Union-Fire observations: Chris Pontius helps end 6-game winless streak

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Union-Fire observations: Chris Pontius helps end 6-game winless streak


CHESTER, Pa. — In a battle between the bottom and top of the Eastern Conference, Chris Pontius and the limping Union stunned the Chicago Fire, 3-1, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The lopsided victory snapped a six-game winless streak to propel the Union to a 9-12-9 record. Meanwhile, the Fire, who were riding a three-game unbeaten run, fall to 14-10-6.

The Union made quick work of the Fire defense in the 10th minute when Warren Creavalle slipped a pass to Keegan Rosenberry, who shredded his defender with a fake to find the head of Pontius to open the scoring. 

Pontius struck again in the 55th minute, cleaning up a juicy rebound resulting from a Fafa Picault strike that was fought off poorly by goalkeeper Matt Lampson.

C.J Sapong added the 64th minute insurance when he finished a tight cross by Fabinho at the top of the crease. But Luis Solignac and the Fire countered just minutes later to make it 3-1, pouncing on sloppy play and a failed clear by the Union defense.

• The weight of the world was lifted from the shoulders of Pontius on Saturday, after the veteran, who led the Union in scoring last season, potted his first goal of the year in the 10th minute. Burying a feed from Rosenberry, Pontius snapped a 27-game scoreless streak. He added a second in the 56th minute by chasing down a rebound. The two goals summed up Pontius’ irregular slump — lack of luck and lack of service. He received both Saturday.

• By adding his 14th of the season in the 64th minute, C.J. Sapong extended his career high while also tying Sebastien Le Toux for the Union franchise record set in 2010. It was also his 30th goal with the Union. Sapong was subbed in the 86th minute for Jay Simpson.

• Keegan Rosenberry’s defensive struggles continued in the 67th minute, when Solignac beat the Union right back to a Nikolic pass. It was sloppy from the Union but not a back-breaker, as the goal, which made it 3-1, only ruined Blake’s shutout. It was Solignac’s sixth of the season.

• Owners of a six-game winless streak might sound bad, but things haven’t been terrible for the Union leading up to Saturday’s win. Over those six games, the Union earned four draws — three of which were on the road.

• The Fire will kick themselves over their performance against the Union. With an opportunity to stay one point behind New York City FC in the race for the No. 2 seed in the East, the Fire leave Talen Energy Stadium four points behind NYCFC, which earned a draw Saturday.

• Coming off a respectable performance last Sunday in a shutout against the New York Red Bulls, forgotten man, Richie Marquez, earned the start at center back against the Fire. Making back-to-back starts for the first time since late April, Marquez was good again. He made his signature well-timed slide tackle to break up a strong early challenge from Michael de Leeuw in the seventh minute to save a goal.

• While it may be late in the season for rarely-utilized Warren Creavalle, things are looking up. Instead of play shoot-first Roland Alberg at their impotent No. 10 position, the Union opted for the inverted midfield triangle, where Creavalle, who made his fourth start of the season, played defensive support. The move was to allow midfielders Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya off the leash offensively, a design that paid off when Bedoya found Picault for what kicked off the Union’s second goal. Bedoya also earned a secondary assist on the Union’s third goal. 

• Though Germany was well represented in the parking lot by fans, Bastian Schweinsteiger did not make the trip to Philadelphia. Fortunate for the Union, Saturday was the German legend’s third-straight game missed with a calf injury. 

• While the Fire were missing Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Union were without Josh Yaro and Ilsinho. Yaro has been nursing a knee injury, while Ilsinho is struggling with Achilles tendinitis. 

• Despite losing the possession battle, 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent, and passing accuracy, 89 percent to 79 percent, the Union were the dominant team. That’s a credit to the club’s rare potency in the final third. The Union earned six shots on goal a and buried three.

• Next up, the Union will be in the unenvious position of facing Atlanta United on Wednesday at the fortress known as Mercedes Benz Stadium. In its last four matches there, Atlanta has outscored the opposition, 17-3. It’s the league’s most advantageous home-field advantage at the moment.

With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

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With new deal signed, CJ Sapong hungry to 'eat' for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Union first traded for CJ Sapong ahead of the 2015 season, they knew they were getting a promising young attacking player.

What may have been less expected was Sapong developing into one of the top American strikers, a member of the U.S national team rotation and a foundational player that makes the Union’s entire system go.

So with Sapong’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2018 campaign, the Union knew they had to make sure to lock him up — which they did just one game into the season, signing him Wednesday to a new deal that runs through 2019 with a club option for 2020.

“I hope he continues to progress as a center forward,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart told reporters from the club’s training complex Wednesday. “I think CJ is a person that, [with] the way he takes care of his body and the professional that he is, has a long future in soccer. And he’s still growing as a soccer player.”

At 29, Sapong might not be considered young anymore. But it’s easy to make the case that his best soccer is still in front of him, considering he’s coming off a breakout 16-goal season — the first time in his career he eclipsed double digits — and is set up for even more success this year with the offseason additions of playmakers Borek Dockal and David Accam.

The combination of Dockal’s vision behind him with the speed of Accam and Fafa Picault on either side of him has Sapong as excited as inking a new deal.

“That gives me space to just chill in the box and eat when I can,” he said. “I find it hard to believe we’ll be kept off the scoresheet too many games this year.”

After opening his account in Philly’s season-opening 2-0 win over the Revolution on March 3, Sapong will look to find the back of the net again when the Union return to the field Saturday vs. Columbus at Talen Energy Stadium.

And putting all contract negotiations behind him should only provide further motivation to a player who can now rest easy that Philadelphia will be his home for years to come.

“He’s a guy who’s done everything for the badge, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and watch him grow and take his game to another level,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I’m looking forward to working with him for the next few years.”

Currently in his eighth MLS season, Sapong said he hopes to, at the least, hit double-digits in goals every year while continuing to do the dirty work and hold-up play that Curtin loves — and has endeared him to Philly fans.

“I owe a lot to Philadelphia,” Sapong said, “and how it’s transformed me as a person and a player.”

The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win

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The kids are finally all right for Union in season-opening win


CHESTER, Pa. — For years, the Union have yelled from the rooftops about their youth-first mentality and plan to win through player development.

On Saturday night, that plan finally came to fruition.

"It's a big step for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "The fact that some homegrowns weren't just on the field but left huge impacts on the game, it's special."

Anthony Fontana, 18, Auston Trusty, 19, and Derrick Jones, 21, all put their stamp on the Union's 2-0 season-opening win over the Revolution.

Fontana, hailing from Newark, Delaware, and who played 66 minutes at attacking midfield, opened up his MLS account in the 43rd minute when he gathered a tipped ball from C.J. Sapong and placed a confident shot past Matt Turner. 

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play here at this club,” Fontana said. “To be able to actually help the team today feels good.”

His teammates also couldn’t be happier. That includes Union and former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Alejandro Bedoya, who took Fontana under his wing throughout the preseason.

“I’m so happy for him,” Bedoya said. “He’s a good player so I hope he takes a good step this season. Not a bad way to start his debut, to score a goal. It’s just the beginning for him, he’s got a bright future.”

For Trusty, it was all about the clean sheet. Pairing with Jack Elliott on the left side of the Union defensive line, Trusty had the unenviable job of shutting down the Revs’ most potent option, Juan Agudelo. 

“It means a lot, but it’s also the challenge,” Trusty said. “The coach put me up to it and our organization put me up to it and they believe I can do it. I just set out to fulfill my role, do my task and keep the clean sheet and just play my role on the team.”

At one point in the first half, Agudelo beat Trusty and moved in on a breakaway, only for the rookie to catch up and steal the ball back.

“He made a couple key tackles in the box, won a lot of aerial duels in the box, did a lot of the things that don’t show up in the stat sheet for center backs,” Curtin said. “But the thing that makes me most proud is there was a zero at the end of the day. That’s what is most important. That means Auston did the job.” 

And while the win was a productive introduction for the Union’s crop of talented prospects, it was also an unforgettable experience for the local kids.

“It’s amazing,” Trusty said. “Imagine growing up in the Philadelphia area, being a little kid and coming to see these guys play, to be on the same field. I remember buying a ticket and coming to see these guys play and always dreamed of playing for the Union. For it to actually happen is amazing. It’s very humbling. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”