Union

Despite woeful final 2 months, Union found stability, optimism in 2016

Despite woeful final 2 months, Union found stability, optimism in 2016

Shortly after the Philadelphia Union’s first playoff appearance in 2011, two of the top players on that team stepped onto a podium and talked about stability.

Sure, it was upsetting for Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf that the Union had just been swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But the stalwarts of the then-two-year-old franchise pledged continued improvements in 2012 if the same core returned and no sweeping changes were made to the roster.

What happened next remains the stuff of nightmares for Union fans. Le Toux, Califf and others were shuttled off with the Union getting little to nothing in return. The 2012 season started disastrously, controversial manager Peter Nowak was fired after orchestrating the puzzling moves (and doing far worse), and you could argue the franchise took years to recover.

Which brings us to the 2016 season.

Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Union once again had a short postseason stay, getting bounced out of the knockout round by star-studded Toronto FC on Wednesday night.

But just like it felt at the end of the 2011 season — before Nowak began his systematic dismantling — the brief trip to the playoffs feels more like a step in the right direction than anything else.

The season has ended, but in many ways this feels like only the beginning.

Forget for a second that the Union finished the season on an eight-game winless streak and consider that three of their top players throughout the year were 2016 first-round draft picks Keegan Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers and Joshua Yaro — a rookie trio the coaches hope will remain in Philly for up to a decade.

Forget that the team had a worse record than any MLS team to make the playoffs and consider that they got to the postseason without arguably their two most influential players — captain Maurice Edu (who missed all of 2016 with injuries) and Vincent Nogueira (who returned to his native France in the middle of the season because of a personal health issue).

Forget that they were outclassed by a Toronto team built on the backs of superstars Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and consider that, for one of the first times, owner Jay Sugarman opened the wallet this summer to bring in Alejandro Bedoya, a U.S. national team player who scored the second goal in Union playoff history Wednesday. Bedoya will be a focal point of the team for the next three years.

There were several other positive takeaways from 2016, including the spectacular season of highlight machine Andre Blake in goal, the career revival of Chris Pontius on the wing, and the reliability of Richie Marquez at center back. 

And, to be sure, there were plenty of negatives too, including the late slump of striker C.J. Sapong which coincided with the team’s late-season slump, the inability to turn the attacking bench trio of Ilsinho, Roland Alberg and Charlie Davies into a true weapon, and the hard-to-watch struggles of Ken Tribbett, who once again showed Wednesday that he can’t match up with the league’s best strikers. 

The key now is to fix the areas that need fixing — a big striker should be a necessity, for starters — while continuing to build upon the foundation that got the Union into the playoffs. And yes, that should mean keeping Jim Curtin as head coach.

Like anyone, Curtin has his faults. Deciding not to tinker with the lineup and bench slumping players like Sapong may have hurt the Union down the stretch. And his comments now about how no one thought the Union would be in the playoffs are both not true (CSN’s two Union writers both picked them to sneak in!) and unfairly diminish expectations for a team he himself says should be considered in the top 10 of MLS.

But recalibrating expectations after a season is nothing new. Former Union manager John Hackworth did the same after the Union barely missed the playoffs in 2013, essentially saying he got the most out of his team and that it was a rebuilding season (which came to a surprise to some players at the time). Curtin and Hackworth also, perhaps, share a loyalty to the players they like even in times of struggle, which can be problematic but is a far better trait than Nowak’s old habit of tossing club stalwarts to the scrap heap.

Why bring up the Union’s past coaches when neither have been around for years? Because it’s important for this franchise to learn from its mistakes at what is now a critical junction in franchise history.

The Union have already done that well by building a beautiful new training facility and hiring a smart sporting director in Earnie Stewart, who helped put the team on a better path in his first year. But it will be much harder to continue the building process by undergoing a roster overhaul or switching head coaches in the offseason.

Sometimes a coaching change is necessary. But Curtin has a lot of good qualities that embody what this franchise is striving to be and has been a big part of turning the team around from the dark days. And as Union fans know well, a new coach also can mean going back to square one, which is not something this team can afford right now.

The only other time they made the playoffs, the Union were dismantled. This time, they need to do the opposite.

Union's Haris Medunjanin suspended 2 additional MLS games

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Union's Haris Medunjanin suspended 2 additional MLS games

CHESTER, Pa. — Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin only lost his mind for a few moments but the outburst will cost him a few weeks.

During his weekly press conference Wednesday, head coach Jim Curtin said Medunjanin will be suspended an additional two games for his vociferous arguments with the referee June 2 in a 3-1 loss in Atlanta.

Medunjanin only played 19 minutes that game before being ejected, and then served the normal one-game red-card suspension in a 2-0 loss to Toronto on June 8. Because of the severity of the offense, he’ll now also miss Saturday’s home tilt vs. Vancouver on Saturday (5 p.m., PHL17) as well as the Union’s first-ever trip to expansion Los Angeles FC the following week.

The league has not yet announced the three-game suspension but Curtin said the team “recently got word” that an appeal from the MLS Players Union was denied.

“I don’t agree with it but we have to live with it,” Curtin said. “I think for Haris, it’s the first red card in his career, which says a lot about who he is as a player.”

Curtin referenced an incident last June when Medunjanin showed his honesty by asking referee Sorin Stoica to rescind a red card handed to D.C. United’s Luciano Acosta. The Union midfielder claimed Acosta didn’t kick him and didn’t deserve to be sent off, even though the initial ruling would have significantly helped his own team. 

Perhaps that was one reason why Medunjanin blew up at the same referee who called a questionable penalty on Auston Trusty before showing Alejandro Bedoya his second yellow card for what appeared to be a minor dissent, effectively ruining the Union’s chances of winning in Atlanta.

“You can go through a lot of things to say it’s a little harsh to get three games,” Curtin said. “But we have to live with the decision and now we move on missing one of our best players. That’s challenging as a team but we’ll have to make up for it as we move forward.”

Medunjanin certainly showed his worth in this past Saturday’s 2-1 U.S. Open Cup win over the New York Red Bulls (MLS suspensions don’t carry over to the Open Cup), scoring a beautiful goal and adding a secondary assist.

Bedoya also had one of his better games vs. the Red Bulls, teaming well with Medunjanin in the central midfield to lead the Union into the Open Cup quarterfinals. Back from his own one-game suspension, the Philly captain will now likely partner with Warren Creavalle in the midfield for the next two games.

The 27-year-old Creavalle had played sparingly for much of the year before enjoying solid stints vs. Atlanta and Toronto. 

“He’s been playing very well in training,” Curtin said. “He’ll step up and do a good job. And obviously, Derrick [Jones] will be in the picture as well if we need to close out the game.”

Union's U.S. Open Cup dominance continues against Red Bulls

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Union's U.S. Open Cup dominance continues against Red Bulls

CHESTER, Pa. — Alejandro Bedoya and Cory Burke led the way Saturday night, as the Union eliminated the New York Red Bulls from the U.S. Open Cup with a 2-1 win at Talen Energy Stadium in the Round of 16.

"It was a very good win against a very good team," said Union manager Jim Curtin. "Survive and advance mentality. We’re three wins away from a trophy, which is something to be proud of."

After taking down the Richmond Kickers to open the tournament, the Union’s victory Saturday sends them to the quarterfinals on July 18, where they will host either regional foes DC United or Orlando City.

• The win was a continuation of an eye-popping 12-match Open Cup unbeaten streak for the Union, who haven’t suffered a regulation loss since 2014. When it comes to the Open Cup, the Union are hard to beat, which they showed against the Red Bulls. 

• Despite it being an Open Cup game, the match had MLS regular-season flavor. The Red Bulls hit the field with a strong starting lineup that included Tyler Adams, Kaku and Luis Robles. In return, the Union dressed Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, Andre Blake and Ilsinho.

• Those lineup decisions made for an exciting but fruitless opening half. Both teams worked to strike on the counter by using pressure to jar the ball loose. Led by Fafa Picault, the back-and-forth equalled 17 total shots, with the Union claiming eight of their 11 attempts from inside the box. 

• Eventually, the Union those attempts would begin going in. In the 52nd minute, the Union took the 1-0 lead, when working down the right side into Red Bulls territory, Bedoya cut to the middle and slid possession over to Medunjanin. The veteran faked out his defender and ripped a shot that appeared to deflect and beat Robles.

• The goal seemed to unlock something in the Union. Nearly 10-minutes later, Burke made it 2-0 when a Bedoya pass found him between two defenders. Burke, who had been on the doorstep of a goal all night, broke away and slipped his shot to the right. Bedoya finished with two assists. 

"He’s playing at his highest level for us," Curtin said. "He’s taken a bigger leadership role and tonight was an excellent game from him. Our team will go as our central midfield goes." 

• To catch up, the Red Bulls called on some heavy artillery. In the 60th minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips subbed in for Daniel Royer. He scored in the 77th minute, cutting the Union’s defense, then the lead, in half.

• The Union look to carry Open Cup momentum into the MLS regular season, when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 23 at Talen Energy Stadium.