Union

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Union embracing Vancouver challenge in opener

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Union embracing Vancouver challenge in opener

Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
9:30 p.m. on TCN
 
Optimistic about building off their playoff-caliber season in 2016, the refreshed Union, led by Alejandro Bedoya, will take new weapons and the same young core to the West Coast, where they will open their 2017 account against Fredy Montero and the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday (9:30 p.m., TCN) at BC Place.
 
Here are five things to know.
 
1. New season, new expectations
Traveling across the country to challenge an out-of-conference opponent in its home opener isn't an ideal situation for the Union. But the players are ready for the test.

"We need to embrace the challenge," Union attacker Chris Pontius said. "It's the first game on the road, it's going to be a tough environment so we have to enjoy it and play our game."

Getting off a good start is paramount for a Union team returning much of its core from the 2016 season. Fresh in the club's memory is its disastrous end of season run that saw them go winless in their final seven games, not including a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Toronto FC.

"We want to advance further in the playoffs," Union right back Keegan Rosenberry said. "The second half of our year was a bit of a disappointment, we took a downward turn, so if we can be more consistent with the team performance and results as the year goes on, we'll all be happy with it."

To achieve that, the Union will try and bottle that first-game buzz.

"You can feel the excitement heading into the first week," Pontius said. "It's always a fun time of the year. We're looking to get off on the right note."

2. Midfield Power
To fulfill their playoff expectations this season and make a dent against the Whitecaps, the Union will need production from their midfield. That will have to come mainly from the duo of captain Alejandro Bedoya and newcomer Haris Medunjanin, who will face regular-season competition for the first time since Medunjanin was acquired in the late January.

"It's clear that Ale and Haris have a real understanding with each other and respect for each other," Curtin said. "They are internationals, they have played the game at the highest level at big clubs. Their experience speaks for itself, how to manage games, in the hard parts when the game gets sped up, they don't have any panic in them."  

Medunjanin, a Bosnian national, and Bedoya, a U.S. National Team starter, will be together in central midfield for the Union, with Bedoya at the No. 10 spot and Medunjanin at the No. 8 or No. 6 position.

"They are two of our best players, and you need your best players on the same page," Curtin said. "We will have them close to each other on the field, that's for sure. They will play off of each other in a positive way."

Another ingredient to watch in the Union midfield will be Derrick Jones. The 6-foot 3, 20-year-old Homegrown will make his first MLS start Sunday for the injured Warren Creavalle.

"Derrick has been excellent all preseason, he's the first true homegrown," Curtin said. "He played in our academy, did it with Bethlehem Steel and now he'll jump to our first team. We are perfectly comfortable putting Derrick out there. He'll be able to rise to the occasion."

3. Weary Whitecaps
While Sunday will be the first match of the season for the Union, the Whitecaps have been warming up with CONCACAF Champions League action. And that could be to the Union's benefit.

"Two games in three days is difficult," said Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson, whose club tied the New York Red Bulls, 1-1, and defeated them 2-0, in the home-and-home series that concluded Thursday. "We knew the start of the season would be difficult for us."

Even with the Whitecaps' possible fatigue and unknown personnel, Curtin is maintaining a particular game plan. He wants to the see his Union suffocate the game and win ugly.

"I don't want to say making the game a little bit ugly, but there will be moments where safety has to come first," he said. "If you have to, foul to stop a transition. They're certainly a team you want to do that against because they are organized and when they go to break out, they have real pace. They have a real dynamic group, they are a handful. Overall, it's a tough task."

Robinson, who hopes to have a more offensive team than the one last year that just missed the playoffs in a tough Western Conference, knows what the Union are bringing to BC Place.

"They are a good team and had a good season last year," he said. "They will be hard to break down, we know that. They like to play a certain way that we know. Jim has them very organized and they will be a dangerous team. But we're home and we need to make this a fortress this year."

4. Keep an eye on
Ilsinho: The Brazilian, in his second MLS season, is expected to play a larger role in the Union's offense and prove he's more than just a playmaking wing. Although Ilsinho possesses incredible ball skills, Curtin has instructed the veteran, who slimmed down this offseason, to shoot more. Because of that, expect him to make a goal-scoring impact.

Fredy Montero: The former Seattle Sounders forward is still acclimating himself to Vancouver since signing with the club in mid-February, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous. Montero buried his first goal during his club's CCL win over the Red Bulls on Thursday. "He adds something different this year that we've been missing the last three years," Robinson said.

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-3-2 all-time against the Whitecaps.

• Sunday will be the seventh season opener in Union history. The club is 1-4-1 in openers over that span but have been on the road for four of those six games.

• Playing in Vancouver will mark the third time in seven years the Union begin a season on the west coast. They faced the Sounders and Portland Timbers in 2010 and 2012.

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.”