Union

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 believe they found their missing piece

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USA Today Images

Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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USA Today Images

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck of a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better that both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year old center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”