pass the league's concussion protocol but even then, he'll have a "tough decision" since Marquez has missed some practice time.

Whoever plays will certainly have his work cut out for him against a dynamic Portland attack that features two of the league's premier players in midfielder Diego Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi, who have combined for nine goals this year already. 

But if the call comes, Elliott will be ready for it.

"Coming out of that tunnel," he said, "would be an amazing feeling."

Inside Doop: Union still searching for first win of season

Inside Doop: Union still searching for first win of season

Nothing like playing the Union to get your season kickstarted.

After failing to score through the first three games of the 2017 season, D.C. United capitalized on what head coach Jim Curtin called "two self-inflicted errors" to score twice and hold off the Union for a 2-1 win Saturday at RFK Stadium.

In this week's Inside Doop, we'll take a closer look at the game and what lies ahead for the Union, who return home still seeking their first win of the year.

Three thoughts about Saturday's game
1. It was not the best first half for the Union's defense. D.C. striker Jose Guillermo Ortiz, in for the injured Patrick Mullins, scored their first goal after a silly giveaway from Fabinho and a shot that appeared to ricochet off Oguchi Onyewu. And the second goal came on a Luciano Acosta penalty kick after Richie Marquez was whistled for a questionable hand ball just inside the box. Marquez, who ranked third in the league in minutes played last year, then came out at halftime with a head injury, which only added to his rough night and led to a daunting debut for rookie Jack Elliott. A center back pairing of Onyewu and Elliott was certainly not something anyone could have predicted in the preseason, and at this point, many Union fans are probably clamoring for the quick return of Joshua Yaro to add a much-needed boost to the beleaguered backline.

2. Don't tell C.J. Sapong that his role has been diminished. Despite being turned into a reserve this year after two seasons as Philly's starting striker, Sapong has been the team’s hottest player, scoring three goals in as many games after netting the team's only goal Saturday less than 10 minutes after coming in. And he could have very well added a second if not for a sparkling save from D.C. goalie Bill Hamid. At this point, you have to wonder if Sapong will get back his starting job over Jay Simpson -- who struggled to get involved in his first game back from a ribs injury -- or if Curtin prefers the spark that Sapong brings off the bench.

3. To be fair to the Union, they did dominate parts of the game and won almost all of the major statistical categories, including possession (57.4 percent-42.6 percent), shots on goal (9-3) and passing accuracy (80 percent-73 percent). And while that will do little to appease fans who are used to seeing this franchise make untimely mistakes to blow games, it does perhaps show that the Union do have the ability to go on a run once they get out of their own heads and into the win column.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The Union are coming home at just the right time. After playing three of their first four on the road, their next three will be at Talen Energy Stadium. But getting their first win still won’t be easy as they meet one of the league's top teams in the Portland Timbers on Saturday before then facing star-studded New York City FC and the Montreal Impact. It's still too early to call anything a must-win or say head coach Jim Curtin is on the hot seat. But if they fail to get more than one or two points over their next three games, might his seat get a little bit warmer?

2. The health of Richie Marquez will be a major concern heading into a matchup with a dynamic Timbers team that leads the league in goals scored. With Yaro already hurt, that means the center back pairing could be a player who, until last month, was out of pro soccer for over a year (Onyewu) and a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft (Elliott). That could be a recipe for disaster against a very dangerous Portland attack.

3. One of the big questions circulating around the Union right now is of the play of Alejandro Bedoya, their star and captain. It's no secret the team hasn't won too many games since Bedoya came on board last summer and that he hasn't really been "the guy" that the Union need him to be. It also remains to be seen if the No. 10 position is his best spot on the field. Will Curtin consider moving him into more of a box-to-box role while unleashing perhaps their one true attacking midfielder in Roland Alberg, who’s played a grand total of 15 minutes this season?

Stat of the week
Including the playoffs, the Union haven't won in their last 12 games dating back to last season. Their last victory was a 2-0 home triumph over Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 27.

Quote of the week
"I know this group. The performances are not indicative of the point total that we are on right now." -- Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
Sapong only played 31 minutes but, along with fellow second-half sub Elliott, proved to be a major bright spot for the Union.