Union-Fire thoughts: Union playing for pride as they host potent Fire


Union-Fire thoughts: Union playing for pride as they host potent Fire

Union (8-12-9)  vs. Fire (14-9-6)
7 p.m. on TCN

Home for the first time in over a month, the Union will rely on that home cooking to try and break up a six-game winless run as they host Nemanja Nikolic and the Chicago Fire on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

What to play for
With five matches remaining in the season for the Union, miles from the playoff picture and sitting five points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference, motivation is scarce. But according to Union manager Jim Curtin, his club has two reasons to show up Saturday and compete.

“We're playing for pride and we’re playing for positions for next season," Curtin said. "There's still a lot on the line in that regard. Pride plays a big role as professional athletes. You have to look yourself in the mirror and realize this year wasn't good enough. I think we know that. Now, you're playing for positions on the team next year.”

Expected to go on a shopping spree in the offseason, the Union will use the final five matches to evaluate talent, especially when things get tough. Of the bubble players, Curtin wants to know which players are willing to fight for the badge with nothing to play for.

He also wants some momentum.

“We have had guys who have had good seasons and we need them to continue that,” Curtin said. “Any positive momentum you can take has to be with wins. I think that will really build equity back in the fanbase and confidence in the group. How you finish is still very important.”

Elevated Creavalle
Since beating out Derrick Jones to replace suspended Alejandro Bedoya on Sept. 9 against Minnesota United, midfielder Warren Creavalle has forced himself onto the field with strong play. Even with Bedoya’s return last Sunday, Creavalle found himself coming off the bench for a solid 45 minutes.

“Warren falls into the category of a guy who could be pretty frustrated with the minutes he received this year,” Curtin said. “But when he was called upon, he really stepped up and did a good job for us.”

Creavalle has done such a good job in the midfield that Curtin, notoriously stubborn with formation changes, is kicking around the idea of adding Creavalle as the more defensive player in a triangle with Haris Medunjanin and Bedoya, freeing up both players to take chances. 

Curtin hinted we could see that change as early as Saturday.

“It’s something, moving forward, where we can invert that triangle and have Warren there with Ale and Haris, so when we have the ball it gives other teams a different look,” Curtin said. “It’s something you could see down the stretch, it plays to their skillsets a little bit. 

Fire on fire
Saturday will be a tale of teams headed in different directions. While the Union haven’t won in six tries, the Fire, who are 3-7-4 away from home this season, haven’t lost in their last three. 

“They are a very confident team right now,” Curtin said. ‘They have a strong group of attacking players.”

But that doesn’t mean the Fire, who will be without seven players, including Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho on Saturday, are overlooking the Union. Sitting third in the East with 48 points, the Fire, led by Nikolic's 18 goals, are three behind New York City FC and 14 behind league-leading Toronto FC.

“Being second is better than third always, and being first is better than anyone else,” Fire manager and former Union player Veljko Paunovic told the media. “Right now we have to chase second place. We don’t know what will happen so we have to do our job. We're looking at who is our next opponent and preparing the team every possible way.”

That makes the match against the Union a crucial one for the Fire’s playoff outlook.

“Until we get there mathematically and get the best possible spot, we’re approaching our next game,” Paunovic said. “In this case, Philly on Saturday is very, very important. We have to put everything we have there and try to get three points.”

Keep an eye on …
Andre Blake: Coming off one of the best outings of the season, an eight-save scoreless draw with New York Red Bulls, Blake was the star of the night. If the Fire want three points against the Union, they’ll have to get through a red-hot Blake first.

Dax McCarty: The veteran midfielder doesn’t put up the points needed to jump off the page but he’s an important cog in the Fire machine. "Everyone will always talk about their attack, but I think the key acquisition in the offseason was Dax," Curtin said. "I think Dax is a really good player in our league, a two-way player. His passing doesn't get enough credit. He's been their most important guy.”

This and that
• The Union are 6-7-5 against the Fire all time and 4-2-2 at Talen Energy Stadium.

• Union defender Josh Yaro (knee sprain) and midfielder Ilsinho (Achilles tendinitis) are both listed as questionable for Saturday's match.

• Union center back Richie Marquez made his first start in nearly five months Sunday. Though the club will likely go back to either Oguchi Onyewu or Josh Yaro, Curtin liked what he saw from Marquez. “I thought two guys had performances that were at the level they would expect and above,” Curtin said. “Andre was one of those guys and Richie was the other. He’s a true professional and deserves a lot of credit. He had a solid performance.”

• Although Fire coach Paunovic played one season with the Union in 2011, the experience made an impression. "I loved the time I was there," he said. "They really made me feel at home, it was fantastic. It was a special time for me."

Union lifeless in draw with Crew

USA Today Images

Union lifeless in draw with Crew

CHESTER, Pa. — In a matchup of two teams with perfect records, it ended up being a stalemate.

On Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union and Columbus Crew SC fought to a scoreless draw as goalkeepers Andre Blake and Zack Steffen finished with three saves apiece.

The Union move to 1-0-1 on the season while the Crew, who entered the day in first place in the Eastern Conference, sit at 2-0-1.

• With the Union coming off a weird early bye week, the game lacked fluidity for much of the first half as both teams only put one shot on target before halftime. 

• Borek Dockal, the Union’s new Designated Player, made his MLS debut after sitting out the opener. The Czech playmaker looked tentative early in the match and had some giveaways in the second half before coming out in the 77th minute. It’s too early, of course, to make any judgements but that probably wasn’t the kind of debut head coach Jim Curtin hoped to see.

• David Accam, the team’s other prized newcomer, enjoyed good start to the second half and was active throughout in his second game in Philly. It shouldn’t be long before he opens his account for the Union.

• Steffen came through with a couple of big saves early in the second half for Columbus. It might be hard for some Philly fans to see the Downingtown native and former Union academy player on the visiting side, even if they do get to cheer for a star ’keeper of their own in Blake.

• CJ Sapong, fresh off signing a new contract, couldn’t get on the ball much or even get any shots off. The Union striker had three goals and three assists in seven previous meetings against the Crew.

• On the other end of the field, Gyasi Zardes was held in check after scoring three goals in his first two games for Columbus following a trade from the LA Galaxy. That’s a good sign for the progress of Philly’s young center backs, Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty.

• Ray Gaddis entered the game as a halftime sub for Fabinho, who left with a leg injury. Fabinho and Gaddis are both two of the club’s longest-tenured players, and Gaddis being able to play as both a left back and right back is a nice luxury to have off the bench.

• Despite an announced attendance of 15,323, the crowd at Talen Energy Stadium looked smaller than usual — and with less energy. A lot of that probably has to do with the on-field play but in general, the Union seem to have a better home-field advantage during night games, when the atmosphere is more electric.

• A shoutout to the Sons of Ben, though, for unveiling some cool Philly tifo before kickoff — a “cheesesteak shark” preying on a boat of Crew rowers underneath the word “Jawns.” 

• The Union — who are 4-1-1 in their last six meetings with the Crew — are off again next weekend before before facing Colorado on March 31 in their first road game of 2018.

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.”