Union

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union-Toronto FC 5 things: Embracing the playoff underdog role

Union vs. Toronto FC
7:30 p.m. on ESPN2

Riding a seven-game winless run entering their first playoff match since 2011, the No. 6 Union (11-14-9) will attempt to hit the reset button and unseat the third-ranked and heavily favored Toronto FC (14-9-11) on Wednesday at BMO Field.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing underdog
The struggling Union are happily accepting the role as underdogs against MLS Cup-hungry Toronto FC.

"It's a difficult task but it’s not impossible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Not many people are giving us a chance. We've been a good team when we're considered the underdog and my guys have responded well in that situation. This is no different."

To fully embrace that underdog role, and in an attempt to wash away the stink of how they ended the regular season, the Union are treating Wednesday as a hard reset. For them, the playoffs will be a fresh chance to prove themselves.

“It’s a new season now,” said Union center back Ken Tribbett, who helped his club draw Toronto FC at BMO Field on Sept. 24. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We go up to Toronto and it’ll be a good test. We have to stay sharp for 90 minutes and hopefully we can come back here with a win.”

And there is a reason to be slightly optimistic about the Union’s chance. Despite a 1-0-1 record against the Canadian side this season, the Union, who lost 3-1 in the first match, played much better Sept. 24 at BMO Field. They clogged the midfield and ground the Sebastian Giovinco-less club into a 1-1 draw.

“It’s encouraging that we have gone there recently and played well,” Curtin said. “I think we have a group that has a belief, and one that is pissed a bit about how things have ended. They are motivated.”

2. Leaning on experience
While the 2016 Union will ultimately be known for their reliance on youth — a group that included Keegan Rosenberry, who has played every minute this season, Fabian Herbers, Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett — it’s the veterans that will lead them Wednesday.

“This is a pressure game for everybody,” Curtin said. “We have a good balance of guys who have played in big spots, like (Chris) Pontius, Tranquillo (Barnetta), (Alejandro) Bedoya. (C.J.) Sapong has played in big games, you can go through the list.”

Yet despite Curtin’s need for his veterans to lead, his reliance on youth means the younger players need to be reliable. The manager admitted that pressure can change how people play, and he is making sure the Union youth movement remains steady Wednesday.

“We have young guys, there’s no question about it,” Curtin said. “These guys will play in their first playoff game and a lot of the guys on our roster have never been in a playoff game. You hope they rise to the occasion and I’m confident they will.”

3. Pressure on Toronto
Making their second-ever postseason appearance, high-priced Toronto FC has its sights set on bigger things than the Union in the play-in playoff round. That’s why Curtin believes the pressure is squarely on his opposition.

“I’d say the pressure is on them, they are the home team,” the manager said. “My guys should be loose, they have nothing to lose. It’s fair to say, they are the home team and they want to make a deep playoff run. We want to make some noise.”

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney knows his team will be excited, so he’s trying to instill a high intensity but controlled start for his club.

“We expect a little of the unexpected at the start,” he said. “The game settles down eventually, but at the start, there’s a lot of emotion into it and you want to play with the right kind of caution but the right kind of intensity to put the opposing team on their back foot.

“The guys are ready to go, ready to go after Philadelphia.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to go with Giovinco here, but Altidore has a recent history of crushing the Union. He has two goals in his last three games against the Union and buried 10 in 23 games this season.

“Jozy is a guy who can stretch the field and is dangerous,” Curtin said. “He’s not a guy you can shut down, it’s not possible. He’ll have his moments, you just have to make those looks as predictable for (goalkeeper Andre Blake) as you can. You hope he’s a little off on the night.”

Tranquillo Barnetta: Without added inspiration, the Union offensive catalyst has been one of the club’s best players all season. On Wednesday, Curtin expects a little extra from Barnetta, who is not returning to the Union in 2017.

“I’ve talked a ton about how special he is, he’s been a great attribute for the Union and a guy we want to prolong the season for,” Curtin said. “He’s played in the big spots, the big games and there’s something extra there for him.” 

5. This and that
• On the injury front, Union center back Yaro sprained his MCL while returning from a concussion. “It’s a two-week injury,” Curtin said, “so it will be unfortunate he won’t be part of the Toronto game.”

Warren Creavalle is also fighting injury. The defensive midfielder left Sunday’s match with a rib injury but could be available for Wednesday. “It’s painful for him,” Curtin said. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to be a part of this game.”

• The Union and Toronto FC are deadlocked all time, with a 6-6-5 record against each other. 

• The Union are 2-4-3 at BMO Field.

• Both clubs enter Wednesday limping. Since Aug. 27 (the Union’s last win), Toronto FC is 2-1-4, while the Union are 0-5-2.

Union surging into U.S. Open Cup final, 'deserve to be' the champs

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Union surging into U.S. Open Cup final, 'deserve to be' the champs

CHESTER, Pa. — With back-to-back wins over two of the league’s hottest teams, the Union are heading into their third U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday with the wind at their back.

“This group deserves to be champion,” boasted Fabinho, who captained the Union’s largely reserve squad on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium. “We know how hard we work every day, everybody. We deserve to be champion on Wednesday and we are ready for this game.”

The confidence was palpable following a 2-0 win over Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City on Sunday. Saving the legs of almost all consistent starters, and with goalkeeper Andre Blake falling ill just before kickoff, the Union went with a largely untested group and came out with the victory, thanks to a pair of second-half goals from Jay Simpson.

Other than Simpson and Fabinho, the list of Union starters included Oliver Mbaizo, making his MLS debut, Derrick Jones, Warren Creavalle and John McCarthy.

“We’re on a good run of form at the moment,” said Simpson, who made his first start of the season on Sunday and also contributed to the Union’s midweek win in Seattle against the Sounders. “I’m sure a lot of people didn’t even fancy us to get a result today with our starters missing out on the game because of the Open Cup. We beat some big sides.”

With one loss in their last eight matches, the Union are surging into the title game. Wednesday's match against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium will mark the third time the Union have appeared in the Open Cup championship since 2014. They’ve lost the other two - a fact fresh in the mind of Fabinho, who noted that the club's success of late has changed the dynamic.

“I feel different this year,” he said. “I don’t know why, I can’t say how or why, but I feel different. I feel like we’ll be the champions, you know what I mean. I know the game will be very tough, I know Houston has a good team.”

More importantly, the past struggles have given the confident Union valuable perspective.

“We have guys who work here every day, some guys come here at 5 AM to work for us, help us,” Fabinho said. “The fans are here every weekend, the staff, we have a lot of people behind us. When we go for this game, we have to play like it’s the last game of our lives. It’s important for us, but it’s important for many people behind us.”

Reserve-heavy Union stun SKC with a shutout

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Reserve-heavy Union stun SKC with a shutout

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — With the U.S. Open Cup championship match Wednesday in Houston, the Union showed extreme caution Sunday by leaning on a secondary squad to challenge one of the league’s best teams in Sporting Kansas City. 

They still came away with the win. 

Alejandro Bedoya assisted two Jay Simpson second-half goals as the Union defeated SKC, 2-0, at a rainy Talen Energy Stadium. In his first start of the season, John McCarthy earned the six-save shutout. 

• After a back-and-forth, and ultimately lifeless affair throughout the first half, the Union struck gold in the 71st minute. Auston Trusty’s lofty pass found the head of Bedoya, who beat his defender and directed the pop-up cross to Simpson, whose pinpoint one-timer beat Tim Melia for the 1-0 Union lead. 

• But the Englishman wasn’t done. For good measure, Simpson scored his second in the 89th minute, again from Bedoya, as the Union claimed the stunning 2-0 win. 

• The victory pushes the the Union six points over the Montreal Impact for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, and one behind the Columbus Crew for fourth at 14-12-4. SKC moves to 15-8-6 but retain control of the top spot in the West. 

• The goals were Simpson’s second and third in a Union uniform and opened his 2018 account. Saturday was just the forward’s fifth start in two seasons for the Union, but he made an impact. The two assists gave Bedoya six on the year. 

• With a match last week in Seattle, and the upcoming Open Cup title game scheduled for Wednesday, the Union started a unique lineup that included Oliver Mbaizo at right back, Fabinho at left back and Simpson at the lone forward position. 

• Borek Dockal, Mark McKenzie and Trusty were the only Union regular starters to begin the game against Sporting Kansas City’s top choice squad. If Union manager Jim Curtin was honest, he’d admit a draw would have been an acceptable result against one of the Western Conference top teams. 

• In the 55th minute, Curtin pulled Dockal for Bedoya. With Wednesday’s match looming, both players were on minute restrictions. The Union’s reserve No. 10 player, Anthony Fontana, played Friday for Bethlehem Steel and was unavailable. 

• More Union changes occurred in the 63rd, when Fafa Picault joined the match for Fabian Herbers. Picault was coming off a 93rd game-winning goal in the Union’s midweek surprise win over the Seattle Sounders. Keegan Rosenberry replaced Mbaizo, who was making his MLS debut, in the 85th minute.