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Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

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Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

Under normal circumstances, finding a way to earn a point at Red Bull Arena would be a decent accomplishment for a Union team that’s won only one time there in 10 trips.

But considering where they are in the standings and how little excitement came from the game — except for the performance of one player — you’ll have to forgive Philly fans for not getting fired up about Sunday’s nationally televised scoreless draw vs. the New York Red Bulls.

Here’s a closer look at the game — and more — in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. What more can you say about Andre Blake at this point? The star goalkeeper has been the team’s brightest star over the past two years, winning the Union points in games in which they had no business winning points. Sunday’s game was the latest example as Blake made eight sparkling saves, including seven in the first half, to keep the Red Bulls off the board. And Union fans can exhale after the goalie went down with what looked like a neck injury before popping back up. This was easily his best game since returning from his Gold Cup injury and a good sign heading into the offseason next month.

2. The team’s center back pairing has been in flux for much of the season, and on Sunday, Richie Marquez made his first start since April, alongside rookie Jack Elliott. Perhaps the most interesting part of this pairing is that Elliott, a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft, has been the best and most reliable center back of a group that also includes veteran Oguchi Onyewu and Joshua Yaro, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft. And Marquez, a former late-round pick himself who emerged as one of the team’s top young players in 2015 and 2016, had fallen off the map until this weekend. So the biggest question now is whether Elliott continues his upward trajectory — the rookie put in another strong shift vs. the Red Bulls — or if he plummets on the depth chart like Marquez, who likely didn’t do enough to win back a starting role when everyone is healthy and available.

3. There was nothing doing offensively for the Union, who have generated very little in that department in road games this season. Against the Red Bulls, they had only two shots on target, missed a lot of passes, won only two corner kicks, and had less than 40 percent of the possession. The problems? Ilsinho getting yanked after playing only the first 45 minutes and Roland Alberg not getting on the field is another example of their inconsistency at playmaker. And over on the wings, Chris Pontius remains stuck on zero goals this season, Fafa Picault was absent with an illness, and Fabian Herbers’ injury absence continues to be a noticeable void. Aside from striker CJ Sapong, who’s enjoying a career year, which offensive player can you really count on going into 2018?

Three thoughts for the week ahead
1. What will the reception be like from Union fans when they return home to face the Chicago Fire on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) for their first game at Talen Energy Stadium in nearly a month? Although not yet officially mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with five games left, the Union have less than a one-percent chance to get in thanks to a six-game winless streak. And although there have been a smattering of boos for head coach Jim Curtin in recent games, it seems apathy has set in for most of the fanbase as they come to terms with another lost season.

2. The biggest noise from the crowd may be for Bastian Schweinsteiger if he takes the field for Chicago; the German legend has been nursing an injury. But the Fire, in third place in the East and coming off a 3-0 shellacking of D.C. United, still have plenty of other weapons if he can’t go. And, in many ways, their rise from last place in the East the last two seasons to a legitimate MLS contender shows how quickly teams can turn things around — if they make shrewd moves and spend money in the right places. Can the Union learn from that this offseason?

3. Who will start at center back with Onyewu poised to return from a suspension and Yaro potentially back from a minor knee injury? Curtin has said he doesn’t want to just throw young guys in there but it might be nice to use a few games — especially against high-octane offensive teams like Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle — to try to figure out who would be a better option between Yaro or Marquez to play beside Elliott next year. Or maybe Onyewu showed he has enough left in the tank to return to a starting role next season? Or will they have to bring in someone else? There will, for sure, be some interesting offseason decisions at center back.

Stat of the week
The Union have won just one game and earned only nine road points through 15 contests this year (with two road games left). Aside from their 2010 expansion team, when they earned seven points in 15 road games, their lowest road point total for a season is 13 (2012 and 2015).

Quote of the week
“These are results now, on the road in recent weeks, where if we did our work early on in the season, they would be positive results. But right now, as we chase from behind, it’s difficult.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
Blake is the easy choice here. The final score could have been ugly without him.

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.

Union see U.S. winning 2026 World Cup bid as 'inflection point' of American soccer

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Union see U.S. winning 2026 World Cup bid as 'inflection point' of American soccer

CHESTER, Pa. — For Jim Curtin, Alejandro Bedoya and everyone else associated with American soccer, the pain of missing the World Cup remains fresh, especially as the tournament kicks off this week.

But Wednesday’s announcement that the United States, in a joint bid with North American neighbors Canada and Mexico, won the vote to host the 2026 World Cup not only eased a lot of that pain but also gave them a whole lot of hope for the future of the sport.

“Obviously this year everybody talks about the big setback and the generation of kids that can’t turn on the TV this go-round and watch the U.S.,” Curtin said during the Union coach’s weekly press conference. “It does hurt the game a bit, for sure, but to now have the World Cup in our home country is something that I think is incredible to grow the game. There’s nothing quite like seeing a World Cup match live. I think that will be a great experience for young kids, a great experience for our country.”

As for Bedoya, the Union captain will probably never get over the U.S. national team’s recent World Cup failure, especially since he played a prominent role at the 2014 World Cup and during this past qualifying cycle before watching from the bench in horror as the Americans were stunned by Trinidad and Tobago last October to miss out on Russia 2018. 

And given his age, the 31-year-old midfielder will be past his prime for the next World Cup in Qatar, and possibly retired when the World Cup comes to North America in eight years. Even still, it’s nice to think about what hosting the 2026 World Cup could mean for the growth of the sport he loves.

“Hopefully by that time, 2026, it’s like the inflection point of soccer in our country,” Bedoya said. “The sport keeps growing, the league keeps getting better. From my time in Europe, I know all of the European guys would love to play in this league, live in America and play here. It’s only a matter of time before soccer continues to take over, let’s say, hockey in the ratings and viewership and attendance. So it’s a big moment we officially got it for our country.”

Curtin agrees the sport has already grown a lot since the last time the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, pointing to increased television coverage of MLS and the big European leagues as well as, more locally, the kids he spots in his Philadelphia neighborhood wearing Bedoya or Lionel Messi jerseys.

He can only imagine how much bigger it will get if Lincoln Financial Field is selected as one of the venues for the 2026 World Cup — and also what that would mean for Philly, a city that he says has a “lot of buzz” right now in a lot of different ways.

“Specifically to Philadelphia, this is a soccer town,” the Union coach said. “There’s a rich history here. It’s tough to predict what 2026 will look like, but to think a team could be using this campus down here [in Chester] as kind of their home base, whether it’s Argentina or Spain or who knows what country, that’s a really good thing to envision.

“It’s great for the game. There’s a lot of happy faces throughout soccer in our country right now.”