Union

Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

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Union-United thoughts: Looking for improvement in clash at Minnesota

Union (8-12-7)  at Minnesota United (7-14-4)
8:00 p.m. on TCN

The weary Union, winless in their last four matches, aim to end their slide as they travel to TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night to take on expansion side Minnesota United for the first time in club history.

Here are five things to know.

1. Still fighting
With an 8-12-7 record and their playoff hopes all but dissolved, the Union don’t have much to play for Saturday, but that isn’t stopping manager Jim Curtin from demanding a focused performance.

“There are still seven games left and we’re going to chase all 21 points that are out there,” he said. “We still believe aren’t far off and that the foundation is a good one.”

If the final seven matches of the season can’t be about climbing up the Eastern Conference standings, Curtin wants to see steady improvement, especially away from Talen Energy Stadium. The club has only one win in its last six games.

“We’re not as concerned now with where we’re at in the table, we need good performances to get results,” Curtin said. “We’ve been poor on the road this year, it’s no secret. We’ve shown glimpses and shown a little bit of improvement. Now we have Minnesota.”

But that thirst for performance isn’t just about Curtin getting the most out of his beleaguered team. The manager feels the negativity and frustration coming from the Union’s fan base and wants to give them something to be proud of.

“There’s been negativity here and it’s deserved because he hasn't gotten the results that we set out to at the start of the season,” Curtin said. “I want to make the fans happy, I want nothing more than to win a trophy for this city and that will never change. I won’t stop working until I’m able to accomplish that goal.” 

2. Finding motivation
To achieve the performance level that Curtin is looking for in the final seven games, the Union players need motivation. That might not be an easy accomplishment with the club firmly outside of the playoff picture.

“Guys are always aware that they are fighting for not only three points but for the following season, how contracts are handled in the offseason,” Curtin said. “That’s a constant battle for every professional, so that’s nothing new for any of the guys.” 

Not pulling punches about where the Union currently stand, Curtin, whose club has been outscored 10-4 over its last three matches, explained how tough it can be to manage that motivation and keep minds from wandering. 

“As the season gets later, guys eyes start to wander,” said Curtin, who expects some roster changes this offseason (see story). “As it gets later on in the year, guys have an eye on different places and want to know where they stand. We have seven games left. We want to get better and get the maximum amount of points.”

While some players might be eying the door, others want to make the most of a bad situation.

“We wake up, get out there and deal with whatever situation is put in front of us,” Union forward C.J. Sapong said. “This season, there’s been a lot of adversity and we know if we stay true to ourselves we’ll get something out of it.”

3. Minnesota improvement
The Minnesota United aren't the same pushover they were at the start of 2017. With only five wins in its first 21 matches, the club has rattled two wins in its last four games.

“They are getting to know each other a little bit more,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said. “I think we have a better group than we had at the beginning of the season.”

The Union have taken notice. Despite being 7-14-4 overall, Minnesota United is 6-6-2 at home this season.

“It’ll be a difficult place to play,” Curtin said. “They kind of retooled their roster already this year and they are a strong team, a team that has kept the ball very well. If you look at the data, watch some of the films and they are dangerous. They have dangerous attacking pieces, [Abu] Danladi, the addition of [Ethan] Finlay, [Kevin] Molino, to name a few. We’ll have our hands full trying to neutralize them in their home stadium.” 

Heath credits an uptick in intensity and a team game for Minnesota United’s recent success.

“The level of performance the last two games, we need to build on that,” he said. “For me, it’s the intensity level and everyone putting in a full shift in, working hard for each other, defending the goal as a group and being really dangerous on the counter attack.”

4. Keep an eye on …
C.J. Sapong: Despite the down season from his club, the Union forward is having a career year with a team leading 12 goals in 26 games. The Union need finishing on the road and Sapong could be the guy to deliver it.

Kevin Molina: The playmaking midfielder is the creative force behind the Minnesota United attack. He leads the club with seven assists. 

5. This and that
• Union captain Alejandro Bedoya (yellow card accumulation) and center back Josh Yaro (red card suspension) will be suspended for Saturday’s match. Bedoya is expected to be replaced by either Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones, who is working to exit Curtin’s doghouse, while Oguchi Onyewu is expected to start in favor of Yaro.

• While the Union are relatively healthy, Minnesota United will be without midfielder Bernardo Anor, midfielder Thomas de Villardi, defender Jermaine Taylor and midfielder Sam Cronin, all listed as out for Saturday.

• Between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, Curtin understands his players might not be focused on soccer at the moment. “It’s a concerning time,” he said. “Fafa [Picault] has family in Miami and there are discussions going on with him. It’s scary. Some things you can’t really predict that are much more important than soccer.” Since then, Picault tweeted Friday his family arrived safely in Philadelphia.

• The Union have been surprisingly good against the Western Conference this season, holding a 3-2-4 record, which includes road draws in San Jose and Vancouver.

• One of the primary problems facing the Union offense is playmaking. Highlighting that deficit is Chris Pontius, who is second on the team in assists with six despite not registering a helper since May 17. Haris Medunjanin is first with eight.

Union stun Fire in 95th minute on David Occam's buzzer-beater

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Union stun Fire in 95th minute on David Occam's buzzer-beater

BOX SCORE

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- David Accam scored in the 95th minute, and Cory Burke had two goals to help the Philadelphia Union beat the Chicago Fire 4-3 on Wednesday night.

Accam dribbled through a pair of Chicago defenders and sent home a right-footed shot just inside the left post for his first goal of the season. His game-winner came a minute after the Fire appeared to have salvaged a draw with Bastian Schweinsteiger heading home Diego Campos' corner.

Burke scored on a rebound in the 73rd minute that made it 3-2 for the Union (7-9-3) and a header at the end of first-half stoppage time that made it 2-1.

Aleksandar Katai made it 2-all for the Fire (6-9-5) in the 69th minute with a low hard shot that skipped twice into the far corner.

Nemanja Nikolic tied it at 1 for Chicago in the 39th minute, powering a penalty kick past goalkeeper Andre Blake. Mark McKenzie brought Katai down at the left corner of the penalty area to send Nikolic to the spot.

Haris Medunjanin opened the scoring for Philadelphia in the 31st minute, pouncing on a defensive miscue and finishing with the outside of his foot.

Union staggered by inability to finish vs. Atlanta United

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USA Today Images

Union staggered by inability to finish vs. Atlanta United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — With four losses in their last five games, the Union are reeling.

Their latest setback, a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Josef Martinez and Atlanta United on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium, was a highlight show of recent problems for the club. 

“We kicked ourselves in the foot,” said Union attacker Fafa Picault. “Didn’t do our job.”

It was a common tale for the 2018 Union, that had less to do with the competition than the Union’s inability to produce. Generate chances? Check. Fail to finish? Check. The Union registered 18 shots, 16 crosses and five corners, but had nothing to show for it. 

“That’s our problem,” said Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin, whose club has lost to Atlanta twice, Toronto FC and LAFC in recent games. “If we don’t score the first goal then we will struggle. That’s what happened today.”

The second-lowest-scoring team in MLS and lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference has struggled to get those early goals, shutout nine times in 18 games. It’s been a grind for the troubled Union, who were impressive at times against the best team in MLS on Saturday, but are now 6-9-3 on the season. 

“This is frustrating,” Medunjanin said. “It’s important to score the goal and win games. We didn’t do that. We need to stick together.” 

It hasn’t been a blameless struggle. Forward C.J. Sapong, who signed an extension through 2019 back in March, scored a career-high 16 goals last year but has just two in 16 games this season. As a consistent starter, he’s been the poster player for the team’s inability to score.

“I chose C.J. to start,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “There was going to be fingers pointed at him after the game if we didn’t. We’re a team. We win as a team. We lose as a team. 

“He’s having a tough time scoring, that’s what he’s going to be judged on,” he said. “Fair or unfair, that’s the life of a striker. He’s still a guy I believe in.”

But fixing Sapong wouldn’t solve all of the Union’s woes. Left winger Picault only has three goals and right winger David Accam, who has been relegated to bench duty, has none in a combined 30 games. 

Even the Union's most productive player has struggled. Minutes into the second half, Alejandro Bedoya did the work to get around the Atlanta defenders and gain an edge on the right side. He placed a perfect pass into the seam for Borek Dockal, who saw his one-touch chip flew high over the net. 

Moments later, Atlanta took the lead. 

“When we arrive there in the box, we need to be sharper, all of us,” Medunjanin said. “We need to learn that because in soccer it’s about small things. If you score the first goal it would have been much easier for us, but we didn’t do it and we lost a game that we could have won.”